The Crusades – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
The Crusades the great external event of the Middle Ages
A semi-religious and semi-military movement
What gives interest to wars?
Wars the exponents of prevailing ideas
The overruling of all wars
The majesty of Providence seen in war
Origin of the Crusades
Pilgrimages to Jerusalem
Miseries and insults of the pilgrims
Intense hatred of Mohammedanism
Peter of Amiens
Council of Clermont
The First Crusade
Its miseries and mistakes
The Second Crusade
The Third Crusade
The Fourth, Children’s, Fifth, and Sixth Crusades
The Seventh Crusade
All alike unsuccessful, and wasteful of life and energies
Peculiarities and immense mistakes of the Crusaders
The moral evils of the Crusades
Ultimate results of the Crusades
Barrier made against Mohammedan conquests
Political necessity of the Crusades
Their effect in weakening the Feudal system
Effect of the Crusades on the growth of cities
On commerce and art and literature
They scatter the germs of a new civilization
They centralize power
They ultimately elevate the European races

The Crusades

A.D. 1095-1272.

The great external event of the Middle Ages was the Crusades,–indeed, they were the only common enterprise in which Europe ever engaged. Such an event ought to be very interesting, since it has reference to conflicting passions and interests. Unfortunately, in a literary point of view, there is no central figure in the great drama which the princes of Europe played for two hundred years, and hence the Crusades have but little dramatic interest. No one man represents that mighty movement. It was a great wave of inundation, flooding Asia with the unemployed forces of Europe, animated by passions which excite our admiration, our pity, and our reprobation. They are chiefly interesting for their results, and results which were unforeseen. A philosopher sees in them the hand of Providence,–the overruling of mortal wrath to the praise of Him who governs the universe. I know of no great movement of blind forces so pregnant with mighty consequences.

The Crusades were a semi-religious and a semi-military movement. They represent the passions and ideas of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,–its chivalry, its hatred of Mohammedanism, and its desire to possess the spots consecrated by the sufferings of our Lord. Their long continuance shows the intensity of the sentiments which animated them. They were aggressive wars, alike fierce and unfortunate, absorbing to the nations that embarked in them, but of no interest to us apart from the moral lessons to be drawn from them. Perhaps one reason why history is so dull to most people is that the greater part of it is a record of battles and sieges, of military heroes and conquerors. This is pre-eminently true of Greece, of Rome, of the Middle Ages, and of our modern times down to the nineteenth century. But such chronicles of everlasting battles and sieges do not satisfy this generation. Hence our more recent historians, wishing to avoid the monotony of ordinary history, have attempted to explore the common life of the people, and to bring out their manners and habits: they would succeed in making history more interesting if the materials, at present, were not so scanty and unsatisfactory.

The only way to make the history of wars interesting is to go back to the ideas, passions, and interests which they represent. Then we penetrate to the heart of history, and feel its life. For all the great wars of the world, we shall see, are exponents of its great moving spiritual forces. The wars of Cyrus and Alexander represent the passion of military glory; those of Marius, Sylla, Pompey, and Caesar, the desire of political aggrandizement; those of Constantine and Theodosius, the desire for political unity and the necessity of self-defence. The sweeping and desolating inundations of the barbarians, from the third to the sixth century, represent the poverty of those rude nations, and their desire to obtain settlements more favorable to getting a living. The conquests of Mohammed and his successors were made to swell the number of converts of a new religion. The perpetual strife of the baronial lords was to increase their domains. The wars of Charlemagne and Charles V. were to revive the imperialism of the Caesars,–to create new universal monarchies. The wars which grew out of the Reformation were to preserve or secure religious liberty; those which followed were to maintain the balance of power. Those of Napoleon were at first, at least nominally, to spread or defend the ideas of the French Revolution, until he became infatuated with the love of military glory. Our first great war was to secure national independence, and our second to preserve national unity. The contest between Prussia and France was to prevent the ascendency of either of those great States. The wars of the English in India were to find markets for English goods, employment for the sons of the higher classes, and a new field for colonization and political power. So all the great passions and interests which have moved mankind have found their vent in war,–rough barbaric spoliations, love of glory and political aggrandizement, desire to spread religious ideas, love of liberty, greediness for wealth, unity of nations, jealousy of other powers, even the desire to secure general peace and tranquillity. Most wars have had in view the attainment of great ends, and it is in the ultimate results of them that we see the progress of nations.

Thus wars, contemplated in a philosophical aspect, in spite of their repulsiveness are invested with dignity, and really indicate great moral and intellectual movements, as well as the personal ambition or vanity of conquerors. They are the ultimate solutions of great questions, not to be solved in any other way,–unfortunately, I grant,–on account of human wickedness. And I know of no great wars, much as I loathe and detest them, and severely and justly as they may be reprobated, which have not been overruled for the ultimate welfare of society. The wars of Alexander led to the introduction of Grecian civilization into Asia and Egypt; those of the Romans, to the pacification of the world and the reign of law and order; those of barbarians, to the colonization of the worn-out provinces of the Roman Empire by hardier and more energetic nations; those of Charlemagne, to the ultimate suppression of barbaric invasions; those of the Saracens, to the acknowledgment of One God; those of Charles V., to the recognized necessity of a balance of power; those which grew out of the Reformation, to religious liberty. The Huguenots’ contest undermined the ascendency of Roman priests in France; the Seven Years’ War developed the naval power of England, and gave to her a prominent place among the nations, and exposed the weakness of Austria, so long the terror of Europe; the wars of Louis XIV. sowed the seeds of the French Revolution; those of Napoleon vindicated its great ideas; those of England in India introduced the civilization of a Christian nation; those of the Americans secured liberty and the unity of their vast nation. The majesty of the Governor of the universe is seen in nothing more impressively than in the direction which the wrath of man is made to take.

Now these remarks apply to the Crusades. They represent prevailing ideas. Their origin was a universal hatred of Mohammedans. Like all the institutions of the Middle Ages, they were a great contradiction,–debasement in glory, and glory in debasement. With all the fierceness and superstition and intolerance of feudal barons, we see in the Crusades the exercise of gallantry, personal heroism, tenderness, Christian courtesy,–the virtues of chivalry, unselfishness, and magnanimity; but they ended in giving a new impulse to civilization, which will be more minutely pointed out before I close my lecture.

Thus the Crusades are really worthy to be chronicled by historians above anything else which took place in the Middle Ages, since they gave birth to mighty agencies, which still are vital forces in society,–even as everything in American history pales before that awful war which arrayed, in our times, the North against the South in desperate and deadly contest; the history of which remains to be written, but cannot be written till the animosities which provoked it have passed away. What a small matter to future historians is rapid colonization and development of material resources, in comparison with the sentiments which provoked that war! What will future philosophers care how many bushels of wheat are raised in Minnesota, or car-loads of corn brought from Illinois, or hogs slaughtered in Chicago, or yards of cloth woven in Lowell, or cases of goods packed in New York, or bales of carpets manufactured in Philadelphia, or pounds of cotton exported from New Orleans, or meetings of railway presidents at Cincinnati to pool the profits of their monopolies, or women’s-rights conventions held in Boston, or schemes of speculators ventilated in the lobbies of Washington, or stock-jobbing and gambling operations take place in every large city of the country,–compared with the mighty marshalling of forces on the banks of the Potomac, at the call of patriotism, to preserve the life of the republic? You cannot divest war of dignity and interest when the grandest results, which affect the permanent welfare of nations, are made to appear.

The Crusades, as they were historically developed, are mixed up with the religious ideas of the Middle Ages, with the domination of popes, with the feudal system, with chivalry, with monastic life, with the central power of kings, with the birth of mercantile States, with the fears and interests of England, France, Germany, and Italy, for two hundred years,–yea, with the architecture, commerce, geographical science, and all the arts then known. All these principalities and powers and institutions and enterprises were affected by them, so that at their termination a new era in civilization began. Grasp the Crusades, and you comprehend one of the forces which undermined the institutions of the Middle Ages.

It is not a little remarkable that the earliest cause of the Crusades, so far as I am able to trace, was the adoption by the European nations of some of the principles of Eastern theogonies which pertained to self-expiation. An Asiatic theological idea prepared the way for the war between Europe and Asia. The European pietist embraced the religious tenets of the Asiatic monk, which centred in the propitiation of the Deity by works of penance. One of the approved and popular forms of penance was a pilgrimage to sacred places,–seen equally among degenerate Christian sects in Asia Minor, and among the Mohammedans of Arabia. What place so sacred as Jerusalem, the scene of the passion and resurrection of our Lord? Ever since the Empress Helena had built a church at Jerusalem, it had been thronged with pious pilgrims. A pilgrimage to old Jerusalem would open the doors of the New Jerusalem, whose streets were of gold, and whose palaces were of pearls.

Crusaders Entering Constantinople, From the painting by Eugène Delacroix

Crusaders Entering Constantinople, From the painting by Eugène Delacroix

At the close of the tenth century there was great suffering in Europe, bordering on despair. The calamities of ordinary life were so great that the end of the world seemed to be at hand. Universal fear of impending divine wrath seized the minds of men. A great religious awakening took place, especially in England, France, and Germany. In accordance with the sentiments of the age, there was every form of penance to avert the anger of God and escape the flames of hell. The most popular form of penance was the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, long and painful as it was. Could the pilgrim but reach that consecrated spot, he was willing to die. The village pastor delivered the staff into his hands, girded him with a scarf, and attached to it a leathern scrip. Friends and neighbors accompanied him a little way on his toilsome journey, which lay across the Alps, through the plains of Lombardy, over Illyria and Pannonia, along the banks of the Danube, by Moesia and Dacia, to Belgrade and Constantinople, and then across the Bosphorus, through Bithynia, Cilicia, and Syria, until the towers and walls of Tyre, Ptolemais, and Caesarea proclaimed that he was at length in the Holy Land. Barons and common people swell the number of these pilgrims. The haughty knight, who has committed unpunished murders, and the pensive saint, wrapt in religious ecstasies, rival each other in humility and zeal. Those who have no money sell their lands. Those who have no lands to sell throw themselves on Providence, and beg their way for fifteen hundred miles among strangers. The roads are filled with these travellers,–on foot, in rags, fainting from hunger and fatigue. What sufferings, to purchase the favor of God, or to realize the attainment of pious curiosity! The heart almost bleeds to think that our ancestors could ever have been so visionary and misguided; that such a gloomy view of divine forgiveness should have permeated the Middle Ages.

But the sorrows of the pious pilgrims did not end when they reached the Holy Land. Jerusalem was then in the hands of the Turks and Saracens (or Orientals, a general name given to the Arabian Mohammedans), who exacted two pieces of gold from every pilgrim as the price of entering Jerusalem, and moreover reviled and maltreated him. The Holy Sepulchre could be approached only on the condition of defiling it.

The reports of these atrocities and cruelties at last reached the Europeans, filling them with sympathy for the sufferers and indignation for the persecutors. An intense hatred of Mohammedans was generated and became universal,–a desire for vengeance, unparalleled in history. Popes and bishops weep; barons and princes swear. Every convent and every castle in Europe is animated with deadly resentment. Rage, indignation, and vengeance are the passions of the hour,–all concentrated on “the infidels,” which term was the bitterest reproach that each party could inflict on the other. An infidel was accursed of God, and was consigned to human wrath. And the Mohammedans had the same hatred of Christians that Christians had of Mohammedans. In the eyes of each their enemies were infidels; and they were enemies because they were regarded as infidels.

Such a state of feeling in both Europe and Asia could not but produce an outbreak,–a spark only was needed to kindle a conflagration. That spark was kindled when Peter of Amiens, a returned hermit, aroused the martial nations to a bloody war on these enemies of God and man. He was a mean-looking man, with neglected beard and disordered dress. He had no genius, nor learning, nor political position. He was a mere fanatic, fierce, furious with ungovernable rage. But he impersonated the leading idea of the age,–hatred of “the infidels,” as the Mohammedans were called. And therefore his voice was heard. The Pope used him as a tool. Two centuries later he could not have made himself a passing wonder. But he is the means of stirring up the indignation of Europe into a blazing flame. He itinerates France and Italy, exposing the wrongs of the Christians and the cruelties of the Saracens,–the obstruction placed in the way of salvation. At length a council is assembled at Clermont, and the Pope–Urban II.–presides, and urges on the sacred war. In the year 1095 the Pope, in his sacred robes, and in the presence of four hundred bishops and abbots, ascends the pulpit erected in the market-place, and tells the immense multitude how their faith is trodden in the dust; how the sacred relics are desecrated; and appeals alike to chivalry and religion. More than this, he does just what Mohammed did when he urged his followers to take the sword: he announces, in fiery language, the fullest indulgence to all who take part in the expedition,–that all their sins shall be forgiven, and that heaven shall be opened to them. “It is the voice of God,” they cry; “we will hasten to the deliverance of the sacred city!” Every man stimulates the passions of his neighbor. All vie in their contributions. The knights especially are enthusiastic, for they can continue their accustomed life without penance, and yet obtain the forgiveness of their sins. Religious fears are turned at first into the channel of penance; and penance is made easy by the indulgence of the martial passions. Every recruit wore a red cross, and was called croisé,–cross-bearer; whence the name of the holy war.

Thus the Crusades began, at the close of the eleventh century, when William Rufus was King of England, when Henry IV. was still Emperor of Germany, when Anselm was reigning at Canterbury as spiritual head of the English Church, ten years after the great Hildebrand had closed his turbulent pontificate.

I need not detail the history of this first Crusade. Of the two hundred thousand who set out with Peter the Hermit,–this fiery fanatic, with no practical abilities,–only twenty thousand succeeded in reaching even Constantinople. The rest miserably perished by the way,–a most disorderly rabble. And nothing illustrates the darkness of the age more impressively than that a mere monk should have been allowed to lead two hundred thousand armed men on an enterprise of such difficulty. How little the science of war was comprehended! And even of the five hundred thousand men under Godfrey, Tancred, Bohemond, and other great feudal princes,–men of rare personal valor and courage; men who led the flower of the European chivalry,—only twenty-five thousand remained after the conquest of Jerusalem. The glorious array of a hundred and fifty thousand horsemen, in full armor, was a miserable failure. The lauded warriors of feudal Europe effected almost nothing. Tasso attempted to immortalize their deeds; but how insignificant they were, compared with even Homer’s heroes! A modern army of twenty-five thousand men could not only have put the whole five hundred thousand to rout in an hour, but could have delivered Palestine in a few months. Even one of the standing armies of the sixteenth century, under such a general as Henry IV. or the Duke of Guise, could have effected more than all the crusaders of two hundred years. The crusaders numbered many heroes, but scarcely a single general. There was no military discipline among them: they knew nothing of tactics or strategy; they fought pell-mell in groups, as in the contests of barons among themselves. Individually they were gallant and brave, and performed prodigies of valor with their swords and battle-axes; but there was no direction given to their strength by leaders.

The Second Crusade, preached half a century afterwards by Saint Bernard, and commanded by an Emperor of Germany and a King of France, proved equally unfortunate. Not a single trophy consoled Europe for the additional loss of two hundred thousand men. The army melted away in foolish sieges, for which the crusaders had no genius or proper means.

The Third Crusade, and the most famous, which began in the year 1189, of which Philip Augustus of France, Richard Coeur de Lion of England, and Frederic Barbarossa of Germany were the leaders,–the three greatest monarchs of their age,–was also signally unsuccessful. Feudal armies seem to have learned nothing in one hundred years of foreign warfare; or else they had greater difficulties to contend with, abler generals to meet, than they dreamed of, who reaped the real advantages,–like Saladin. Sir Walter Scott, in his “Ivanhoe,” has not probably exaggerated the military prowess of the heroes of this war, or the valor of Templars and Hospitallers; yet the finest array of feudal forces in the Middle Ages, from which so much was expected, wasted its strength and committed innumerable mistakes. It proved how useless was a feudal army for a distant and foreign war. Philip may have been wily, and Richard lion-hearted, but neither had the generalship of Saladin. Though they triumphed at Tiberias, at Jaffa, at Caesarea; though prodigies of valor were performed; though Ptolemais (or Acre), the strongest city of the East, was taken,–yet no great military results followed. More blood was shed at this famous siege, which lasted three years, than ought to have sufficed for the subjugation of Asia. There were no decisive battles, and yet one hundred battles took place under its walls. Slaughter effected nothing. Jerusalem, which had been retaken by the Saracens, still remained in their hands, and never afterwards was conquered by the Europeans. The leaders returned dejected to their kingdoms, and the bones of their followers whitened the soil of Palestine.

The Fourth Crusade, incited by Pope Innocent III., three years after, terminated with divisions among the States of Christendom, without weakening the power of the Saracens (1202-4).

Among other expeditions was one called the “Children’s Crusade” (1212), a wretched, fanatical misery, resulting in the enslavement of many and the death of thousands by shipwreck and exposure.

The Fifth Crusade, commanded by the Emperor Frederic II. of Germany (1228-9), was diverted altogether from the main object, and spent its force on Constantinople. That city was taken, but the Holy Land was not delivered. The Byzantine Empire was then in the last stages of decrepitude, or its capital would not have fallen, as it did, from a naval attack made by the Venetians, and in revenge for the treacheries and injuries of the Greek emperors to former crusaders. This, instead of weakening the Mussulmans, broke down the chief obstacle to their entrance into Europe shortly afterward.

The Sixth Crusade (1248-50) only secured the capture of Damietta, on the banks of the Nile.

The Seventh and last of these miserable wars was the most unfortunate of all, A.D. 1270. The saintly monarch of France perished, with most of his forces, on the coast of Africa, and the ruins of Carthage were the only conquest which was made. Europe now fairly sickened over the losses and misfortunes and defeats of nearly two centuries, during which five millions are supposed to have lost their lives. Famine and pestilence destroyed more than the sword. Before disheartened Europe could again rally, the last strongholds of the Christians were wrested away by the Mohammedans; and their gallant but unsuccessful defenders were treated with every inhumanity, and barbarously murdered in spite of truces and treaties.

Such were the famous Crusades, only the main facts of which I allude to; for to describe them all, or even the more notable incidents, would fill volumes,–all interesting to be read in detail by those who have leisure; all marked by prodigious personal valor; all disgraceful for the want of unity of action and the absence of real generalship. They indicate the enormous waste of forces which characterizes nations in their progress. This waste of energies is one of the great facts of all history, surpassed only by the apparent waste of the forces of nature or the fruits of the earth, in the transition period between the time when men roamed in forests and the time when they cultivated the land. See what a vast destruction there has been of animals by each other; what a waste of plants and vegetables, when they could not be utilized. Why should man escape the universal waste, when reason is ignored or misdirected? Of what use or value could Palestine have been to Europeans in the Middle Ages? Of what use can any country be to conquerors, when it cannot be civilized or made to contribute to their wants? Europe then had no need of Asia, and that perhaps is the reason why Europe then could not conquer Asia. Providence interfered, and rebuked the mad passions which animated the invaders, and swept them all away. Were Palestine really needed by Europe, it could be wrested from the Turks with less effort than was made by the feeblest of the crusaders. Constantinople–the most magnificent site for a central power–was indeed wrested from the Greek emperors, and kept one hundred years; but the Europeans did not know what to do with the splendid prize, and it was given to the Turks, who made it the capital of a vital empire. All the good which resulted to Europe from the temporary possession of Constantinople was the introduction into Europe of Grecian literature and art. Its political and mercantile importance was not appreciated, nor then even scarcely needed. It will one day become again the spoil of that nation which can most be benefited by it. Such is the course events are made to take.

In this brief notice of the most unsuccessful wars in which Europe ever engaged we cannot help noticing their great mistakes. We see rashness, self-confidence, depreciation of enemies, want of foresight, ignorance of the difficulties to be surmounted. The crusaders were diverted from their main object, and wasted their forces in attacking unimportant cities, or fortresses out of their way. They invaded the islands of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Africa, and Greek possessions. They quarrelled with their friends, and they quarrelled with each other. The chieftains sought their individual advantage rather than the general good. Nor did they provide themselves with the necessities for such distant operations. They had no commissariat,–without which even a modern army fails. They were captivated by trifles and frivolities, rather than directing their strength to the end in view. They allowed themselves to be seduced by both Greek and infidel arts and vices. They were betrayed into the most foolish courses. They had no proper knowledge of the forces with which they were to contend. They wantonly massacred their foes when they fell into their hands, increased the animosity of the Mohammedans, and united them in a concert which they should themselves have sought. They marched by land when they should have sailed by sea, and they sailed by sea when they should have marched by land. They intrusted the command to monks and inexperienced leaders. They obeyed the mandates of apostolic vicars when they should have considered military necessities. In fact there was no unity of action, and scarcely unity of end. What would the great masters of Grecian and Roman warfare have thought of these blunders and stupidities, to say nothing of modern generals! The conduct of those wars excites our contempt, in spite of the heroism of individual knights. We despise the incapacity of leaders as much as we abhor the fanaticism which animated their labors. The Crusades have no bright side, apart from the piety and valor of some who embarked in them. Hence they are less and less interesting to modern readers. The romance about them has ceased to affect us. We only see mistakes and follies; and who cares to dwell on the infirmities of human nature? It is only what is great in man that moves and exalts us. There is nothing we dwell upon with pleasure in these aggressive, useless, unjustifiable wars, except the chivalry associated with them. The reason of modern times as sternly rebukes them as the heart of the Middle Ages sickened at them.

In one aspect they are absolutely repulsive; and this in view of their vices. The crusaders were cruel. They wantonly massacred their enemies, even when defenceless. Sixty thousand people were butchered on the fall of Jerusalem; ten thousand were slaughtered in the Mosque of Omar. The Christians themselves felt safe when they sought the retreat of churches, in dire calamities at home; but they had no respect for the religious retreats of infidels. When any city fell into their hands there was wholesale assassination. And they became licentious, as well as rapacious and cruel. They learned all the vices of the East. Even under the walls of Acre they sang to the sounds of Arabian instruments, and danced amid indecent songs. When they took Constantinople they had no respect for either churches or tombs, and desecrated even the pulpit of the Patriarch. Their original religious zeal was finally lost sight of entirely in their military license. They became more hateful to the orthodox Greeks than to the infidel Saracens. And when the crusaders returned to their homes,–what few of them lived to return,–they morally poisoned the communities and villages in which they dwelt. They became vagabonds and vagrants; they introduced demoralizing amusements, and jugglers and strolling players appeared for the first time in Europe. All war is necessarily demoralizing, even war in defence of glorious principles, and especially in these times, but much more so is unjust, fanatical, and unnecessary war.

But I turn from the record of the mistakes, follies, vices, miseries, and crimes which marked the wickedest and most uncalled-for wars of European history, to consider their ultimate results: not logical results, for these were melancholy,–the depopulation of Europe; the decimation of the nobility; the poverty which enormous drains of money from their natural channels produced; the spread of vice; the decline of even feudal virtues. These evils and others followed naturally and inevitably from those distant wars. The immediate effects of all war are evil and melancholy. Murder, pillage, profanity, drunkenness, extravagance, public distress, bitter sorrows, wasted energies, destruction of property, national debts, exaltation of military maxims, general looseness of life, distaste for regular pursuits,–these are the first-fruits of war, offensive and defensive, and as inevitable and uniform as the laws of gravity. No wars were ever more disastrous than the Crusades in their immediate effects, in any way they may be viewed. It is all one dark view of disappointment, sorrow, wretchedness, and sin. There were no bright spots; no gains, only calamities. Nothing consoled Europe for the loss of five millions of her most able-bodied men,–no increase of territory, no establishment of rights, no glory, even; nothing but disgrace and ruin, as in that maddest of all modern expeditions, the invasion of Russia by Napoleon.

But after the lapse of nearly seven hundred years we can see important results on the civilization of Europe, indirectly effected,–not intended, nor designed, nor dreamed of; which results we consider beneficent, and so beneficent that the world is probably better for those horrid wars. It was fortunate to humanity at large that they occurred, although so unfortunate to Europe at the time. In the end, Europe was a gainer by them. Wickedness was not the seed of virtue, but wickedness was overruled. Woe to them by whom offences come, but it must need be that offences come. Men in their depravity will commit crimes, and those crimes are punished; but even these are made to praise a Power superior to that of devils, as benevolent as it is omnipotent,–in which fact I see the utter hopelessness of earth without a superintending and controlling Deity.

One important result of the Crusades was the barrier they erected to the conquests of the Mohammedans in Europe. It is true that the wave of Saracenic invasion had been arrested by Charles Martel four or five hundred years before; but in the mean time a new Mohammedan power sprang up, of greater vigor, of equal ferocity, and of a more stubborn fanaticism. This was that of the Turks, who had their eye on Constantinople and all Eastern Europe. And Europe might have submitted to their domination, had they instead of the Latins taken Constantinople. The conquest of that city was averted several hundred years; and when at last it fell into Turkish hands, Christendom was strong enough to resist the Turkish armies. We must remember that the Turks were a great power, even in the times of Peter the Great, and would have taken Vienna but for John Sobieski. But when Urban II., at the Council of Clermont, urged the nations of Europe to repel the infidels on the confines of Asia, rather than wait for them in the heart of Europe, the Asiatic provinces of the Greek Empire were overrun both by Turks and Saracens. They held Syria, Armenia, Asia Minor, Africa, Spain, and the Balearic Islands. Had not Godfrey come to the assistance of a division of the Christian army, when it was surrounded by two hundred thousand Turks at the battle of Dorylaeum, the Christians would have been utterly overwhelmed, and the Turks would have pressed to the Hellespont. But they were beaten back into Syria, and, for a time, as far as the line of the Euphrates. But for that timely repulse, the battles of Belgrade and Lepanto might not have been fought in subsequent ages. It would have been an overwhelming calamity had the Turks invaded Europe in the twelfth century. The loss of five millions on the plains of Asia would have been nothing in comparison to an invasion of Europe by the Mohammedans,–whether Saracens or Turks. It may be that the chivalry of Europe would have successfully repelled an invasion, as the Saracens repelled the Christians, on their soil. It may be that Asia could not have conquered Europe any easier than Europe could conquer Asia.

I do not know how far statesmanlike views entered into the minds of the leaders of the Crusades. I believe the sentiment which animated Peter and Urban and Bernard was pure hatred of the Mohammedans (because they robbed, insulted, and oppressed the pilgrims), and not any controlling fears of their invasion of Europe. If such a fear had influenced them, they would not have permitted a mere rabble to invade Asia; there would have been a sense of danger stronger than that of hatred,–which does not seem to have existed in the self-confidence of the crusaders. They thought it an easy thing to capture Jerusalem: it was a sort of holiday march of the chivalry of Europe, under Richard and Philip Augustus. Perhaps, however, the princes of Europe were governed by political rather than religious reasons. Some few long-headed statesmen, if such there were among the best informed of bishops and abbots, may have felt the necessity of the conflict in a political sense; but I do not believe this was a general conviction. There was, doubtless, a political necessity–although men were too fanatical to see more than one side–to crush the Saracens because they were infidels, and not because they were warriors. But whether they saw it or not, or armed themselves to resist a danger as well as to exterminate heresy, the ultimate effects were all the same. The crusaders failed in their direct end. They did not recover Palestine; but they so weakened or diverted the Mohammedan armies that there was not strength enough left in them to conquer Europe, or even to invade her, until she was better prepared to resist it,–as she did at the battle of Lepanto (A.D. 1571), one of the decisive battles of the world.

I have said that the Crusades were a disastrous failure. I mean in their immediate ends, not in ultimate results. If it is probable that they arrested the conquests of the Turks in Europe, then this blind and fanatical movement effected the greatest blessing to Christendom. It almost seems that the Christians were hurled into the Crusades by an irresistible fate, to secure a great ultimate good; or, to use Christian language, were sent as blind instruments by the Almighty to avert a danger they could not see. And if this be true, the inference is logical and irresistible that God uses even the wicked passions of men to effect his purposes,–as when the envy of Haman led to the elevation of Mordecai, and to the deliverance of the Jews from one of their greatest dangers.

Another and still more noticeable result of the Crusades was the weakening of the power of those very barons who embarked in the wars. Their fanaticism recoiled upon themselves, and undermined their own system. Nothing could have happened more effectually to loosen the rigors of the feudal system. It was the baron and the knight that marched to Palestine who suffered most in the curtailment of the privileges which they had abused,–even as it was the Southern planter of Carolina who lost the most heavily in the war which he provoked to defend his slave property. In both cases the fetters of the serfs and slaves were broken by their own masters,–not intentionally, of course, but really and effectually. How blind men are in their injustices! They are made to hang on the gallows which they have erected for others. To gratify his passion of punishing the infidels, whom he so intensely hated, the baron or prince was obliged to grant great concessions to the towns and villages which he ruled with an iron hand, in order to raise money for his equipment and his journey. He was not paid by Government as are modern soldiers and officers. He had to pay his own expenses, and they were heavier than he had expected or provided for. Sometimes he was taken captive, and had his ransom to raise,–to pay for in hard cash, and not in land: as in the case of Richard of England, when, on his return from Palestine, he was imprisoned in Austria,–and it took to ransom him, as some have estimated, one third of all the gold and silver of the realm, chiefly furnished by the clergy. But where was the imprisoned baron to get the money for his ransom? Not from the Jews, for their compound interest of fifty per cent every six months would have ruined him in less than two years. But the village guilds had money laid by. Merchants and mechanics in the towns, whom he despised, had money. Monasteries had money. He therefore gave new privileges to all; he gave charters of freedom to towns; he made concessions to the peasantry.

As the result of this, when the baron came back from the wars, he found himself much poorer than when he went away,–he found his lands encumbered, his castle dilapidated, and his cattle sold. In short, he was, as we say of a proud merchant now and then, “embarrassed in his circumstances.” He was obliged to economize. But the feudal family would not hear of retrenchment, and the baron himself had become more extravagant in his habits. As travel and commerce had increased he had new wants, which he could not gratify without parting with either lands or prerogatives. As the result of all this he became not quite so overbearing, though perhaps more sullen; for he saw men rising about him who were as rich as he,–men whom his ancestors had despised. The artisans, who belonged to the leading guilds, which had become enriched by the necessities of barons, or by that strange activity of trade and manufactures which war seems to stimulate as well as to destroy,–these rude and ignorant people were not so servile as formerly, but began to feel a sort of importance, especially in towns and cities, which multiplied wonderfully during the Crusades. In other words, they were no longer brutes, to be trodden down without murmur or resistance. They began to form what we call a “middle class.” Feudalism, in its proud ages, did not recognize a middle class. The impoverishment of nobles by the Crusades laid the foundation of this middle class, at least in large towns.

The growth of cities and the decay of feudalism went on simultaneously; and both were equally the result of the Crusades. If the noble became impoverished, the merchant became enriched; and the merchant lived, not in the country, but in some mercantile mart. The crusaders had need of ships. These were furnished by those cities which had obtained from feudal sovereigns charters of freedom. Florence, Pisa, Venice, Genoa, Marseilles, became centres of wealth and political importance. The growth of cities and the extension of commerce went hand in hand. Whatever the Crusades did for cities they did equally for commerce; and with the needs of commerce came improvement in naval architecture. As commerce grew, the ships increased in size and convenience; and the products which the ships brought from Asia to Europe were not only introduced, but they were cultivated. New fruits and vegetables were raised by European husbandmen. Plum-trees were brought from Damascus and sugar-cane from Tripoli. Silk fabrics, formerly confined to Constantinople and the East, were woven in Italian and French villages. The Venetians obtained from Tyrians the art of making glass. The Greek fire suggested gunpowder. Architecture received an immense impulse: the churches became less sombre and heavy, and more graceful and beautiful. Even the idea of the arch, some think, came from the East. The domes and minarets of Venice were borrowed from Constantinople. The ornaments of Byzantine churches and palaces were brought to Europe. The horses of Lysippus, carried from Greece to Rome, and from Rome to Constantinople, at last surmounted the palace of the Doges. Houses became more comfortable, churches more beautiful, and palaces more splendid. Even manners improved, and intercourse became more polished. Chivalry borrowed many of its courtesies from the East. There were new refinements in the arts of cookery as well as of society. Literature itself received a new impulse, as well as science. It was from Constantinople that Europe received the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, in the language in which it was written, instead of translations through the Arabic. Greek scholars came to Italy to introduce their unrivalled literature; and after Grecian literature came Grecian art. The study of Greek philosophy gave a new stimulus to human inquiry, and students flocked to the universities. They went to Bologna to study Roman law, as well as to Paris to study the Scholastic philosophy.

Thus the germs of a new civilization were scattered over Europe. It so happened that at the close of the Crusades civilization had increased in every country of Europe, in spite of the losses they had sustained. Delusions were dispelled, and greater liberality of mind was manifest. The world opened up towards the East, and was larger than was before supposed. “Europe and Asia had been brought together and recognized each other.” Inventions and discoveries succeeded the new scope for energies which the Crusades opened. The ships which had carried the crusaders to Asia were now used to explore new coasts and harbors. Navigators learned to be bolder. A navigator of Genoa–a city made by the commerce which the Crusades necessitated–crosses the Atlantic Ocean. As the magnetic needle, which a Venetian traveller brought from Asia, gave a new direction to commerce, so the new stimulus to learning which the Grecian philosophy effected led to the necessity of an easier form of writing; and printing appeared. With the shock which feudalism received from the Crusades, central power was once more wielded by kings, and standing armies supplanted the feudal. The crusaders must have learned something from their mistakes; and military science was revived. There is scarcely an element of civilization which we value, that was not, directly or indirectly, developed by the Crusades, yet which was not sought for, or anticipated even,–the centralization of thrones, the weakening of the power of feudal barons, the rise of free cities, the growth of commerce, the impulse given to art, improvements in agriculture, the rise of a middle class, the wonderful spread of literature, greater refinements in manners and dress, increased toleration of opinions, a more cheerful view of life, the simultaneous development of energies in every field of human labor, new hopes and aspirations among the people, new glories around courts, new attractions in the churches, new comforts in the villages, new luxuries in the cities. Even spiritual power became less grim and sepulchral, since there was less fear to work upon.

I do not say that the Crusades alone produced the marvellous change in the condition of society which took place in the thirteenth century, but they gave an impulse to this change. The strong sapling which the barbarians brought from their German forests and planted in the heart of Europe,–and which had silently grown in the darkest ages of barbarism, guarded by the hand of Providence,–became a sturdy tree in the feudal ages, and bore fruit when the barons had wasted their strength in Asia. The Crusades improved this fruit, and found new uses for it, and scattered it far and wide, and made it for the healing of the nations. Enterprise of all sorts succeeded the apathy of convents and castles. The village of mud huts became a town, in which manufactures began. As new wants became apparent, new means of supplying them appeared. The Crusades stimulated these wants, and commerce and manufactures supplied them. The modern merchant was born in Lombard cities, which supplied the necessities of the crusaders. Feudalism ignored trade, but the baron found his rival in the merchant-prince. Feudalism disdained art, but increased wealth turned peasants into carpenters and masons; carpenters and masons combined and defied their old masters, and these masters left their estates for the higher civilization of cities, and built palaces instead of castles. Palaces had to be adorned, as well as churches; and the painters and handicraftsmen found employment. So one force stimulated another force, neither of which would have appeared if feudal life had remained in statu quo.

The only question to settle is, how far the marked progress of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries may be traced to the natural development of the Germanic races under the influence of religion, or how far this development was hastened by those vast martial expeditions, indirectly indeed, but really. Historians generally give most weight to the latter. If so, then it is clear that the most disastrous wars recorded in history were made the means–blindly, to all appearance, without concert or calculation–of ultimately elevating the European races, and of giving a check to the conquering fanaticism of the enemies with whom they contended with such bitter tears and sullen disappointments.


Michaud’s Histoire des Croisades; Mailly’s L’Esprit des Croisades; Choiseul; Daillecourt’s De l’Influence des Croisades; Sur l’État des Peuples en Europe; Heeren’s Ueber den Einfluss der Kreuzzüge; Sporschill’s Geschichte der Kreuzzüge; Hallam’s Middle Ages; Mill’s History of the Crusades; James’s History of the Crusades; Michelet’s History of France (translated); Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; Milman’s Latin Christianity; Proctor’s History of the Crusades; Mosheim.

William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages