History Of The Crusades A Holy War

What is the history of the crusade; here is a look at the exploration spawned by the Crusaders of old.

In the brutal era of wars that tore Europe apart in the closing days of the first millennium AD, no period was more confusing, or more tragic, than the nearly two hundred years Europe spent locked in bitter fighting in the Middle East. This era, known as the Age of Crusades, would lead to some of the most atrocious acts and miserable failures ever made in the name of religion. But what was the point of these ceaseless wars, then, and how did they change the course of history?

The story of the Crusades actually begins centuries before the First Crusade was launched in AD 1096. When the centre of the Roman Empire shifted East, to Constantinople, it began to grow a new culture which would become known as Byzantium. However, the Church had begun to develop with Rome as its centre, and the churches of the East turned to Constantinople rather than the developing Papalcy in Rome. The first Popes were warlike and power-hungry, however, and they wanted all of the Christian world under their control. Then, during the latter half of the first millennium AD, the teachings of Islam began to spread throughout North Africa and Asia Minor at an alarming pace. The Popes of Rome, fearful that this new religion would displace them from their still-tenuous position, needed a way to suppress this new, peaceful religion coming out of the East.

Then, the final piece of the puzzle came into focus under the Western concept of primogeniture. The younger sons of European nobility, with no hope of ever ruling their family lands, became unruly as they sought to establish themselves, and began slaughtering each other. Rome, anxious to get these disruptive young nobles out of Europe, saw their chance to solve three problems at once. In AD 1096, Rome began preaching a Holy Crusade to free the Holy City of Jerusalem from the clutches of heretics and infidels. Rome preyed on the greed and pride of Europe's young knights with promises of indulgences in exchange for service, the wealth of gold and lands available in the East, and honour and glory to all those who took up the holy cause.

The plot worked better than Rome could ever have anticipated. Even the common folk soon took up the call to arms. Starting in AD 1096, Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless led a group of poor, ill-armed peasants in an advance party which was destroyed either during the trip East or by Muslims in Anatolia.

The "real" army eventually set out from France, led by Baldwin of Flanders, Robert of Normandy, and several other nobles. This army had many successes, including the capture of Antioch on June 3, 1098 and then, at last, the capture of the Holy City of Jerusalem a year later, on July 15, 1099. Victorious, the Crusaders established the four Crusader States of Edessa, Tripoli, Jerusalem, and Antioch.

Uneasy peace reigned in the Holy Land until 1144, when Edessa fell to the Muslims because Jerusalem refused to send aid after the Franks of Edessa refused to accept a woman as their ruler, even as a mere regent for two years.

Two years later, in 1146, Bernard of Clairvaux, Louis VII of France, and Conrad III of Germany led armies to the Holy Land to recapture Edessa. This Crusade was a disaster for Europe, but the Crusaders did manage to retake Lisbon, Portugal from Muslim hands.

After the disaster of the Second Crusade, there might never have been another, had European greed not led to the breaking of a sacred peace pact. After the Second Crusade ended in 1148, King Baldwin of Jerusalem forged a truce with the Syrian Sultan, Salah-al-Din, whom the Europeans called Saladin. That truce, called the Truce of God, lasted until 1187, when Reynald of Chatillon broke it by attacking a caravan bound for Saladin's own sister. Saladin responded to this insult at once, demanding Reynald's head, which the foppish King of Jerusalem, Guy, refused, and war soon broke out. In the end, Reynald's greed and Guy's incompetence led to the Arab conquest of Outremer, and the launching of yet another Crusade from Europe.

The first European leader to set out for the East was the German Emperor, Barbarossa, in May 1189. The German army, while under this great Emperor's command, had many Crusading victories along their road to Outremer, re-opening many Arab-held overland routes. Then, in early June of 1189, disaster struck when Barbarossa drowned while fording a river. The German army, more dedicated to their leader than to the Holy War, soon turned homeward again.

Kings Philip of France and Richard of England set out for Outremer in July 1190, taking a mostly over water route. In the end, Richard would be instrumental in the reclaiming of Cyprus, and much of Outremer, though he would fall short of his goal, and Jerusalem remained in Arab hands. The Third Crusade is often referred to as either "Richard's Crusade," since it was the English King who gained the most success, or "The Gentlemen's Crusade," since both Richard and Saladin claimed to uphold the virtue of chivalry, and spent as much time in a battle of manners as in actual battle itself.

A tournament, hosted by Theobald, Count of Champagne, was the unlikely breeding ground for the Fourth Crusade. While the Count's motives for Crusading were religious and chivalrous, since Outremer had no King and Theobald was the nearest blood relation to the female heir, others had no such chivalry in mind. They were merely escaping the inevitable battling between King John of England and Philip of France.

This ill-conceived Crusade ended up never even reaching Outremer. Instead of attacking Egypt, as planned by Theobald, the Crusaders ransacked Constantinople, capturing the already-Christian city in AD 1203. After the Crusaders had moved on, there was a city-wide revolt, causing the Crusaders to return and recapture the city again in 1204.

The next Crusade undertaken by the knights of Christendom was preceded by tragic events. In 1212, boy-preachers led an ill-fated "Children's Crusade" that would never reach Jerusalem, or even as far as Outremer. Many of the children died of starvation or from hardships and drowning before the rag-tag army was forced to turn back. However, their Crusade did fuel the final decision to go to war again in an effort to re-open overland passage to Outremer. This was decided at the Council of Lateran in 1215.

Begun in 1217, the Fifth Crusade amounted to little more than a series of raids until late in 1218, when attacks on the Sultanate of Egypt began. In November 1219, after a siege of nearly sixteen months, Crusaders captured the city of Damietta. Had the Crusaders had a competent leader, they might even have captured Cairo. Instead, their venture ended in failure, and Egypt remained largely in Arab hands.

The last three Crusades were not high in either interest or popularity in Europe. Warfare in the East was losing its appeal to the nobility of Europe, and morale was at rock bottom in Outremer. These half-hearted Crusades would gain and lose unimportant ground repeatedly, resulting in complete failure. By 1291, the Kingdom of Outremer was completely obliterated.

So what did Europe learn in the course of the Crusades? Crusaders, gone East to fight the Saracens, learned many valuable things from their enemies, whether through war, captivity, or truce. Advances in medicine, warfare, mathematics, anatomy, textiles, and cooking sailed Westward with the treasures of war. Also, truce times opened trade routes through contact with Eastern merchants, opening up a whole new world to Europe through exploration. The opening of trade through the Near East, which traded across Asia and deep Africa, fuelled the European hunger for wealth and knowledge. These desires would prompt Europe into a race to find the fastest trade routes to the Far East, first overland, and then by sea. For the first time in centuries, Europeans sought knowledge, and curiosity had opened the world to them.

It remains an indisputable fact that the Crusades were a brutal and petty act carried out by the greedy religious and temporal leaders of the West. However, one must never forget that, had the Eurocentralism of Dark Age Europe never led to the Crusades, it is highly likely that Europe would never have emerged from that ignorant age.

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