THE BLOG

The Crusades: Who, What, When, Where

02/14/2015 08:48 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

On February 5, Thursday of last week, the sixty-second National Prayer Breakfast was held in Washington, DC. It is not my intention to enter into the political firestorm President Obama ignited with comments about The Crusades. But a great majority of people whom I have spoken with do not really know all that much about The Crusades. Hence, the purpose of this week's blog is to provide a brief overview of The Crusades. Some readers may not find this blog politically correct, but it is historically accurate.

Crusades "in general" refer to what are called "holy wars" or "just wars"--military campaigns for the purpose of halting the spread of non-Christian religions, of retaking holy places, or of conquering pagan areas.

The term "holy war" was first introduced by Saint Augustine in his book, City of God, published in AD 426. Using Romans 13:4 as his scriptural authority, Augustine contended that individuals should not wage war or violence, but that governments have the authority to enlist individuals to fight if for good or "just" reasons. Augustine did not, however, elaborate on what constitutes a "just" cause for war.

Eight hundred fifty years later, Saint Thomas Aquinas used the authority of Augustine's arguments as he laid out the conditions under which a war could be considered "just," standards still used today to define a just war. They are: (1) war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state; (2) war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain; and (3) peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.

There were many such campaigns waged for about five hundred years starting in the eleventh century. But the purpose of this column is to concentrate on The Crusades (capital T, capital C)--a specific group of Crusades occurring in Europe over slightly more than a one hundred year period--roughly between AD 1096 and 1204.

By the eleventh century approximately two-thirds of what had been the Christian world was captured by Muslim armies engaged in wars of expansion. The Islamic forces had taken control of major territories in Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, which included what we refer to as the Holy Land. Although there were varied reasons why Christians engaged in The Crusades, most major church historians agree that the primary stimulus for The Crusades was religious--their specific objectives being to stop the spread of Islam and to recapture formerly Christian territories, especially the Holy Land. Each of The Crusades was a series of battle taking place over a period of years.

The First Crusade began in early 1096, in response to a stirring sermon by Pope Urban II. His sermon called on Western Europe to go to the aid of their Christian brethren in Eastern Europe, helping them to be freed from the control of non-Christian forces. In return for a person's willingness to participate in this Holy War, described as a sacred activity, the Pope promised for those who took up arms against the "infidels" absolute indulgence, that is, total pardon for their worldly sins and remission from punishment in purgatory. For those killed in action, the Pope promised eternal life in God's Kingdom.

Preachers throughout much of Western Europe spread the word, and the response to Urban's call to arms was overwhelming. The initial Crusaders were full of enthusiasm, but were poorly organized, not well trained, and ill equipped, and they perished before accomplishing much. But in the summer of 1096 well equipped Christian armies, leaving from France, set out on their mission to recapture Jerusalem. They fought their way through Asia Minor, capturing Antioch in June 1098 and in 1099 taking back Jerusalem, bringing to an end the First Crusade.

The success of the First Crusade was aided by catching Islamic forces by surprise, as well as arguments among the Muslims as to who was in charge. But by the Second Crusade, and those that followed, the Muslims proved to be well-organized, tenacious, and very able on the battlefields. After the First Crusade, the Christian forces did not fare well.

During the Second Crusade, 1144-1155, the Christian European Crusaders were pretty well cut to pieces, with Islamic forces retaking Jerusalem and most of the Holy Land.

The Third Crusade, 1187-1192, launched in an attempt to recapture the losses of the Second Crusade, was elaborately equipped with three proven armies. But other than the recapture of Acre, a seaport town thirteen miles north of Mount Carmel, the expedition amounted to a failure for the Christians.

The Fourth Crusade, 1202-1204, originated with Christians from northern France determined to retake Holy Places. They believed that the best plan for recapturing Jerusalem was first defeating Egypt, a stronghold of Muslim leadership. This military endeavor was a small affair as far as numbers engaged, but its outcome had long-lasting political and religious consequences.

In 1204 the Christians from Western Europe, with the assistance of Venetian forces, captured Constantinople, and plundered its treasures. The conquest of Constantinople by the Western European Christians was a disaster for the Christians of Eastern Europe. The Western Crusaders took the treasures of the Eastern Christian Churches and divided their territories among Western Knights, feudal fashion. This augmented the hatred between Greek and Latin Christianity and weakened the political power of Eastern Christians, ultimately putting Constantinople back into the hands of the Muslims. (Historical note: the established Christian Church of that time had become divided into the Latin speaking Church, home based in Rome, and the Greek speaking Church, home based in Constantinople. These two branches of the Christian Church eventually became the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church that exist today.)

Scholars debate the number of The Crusades, some suggesting as many as ten major Crusades, although all agree that there were many, many crusades that followed The Fourth Crusade. But exactly how many Christian military endeavors took place and how many were major ones is insignificant. The crusades that followed The Fourth Crusade were of little consequence. The grandeur of participating in crusades lessened as time progressed, and in 1244 Jerusalem fell again to the Muslims, and Christians did not get it back until the twentieth century.

The excesses of The Crusades have long been the subject of historical studies. Although the primary focus of The Crusades was religious, there is no question that some Crusaders lost sight of the main purpose of their military endeavors and engaged in unnecessary slaughter and plunder, clearly crossing the line of what could be called a "holy" or "just" war. The outcome of The Fourth Crusade deepened the animosity between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. And, of course, there were those among the common populace who jumped on board purely for excitement and economic gain.

(Sources for this blog: The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, by Bernard Lewis; A History of Christianity, by Kenneth Scott Latourette; A History of the Christian Church, by Williston Walker; Encyclopaedia Britannica; and personal knowledge.)