Post-classical history

Chapter 3
Crusades in the west

Popular uprisings

The ideology and rhetoric of the Holy Land wars were applied easily to internal religious and political conflicts within Christendom and to frontier wars with non-Christians. Socially, its grip was exposed in the popular outbreaks of revivalist enthusiasm for the recovery of the Holy Land witnessed by the so-called Children’s Crusade and the Shepherds’ Crusades. The Children’s Crusade in the summer of 1212 comprised two distinct outbursts of popular religious enthusiasm prompted by an atmosphere of crisis provoked by the preaching of the threats to Christendom simultaneously posed by the Muslims in the Holy Land, the Moors in Spain, and heretics in southern France. A series of penitential and revivalist processions in northern France, led by Stephen of Cloyes from the Vermandois, marched to St Denis near Paris voicing vague appeals for moral reform. There is no clear evidence these marchers intended to liberate Jerusalem. Further east, at much the same time, large groups of young men and adolescents (called in the sourcespueri, meaning children but also anyone under full maturity) as well as priests and adults, apparently led by a boy called Nicholas of Cologne, marched through the Rhineland proclaiming their desire to free the Holy Sepulchre. It seems some of these marchers reached northern Italy seeking transport east but probably getting no further. Their holy war was of the spirit. Taking the church’s teaching literally, they apparently believed their poverty, purity, and innocence would prevail where knights could not. Experience soon taught them otherwise.

The marches of 1212 found parallels in the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1251, a populist rising in France that blamed Louis IX’s Egyptian debacle on a corrupt nobility. Once its leaders were exposed not as holy men but disorderly rabble-rousers, the movement was violently suppressed. However, there were similar expressions of social and political anxieties through support for the transcendent cause of the Holy Land in Italy in 1309 and France in 1320. All were closely linked to news or rumours of external threats to Christendom, the dissemination of a clearly defined redemptive theology incorporating the crusade as a collective penitential act, and the perceived failure of the leaders of society to live up to their obligations on either count.

Crusades against heretics and Christians

Official Church teaching increasingly encouraged the wide application of wars of the cross, even if Innocent III, in his bull Quia Maior (1213), was at pains to stress the priority of the Holy Land. From the 1130s Jerusalem indulgences on the model of 1096 were being offered to those fighting political enemies of the pope such as Roger II of Sicily (1101–54) or Markward of Anweiler in Sicily in 1199, assorted heretics, their protectors and mercenary bands. These indulgences were seemingly granted without the attendant vows, preaching, or cross-taking. The first time the full apparatus of the wars of the cross was directed against Christians came with the war declared by Innocent III in 1208 against the Cathar heretics of Languedoc, known later as the Albigensians, and their Christian protectors. One of the most notorious of all medieval wars, the Albigensian Crusades (1209–29) degenerated from a genuine attempt to cauterize widespread heresy, which many saw as a dangerously infectious wound bleeding all Christendom, into a brutal land seizure. The puritanical dualist Cathar heresy had grown in strength in parts of Languedoc controlled by the count of Toulouse. The assassination of the Papal Legate for the region in 1208 led Innocent III to offer Holy Land indulgences and the cross to northern French barons. Under a militant monkish zealot, Arnald-Amaury, abbot of Cîteaux, and an ambitious adventurer, Simon de Montfort, the crusaders began to annex the county of Toulouse and its surrounding provinces, often with great savagery meted out indiscriminately to local Christians as well as heretics. The sack of Béziers in 1209 was remembered as especially brutal. In 1213, Simon defeated and killed the count of Toulouse’s ally King Peter of Aragon at the battle of Muret. After Simon’s death in 1218, the impetus of the crusade faltered until revived by King Louis VIII of France (1223–6) in 1226. By the end of the year Languedoc had effectively been conquered, its subjugation confirmed in the Treaty of Paris (1229).

Ironically, for all its ultimate political success, the Albigensian Crusade failed to eradicate the Cathars, a task effected by the more pacific and reasoned methods of the Inquisition. However, crusades against heretics remained in the Church’s arsenal for the rest of the Middle Ages and beyond. Six crusades were launched or planned against the Czech Hussite evangelicals of Bohemia between 1420 and 1471. Protestant Reformations in the 16th century stimulated a revival of crusade schemes against enemies of the Catholic Church, such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I of England, and remained a traditional resort for devout and threatened Catholics in the new Wars of Religion, for example against the Huguenots in France in the 1560s.

To assert and sustain the 13th-century papacy’s plenitude of power, drive for doctrinal and liturgical uniformity, and acquisition of a temporal state in Italy, popes found the crusade a malleable instrument. Those attacked by crucesignati as ‘schismatics’ included peasants in the Netherlands and the Lower Weser (1228–34); Bosnians opposed to Hungarian rule (from 1227); and rebels against the pope’s vassal Henry III of England (1216–17 and 1265). The main crusades against Christians were fought over papal security in its lands in Italy. From the 1190s, popes were fearful of being surrounded by the Hohenstaufen dynasty, kings of Germany who were also rulers of southern Italy and Sicily. This caused the Thirty Years’ War with the Hohenstaufen Frederick II and his heirs (1239–68) that ended with a papal nominee, Charles of Anjou, as ruler of Sicily and Naples. Following a Sicilian rebellion against Charles in 1282, much of the fighting during the Wars of the Sicilian Vespers (1282–1302) also attracted the apparatus of crusading: cross, preaching, indulgences, church taxation, and so on. This habit continued for the regular local or regional campaigns in pursuit of papal interests in central and northern Italy during the popes’ residence at Avignon (1309–77). These Italian crusades scarcely pretended to conceal papal corporate or personal interest, to the disgust of critics such as Dante. The failure of crusades launched by both contending parties to end the Great Papal Schism (1378–1417) led to the abandonment of this form of holy war, only occasionally to be revived by bellicose popes such as Julius II (1503–13).


The ceremonies and privileges associated with expeditions to Jerusalem had been extended to cover those fighting the Muslims in Spain since the 1090s, a process regularized by the First Lateran Council in 1123. Further authorization for crusades against the Moors came in 1147–8, during the Second Crusade, and at intervals thereafter. A church council in Segovia in 1166 even offered Jerusalem indulgences to those who defended Castile from Christian attack. The later 12th-century invasions of Iberia by the Muslim fundamentalist Almohads from North Africa threatened Christian conquests and provoked a greater frequency in crusading appeals, culminating in the crusade of 1212 against them. This led to the great Christian victory of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) over the Almohads. Thereafter the campaigns of the Spanish Reconquista became more obviously national concerns, although still liable to elicit crusade status, as with the conquests of the Balearic Islands (1229–31) and Valencia (1232–5) by James I of Aragon (1213–76).


E. The Spanish Reconquista

With the fall of Cordova (1236) and Seville (1248) to Ferdinand III of Castile (1217–52), formal or active crusading against the Moors, now penned in the emirate of Granada (until 1492), became effectively redundant. Ironically, the peninsula’s most intimate subsequent experience of crusading was as victim when the French invaded Aragon in 1285 as part of the crusade called at the start of the War of Sicilian Vespers (1282–1302).

The Baltic

The Baltic crusades acted as one element in a cruel process of Christianization and Germanization, providing a religious gloss to ethnic cleansing and territorial aggrandizement more blatant and, in places, more successful than anywhere else. Crusading in the Baltic, first applied to Danish and German anti-Slav aggression between the Elbe and Oder in 1147 during the Second Crusade, cloaked a missionary war which, given the Christian prohibition on forced conversion, represented a contradiction in canon law. These wars directly served local political and ecclesiastical ambitions. The main areas of conquest after 1200 included Prussia, Livonia, Estonia, and Finland. In Prussia, the expansion of land-grabbing German princes in Pomerania gave way to the competing interests of Denmark and the Military Order of Teutonic Knights. This order had originally been founded by Germans in Acre in the wake of the Third Crusade in the 1190s, but because of its regional associations soon became heavily, and ultimately almost exclusively, involved in fighting for the cross in the north. The fighting in Livonia devolved onto the church under the archbishop of Riga and the Military Order of Sword Brothers (founded in 1202). In Estonia the Danes again clashed with the Military Orders, as well as with Swedes and Russians from Novgorod. Finland became the target of Swedish expansion. By the 1230s, control of war and settlement in Prussia, Livonia, and southern Estonia had been taken up by the Teutonic Knights, with whom the Sword Brothers were amalgamated in 1237. In 1226 their Master, Hermann von Salza, was created imperial prince of Prussia, which was declared a papal fief held by the Teutonic Knights in 1234. Although some specific grants for crusades in the Baltic continued, most of these northern wars adopted the character of ‘eternal crusades’ once Innocent IV in 1245 confirmed the right of the Teutonic Knights to grant crusade indulgences without special papal authorization. This gave the Teutonic Knights a unique status, not held even by the rulers of the kingdom of Jerusalem, of a sovereign government possessed of the automatic right of equating its foreign policy with the crusade. Cashing in on this in the 14th century, the Knights developed a sort of chivalric package tour for western nobles eager to see some fighting, enjoy lavish feasting, earn indulgences, and gild their reputations. The Knights’ appeal slackened with their failure to overcome Lithuania-Poland and the conversion of pagan Lithuania in 1386. Their transformation into a secular German principality was completed in 1525 when the Master of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia embraced Lutheranism and secularization. The Livonian branch followed suit in 1562.


11. Moors fighting Christians in 13th-century Spain. The artist is at pains to show a (probably exaggerated) contrast in weapons, shields, and armour between the two sides.


F. The Baltic


Frontiers, medieval or modern, can be religious, ethnic, cultural, and social as well as geographic. In such cases, wars of the cross added a particular edge of hostility or intensity. While no crusades were specifically directed against the Jewish communities anywhere in Europe or Asia, the ideology of crusading encouraged violence against them, despite official secular and ecclesiastical disapproval. The ringing condemnation of enemies of the cross and the concentration on the Crucifixion story in the preaching of Urban II in 1095–6, or Bernard of Clairvaux’s in 1146–7, needed little misunderstanding to be applied to the Jews. The pogroms in the Rhineland in 1096 and 1146–7 and in England in 1190 were not the sum of anti-Jewish violence, which spread widely in northern Europe. But the Jews were only ever collateral targets of crusading. Local rulers reserved exploitation and expropriation to themselves; Richard I condemned the attacks on Jews in London in 1189 because he regarded their property as his. A cultural myopia on the part of Christians refused to see Jews as fully human, a dismissive attitude prominently displayed by the great crusader Louis IX of France. Such discrimination could translate into persecution, although increasingly it led to expulsion from regions of the British Isles and France in the later 13th and 14th centuries. Lacking civil rights or in most cases effective systems of autonomous rule or defence, Jews in medieval Europe suffered through Christian schizophrenia. Protected by Christian Biblical prescript, Jews were politically not sufficiently visible to constitute the sort of material threat that would elicit a crusade against them. Yet at the same time Christian teaching also saw them as malign and therefore a religious challenge to Christianity. Increasingly, blood libels, accusations of Jews murdering Christians, rather than crusades, provoked massacres. Where daily experience and long tradition denied both Jewish malignity and cultural invisibility, as, ironically, in two regions most infected by active crusading, Spain and Outremer, Jews were less molested, even tolerated. Crusading played a part, at times a gory one, in constructing a closed, intolerant society. However, to blame the excesses of anti-Semitism, medieval or modern, on the wars of the cross is facile and unconvincing. That well of hatred fed from many streams.

The end of crusading

The traditional terminal date for the Crusades, the loss of Acre in 1291, makes no sense. People continued to take the cross, if in diminishing numbers. The attendant institutions of indulgences, legal obligations, and taxation persisted in use by rulers and popes for centuries. At least until the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War in the 1330s, the recovery of the Holy Land seemed viable, if difficult and expensive. In the Mediterranean, attacks on piratical Turkish emirs and the Mamluks continued sporadically, such as the sack of Alexandria in 1365 by Peter I of Cyprus. The growing power of the Ottoman Turks from the mid-14th century redefined the objective of crusading, throwing Christendom once more on the defensive. At Nicopolis on the Danube (1396) and Varna on the Black Sea (1444) western crusade armies sent to combat the Ottomans in the Balkans were crushed, on both occasions with the Turks receiving aid from Christian allies, respectively Serbs and Genoese. Rhodes, occupied by the Military Order of St John, the Hospitallers, since 1309, held out until 1522 before relocating to Malta, from where they were evicted by Napoleon in 1798. Cyprus remained in Christian hands until 1571, Crete until 1669; both fruits of earlier crusades. Crusading mentalities were re-forged in the Adriatic and central Europe in the face of the Ottoman advance in the 15th century. After the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453, crusading again seemed a vital necessity to the Renaissance papacy. In response to the fall of the Greek imperial capital a new crusade was proclaimed. Belgrade was saved in 1456 by an unlikely crusading force gathered by John of Capistrano. As long as the Ottomans presented a danger, crusading ideas retained relevance and interest, even into the 17th century, when Francis Bacon dismissed them as ‘the rendezvous of cracked brains that wore their feather in their head instead of their hat’. Yet the appeal lingered. Men may have taken the cross and expected indulgences in the anti-Turkish Holy League (1684–97). The end of crusading came not in the drama of a failed campaign or a siege lost, but as a long, dying fall, finally obliterated as kingdoms and secular powers, not churches or religion, claimed the morality as well as control of warfare.

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