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The Crusades

The World in 1050

In 1050, as Western Europe was just emerging from a period of isolation, many other civilizations were thriving elsewhere. The religion of Islam had given rise to a brilliant civilization that stretched from present-day Spain to India, and Muslim traders and scholars spread goods and ideas even farther.

India was a land of thriving cities where Hindu and Buddhist traditions flourished, and wealthy princes built stunning temples and palaces. In East Asia, under the Tang and Song dynasties, China’s culture flourished and influenced neighboring peoples. Meanwhile, the Soninke people of West Africa were building the great trading empire of Ghana.

Across the Atlantic, in Central America, the Maya had cleared rain forests and built cities with towering temples. In the Andes of South America, Native Americans were building a great empire. The civilizations of the Americas, however, remained apart from the contacts that were taking place among Africans, Europeans, and Asians.

Closer to Western Europe, the Byzantine empire—the former eastern Roman empire—was generally prosperous and united. In the 1050s, the Seljuk Turks invaded the Byzantine empire. The Turks had migrated from Central Asia into the Middle East, where they converted to Islam. By 1071, the Seljuks had overrun most Byzantine lands in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The Seljuks also extended their power over the Holy Land, that is, Jerusalem and other places in Palestine where Christians believe Jesus lived and preached. Other Muslim groups had controlled this region in the past, but invasions by the Seljuk Turks threatened the Byzantine empire. The conflict prevented Christian pilgrims from traveling to the Holy Land.

The Crusades

The Byzantine emperor Alexius I urgently asked Pope Urban II for Christian knights to help him fight the Muslim Turks. Although Roman popes and Byzantine emperors were longtime rivals, Urban agreed.

Called to War

At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Urban incited bishops and nobles to action. “From Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople comes a grievous report,” he began. “An accursed race . . . has violently invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by pillage and fire.” Urban then called for a crusade to free the Holy Land:

“Both knights and footmen, both rich and poor . . . [must] strive to help expel [the Seljuks] from our Christian lands before it is too late. . . . Christ commands it. Remission of sins will be granted for those going thither.”

—Fulcher of Chartres, Chronicle of the First Crusade

“God wills it!” roared the assembly. By 1096, thousands of knights were on their way to the Holy Land. As the crusading spirit swept through Western Europe, armies of ordinary men and women inspired by fiery preachers left for the Holy Land, too. Few returned. Religious zeal was not the only factor that motivated the crusaders. Many knights hoped to win wealth and land. Some crusaders sought to escape troubles at home. Others yearned for adventure.

The pope, too, had mixed motives. Urban hoped to increase his power in Europe and perhaps heal the schism, or split, between the Roman and Byzantine churches. In 1054, the two branches of Christianity had divided after disputes over beliefs and authority. Urban also hoped that the Crusades would set Christian knights to fighting Muslims instead of one another.

Fighting a Losing Battle

Only the First Crusade came close to achieving its goals. After a long and bloody campaign, Christian knights captured Jerusalem in 1099. They capped their victory with a massacre of Muslim and Jewish residents of the city.

The Crusades continued, off and on, for over 200 years. The crusaders divided their captured lands into four small states, called crusader states. The Muslims repeatedly sought to destroy these Christian states, prompting Europeans to launch new crusades. In 1187, Jerusalem fell to the Muslims. The victor was the able Muslim leader Salah al-Din, known to Europeans as Saladin. On the Third Crusade, Europeans failed to retake Jerusalem. After negotiations, though, Saladin did reopen the holy city to Christian pilgrims.

Europeans also mounted crusades against other Muslim lands, especially in North Africa. All ended in defeat. During the Fourth Crusade, the crusaders were diverted from fighting Muslims to fighting other Christians. After helping merchants from the northern Italian city of Venice defeat their Byzantine trade rivals in 1204, crusaders captured and looted Constantinople, the Byzantine capital.

Meanwhile, Muslim armies overran the crusader states. By 1291, they had captured the last Christian outpost, the port city of Acre. As in Jerusalem 200 years earlier, the victors massacred their enemies. This time, the victims were Christians.

The Impact of the Crusades

The Crusades left a bitter legacy of religious hatred. In the Middle East, both Christians and Muslims committed appalling atrocities in the name of religion. In Europe, crusaders sometimes turned their religious fury against Jews, massacring entire communities.

The crusaders arrived in the Middle East at a time when various Muslim regimes were struggling among themselves for control of the region. These groups rallied together to fight the invaders, and, under Saladin, began to reunify the region from Egypt to Syria.

Though the crusaders failed to keep control of the Holy Land, the Crusades did have significant effects on life in Europe. These wars helped to quicken the pace of changes that were already underway.

By 1187, the Muslim leader Saladin had retaken Jerusalem from the Christian crusaders. King Richard I tried to persuade Saladin to return the city to the Christians. Saladin refused, saying:

“To us Jerusalem is as precious . . . as it is to you, because it is the place from where our Prophet [Muhammad] made his journey by night to heaven. . . . Do not dream that we will give it up to you.”

However, because he recognized how important it was to Christians to be able to visit the sacred sites of their religion, Saladin did reopen Jerusalem to Christian pilgrims.

European Economies Expand

Even before the Crusades, Europeans had developed a taste for luxuries from the Byzantine empire. Returning crusaders brought even more fabrics, spices, and perfumes from the Middle East back to Europe. Trade increased and expanded.

Merchants in Venice and other northern Italian cities had built large fleets to carry crusaders to the Holy Land. Now they used those fleets to carry on trade in such goods as sugar, cotton, and rice with the Middle East.

The Crusades further encouraged the growth of a money economy. To finance a journey to the Holy Land, nobles needed money. They therefore allowed peasants to pay rents in money rather than in grain or labor. Peasants began to sell their goods in towns to earn money, a practice that helped to undermine serfdom.

Effects on Monarchs and the Church

The Crusades helped to increase the power of monarchs. These rulers won new rights to collect taxes in order to support the Crusades. Some rulers, such as the French king Louis IX and the English king Richard I, called the Lion-Heart, led Crusades, which added greatly to their prestige.

Enthusiasm for the Crusades brought papal power to its greatest height. This period of enhanced prestige was short-lived, however. As you have read, popes were soon involved in bitter power struggles with monarchs. Also, the Crusades did not end the split between the Roman and Byzantine churches as Pope Urban had hoped. Instead, Byzantine resentment against the West hardened as a result of the Fourth Crusade, during which crusaders had conquered and looted Constantinople.

A Wider Worldview Evolves

Contacts with the Muslim world led Christians to realize that millions of people lived in regions they had never even known existed. Soon, a few curious Europeans had left to explore far-off places such as India and China.

In 1271, a young Venetian, Marco Polo, set out for China with his merchant father and uncle. After many years in China, he returned to Venice and wrote a book about the wonders of Chinese civilization. Doubting Europeans wondered if he had really gone to China. To them, his tales of a government-run mail service and black stones (coal) that were burned to heat homes were unbelievable.

The experiences of crusaders and of travelers like Marco Polo expanded European horizons. They brought Europe into a wider world from which it had been cut off since the fall of Rome. In the 1400s, a desire to trade directly with India and China would lead Europeans to a new age of exploration.

The Reconquista

The crusading spirit continued after the European defeat at Acre, especially in the Iberian peninsula. North African Muslims, called Moors, had conquered most of present-day Spain in the 700s. However, several tiny Christian kingdoms in the north slowly expanded their borders and sought to take over Muslim lands. Their campaign to drive Muslims from the peninsula became known as the Reconquista, or “reconquest.”

Christians Conquer Spain

The first real success of these Christian warriors came in 1085, when they captured the city of Toledo. During the next 200 years, Christian forces pushed slowly and steadily southward. By 1140, the Christian kingdom of Portugal had been established, and by 1300, Christians controlled the entire Iberian Peninsula except for Granada. Muslim influences remained strong, though, and helped shape the arts and literature of Christian Spain. In 1469, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile created the unified state called Spain. Using their combined forces, Ferdinand and Isabella made a final push against the Muslim stronghold of Granada. In 1492, Granada fell. The Reconquista was complete.

Spain Expels Non-Christians

Ferdinand and Isabella wanted to impose unity on their diverse peoples. Isabella was determined to bring religious as well as political unity to Spain. Under Muslim rule, Spanish Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative peace, allowed to worship as they chose. Isabella ended that tolerance. With the support of the Inquisition, a Church court set up to try people accused of heresy, Isabella launched a brutal crusade. Jews and Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity could be tried by the Inquisition. If found guilty, of practicing their religions they could be turned over to the secular authorities for punishment. Many who refused to conform to Church teachings were burned at the stake.

The queen achieved religious unity, but at a high price. More than 150,000 people—mostly Muslims and Jews—fled Spain. Many of these exiles were skilled, educated people who had contributed much to Spain’s economy and culture.


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