The crusaders were at the forefront of the holy wars in medieval times.

To become a crusader, one had to take a vow, proposed by Pope Urban II on a fateful day in Clermont in November 1095.

Those who responded to his call had to stitch crosses on their garments. This simple act was a public symbol of their pledge. Here’s a brief history of the crusaders and their cause.

What Were the Crusades?

Monument of medieval crusaderThe Medieval Crusades were a string of holy wars between Muslims and Christians. These wars were for the control of religious spots considered sacred by both groups. The crusades were also a western response to centuries of Muslim wars of expansion.

Pope Urban’s sermon in Clermont was a stage-managed event. It gained an emotional response from the crowds. His sermons encouraged Christians to take part and also served as propaganda for the expedition.

The target audience was men in peak physical condition from the knight classes who had military experience. Urban II also wanted men with adequate means to pay their expenses for the crusade’s duration. Monks were present to act as recruiting agents.

The main aim was regaining power in the Holy Land in the Eastern Mediterranean. Their goals were to check the spread of Islam and to retake former Christian regions. They also wanted to subjugate pagan areas. Many of their participants saw them as a way to salvation and of making amends for sins.

Several expeditions went to the Holy Land, Spain, and even the Baltic region between 1095 and 1291. The latter was the year when Syria expelled the Latin Christians from their kingdom. The Crusades went on for some centuries after 1291.

Western Europe had arisen as a world power in its own right by the end of the 11th century. It still trailed behind other Mediterranean societies such as the Byzantine Empire. The Islamic Empire of North Africa and the Middle East was also much more advanced.

Crusading took many forms. Historians have debated a precise definition for more than 200 years. Some scholars consider only expeditions to the Holy Land to be crusades. That’s how the traditional, numbered campaigns came about.

Other scholars look at authorization and procedure. For example, did a pope give his blessing for the expedition? Did participants have to take a vow before setting out? The Latin Church initiated and supported these religious wars in the medieval period. Sometimes it even directed them.

An example of a battle not initiated by the Pope was the so-called “Venetian Crusade.” In 1123, The Doge of Venice, Domenico Michiel, launched this seaborne crusade. At first, the Christians called it a “Reconquista.” This fight between Muslims and Christians took place on the Iberian Peninsula. It only ended in 1492 with the collapse of the Muslim emirate of Granada.

Crusading was an incredible dynamism of history. A tremendous number of men got involved, and they fought over a vast expanse of land.

The Crusades had a significant effect on the thoughts and feelings of Western Europeans. Most writers documenting history between 1095 and 1500 had to refer to them at some point. Many also wrote about the fate of the states established in their wake. These states were on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

What Was the Reason for the Crusades?

Historians have suggested several different motivations for the Crusades – political, economic, social, religious. The main reason given was the move to retake Jerusalem. Yet, crusading could be a lucrative business as many crusaders returned from the frontlines with their pockets full.

What Was the Goal of the Crusades?

The Muslim world spread from Spain to India in the Middle Ages. It included the Holy Land with Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was essential to the three Abrahamic religions. It was significant to Jewish people as it was the location of the original temple to God. King Solomon constructed this temple in 957 BC.

For Christians, Jerusalem was the center of their geographical and spiritual worlds. Christians believed it was holy because Jesus had lived there. It was also the site of his crucifixion. The Church also held that Jerusalem was the birthplace of Christianity.

To Muslims, Jerusalem is only the third holiest city, falling behind Mecca and Medina. Jerusalem was important to them too. It was where they believed the Prophet Muhammad had ascended into heaven.

The goal of the Crusades was to keep Jerusalem and the Holy Land in Christian hands. The Holy Land referred to Palestine.

Muslims had invaded Palestine during the 7th and 8th centuries and had taken over all the holy sites. They had destroyed and desecrated sacred sites like the Church of the Nativity. They had also sacked the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and they had kidnapped, robbed, harassed, and killed Christian pilgrims visiting those holy sites.

The First Crusade came after the Muslims threatened Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was the headquarters of the Eastern Church. It was strategic because it was the crossroads of Asia and Europe with access to the Black Sea.

The crusaders had other objectives, such as:

  • The Pope – to reinforce Italy’s papacy and gain power as head of the Christian Church. The Pope also had the goal of reuniting Christendom. Thus, he wanted to take over the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • The Byzantine Emperor – to overthrow an enemy state and recover lost territory. The Emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, was looking for soldiers as he wanted help to reconquer the lands of Asia Minor.
  • Knights – to follow the codes of chivalry and protect Christianity. They also wanted to gain material wealth in this life and special favor in the next. The Pope had promised heavenly forgiveness for fighting. had told the soldiers that “God wills it.” Many European families followed the principle of primogeniture. Under this system, the oldest son inherits the bulk of the family’s estate. The Crusades kept younger sons busy and gave them a chance to make their fortunes.
  • Merchants – to make money transporting crusaders to the Middle East. They also wanted to exploit important trading centers under Muslim control. They hoped to wrest key trade routes to China and India from Muslim traders. The merchants also profited by giving cash loans to finance the journey.

The Church also represented the crusades as just wars. It went according to the idea of just war established by St. Augustine of Hippo. These crusades met the three conditions to be a holy war.

They were:

  1. Authorized by a religious leader
  2. Fought for the achievement of a religious goal
  3. Promised a spiritual reward for those who participated

The popeThe religious authorization came from the Pope, whose power came from God. The spiritual goal was a just cause: to defend against further acts of aggression by the Muslims. St. Augustine’s third condition for a just war was the right intention. Participants had a good purpose if they believed conflict was unavoidable. They were also supposed to use only minimal force to stop aggression against them.

Francis Bacon outlined five aims of a holy war, three of which these religious crusades fulfilled. They retrieved lands that were once Christian, recovered and purified a consecrated place that was being profaned and polluted, and they avenged cruelties, including the killing of Christians.

Some people mortgaged lands to pay the costs of participating. The participants had to pay for their equipment, including armor and weapons. They even had to get the supplies needed to take care of their horses.

Many non-combatants embarked on the journey. These ranks included women, children, and the old and infirm. Several of these non-combatants died along the way while slavers captured others.

Who Won the Crusades?

The European crusaders managed to capture Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade. According to eyewitnesses, the crusaders were ruthless and horrific. For example, they killed all the Turks in the city of Antioch after seizing it. They boasted, “We rode in the blood of the infidels up to the knees of our horses.”

Muslim sources tell a different story. They show that the crusaders were not as extreme as Western scholars allege.

The two parties had good relations with each other. The medieval scholar Ibn Jubayr traveled through Northern Palestine in the summer of 1184. He described several farming villages occupied by Muslims, and they seemed to live in complete harmony with Christians.

Still, the First was the most successful of all the crusades. It led to the creation of small polities in the Levant. These settlements became known as the crusader states. Native Jews, Christians, and Muslims inhabited these small states. European nobles governed them. When the Second Crusade rolled around, crusading had already expanded.

Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux championed the Second Crusade. It lasted from 1147-49. The crusaders attempted to take Damascus, the capital of Syria. This crusade was a catastrophe because the Muslims had reorganized themselves. Muslim forces, led by Salah al-Din (better known as Saladin), advanced across Syria.

Saladin occupied the towns and cities of the Holy Land through July and August of 1187. Late in September, his armies camped before the Holy City itself. His forces besieged it on September 20. He demanded a tribute for each citizen and slaughtered all those who could not pay it.

The Muslims retained Jerusalem in the Third Crusade, and the Christian crusaders won the Fourth when they captured Constantinople. The Muslims won the Fifth Crusade by controlling Egypt, and then the Christians recaptured Jerusalem in the Sixth Crusade. The Muslims won the Seventh when they retained Jerusalem.

No victor emerged in the Eighth Crusade since neither party exchanged land. The Muslims recaptured Acre and won the Ninth Crusade.

In the end, Muslim forces expelled the European Christians. All those who had remained after invading the Eastern Mediterranean now had to leave. The Muslims thwarted the Christians’ effort to regain sacred Holy Land sites.

There’s a reason why Muslim sources differ from those of Christians. The Muslims don’t recognize the Crusades. They saw these wars as another wave of Frankish aggression on the Muslim world. “Franks” in this context refers to Western Christians.

Most Western historians record the 1291 Fall of Acre as the conclusion of the main crusades. Muslim historians see the end of the Frankish threat in the mid-fourteenth century. It was at that time the Ottoman armies conquered Constantinople.

History of the Crusades Beyond the First Expedition

The earliest military orders began in Jerusalem in the aftermath of the First Crusade. A military order is a holy order. Participants had to take old-fashioned monastic vows – chastity, communal poverty, and obedience.

They also had to engage in violence on behalf of the Christian faith. The Knights Templar is a well-known example, and so are the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights.

Jerusalem switched from Muslim to Christian occupation after the First Crusade. An influx of pilgrims came in from the West. Bandits frequented the area and often attacked and killed the pilgrims.

The Knights Templar was a group of French knights. They decided to set up a rescue service for these pilgrims in the year 1119. They soon grew to become an elite paramilitary unit in the crusading armies.

These knights are the subject of many legends and myths. A well-known example is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which attempted to tell their story. The German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach also glorified their exploits.

Dan placed the Templars at the heart of his King Arthur story, Parzival, as the Holy Grail’s defenders. They symbolize something strange, exotic, and mysterious. That may be why we still devour their stories today.

Christian Crusades Against Pagans and Jews

Medieval crusaders castle in al karakOne of the things we often get wrong about the Crusaders is that they fought only against Muslims. For centuries, soldiers wearing crusader crosses clashed with pagans. They fought in modern Estonia, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The Baltic was one of the busiest areas for these holy wars.

In the south of France, crusaders fought a long war against heretics known as the Cathars. This war took place in the thirteenth century.

Outbreaks of anti-Judaism marked some of the Crusades. Christians forced baptisms on Jews. They called for vengeance for their role in Christ’s crucifixion.

The vendetta against the Jews was extreme:

We are going to a distant country to make war against mighty kings and are endangering our lives to conquer the kingdoms which do not believe in the crucified one when it is actually the Jews who murdered and crucified him.

You are the children of those who killed the object of our veneration, hanging him on a tree, and he himself had said: ‘There will yet come a day when my children will come and avenge my blood.’ We are his children, and it is, therefore, obligatory for us to avenge him since you are the ones who rebel and disbelieve in him.

In 1096 partakers in the First Crusade exterminated Jews. These pogroms took place in many Central European cities. It was the start of centuries of massacres related to the Crusades. They murdered more than 5,000 Jews in Germany alone in a series of attacks.

On his way to join a crusade, Count Emico of Leiningen attacked the synagogue at Speyers. His men killed all the defenders. Later that month, 1,200 Jews committed suicide in Mayence to avoid Count Emico. Why? Because he had tried to convert them by force.

The Holy Crusades: What’s in a Word?

The word “crusade” started to take on a legitimizing meaning. There was a sacredness related to protecting the “Holy Land” in Christian minds. Now leaders could defend any disputed action by dubbing it a “crusade.” Thus, it became a word used to hush denouncers and exercise power.

Enlightenment philosophers later took a negative view of the word. They were against the tours to Jerusalem. They saw these tours as evidence of Catholicism’s biased and violent attitude.

The term took on new meaning after September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. George W. Bush, the former US President, spoke about the attacks five days later. He quipped, “this crusade, this war on terror, is going to take a while.”

His words came at a moment marked by extreme statements about Islam. Its relationship to Christianity and the western world was under the microscope.

Those words were an omen. They foreshadowed the adoption of the crusades among white American and European people. These people felt locked in a global battle against a burgeoning and menacing Islam.

Effects of the Crusades

The crusades had tremendous consequences for all involved. Ruined lives, wasted resources, death, and destruction are some of the apparent effects.

Another consequence was the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Yet another was the bigotry, which damaged relationships between peoples and religions in the East and West. This bigotry still blights civilizations and governments today.

Pope Urban II was responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of his flock. The first crusade offered redemption for the errant knights of Western Europe. It was an opportunity to stop their ceaseless squabbling.

Knights could cease their mistreatment of the weak and make good their violent lives. Urban saw the crusade as a venture for knights. They could direct their energies to what he saw as a commendable act. That act was the recapture of the holy city of Jerusalem from Islam.


Crusader on a horseThe Crusades, without a doubt, added to the wealth of Western civilization. The Middle East still feels its tragic legacy today. After all, the crusaders were the first to unleash the vicious anti-Semitism in Europe.

That anti-Jewish sentiment continues today. It has made the State of Israel a necessary haven for the Jewish people. The fierceness of the Crusader assaults also created an impression on Muslims. It gave them a permanent image of persistent Western aggression.


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