USU 1320: History and Civilization
The Crusades and Medieval Christianity
I. Introduction: The Nature and Consequences of the Crusades
Pope Benedict, on his first visit to a
Muslim country…travel(ed) through the streets of Ankara (the capital
of Turkey), … Benedict infuriated Muslims worldwide in September
with a lecture that seemed to depict Islam as an irrational religion tainted
with violence. He later expressed regret at the pain his comments caused
but stopped short of a full apology. More than 20,000 Muslim protesters
rallied against the Pope's trip on Sunday in Istanbul, chanting "Pope
don't come." (Gareth Jones, Reuters News)
Spanning more than two centuries (1096-1300 CE) across the majority of the so-called High Middle Ages, the Crusades were, in essence, military expeditions initiated by the medieval papacy to wrest the Holy Lands from Moslem control. That means, if they can be traced back to a single source, it's fair to say it was the Christian Church in the West. Yet, the promotion of warfare was clearly not at the top of the Vatican's agenda prior to the eleventh century and so it's also fair to ask how such a dramatic shift in policy came to be, that popes moved from denouncing bloodshed to demanding it in the name of God.
In one respect, the answer to that question is easy: these extended military raids stemmed from changes which took place outside Europe before the age of the Crusades, principally the growth and expansion of Islam. Indeed, Christian holy wars such as these bear a striking resemblance—and, no doubt, owe at least some of their existence—to the Moslem custom of the jihad, which by then had become a very successful Islamic institution. By translating the notion of a "holy warrior" into Christian terms, a succession of medieval popes and churchmen created the crusader, a "knight for Christ."
In all fairness, however, the Crusades were more than just military exploits. They built and touched upon almost every aspect of life in the day, a fact that is especially clear when one looks at their outcome. First and foremost, if the popes who promoted the Crusades gained the authority to muster an army and send it on a mission—it should be noted that they never acquired the actual power of a field commander to oversee a battle or call for specific maneuvers, at least not during the Crusades—in the end, their excursion into the armed forces did more damage than good to the prestige of the papacy. By the last Crusade, many in Europe had come to see the Pope as just another war-mongering king, not the guardian of souls who stand before heaven's gate.
But in other respects, these Church-sanctioned wars brought some benefit to Medieval Europe. For instance, crusading allowed westerners to take advantage of the much richer East for the first time since the days of ancient Rome. More important, it served as an outlet for Europe's youth and aggression as population exploded during the High Middle Ages (1050-1300 CE). That is, sending young men off to fight in a holy cause stifled, if only briefly, the internal wars which had racked the West since the collapse of Roman government and forestalled the self-destruction that would again characterize European history in the centuries to come. Moreover, the mere fact that a few of these Crusades produced victories of some kind helped Europeans regain a sense of self-confidence—after centuries of losing on nearly every front imaginable, they finally turned the tables on their military and cultural superiors to the east—the resulting surge of optimism that followed the minority of Crusades which eked out some measure of success contributed in no small way to the glorious twelfth-century renaissance in art and literature which swept Europe during the High Middle Ages.
But when these meager triumphs are tallied up against the casualties and mayhem resulting from the Crusades, it's hard to say they were worth it, especially in the long run. For instance, crusading brought no significant new territories or allies into the European cultural sphere—at best, it can be said it opened the door slightly for western traders to do business abroad, but even that proved harmful by making the Church seem commercial and greedy—and worse yet, the enormous drain of energy and manpower won the West little more than increased antagonism with its neighbors in the East, a situation which still resonates in modern international relations. So, after they were all done, the Crusades didn't look as much like God's will as a catastrophic mistake.
And for those living in the Near East during this period it's fair to say the results of these invasions—"Viking raids" is how many in the Islamic world saw, and still do see, the Crusades—were entirely negative. To the highly civilized and peaceful states there, the crusaders were marauders who left behind in their wake little more than bloodshed, turmoil, ashes and a well-earned hatred, an animus subsequently extended to all Europeans. Indeed, it is as hard to build a case that the Moslem East benefited in any way from the Crusades as it is to argue that the Huns brought blessings to Europe seven centuries prior.
But there's another way to situate and see the Crusades in history, not by looking back at their origins and causes—the way historians ever since Herodotus have tended to do—instead, by peering into the future, we can examine them not as a consequence but a cause, as the overture to something more significant than failed attacks on the Near East. Underlying the crusaders' excursions was the impulse to migrate and conquer, the same drive which had long before pushed their Indo-European forebears out of their homeland and across Eurasia (see Chapter 7). If the Crusades proved unsuccessful attempts at expansion, it is safe to assert that they nudged Europe out of the deep provincialism, that uncharacteristically non-Indo-European mode in which it had been mired since the onset of the Middle Ages.
Indeed, not since the days of ancient Rome had westerners found many viable opportunities to expand their horizons in any respect—not just militarily but also economically, culturally and politically—crusading, however, gave them a glimpse of the larger world that lay beyond their immediate frontiers. This taste of the globe sparked in them a curiosity about life beyond Europe, which, in turn, helped to lay the groundwork for the colonial period to follow. In fact, one can argue that the Crusades of the twelfth century, not Columbus' expeditions three centuries later, mark the real onset of Western expansionism, arguably the single most significant development in the millennium just past. Only the crusaders, modern Europe's first colonists of a sort, headed the wrong direction: east, not west.
However they presaged the future, in their day the Crusades were a dark moment in the Dark Ages, less a series of misguided adventures than Medieval Europe's "Lost Weekend," that is, a drunken binge from which one wakes up having only vague memories of what happened, and with whom. So, in the end, the issue which stands at the forefront here is not so much their consequences or place in history as why the Crusades happened at all, what created the powerful cocktail of religious zealotry, overpopulation, ignorance and bigotry which westerners so eagerly downed, only to come to their senses in a century or so and realize what havoc they'd wrought. In many ways, we today are still nursing that hangover.
The spark that set off the Crusades was struck not in Europe but the East, when the Byzantines first confronted a new Moslem force, the Seljuk Turks (see Section 14). Originally an Asian horde which, like the Huns of earlier times, had penetrated far into the West, the Seljuk Turks controlled much of the Near East by the eleventh century CE. With Persia in their grip—including Baghdad, the capital of the Moslem world—they had converted to Islam en masse and presented a truly terrifying prospect: "Moslem Huns," or Mongol jihaders. The Byzantines were right to be concerned.
Worry quickly turned to panic when Turkish forces began expanding into eastern Asia Minor. Meeting the Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE, the Byzantines were badly defeated and stood on the verge of losing the whole of Asia Minor to Turkish onslaught. Casting about for help and seeing none nearby, they resorted to what must have seemed to them a last resort, appealing to the West for aid.
Ever since Justinian's Gothic Wars and the Byzantines' subsequent failure to impose iconoclasm on the West—to name but a few of their past religious and political differences—Byzantium and Western Europe had long suffered strained relations. This tension grew to such a pitch that, by the middle of eleventh century (during the 1050's CE), they splintered into separate sects: the Catholic Church based in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople. The result was that, by the time of the Crusades, the Christians of Western Europe might as well have belonged to a different religion from their brethren in the Middle East. To re-open the channels of communication between these former allies who did not speak the same language and had not fought side-by-side for centuries, seemed impossible, but with Islamicized Mongols poised on one's border, the impossible starts looking like a reasonable option.
This situation was also having a minor but immediate impact on the West as well. The few direct contacts between Moslems and Europeans in this day were largely the result of Christian pilgrims wending their way to Jerusalem and the Holy Lands. Prior to the Turkish takeover, Moslems had not actively prevented their coming and going. Indeed, Moslems in the day must have chuckled a little at these pale northern pilgrims, a harmless if rather misguided lot who, like children imitating adults, were attempting to incorporate into their unenlightened religion the sacred hajj. These comfortable Easterners could not have imagined how much of Islam Christians would soon be borrowing.
As Byzantine-Turkish antagonism escalated in the late eleventh century, it had become increasingly difficult for Christian pilgrims, or anyone for that matter, to pass through Asia Minor and Syria safely and reach the Holy Lands. Looking for ways to leverage military assistance from the West, some sort of bargaining chip he could play, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus used this conflict with the Turks and its impact on Christian pilgrimage and tourism as the basis of an appeal for Western aid. Writing to the Church in Rome, he intentionally spread stories—some corroborated, some not—of Turkish atrocities against Christians in Asia Minor and then offered an enticement he knew was virtually irresistible to the Pope. He proposed reunifying the recently severed Eastern and Western Churches.
That was chum no school of cardinals could resist. Pope Urban II warmly embraced the idea of helping Europe's "beleaguered allies" and fellow Christians in the East, so he proposed a holy war—a radical shift in Christian doctrine, to say the least—and explained this maneuver not as any substantive change of direction but as an extension of a policy already in place entitled the Truce of God. This program of measures was part of the Church's attempt to limit warfare within Europe in the day by insisting there be no fighting on holidays or weekends.
In Urban's crafty hands, the Truce of God was remolded into a declaration ending all wars in which Christian fought Christian, deflecting European militarism toward what was perceived as the "real" enemy now, the Moslem infidels in the East. Thus seen ideologically, the Crusades were the culmination of a "peace" movement, as illogical as that may sound. Needless to say, it took some monumental re-reading of the New Testament where, at least on the surface, war is hardly the preferred vehicle of peace, but in those days the Pope had the advantage of being one of the few in Europe who could read at all, much less re-read.
In giving knights a holy vocation and calling them "the vassals of Christ," Urban II was granting anyone who joined his crusade an automatic indulgence—namely, the forgiveness of all prior sins—so then, instead of paying penance for murder, killing could spell a sinner's salvation, as long as he slew the right sort of person, a Moslem that is. Not since "Die for Rome!," had Europeans heard such a stirring advertisement and, when Urban began to sense how well this was going to work, he took his marketing campaign on the road.
In a spell-binding speech before a crowd of French knights, Urban exhorted his adherents to win back "the land of milk and honey" and avenge the Turkish atrocities allegedly perpetrated against their fellow Christians. He cited several of the gory details sent to him by Alexius Comnenus and ended by bidding them fight "for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of imperishable glory." No matter his actual words, "Kill Moslems indiscriminately!" is what the crowd understood him to say and chanted back Deus le vult! Deus le vult!" ("God wills it! God wills it!")
From the perspective of history, however, it's clear that there was much more than religious frenzy at work here. The Crusades reflect other aspects of life in Europe at that time, in particular, its burgeoning population, one of the most significant features of the High Middle Ages. As destructive invasions like those of the Vikings had begun to abate around the turn of the millennium (ca. 1000 CE) and a relative calm had followed, the continent had quickly repopulated. It's difficult not to conclude, then, that the Crusades, a century later, are tied to the rapidly changing demographics within Europe, since the first three come almost exactly forty years apart, in other words, at intervals of about a generation and a half. If so, they are, in one respect, a means of bleeding off the ever-replenishing supply of young warriors, especially sons without inheritances or livelihoods and, in general, people seeking some purpose and direction in life.
And there were political forces at work as well, since the Crusades were also tied to the Investiture Controversy, the struggle for power between the rising authority of the Pope and the ruling political system in the day. From the papal perspective, the kings of Europe had long intruded upon the sacred right of the Pope to run his own business—that is, to choose the men who constituted the Church's administration—and in calling the First Crusade, Urban II shifted the theatre of action in this political conflict to an arena where medieval kings had traditionally reigned supreme, the battlefield. In doing so, Urban usurped the prerogative most secular rulers had claimed traditionally to declare an enemy and muster troops for battle.
Worse yet, by reinterpreting the Truce of God as a warrant for Europeans to kill Moslems and not each other, he also sought to embarrass secular leaders for all their intra-European wars which now looked positively "un-Christian." Never mind that the Church had for centuries up until then sanctioned European-upon-European carnage, just not on certain days. Nevertheless, popes briefly owned the momentum and set the spin. In other words, the Crusades gave them, if only for a minute by historical standards, the opportunity to redefine the rules of the game.
But for all these underlying causes, the major motivation driving the Crusades—both on the surface and well beneath it—was religious sentiment, something bordering on hysteria. There can be no doubt that a majority of Christian Europeans saw Urban's call-to-arms as a means to salvation and a way of ridding the world of infidels. That, to them, referred not only to the Moslems but also the Jews of Europe, many of whom were slaughtered before the knights of the First Crusade rolled out in search of the Holy Lands. After all, good Christians couldn't send their men off to fight one infidel and abandon the homeland to another. With this benighted stab at genocide pitched as protecting the loved ones they left behind, the crusaders surged out of Europe on a tidal bore of blood, only to wash up on the shores of the Near East soon to be bathed in more of the same.
The First Crusade began in 1096 CE, when Christian knights began to assemble from all over Europe and move toward Constantinople. The Byzantines were horrified to see hordes of Western Europeans knocking at their doors, particularly because most of the crusaders were poor and, worse still, poorly armed. When he had made his initial request, Alexius Comnenus was not asking the Pope for mobs of indigent desperadoes but a small force of skilled fighters who could help him repulse the Turks. To the Byzantines, this multitude was no army but a different sort of invasion.
The lowest estimate of the crusaders' force is indeed around 25,000—and there were probably far more, perhaps as many as 100,000—and as far as the Byzantines were concerned, it was an uncivilized, ill-equipped throng driven by a fanaticism as poorly cloaked in words of faith and brotherhood as their ragged flesh. Moreover, the crusaders' aims corresponded little with those of the Byzantines who were seeking to stem the tide of Turkish aggression. The Europeans, on the other hand, entertained fantasies of "liberating" Jerusalem and the Holy Lands from Moslem oppression; thus, neither understood or even listened to the others' words.
As a result, the Byzantines acted in a fashion typical of Easterners, from the Western European perspective at least. Following a long-standing policy of baffling, stalling and deceiving intrusive foreigners, Alexius Comnenus greeted the crusaders with cold but reasonable hospitality and, as soon as it was feasible, escorted them through his kingdom and beyond the eastern boundaries of the Byzantine Empire, vowing that military and financial support would follow. Once they were gone, however, the Emperor promptly reneged on his deal and slammed the gate shut, preventing their return. Surely, he thought the Turks would make quick work of them and he would be free of this pest, but the Byzantines grossly underestimated the crusaders' will and, by defaulting on his pledge of support, he earned Europe's distrust. Byzantium was now as much the crusaders' foe as any Moslem state.
At length and against all odds, many of the crusaders survived this betrayal. After all, as poor folk, most of them were used to getting by on little food and few comforts. Indeed drawn onward by their religious convictions, they managed to get further than anyone would have guessed, making it all the way to Syria, in fact, and somehow engineering the capture of the capital city Antioch in June of 1098 CE.
Though it proved a long and arduous siege, this victory gave new life to their cause and, continuing south, they pushed their way into the Holy Lands where they besieged and took Jerusalem the next year (1099 CE). Instrumental in that success was a brutality astonishing in its barbarity and ruthlessness, bloody enough to make a Viking proud. Of course, most of these marauders were Vikings, genetically or culturally.
Treating the defeated as no better than animals, the crusaders ravaged whole populations. For instance, after they captured Antioch, they exterminated all the Turks there. Later, following the sack of Jerusalem, they boasted of their own savagery, claiming "We rode in the blood of the infidels up to the knees of our horses"—if true, this is horrific, and if invented history, it's almost worse—whatever the case, the crusaders' disregard of basic human decency has struck few over time as anything but utterly repugnant. To wit, a non-crusader Christian who witnessed their wanton cruelty wrote:
Worse yet, few crusaders had any long-term interest in settling the Holy Lands. With Jerusalem now seemingly secure in Christian hands, most of its western assailants opted to return home, where they were hailed as heroes. Some, however, stayed and set up Christian-run governments, the four so-called Crusader states, along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. There, they built European-style castles called kraks. It's somewhat disconcerting to look across Syria today and see crumbling medieval castles of a sort one would expect to find in England or France. Thus, along with the other devastations they wrought—such as the enmity they inspired between East and West—the crusaders brought enormous disharmony to the cultural landscape of this area, arguably one of the more enduring legacies of their outrage.
The Second Crusade (1147-1148 CE) is the heir, so to speak, of the First. Not only did the Second Crusade follow a generation or so after the First—indeed, a number of its soldiers were the actual descendants of those who had gone on the First Crusade—but the later crusade was also precipitated by the earlier one. Thus, in more ways than one, the First Crusade sired the Second.
In the decades following the First Crusade, the Christian overlords of the Crusader States failed to integrate themselves into Middle Eastern society in any meaningful way. Despised by the natives for their imperious and condescending manner, many turned out to be cruel and abusive despots. Though a minority proved kinder and gentler, the general impression their rule left behind was far from favorable. Even their fellow Christians disliked them, as witnessed by one churchman who wrote home complaining:
Such a situation cannot endure for long, and indeed in 1144 CE, one of the Crusader states fell back into Moslem hands.
This re-ignited crusading fever in Europe and led to the call for a follow-up crusade to re-secure the Holy Lands in the name of Christ. No less than Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, perceived by many to be the "holiest" man of the day, endorsed the notion of a new crusade, and his sanction drew in many of the leading figures and kings in Europe. Bernard, however, had the sense to protect the homeland first and forbade the massacre of Jews, the sad overture that had opened the earlier Crusade.
In the end, however, the Second Crusade proved a dismal failure. This time, the Byzantines and the Turks were ready for the "Franks" as they called them—that is, western barbarian invaders—and plotted together to exterminate them. Thus, betrayed on both sides, by Byzantium and Turkish forces, the Second Crusade was nearly obliterated as the crusaders tried to pass through Asia Minor.
What little of the expedition made it to the Holy Lands only ended up fighting with the survivors and descendants of the First Crusade who saw this new European incursion as a band of thugs sent to rob them of their lands. The result was that most participants in the Second Crusade returned to Europe empty-handed, such a pitiful troupe that Saint Bernard was forced to admit, "I must call him blessed who is not tainted by this." That killed most Europeans' interest in crusading, for another generation at least.
The Third Crusade (1189-1193 CE) was, as the one before it, precipitated by yet another turnover of power in the Middle East. In Egypt, a new Moslem leader arose named Saladin (r. 1169-1193 CE). He recaptured Syria and much of the Holy Lands, including Jerusalem in 1187 CE. So forceful was his assault that the Crusader States were reduced to little more than the port of Tyre and a few castles.
With Jerusalem no longer in Christian hands, some sort of reprisal was called for—another crusade, of course—but this time one that was well-organized and well-equipped, and no one better to do that than the foremost regents of Europe: the kings of Germany, France and England. Thus, the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the French king Philip Augustus and Richard the Lion-hearted, the King of England, pushed aside their political differences and joined forces in the name of God to avenge this affront to Christendom at large. And this large, well-funded, planned-out triple-threat had no chance for success, if for no other reason than that it was triple.
Three-headed freaks like the Third Crusade rarely live very long. First, Frederick drowned while crossing a river, either of a heart attack or because he fell off his horse and his armor was so heavy he couldn't swim back up to the surface. His troops, now leaderless, turned back. Next, Philip and Richard quarreled—and if one believes the court gossip of the time, they certainly had personal issues to work out—and Philip went back to France. Richard was left alone with his forces, not enough of an army to retake Jerusalem on its own but they continued anyway. When he reached the Middle East, Richard met Saladin and, after a bit of jousting and some general medieval male-bonding if one can trust the accounts from the day, they managed to forge an agreement to let Christians visit the Holy Lands without being hassled. But making deals with Moslems was, to many in Europe, not the point of crusading.
Richard's stock dropped precipitously, and on his way home, he was captured, not by any Moslem foe, but by Germans—in fact, his former ally Frederick Barbarossa's son—and was imprisoned and was held in exchange for the payment of an exorbitant sum. This 100,000 pounds, literally a "king's ransom," nearly bankrupted England and left John, Richard's brother, regent and successor, in deep debt and trouble. The Crusades were now one for three.
If crusading was to continue at all, it was going to need some serious restructuring. Having failed in so many respects, the Third Crusade entailed disappointments no one in Europe could ignore. For one, it hadn't returned Jerusalem and the Holy Lands to Christian control. For another, it had led to bitter in-fighting within Europe—which ran directly counter to its Truce-of-God mission to repress wars on the home front and that was, at least in part, because it hadn't deflected the restless aggression of Europe's knights outside the West—by these standards, the Third Crusade might as well not have happened at all, which helps to explain why the Fourth Crusade followed so quickly on its heels.
Meanwhile, there were other changes afoot within the European community. In particular, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, the papacy had found a strong advocate in Innocent III, the most effective pope in medieval history. This young, intelligent pontiff had been trained in law and thus spoke the language of international diplomacy better than most political rulers in Europe, indeed as well as the best statesmen ever have. His ability to craft strategies promoting the interests of the Church and to put them into effect is unparalleled in Western history, so he gave the next crusade a professional appearance of a sort the Crusades had never enjoyed before. Nevertheless, Europe would soon learn that amateurism really suited crusading better.
Yet with Innocent spearheading the venture, it was bound to succeed somehow. The pontiff began by doing his history homework from which he devised a means to avoid the hazards which had scuttled the last two Crusades. What had drowned the most recent one was the division of leadership among three kings, and Innocent resolved to avoid that error by putting himself in charge alone. What had foundered the Second Crusade was the treachery of the double-dealing Byzantines, so the decision was made to send the next wave of crusaders by sea, enabling them to avoid Byzantium completely—that the Fourth Crusade would eventually end up in downtown Constantinople is a rousing tribute to human folly, not an indictment of Innocent's plan—and if everything had gone the way he arranged it, it would have been a perfectly fine Crusade. But the best-laid plans of popes and men . . .
Innocent arranged to contract ships and supplies from the port city of Venice, by now a great sea-power, and it looked like smooth sailing—on paper, at least, which is what lawyer-popes tend to look at—but problems developed before this Crusade even got on board. All participants thought someone else was paying for the "rental" of the ships. So, when the crusaders began to arrive in Venice and were greeted with outstretched hands but no one had any money to offer, the deal nearly fell through.
There are more ways than one, however, for a large contingent of warriors to earn their passage across the sea. For instance, Zara, one of Venice's subject states on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, had recently revolted from the city's burgeoning maritime empire and, to avoid Venetian reprisal, the people of Zara had delivered their city into the Pope's warm and all-welcoming embrace. Zara was now part of the Papal States, a growing "mutual fund" owned and managed by the Roman Church.
In exchange for cash-on-delivery, the Venetians contracted with the crusaders to stop in at Zara on their way out east and force it back under Venice's thumb. Such an agreement was certainly not part of Innocent's plan for this Crusade—that is, his goals did not include that the crusaders he'd assembled would strip his papacy of newly-won territory—and when he learned about their agreement with the Venetians, he withdrew his support of the Crusade, along with his funding. And when that didn't stop them, he laid a writ of excommunication on them all—that is, he effectively ousted them from the Church, condemning their souls to perdition—but that, too, made exactly zero difference in their arrangements. The crusaders sailed to Zara and duly delivered it back into Venetian hands.
While lingering in the area, the crusaders came across a Byzantine exile, a pretender to the throne who had recently been exiled from Byzantium and who offered them a substantial sum if they would make him the emperor. With the sanction of the Venetians who saw nothing but advantage in causing turmoil within Byzantium, their trading rival in the Mediterranean, the crusaders were again diverted from the Holy Lands. This time they headed in the direction of Constantinople.
There, the crusaders' approach inspired considerable panic among the Byzantines, not an unreasonable reaction as this now well-funded, sea-borne assault force bore down on them. The reigning Emperor, along with many others, fled the city. Thus, meeting no real resistance, the crusaders entered the capital and set their "Latin" nominee for Emperor on the throne, then turned around and headed for the Holy Lands at last—so far, this expedition could hardly be called a crusade, more a floating band of hitmen-for-hire—but now these Zara-siegers and Byzantine-kingmakers were at last on their way to becoming true crusaders and Moslem killers, for the moment anyway.
They had hardly left the harbor at Constantinople when their "Latin" pretender was murdered. After the news of his assassination reached them, the crusaders turned their ships around and headed back to secure the situation, if for nothing else, to fortify their supply lines. Their earlier treacheries would now come back to haunt the Byzantines. When the crusaders found the city bolted tight against them, the stage was set for a siege and the odds were strongly in the Byzantines' favor. In all the centuries since its founding by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, Constantinople had never succumbed to an assault from the outside.
But contrary to historical precedent, these crusading marauders who seemed determined to fight anyone but Moslems accomplished the seemingly impossible. At long last the heavens failed Byzantium and its capital city fell to siege for the first time ever, and not at the hands of Moslems or Vikings or Mongols—not that all of those hadn't at some point tried to take Constantinople—but to the descendants of the Byzantines' closest relatives, western Europeans, the other heirs of Rome. To put it another way, when Constantine's "New Rome" finally went down, the culprit was the original Rome.
The resulting Sack of Constantinople in 1204 CE lasted three days, though its tremors are still felt today. For one, the great library there was destroyed when the crusaders ransacked it, even stabling their horses inside—it's horrifying to think how much ancient learning and literature was lost in that catastrophe—it's almost certain the complete works of some ancient authors whose writings now exist only in tattered fragments, some entirely lost, were housed in this library once. Worse yet, the fire set in that dark year became a cataclysmic blaze two centuries later.
In 1453 CE, the Turks relit the flames of siege and took the city once and for all, exterminating Byzantium at long last. Thus, ironically, it was the Christian crusaders' siege of Constantinople that paved the way for the Moslems' eventual takeover of the entire area. Constantinople is now Istanbul, part of the Islamic world.
In besieging two cities—neither of which was Moslem at the time—the men of the Fourth Crusade clearly thought they had done enough. Feeling no particular need to proceed on to the Holy Lands, they returned to Europe with their spoils of conquest, and given that they had briefly re-united East and West, healing momentarily the schism in the Church, Innocent III had little choice but to forgive and "re-communicate" these crusaders. So, they paraded in triumph, bearing the plunder of the East: gold, relics and all sorts of memorabilia, though very few books of learning. In fact, remarkably little of any intellectual substance would come of the ransacked Byzantines. It was as if all Europe in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade was collectively wearing a souvenir t-shirt that read, "My uncle sacked Constantinople, and all I got was a big bronze horse."
The next wave of crusading came soon after the Fourth Crusade which, like the Third, had depleted little of Europe's material resources or manpower. A perceived success in hindsight, the siege of Constantinople reinvigorated Western Europeans' interest in religious warfare with the East. None of the subsequent crusades, however, resembled their immediate forebears much—certainly not in constituency or outcome—which should probably be counted as a blessing.
Called by Innocent III in 1208 CE, the so-called Albigensian Crusade took many years to complete. Moreover, it was directed not against the Moslem East but at lands inside Europe, a dramatic shift in focus for something dubbed a Crusade. The ostensible aim of this campaign was to rid southern France of the Albigensians, a heretical sect who refused to recognize the authority of the Church—shades of the Gnostics!—which makes it more of a "papal" war than a Crusade really, at least inasmuch as it promoted fighting inside Europe.
But the days when the Crusades had to be excused as an extension of the "Truce of God" were by then long past—the Crusades were now accepted for what they'd always really been, military missions launched against the Church's, or at least the Pope's enemies—even so, the rewards were still the same. Namely, one could still earn a place in heaven not only by fighting "infidels" but now also one's neighbors in Europe. This proved very attractive to many since it was much less risky to go on a Crusade close to home, as opposed to trekking hundreds of miles across hostile and sometimes barren lands to rescue Jerusalem from ungrateful heathens.
As evidence of just how hard it was to mount a foreign expedition, no western army had even come near the holy city since Richard shook lances with Saladin. Still, not even trying to head east seemed to many so far from the true spirit of crusading that Innocent's campaign against southern France was never numbered with the other Crusades. History and its own age agreed: this was not the "Fifth Crusade" but the "Albigensian Crusade," and that says it all.
What no Crusade since the Second had achieved, the mass exportation of European aggression and manpower outside the West, the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221 CE) at last accomplished. It killed thousands of disenfranchised Europe-born hotheads and bled off their pent-up hostility far away from their homeland, even though this expedition to the East was still not aimed squarely at the Holy Lands. Sent by sea to Egypt instead—after all, ocean travel had been good to the men of the Fourth Crusade—these benighted knights landed on the shores of the Nile just at the time of its annual flood. Trapped in high waters, they met a collective watery death at the hands of the natives there.
With this, the consequences of the ignorance which had embraced the West since the Fall of Rome were now fully apparent. For, if these crusaders had read their Herodotus, they would have known about the flooding of the Nile, but since virtually no one in Europe could read Greek, how could they have anticipated the perils they faced? The Fifth Crusade stands alone as one of the best arguments ever for the practical merits of studying history—and the value of a liberal education.
Like the Albigensian Crusade, the next European expedition to the East is not numbered either, this one also disqualified for being too far from the spirit of crusading. Dubbed Frederick's Crusade (1228-1229 CE) because its leader was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, it was neither called for nor sanctioned by the papacy but was, in fact, an attempt to forge peaceable relations with the Middle East. Even after Frederick managed to return Jerusalem to Christian control, the pope would not acknowledge it as a "Crusade"—if Innocent III had still been alive, he might have appreciated the emperor's ambassadorial finesse but Innocent had died by then—the problem was Frederick had achieved his objective not through force of war but by diplomacy, and negotiation was not the point of crusading, any more than promoting war within Europe was. Besides, Moslem forces retook Jerusalem soon thereafter, where it remained until very recently.
The last of these military expeditions are the Sixth and Seventh Crusades (1248 CE / 1270 CE). Each was led by Louis IX, the King of France, and both proved utter failures. Louis, in fact, died leading the latter and in neither came anywhere near the Holy Lands. These crusades did little more than ensure the King's journey to canonization—his trip to Saint Louis, so to speak.
So, when in 1291 CE the last Christian outpost in the Middle East, the port city of Acre, fell to Moslem forces, the Crusades were brought to an ignominious close. As a sign of this, at his great centennial Jubilee in 1300 CE, a celebration of Christianity's might and longevity, Pope Boniface VIII offered indulgence to Christian pilgrims if they would "crusade" to Rome, not Jerusalem. It was the papacy's veritable admission that crusading had failed, as if to say, "There's no point anymore in fighting for the Holy Lands."
The same door that closed the Crusades opened another path leading down one of the darkest stretches in European history. The series of self-destructive conflicts which erupted soon thereafter among the nations of Europe—the most notable of them was the Hundred Years' War between France and England—these combined with the Black Death made for dismal days. As it turned out, the Crusades were not, in fact, the main event but a warm-up for the real "dance of death," lying in wait and limbering its swollen loins.
As is so often true of history, the Crusades are more telling in their failures than their successes. Because of them, the credibility of the Pope as the agent of God on earth suffered irreparable damage in the Middle Ages, especially those Crusades that turned out not so well, which added up to virtually all of them in the long run. But even the ones that did succeed in some respect accomplished little real good over time.
For instance, laying the groundwork for the destruction of the Byzantine Empire can hardly be seen as a boon to Europe, if for no other reason than Byzantium no longer could serve as a buffer state against Moslem expansion to the west. That opened Eastern Europe to Turkish incursion, the consequences of which can still be seen in the recent interreligious conflicts that have ravaged the Balkan region. Ironically, then, the two parties which had instigated these grand experiments in foreign atrocity—the Byzantines and the papacy—suffered the most in the end.
In sum, by all reasonable standards none of the Crusades profited Europe much, certainly not in proportion to their cost. Only the First Crusade delivered any substantial and immediate gains. Moreover, the commercial progress, the extension of trade which might have followed in their wake, didn't, as if that would excuse the extermination of so many souls. Besides, even then only the Venetians in the wake of the Fourth Crusade managed to advance their mercantile interests in the East long term. But, on the whole, was the toppling of Constantinople a fair price for this small gain? Few would say so today.
Still, to be fair to the complexity of these military expeditions, they surely amounted to "more than a romantic bloody fiasco," as some historians claim, but if so, not much more. Yet there must be something to be learned from all this somehow. What that lesson that is, however, has not been determined so far. Until we decide what drove our ancestors to this mad exploit, how we became the enemy of our brethren in the East, we will find no safe path out of the morass of intolerance and animosity which characterizes Christian-Islamic relations in the modern world. No other aspect of life today makes it clearer that there can be no secure future as long as we continue to war over our past and what-really-happened back then.