The Crusades, like so much of the modern conflict, were not wholly rational movements that could be explained away by purely economic or territorial ambition or by the clash of rights and interests. They were fueled, on all sides, by myths and passions that were far more effective in getting people to act than any purely political motivation. The medieval holy wars in the Middle East could not be solved by rational treatises or neat territorial solutions. Fundamental passions were involved which touched the identity of Christians, Muslims and Jews and which were sacred to the identity of each. They have not changed very much in the holy wars of today.
--Karen Armstrong, Holy War, 1988
Crusades were by far the most ambitious and impudent enterprise and at the same time most obvious failure of Western Europe in its attempt to unite all the mankind in Christian community under the leadership of the pope. Crusades were the most vivid and intense part of this enterprise and the one that received the strongest support from entire Europe on all the levels of society. The theme of crusades is vividly discussed in literature and there are numerous viewpoints as to reasons and background of these historical events. This work will present the most common and widely accepted interpretation of the events and reasons that pushed Europe towards war with its neighbors.
Starting from the 11th century, the people of Western Europe commenced a series of military expeditions, known as the Crusades, to the East and Constantinople. The first and foremost reason of these crusades is rather clear: Western civilization wanted to liberate their (though not only theirs) so-called Holy Lands from the influence of Islam. The first early crusades were the embodiment of religious revivalism. The expeditions were suggested and proclaimed by popes and supported by religious enthusiasts and those who wanted to obtain wealth by robbing and pillaging the “unfaithful” in their land. Thus, the crusades demonstrated papal leadership in the whole enterprise and popular religious beliefs (Armstrong, 1988).
The origins of the Crusades can be found in the Western world developments in the Middle Ages, as well as the impairing situation in the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire. The fall of the Carolingan Empire in late ninth century together with the relative stabilization of local borders of European world after converting in Christianity of Slavs, Vikings and Madyars caused the creation of the entire class of warriors who had no other occupation except fighting among themselves and terrorizing the population (Thatcher, McNeal, 1975). The years of violence followed. The church tried to stem it with such movements as the Peace and Truce of God, which forbade violence among and against certain people in certain times of week, month and year. This gave some result, but trained warriors always looked for outlet of their violent energy. Thus, a plea for help from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I in stopping Muslim attacks found a good ground in the Western world. In some part, the Crusades were the outlet for religious piety which emerged in late eleventh century among the lay public. Partly, this was caused by the Investiture Controversy, which started at about 1075 and still continued during the first crusade. Christendom was heavily affected by the Investiture Controversy, as both parts of the dispute tried to attract the pubic opinion on their side, and people became personally engaged in this religious dispute (Riley-Smith, 1986). This resulted in awakening strong Christian piety and public interest in the affairs connected with religion, which was revealed in overwhelming popular support of the First crusade.
This background of the events in the Christian West should be matched with the developments in the Muslim East. Muslim presence in the Holy Land dates back to Arab conquest of Palestine in the seventh century. However, this did not impede the right of pilgrimage to the Christian holy sites or security of Christian churches and monasteries in the region. Therefore western Europeans were not very dissatisfied with the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, though success of Muslim armies began to put considerable pressure on the Byzantine Empire. 1009 was the turning point in the attitude of Western people towards the east. During this year, Fatimid caliph of Cairo, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah destroyed the Christian church in Jerusalem (Riley-Smith, 1986). His successor permitted the Byzantine Empire to restore the church and resume pilgrimage, but rumors that emerged after these events about the cruelty of the Muslims, played very important role on the development of the crusades.
It is necessary to add that religious motifs and necessity to free the “Holy Land” from Muslim reign and help Byzantine empire stop advancement of Muslim forces to the west were not the only reasons that caused such popular support of the idea of Crusades among European knights and peasants. It should be mentioned that the first crusade in 1095 consisted mainly of mere peasants and the poor. They joined the crusade to conquer the alien lands, and, by robbing Muslims, with their force and violence receive the wealth they did not have at home. Knights were also motivated by similar reasons. In Europe torn apart from internal wars, wondering knight which lost their master and had to look for ways to make living was a common phenomenon. They came to the holy land to acquire, or conquer, wealth and fame they did not have in Europe.
The pope’s slogans looked very great and high-spirited. The pope promised indulgence to anyone who becomes warrior of Christian church in the Muslim world. But in reality, the Crusades were the first attempt to conquer the whole non-European world under one unifying idea. In 11-12 century that idea was Christianity. Today the idea is “western democracy”. The crusades of the Middle Ages ended with the Europe’s defeat, revealing its self-righteousness and intolerance of Western civilization. The outcome of “modern” crusades still remains a question of time.
Karen Armstrong. Holy War : The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World , Anchor, 1988
Thatcher, O., McNeal, E.H. eds., A Source Book for Medieval History, New York: Scribners, 1975, 511-12.
Riley-Smith, J., The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading. Philadelphia, 1986.