The Crusades

The Crusades


THE Crusades were the first great enterprise which enlisted the common zeal of the Christian nations of Europe. History records scarcely another instance in which an equal enthusiasm has wrought in men of so many different countries and ranks. All classes of society, from the king down to the peasant, sent forth the armed pilgrims who were to reclaim the holy places of the East. Hundreds of thousands, possibly several millions, of men were sacrificed in these expeditions.


At first glance we are astonished at the enormous expenditure of treasure and men upon a project seemingly so utopian. But further scrutiny speedily reveals that substantial causes lay back of the crusades. They were, in fact, a genuine expression of mediaeval institutions, thought, and feeling. The principal factors of mediaeval civilization are clearly visible in their origination.


In the first place, papal ambition urged on the crusades. They were distinctly a means for extending papal dominion. The vanquishing of the infidel and establishing of a Latin power in the East were to be utilized for the union of East and West. The Roman pontiff hoped to find therein means for bringing an undivided Church beneath his scepter. Gregory VII., who was the first to plan a crusade upon a large scale, gave prominence, as we have seen, to this design. Moreover the zeal of the Popes in these movements was stimulated by their bearing upon the papal supremacy in the West. To engage powerful sovereigns in a crusade was an easy way to be relieved from dangerous rivals. Of. course it is not to be supposed that the Popes from first to last were influenced solely by such motives as these. It is but just to credit them with a share in the religious sentiment by which the heart of Europe was so deeply touched. 1 It may be noticed that Gerbert (known afterwards as Pope Sylvester II.), three quarters of a century before the time of Gregory VII., spoke in a vein of deep feeling about the obligations of Christendom to despoiled and mourning Jerusalem. The following words, which he represents her as addressing to the Church Universal, seem very much like a call to a crusade: "Cüm propheta dixerit: erit sepulchrum ejus gloriosum, paganis loca sancta subvertentibus, tentat diabolus reddere inglorium. Enitere ergo, miles Christi, esto signifer et compugnator, et quod armis nequis, consilii et opum auxilio subveni." (Epist. xxviii.) At the same time, it lies on the fact of the history that their zeal was sustained by the desire and the expectation of official advantage.


In the second place, military policy urged on the crusades. Mohammedanism was still a threatening power. The access of a new host of converts, the hardy and sanguinary Turks, had infused into it a new energy. The degenerate Greeks were ill prepared to withstand their onsets. Conscious of their own weakness, they appealed to the Latins for aid, representing that Constantinople with all its heirlooms of Christian antiquity was likely to pass under the profaning hands of the infidels. To be sure, they soon learned to dread the Latins as much as the Turks, and made them the victims in more than one instance of their treacherous arts. But at the outset they were urgent enough in calling them to the rescue. It seemed, therefore, to be the dictate of a wise military discretion to take the offensive, and to beat back the foe before he had captured any more of the strongholds of Christendom.


Again, the crusading enthusiasm was sustained by the prevalent love of romantic adventure and warlike exploits. It was the period of youth in the history of Europe. The age of manly reflection had not yet arrived. Fantasy usurped largely the place of reason. Impelled by its elating and disquieting visions, multitudes from all classes were ready to rush eagerly toward a field of strange adventure. As for the knights, the continual feuds of the age had taught them to regard the practice of arms as their profession. The code of chivalry which was coming into vogue made daring exploits the price of honor. Naturally, therefore, the knight welcomed the crusade as at once gratifying his love of adventure and affording a theatre for the display of his valor.


Once more, the value assigned to pilgrimages as a means of penance and religious edification powerfully assisted in swelling the expeditions to the Holy Land. The crusades might aptly be described as armed pilgrimages. They carried out on a larger scale the custom which long had been fostered by the materialistic piety of the times, -- a piety which depended largely for its inspiration upon material objects and associations. To such a type of religion nothing could seem more desirable, nothing more fruitful to the soul, than to stand amid the scenes which had been sanctified by the Savior's life and sufferings. Heaven, it was fondly pictured, stooped low above the Holy Sepulcher. Jerusalem, accordingly, from the days when the true cross was believed to have been discovered, was a favorite resort. The subjection of the city to Mohammedan rule did not stop the influx except in a season of unusual persecution. A continuous stream of pilgrims sought her gates, to satisfy their religious sentiment, or to gain a respite from the tortures of an accusing conscience. We read of a French count who three times made the journey to Jerusalem, in his penitence for his crimes, and his endeavor to escape the pursuing spectres of those whom his cruelty had destroyed. Many similar examples are on record. Often no greater boon was desired than the privilege of dying on the consecrated soil. When the pilgrims presented themselves before the Holy Sepulcher, they were accustomed, it is said, to offer up this prayer: "Thou who didst die for us and wast buried in this holy spot, take pity of our misery, and withdraw us at once from this valley of tears." 1 J. F. Michaud, History of the Crusades, book i. In some instances quite a large number of pilgrims undertook the journey together. Thus, in the year 1054 the Bishop of Cambray set out with a company of three thousand, and ten years later seven thousand started under the Archbishop of Mayence and the neighboring prelates. This was carrying pilgrimage far toward the proportions of a crusade. Now, as the crusade answered the same ends as a pilgrimage, and was regarded as a work of even greater merit, it was but natural that any cause of special excitement should inflame a numerous host with the ambition to march to Jerusalem and to drive out the infidel.


Such a cause was supplied by the contagious zeal of Peter the Hermit. This man, who was a Frenchman by birth, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in atonement for the sins of his early life. Both on his journey and after his arrival he had experienced the barbarities of the Turks, and witnessed the indignities which others suffered at the hands of these rude Mohammedans, who had not the self-restraint to treat Christians with respect and kindness, though they allowed them to visit the Holy City for the sake of the revenue which they brought. At Jerusalem he met the Patriarch Simeon. As he listened to his plaints over the sad condition of affairs and the hopelessness of relief through the Eastern Emperors, he was prompted to reply that Western Europe, if once thoroughly aroused, could be relied upon to bring effectual aid. The Patriarch caught at this suggestion, and, entering readily into the plan of his visitor, gave under his seal such a statement of the facts as might enlist the sympathies of Western Christians. Armed with this document, Peter the Hermit returned to Europe. Abundant success at once attended his efforts. Pope Urban II. entered zealously into the project of a crusade, and the people made a generous response. At the Council of Placentia, in March, 1095, interest in the enterprise was manifested by an attendance of upwards of thirty thousand, and at the Council of Clermont in the ensuing November the enthusiasm of the vast throng broke through all restraint, and interrupted the eloquent address of the Pope with the mighty and confident cry, "God wills it !" -- "God wills it !" The Pope took up the words, declared that they should be the battle cry of Christ's soldiers in the holy war, and commanded that all recruits should attach to their garments the form of the Cross.


The time fixed upon for the departure of the crusading army was August, 1096. But the impatience of the people led them to anticipate this date. Before the military leaders had accomplished their preparations there were already on the march no less than four detachments, namely, some 20,000 under Walter the Penniless, 40,000 under Peter the Hermit, 15,000 under a German priest by the name of Gottschalk, and an ill-assorted rabble of the baser elements of society estimated by some as high as 200,000. A large proportion of these undisciplined and ungovernable troops fell by the hands of the Hungarians and Bulgarians, whose fear or wrath they excited by their lawless conduct. Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit succeeded in bringing a remnant of their forces to Constantinople. These had an opportunity to fight with the infidels, but only to be well-nigh exterminated in a rash venture which they made in the neighborhood of Nicæa.


While thus an unguided enthusiasm was vainly sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands, a well officered and well equipped army was being gathered. This came to Constantinople in different divisions, under such leaders as Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh, Count of Vermandois, Raymond of Toulouse, and Bohemond of Tarentum, with his nephew Tancred. "According to the lowest computation the army must have numbered more than six hundred thousand soldiers and pilgrims. There were upwards of one hundred thousand mailed horsemen, the flower of the chivalry of Europe. They were clothed for the most part in scale armor; their heads were covered with glittering helmets." 1 W. E. Dutton, History of the Crusades. A truly formidable array! The Mohammedans now found that they had to deal with foemen worthy of their steel. In hard contested battles the Christian soldiers proved their superiority. Having taken Nicæa, Edessa, and Antioch on their way, they came at length with depleted ranks to the Holy City. A brief siege and a desperate assault gave them possession, and their swords were dyed with the blood of the infidel inhabitants (1099). Godfrey of Bouillon was chosen King of Jerusalem; and a worthier choice could not have been made. While he accepted the office, he declined the insignia and the title, refusing to wear a crown of gold in the city in which the Savior had worn a crown of thorns, and styling himself simply the "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre." Thus ended the first and most successful of the crusades. After defeating an army sent by the Egyptian Sultan to recapture Jerusalem most of the leaders returned to Europe.


The second crusade (1147-1149) was commanded by Conrad III. of Germany and Louis VII. of France. It was a sad failure. Only a remnant of the great armies which took the march ever passed the limits of Asia Minor, where they were made the prey of treachery, famine, and the sword.


Before the inauguration of the third crusade (1189-1193) the Mohammedans had found a competent leader in the celebrated Saladin, and Europe had been shocked by the news that Jerusalem had again fallen under the rule of the infidel (1187). In response to the cry of grief and dismay the greatest sovereigns took the cross, Frederic I. of Germany, Philip Augustus of France, and Richard of England. Frederic perished on the march. A remnant of his army, together with the forces of Philip and Richard, assisted in the capture of Acre. Further success was hindered by the jealousies of the two kings. Richard, it is true, achieved some remarkable exploits. His valor won him the admiration of the foe, as well as of his Christian adherents. So great, it is said, became the terror of his name, that Saracen mothers were wont to use it sixty years later as a means of frightening their children. But his deeds of bravery and personal force brought little gain to the Christian cause.


An introduction to the fourth crusade (1202-1204) has already been given in the account of the ponficate of Innocent III. Its history shows how the baser motives of worldly ambition had usurped the place of the religious enthusiasm which first started the hosts of Europe toward the coasts of Asia. Instead of regaining Jerusalem from the infidel, it gave the seat of Christian empire in the East into the possession of the Latins.


The fifth crusade (1217-1221), under the King of Hungary, Hugh of Lusignan, and John de Brienne, 1 Hugh was King of Cyprus, John de Brienne nominal King of Jerusalem. gained a temporary success in Egypt. Several years before this expedition, one of the wildest pieces of folly known to European history had been perpetrated, -- the Children's Crusade (1212). In this senseless movement, some thirty or forty thousand children either met their death through exposure and hunger, or, falling into the hands of pitiless and designing men, were sold into slavery.


The sixth crusade (1228-1229) was led by Frederic II. As already observed, he acted under the weight of the papal ban, but was able, nevertheless, to effect a treaty for the surrender of Jerusalem, certain privileges being guaranteed to the Mohammedan residents. It has been supposed that still more favorable terms might have been obtained had it not been for the virulent opposition of the Pope.


In the seventh and eighth crusades, undertaken in 1248 and 1270, the leading figure was St. Louis of France. Both were fruitless. The first came to disaster in Egypt, after a brief season of success, during which Damietta was taken. The second was arrested by the ravages of a plague upon the coast of Africa, where Louis himself was among the victims. Prior to these expeditions, whose best result seems to have been the illustration which they gave of the piety and fortitude of the French King, Jerusalem had been finally lost to the Christians. Other strongholds in Palestine and Syria erelong shared the same fate. With the fall of Acre, in 1291, the last remnant of Christian dominion in the East which had been won by the crusades was relinquished. No serious effort was again put forth to wrest the Holy Land from Mohammedan rule. The voice of a Pope was indeed occasionally raised in favor of a crusade. But zeal for the enterprise had perished, and could not be revived. Europe had not the requisite ambition to guard her own borders against the Turk, to say nothing about routing him from more distant fields.


Among the memorials which survived the crusades the military orders were one of the most interesting. There were three, -- the Hospitallers or Knights of St. John, the Templars, and the Teutonic Knights. The germ of the first was a hospital, which was founded in the eleventh century for the care of sick and wounded pilgrims. The brothers of the hospital lived under monastic rule. In the first half of the twelfth century the association took on a military cast. As now organized, the order consisted of serving brothers, who were occupied with the care of the sick, priests, who discharged the rites of religion, and knights, whose duty it was to fight against the infidel and to guard the pilgrim. On the evacuation of Palestine, the Hospitallers retired to the island of Rhodes. In the time of Charles V. the island of Malta was assigned to them. The organization of the Templars was like that of the Hospitallers. By the end of the crusades the order was extended over a large part of Europe, and was extensively endowed. An object at once of jealousy and avarice, they were assailed by the most damaging reports as respects their morals and their faith, and, at the instigation of the despotic Philip the Fair, the order was dissolved in 1312, after having been subjected to a tragic ordeal. The Teutonic Knights were instituted, after the model of the other orders, in connection with the third crusade, and were specially devoted to the care and protection of German pilgrims. Service was also rendered by this order in the protection of Christianity in the district bordering on the Prussians, who still in the thirteenth century were stubbornly attached to their paganism.


However fruitless the crusades may have been as respects their immediate object, they were far from being destitute of substantial results. If they did not transform Asia according to their intent, they transformed Europe far beyond their design. They brought isolated sections into contact with each other, and led the nations to a wider outlook. They gave a new stimulus to thought and enterprise. The mind of Europe was made by their means more active, more inquisitive, and more confident. Hence, while they enlarged the power of the papacy in the beginning, they abridged it in the end. The Popes came to find in the people a less passive instrument to deal with, so that the assertion of their more extreme pretensions was likely to incur the ignominy of defeat.


At the same time, the crusades effected a great transformation in the constitution of society. They hastened the disintegration of the feudal system. Union in a common enterprise tended to lessen somewhat the distance between lord and vassal, between noble and peasant. Moreover, many a noble found himself embarrassed by the pecuniary demands of these great expeditions. To gain the necessary funds, he might be obliged to release a city from feudal obligations, or to make over a part of his domain to the king or other purchaser. Thus it came to pass that the feudal nobility were depressed, and a relative ascendancy was given to the king and the commercial classes. A centralizing movement, a movement toward the modern type of states, dates from the era of the crusades.