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The Crusades
The Crusades were campaigns approved and supported by the Pope. They were the first
wars fought for an ideal, although it became clear that early enthusiasm regarding
participation was largely based on illusion. The character of later recruits differed and
the motivation for going on crusade to escape debt became increasingly common.
Similarly, judges gave criminals the option of going to prison or on crusade which
increased numbers but also supplied soldiers who did not have the same ideological
motivations witnessed in the initial wave of crusaders. Today, among both Christian and
Muslim circles it is common to view the Crusades as a period of unwarranted aggression
by the West.
Why did people join a Crusade?
People were offered the remission of confessed sins if they fought and so the crusades
presented the opportunity to gain spiritual capital and reduce time spent in purgatory, a
very appealing proposition for medieval men and women. In addition, crusaders were
also offered the protection of their family and property, and so many were convinced to
take part as a result of this. Some believed that travelling to the East would result in the
acquisition of land and wealth. It has also been suggested that the climate was perfect
for the realization of the Crusader ideal, with men eager to take up their swords due to
an increasing and restless population in the search of new lands and outlets of energy.
How many major crusades were there?
There were nine crusades with the first five being fought by a combination of Christian
European countries and the last four being done so by single states. The majority of the
crusades were unsuccessful in their goal of reclaiming the Holy Land for Christians, with
the First Crusade proving to be the peak of the crusaders campaign.
The Council
Who were the crusaders?
Crusaders came from all walks of life – peasants and nobles alike responded in great
number to the call to fight. Urban appointed the bishop of Le Puy in charge, with French
nobles taking military control. The church set about obtaining
recruits, money, supplies and transport.
Crusaders identified themselves by means of a red cross on their
chest, as seen in much of the artwork depicting the crusaders.
How did the Crusades start?
Many were motivated to take part in the Crusades as a result of
Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont in November
1095. He inspired those present to commit to the cause, with the
crowd exclaiming ‘Dieu le veult’ – ‘God wills it!’ and small pieces
of cloth were pinned on the breasts of those who vowed to ‘take the cross’. There was
extreme enthusiasm to take part in the Crusades.
What was their purpose?
The Crusades set out with the aim to re-gain the Holy Land from the Turks. Christians
regularly made pilgrimages to the Holy Land and birthplace of their religion since the 6 th
century but after control of Jerusalem was taken by the Seljuk Turks, Christians were
forbidden from entering. The Turks also threatened to invade the Byzantine Empire and
Constantinople, causing the Emperor Alexis I to appeal to Pope Urban for help. Urban
seized the opportunity to unite Christian Europe and reinforce the power of the Papacy,
aiding Alexis in his plea.
What did they discover?
Many of the items we take for granted today came to Europe as a result of the crusades.
In terms of food, rice coffee, sherbet, melons, ginger and other spices, apricots, dates,
lemons, sugar, sesame, spinach and artichokes were all discovered by the crusaders.
New ideas came to light such as algebra, chemistry, water wheels and clocks, Arabic
figures 0-9, the colour scarlet, irrigations and pain killing drugs. Furthermore goods such
as wheelbarrows, shawls, mattresses, ships, compasses, mirrors, carpets, writing paper
and cotton cloth for clothing were also discovered.
In the same way that goods were brought back from the East, many western items were
taken to the East for the first time, including items such as linen and woolen cloth.
It is no secret that war is expensive and the Crusades were no exception. It was the
soldiers themselves who were expected to finance their journey, an impossible demand
for most. Many had to sell their land and possessions to take part. The development of
taxes and the tax system can be attributed to the Crusades as an effective system of
raising funds for war was required, and nobles and the church saw the
answer as tax. Some even took loans in order to finance their journey,
leading to the development of the system of banking and credit we know
today. The middle classes were able to profit from interest made on
loans and through buying and selling property on behalf of the elites.
Peasants also benefitted from an increased demand for their products.
What was the impact of the crusades?
Once in control of Jerusalem the Crusaders set about making their impact
on the country and began constructing the castles we still see today.
Many became accustomed to life in the East and settled into the new lifestyle they
experienced there.
The rising middle class benefitted from lending money to crusaders and selling supplies.
Similarly a number of peasants and serfs were able to buy their freedom from masters
needing the cash for travelling expenses. The onset of the Crusades marked the decline
of feudalism and the beginning of towns and cities as centres of trade, linked to the
access to the range of new goods listed above. It can additionally be argued that the
development of trade led to the creation and development of guilds.
The Crusades also stimulated a variety literature concerning the crusades, including epic
poems, histories and memoires of those who participated.
Female involvement in the Crusades
It was certainly not uncommon for women to participate in a crusade and Byzantine
historian Nicetas Choniates describes how women could be seen riding in the ranks of
Knights and men at arms. Stories about Eleanor of Aquitaine describe her and her ladies
dressed in cherry red boots and white tunics with crimson crosses across their chests
galloping white horses over the hills at Vezelay, brandishing swords and spurring the
faint hearted to take the cross. In the first crusade many women accompanied their
lords due to the desire to visit the Holy Land which was so deeply rooted in the medieval
Peter the Hermit preaching
the First Crusade