The End of Europe's Middle Ages

The Crusades

The Crusades were military or quasi-military expeditions launched by Christian secular and religious rulers against Moslems in the Middle East from 1096 to 1291. Religious fervour was an extremely important factor in arousing the Christians to organize military expeditions, as was the hope of gaining immense riches and increased power.

Although the eastern Mediterranean area was conquered by the Aravs in the seventh century, Christians had been permitted to visit the sacred places in the Holy Land until 1071 when the Seljuk Turks swept in from Asia and defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert. Seizing all of Asia Minor as well as the Holy Land the Seljuk Turks soon impeded Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem, forcing the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus, to ask Pope Urban II (1088-1099) for help against the Turks in the early 1090s. The Pope viewed this request as a great opportunity. Not only could it restore Christian control over the Holy Land, but it also provided a means of domestic pacification that focused the aggression of the European nobility towards the Moslems instead of each other. In addition, coming to the aid of Byzantium held the possibility of a reunion between the eastern and western Churches after almost four decades of schism, thereby strengthening the western Church in general and the papacy in particular.

First Crusade

The response of the European nobility to Pope Urban's summons to retake the Holy Land was overwhelming; thousands who had meager prospects at home enrolled in the venture. By 1096, the First Crusade was underway. Preceding the Knights' military expedition was the 'People's Crusade', led by Peter the Hermit, a wandering preacher who claimed to have had a vision calling him to lead a crusade against the Moslem infidel. This large group of peasants and the dispossessed set out for Constantinople. Few of them reached their ultimate goal in the Holy Land as most died before reaching Asia Minor. The few survivors were slaughtered by the Turks.

The knights' expedition was more successful. After arriving at Constantinople, the crusaders invaded Asia Minor in early 1097. On the road to Jerusalem, the crusaders fought a series of battles with the Moslems and laid seige to the wealthy coastal cities. Antioch, the most important city en route, long resisted conquest and its eventual capture led to a rivalry between the Christian leaders to claim the city as their own. The crusaders, however, did not abandon their original plan of liberating Jerusalem. This plan was accomplished in July of 1098 when, after six weeks of fighting, The Crusaders had achieved their goal. No future crusade was to enjoy the success of the first.

Some of the crusaders returned home while others remained in Syria to reap the fruits of their victory. They set up four states on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean called the Latin States of the Crusaders. These states were the county of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripolis, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Second Crusade

Soon after the First Crusade, the Moslems began to recover lost territory beginning with the recovery of Edessa by the Seljuk Turks in 1144. Western Christians responded by launching the Second Crusade. This time it was the preachings of Bernard of Clairvaux that stirred Europe into action. Emperor Conrad III of Germany and King Louis VII of France invaded Asia Minor (1147-49), but rather than trying to regain Edessa, the Crusaders besieged Damascus, which they were unable to take. Their failure encouraged the Moslems to renew their attacks on Christian-held areas.

Third Crusade

The 1170s and 1180s saw the rise of a new, united Islamic state with Egypt as its center, led by the talented Turkish general, Saladin. Provoked by Christian aggression in the Holy Land, Saladin attacked and reconquered much of the Christian territory in the east including Jerusalem. Jerusalem's fall provoked the launching of a Third Crusade (1189-92). This crusade was led by three of the most renowned leaders of medieval Europe: the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, and King Philip Augustus of France. Frederick Barbarossa's troops marched overland to Asia Minor but his campaign ended after he drowned while crossing a stream after which most of his army returned to Germany. Richard and Philip Augustus, enemies at home, carried their disagreements with them to the Holy Land. After they jointly captured Aere, Philip Augustus returned home to plot against Richard while Richard stayed on to battle Saladin, whom he defeated several times yet in doing so failed to retake Jerusalem. Richard eventually negotiated a peace treaty with Saladin, securing the right of Christian pilgrims to enter Jerusalem freely.

Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade turned into a campaign against Christians. Its instigator was the powerful Innocent III. Because the crusaders could not pay the costs of their passage to Egypt, they struck a bargain with the Venetians. In return for their passage, they attacked Zara, a port on the Adriatic and a trading rival to Venlee (1202). The Crusaders were then side-tracked by a conflict between rivals for the Byzantine imperial throne as the deposed emperor, Isaac Angelus, offered the crusaders financial and material assistance for their crusade if they helped restore him. The crusaders did this but, when it became clear that the former emperor was unable to fulfil his promises of money, troops, and supplies, and amidst a great deal of political scheming in the capital, the crusaders took Constantinople for themselves in 1204. They installed their own emperor and proceeded to carve up the empire. Although the Latin Empire was overthrown in 1261, and the Greek Emperors were restored, the Fourth Crusade dealt Byzantium a blow from which it was never fully able to recover.

Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople, Villehardouin.

Fifth and Sixth Crusades

During the Fifth Crusade, the important Egyptian port of Damietta at the mouth of the Nile was captured by Christians (1219). Without reinforcements, however, they failed to capture Cairo and by 1221 had to give up the port in exchange for their safe retreat with the Crusade thus ending in failure. Frederick II, who had been procrastinating in launching a crusade for a number of years, finally undertook one in 1228 while under a sentence of excommunication. Rather than resort to arms, he negotiated with the sultan of Egypt and obtained Jerusalem by treaty in 1229. It was not long, however, before Jerusalem was again in Moslem hands.

Later Crusades

The futile Seventh and Eighth Crusades were led by Louis IX, the King of France. His first effort (1248-54) was directed towards Egypt and resulted in his capture and the loss of his army. A second effort by Louis ended with his death in Tunisia in 1270. Crusades were still organized and carried out later, but as the thirteenth century drew to a close, it was clear that the enthusiasm for crusading was decreasing. The Moslems steadily advanced; Antioch fell in 1268 and Acre, the last Christian foothold, fell in 1291.

Begun out of religious fervour, the Children's Crusade of 1212 involved two armies of children, one from France and one from Germany. They set out on their long march south to the Mediterranean hoping to find transportation to the Holy Land. Most of the children either died of hunger, cold and disease, or drowned. Of the survivors, many were sold into slavery.

The Albigensian Crusade of the thirteenth century was instigated by the powerful Pope Innocent III against the Albigensian heretics in southern France. It succeeded in eradicating the heresy at the expense of ravaging the countryside. The Crusade extended Capetian rule to the Mediterranean and was important in the development of the French monarchy's centralized power. At the same time, it arrested and reversed the trend towards heresy prevalent in southern Europe.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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