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The Crusades - Why Did They Happen?

In late November 1095 CE, Pope Urban II summoned the people of Western (Catholic) Christendom* to come to the defence of the Holy Land. He was responding to a plea from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos for military assistance against the invading Seljuk Turks.

A synod of Catholic clergy and laymen (there were no women present) had gathered in the town of Clermont in Auvergne, France. Urban used the synod to give a religious gloss and justification to his call by framing the crusade as an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As such, it carried with it all the usual indulgences associated with pilgrimages, principally, remission of sins already committed. However, Urban added to the appeal by declaring that anyone killed in battle on the crusade would be granted immediate admission to Heaven.

Urban’s proclamation met with enthusiastic support throughout Western Christendom. It led to many other crusades being declared. For example, the retaking of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors—the Reconquista—and the invasion of the Slavic and Baltic lands to the northeast of Christendom by the Teutonic Knights. The campaign against the heretic Cathars in southern France was also declared to be a crusade.

So, why did Urban proclaim the crusade when he did? After all, Arabs first invaded the Holy Land in 629 CE. For over four centuries, there had been no intervention from Western Christendom.

Despite the religious justifications, the crusades were about far more fundamental issues than religion. To see their true origin, we need to look back across the preceding centuries.

The barbarian invasions that brought about the fall of the Western Roman Empire had destroyed Roman civilisation and law and its military might.

The West lacked the military strength to resist the Arabs.

Such learning and culture that survived was stored away in isolated pockets called monasteries.

Slowly, the lands recovered, spurred on by contact with Moorish Al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula and the Arabs in Sicily. Islam had become the successor and protector of ancient Greek and Roman thought. The Catholic Church declared that such learning was pagan in origin and, therefore, anathema to true Christians. Despite strong resistance from the church, it seeped into Western Christendom.

At the same time, towns were starting to grow again. While nowhere near as rich as those in the Byzantine Empire, they had still recovered some of the ground lost to the barbarian invaders. The feudal economic system in place also held towns back. It was agrarian-based with the centre of power in the lord’s castle. But as the nobility became richer, they demanded goods and services—like expensive cloth and spices—that only towns could provide.

However, expansion had ground to a halt. In part, it was because of a deliberate policy of the ruling class—the nobility—to hold back towns that they saw as a challenge to their power.

In part, it was due to a lack of new land to farm. Cutting down forests had brought new lands under the plough but forests are notoriously barren because the trees have sucked all the nutrients out of the soil. Likewise, swamps had been drained. Increasingly marginal land was being pushed into use but with little tangible result.

Another aspect of the feudal system was proving problematic. Inheritance was by primogeniture. That is, the first-born son got the lot other than an allowance to the other sons. Daughters were married off or packed off to a monastery. Second and subsequent sons of influential families could gain a position within the church hierarchy. Often, they became bishops or archbishops without first having been ordained as a priest. But such positions were limited and families tended to closely guard them so that they remained within the family’s possession from generation to generation. So, there were plenty of young men wandering around with no prospects but money to spend and time on their hands to spend it.

Like any class-based system, feudalism was riven with wars between rivals within the nobility. Think of it as hostile takeovers and you get an idea of what was going on. But what do you do with your soldiers after you have gained your aims, or been defeated? Soldiers are expensive to maintain so best to dismiss them. What do the soldiers do then? Many formed mercenary companies. There was always another war to fight. Many chose brigandage, raping and pillaging the peasants the nobility was supposed to be protecting.

So, why proclaim the Crusade then?

Western Christendom was in crisis. New lands were needed and something had to be done with the mercenaries and brigands. Conquering far-flung lands—the farther-flung the better—and sending the footloose soldiers off to do so, seemed like a good solution. So, Urban preached the crusade.

Nothing about the crusades could be called a success.

Peter the Hermit quickly gathered a large force of peasants around himself. As the horde travelled through Germany, it killed Jews in what became known as the Rhineland Massacres. They were accused of being deicides and held as being culpable for the crucifixion of Christ. Anti-Semitic atrocities were carried out all over Western Christendom. Those Jews who were not killed were forcibly baptised as Christians.

Along the way, Orthodox Christians were killed but they weren’t real Christians because they didn’t bow down to the pope so that was alright, too.

Alexios wanted the Crusaders to drive the Turks out of Anatolia and the Holy Land and then to go home. The Byzantines would then reclaim their territory. That was not the understanding of the Crusaders at all. Having done the hard work, they had no intention of departing. To them, the territory was theirs by right of conquest, and they were not giving it back to the Greeks, no matter how much Alexios might bluff and bluster.

As new lands were conquered, the feudal system was set in place there. It resulted in many petty kingdoms appearing that were often at each others’ throats. They also regularly tried to interfere in events further afield.

In the East, four Crusader States were established: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch and the Counties of Edessa and Tripoli. They spent more time and energy fighting each other than the Muslims.

By the time of the Second Crusade, they were no longer viable. The only thing keeping them going was support from the West.

So, all in all, the Crusades had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with trying to solve the problems inherent in the class-based political system known as feudalism. And, all in all, they were an abject failure.


*This blog refers to Eastern and Western Christendom because Europe did not exist as a geographic concept during the Middle Ages.

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