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The Crusades

The crusades were a dark time in church history. But we must understand them if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes.

Read time: 7 minutes, 32 seconds

One of the things that examining the history of Christians through the years can teach us is that good intentions alone are not enough – and that things that look like a good idea can turn out, as events unfold – to be disastrous. Another lesson is that events can cast long shadows.

In 1095, the Pope, Urban II was preaching in Clermont in France and urging his hearers to higher and deeper faith, and the deeds to go with it. By that time, roughly two-thirds of the area in which the church had first taken root had become Muslim. Islam had, partly by conversion and cultural contact, and partly by force, become the dominant religion in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt. In taking Egypt, in 641, the Muslim army had engaged and defeated the Byzantine army – the force of the empire that had its centre in Constantinople. That city was the centre of the Church in the east, and though the city did not fall at this point, it started generations of feeling threatened, and of armed struggle.

The eastern and western churches had begun to drift apart, in large part because differences in language (Greek in the east, Latin in the west) and shaped and then increased theological differences. However, in 1081, Alexius I Comnenus became emperor in Constantinople. He was determined to resist the various armed threats to his empire, and appealed to fellow Christians in Venice – an important trading partner – to help his Christian empire to resist those of other faiths. Other Christians in the west heard of the request, and it came at a time that was very ready to hear such a call.

Following reform efforts through the early 11th century, the papacy was now stronger than it had been for generations, and had the capacity to appeal to a great deal of loyalty. In addition, the feudal system that was the dominant social pattern of western Europe and had been for several centuries, was built on a system of ever-increasing violence, as those with power struggled to keep it, and those without tried to gain it. Society in western Europe was becoming ever more violent, and this was causing great concern to church leaders.

Society in western Europe was becoming ever more violent, and this was causing great concern to church leaders.

Various measures were developed to try to end, or redirect the violence of the times, most notably the Peace of God – proclaimed in 989, and forbidding the attack on ecclesiastical property, agricultural resources and unarmed clerics, and The Truce of God - proclaimed in 1027, which attempted to limit the days of the week and times of year that the nobility engaged in violence.

Such measures were only partially successful, and when Urban heard of the call from the Byzantine Empire, he saw an opportunity. If the violence could be directed away from fellow Christians, and towards those who were threatening other Christians, and who had taken possession of Christian holy sites over the centuries, then such violence would cease to be a sin and a scar on a Christian society, and would instead be a means of fulfilling the will of God.

In addition, if the Holy Sites could be retaken for the church, then the pattern of pilgrimage that was such an important part of the piety of the age could be expanded into the places where Jesus had walked – and the additional holiness for the pilgrim that would be gained from such a journey.

Following Urban’s preaching in 1095, there was a response much greater than he – and the people of Constantinople – had expected. As well as knights, who were the intended hearers, there was what was effectively a mass movement that set off to free Constantinople and take – or retake – Jerusalem. They massed and travelled through Europe to fight the enemies of God, under the sign of the Cross, and with the cry “God wills it”. On the way, on several occasions, they diverted to attack and massacre Jews – since they were also now seen as enemies of Christendom, and therefore of God. These pogroms became the first in what was to be a long and frightening history of violence against Jewish communities throughout Europe.

In 1096, what is called The People’s Crusade, or the Peasants’ Crusade, led by a charismatic preacher called Peter the hermit arrived in Constantinople. This was not the army the Alexius had hoped for, and after a few months, when it became clear that this group was largely uncontrollable, they were ferried away from the city and into Turkey. However, even when the knights and armed men arrived things were no better, and Alexius could not wait to get them out the city; they caused mayhem, with their violence and chaos. The armed host eventually got to Jerusalem and took it from the Muslims in 1099 – but did it by fighting and killing Muslims, Jews and Arab Christians.

Christianity The Crusades

Other cities also became Crusader strongholds, following similar patterns of violence. On the way to Jerusalem, they had taken Nicaea and Antioch, and after establishing themselves in Jerusalem, they went on to take Edessa and Tripoli. Caesarea, Acre, Sidon and Beirut followed. The armies built castles, and set up rulers, and what were to become known as the Crusader States began to take shape.

Those who were leading the Crusade were those who had no land and no prospect of lands in Europe, and their intention was to set up kingdoms and dynasties in the ancient Christian cities. Reclaiming them from Islam was part of the motivation – but so was finding a power base and securing land and riches, which they could not have at home.

One of the results of this horror was the solidifying of the separation of the churches of East and West, as each now looked at the other with suspicion and fear.

This was never a stable or peaceful state of affairs. There were constant attacks on the crusader cities, and attempts to regain them. Reinforcements and support was required from the west, and between 1147 and 1149, the Second Crusade travelled – and on the way fought in Spain and in eastern Germany.

The most influential and effective opponent of the crusaders was Saladin, who came to power in the 1170s. He started to attack, and succeeded in taking various of the crusader cities, and in 1187, took Jerusalem.

This collapse of the Crusading intentions and indeed of the Second Crusade was understood in the west as an indication of God’s punishment of the sin of the Christians in Europe. There was a strong conviction developed that the success of the crusades depended on the prayers and the purification of the church. This was to become very influential on the piety of the period.

The third Crusade was from 1189-1192. This army retook some of the land, including the city of Acre, led by King Richard, known as the Lion heart. In 1192, he signed a treaty with Saladin and peace was agreed. It did not last however, and in the years following, there was violence between the Crusaders and the Arabs, and civil war among the Arabs.

1202-1204 was the Fourth Crusade, funded by a tax on clerical incomes. Travelling the same journey as the first crusaders, they came to Constantinople. However, caught up in a web of dynastic politics and the need for money to repay debts incurred on the journey, they sacked the city in 1204, with ruthless cruelty. One of the results of this horror was the solidifying of the separation of the churches of East and West, as each now looked at the other with suspicion and fear.

There were to be other crusades in the 13th and 14th centuries, but these were no longer focussed on Jerusalem and the Holy Land. This now became the language that was used of any war to which the Pope summoned faithful western Christians, especially against heretics, often within the western church itself.

The Crusades started as a way of trying to contain violence and build links between Christians in the east and the west who were becoming estranged. From our perspective, it always look like a flawed intention, since it also depended on the use of violence against those classed as “other” or “outsider”. That the crusades degenerated even from their own ideals into bloodthirsty massacres and power-hungry grabs is a reminder that good intentions alone are not enough, and diverting sinful impulses into seemingly “better” channels is not an answer.

The relationships between Christians, Jews and Muslims were badly poisoned in ways that we still feel as a result of these wars. The divisions between Christians in the East and the West were damaged to an extent that is only in our generations beginning to be addressed.