Lecture 23: Feudal Europe and the Crusading Spirit

We ended the lecture on European Identity in the Middle Ages with a discussion of the Investiture Controversy between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. The point was to show how the Papacy and religious institutions grew in confidence within European society. The church’s work in taming violent nobles and developing lands gave the Christian hierarchy moral authority, which it used in European politics, and by the end of the eleventh century, in effect, a papal monarchy had appeared. This monarchy did not last long, and we will discuss its dissolution in the next lecture. For this lecture, however, we want to concentrate on how deeply Christian medieval European culture was. We cannot understand how Europeans viewed themselves or others without seeing religion as the central fact of daily life.
Christianity’s growing confidence in itself was an important part of a larger trend. From the eleventh century on, Europe transformed itself from the parochial, introspective survivor of Rome’s fall into a player in a wider world. European interaction with other societies in Byzantium, Islam, and sub-Saharan Africa gave them a sharper sense for who they were and who they were not. This increased interaction with other cultures ran through the medieval period and, eventually, became a global phenomenon, with Europe’s expansion across the Atlantic. Although there were good economic reasons for Europeans to expand their reach across the oceans, such as the closing of eastern trade routes, cultural factors also gave them the confidence to go in directions that other societies could not imagine.
Now, we will consider the fundamentals that made Europe’s expansion possible. First, the European economy and population entered a period of expansion that ran from approximately 1050 to 1350. This was due, in part, to climate change. During the eleventh century, the environment became warmer and slightly drier than it had been during the previous two centuries. Now more food could be grown, which meant more people, which meant more commerce. New commercial centers appeared and trade among cities became systematized in annual fairs and markets, which allowed a north-south system of commerce to emerge, complete with primitive systems of credit and exchange. By the 13th century, large-scale commerce was normal, and people grew accustomed to seeing themselves and others living their lives within hierarchically organized groups determined by economic roles.
Second, as commerce increased, so too did the power of kings. It seems paradoxical, but the increase in the pope’s power went hand-in-hand with the increase in royal power. You will recall from the lecture on European identity that the church was deeply integrated into medieval society. Rural nobles long exercised control over monasteries, and kings invested bishops with their sees. As kings controlled bishops through lay investiture and even attached the income of churches for their own purposes (simony), a struggle ensued between church and state for control of these resources. Thus, Popes Gregory VII, Urban II, and Innocent III fought against and tried to discipline Europe’s monarchs.
In this context, the eight Crusades that Europeans sent to the Holy Land from the eleventh to the thirteenth century appear as attempts by the Popes to get nobles to do their bidding. In this case the Popes wanted Europe’s kings to help the Byzantines against the onslaught of Muslim Turks. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks had defeated Byzantine forces at Manzikert. By 1085, they had taken the major Christian center of Antioch. By 1092 they were in Nicaea, which is where the Emperor Constantine had held the first Christian council in AD 325. The resulting destruction made life difficult for pilgrims traveling to the Holy City, and in those days, the right of pilgrimage was taken seriously. Thus, when Byzantine Emperor Alexius asked the West for help, the West was willing able to respond. Europe had money, and it also had a lot of knights that needed something to do.
On November 18, 1095, Pope Urban II convoked the Council of Clermont, which was attended mostly by Bishops from southern France. There were representatives from elsewhere too, though they were a small minority, since conditions at the time made communication and travel difficult. In 1095, at the Council of Clermont Pope Urban the II preached the first crusade, making it the duty of all able Christians to free the Holy City of Jerusalem. This call contained a novel shift in church doctrine. Those who went on crusade were not only absolved of all their previous sins but also of all sins committed while on crusade. Thus, the killing on the crusade itself became a penitential act and underscored the religious difference between crusader and victim. This stood in marked contrast to 1066, when knights fighting for William the Conqueror under a papal banner were required to do penance for sins committed while fighting in England.
Preparations for what became the First Crusade began right away, with nobles gathering armies and supplies for the long journey. Meanwhile, a more spontaneous show of support got underway, as two popular preachers named Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless gathered a peasant army in the so-called “People’s Crusade” and headed off to Constantinople. They made a mess of things, causing all sorts of trouble in Hungary and Bulgaria, before being massacred by the Turks in August of 1096. The main crusading force arrived later, but enjoyed more success. Consisting of as many as 30,000 fighters in four different armies, this force passed through Constantinople before attacking Antioch in 1097. In 1098, the siege of Antioch was victorious, causing great rejoicing among Christians. The Muslim inhabitants were not as festive, since the crusaders slaughtered every last one of them. The crusaders then moved on to Jerusalem in June of 1099. The city fell in July and, as before, the inhabitants, including the local Jews, were all slaughtered. On November 11, 1100, the Kingdom of Jerusalem officially came into being. It lasted until 1187. Three other states were also founded in Edessa, Damascus, and Tripoli.
That Muslims would counterattack should have been obvious, but the crusaders were caught off guard, nonetheless. In 1144, Zangi, atabeg of Mosul, took the County of Edessa. This came as a shock to the Christian world and the call went out for another crusade. At this point Europe’s kings were drawn to the crusade. Whereas, the leadership of the first crusade had consisted entirely of nobles, the next two crusades would be led by kings. In 1147, the Second Crusade headed for the Holy Land under the leadership of King Louis VII of France and Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III. This expedition was a failure. Conrad never made it to the Holy Land, but was forced to hurry back to Germany in 1148 to preserve his throne. Louis made it to Jerusalem, but the campaign against Damascus was a fiasco. Roughly 50,000 men attacked Damascus, but disagreement among the various nobles involved left the army exposed and a humiliating retreat was the result.
Before we continue with the next crusade, it will be worth considering how the crusading states worked. One of the main problems the crusaders confronted was how to transfer European models of government to a new region. In the first half of the 12th century the crusader kingdoms were ruled in a feudal manner, with various lords receiving land in exchange for military services and the payment of taxes. This was not, however, traditional feudalism. Nobles did not have rural castles, but lived in towns. The subject populations were also different, as the people were a mixture of native Christians, Muslims, and Jews. As a result, kings were relatively strong in the crusader states, as compared to the local nobility. This situation would change, however, as more nobles came to the Holy Land. Soon nobles became more independent, and this, ultimately, prevented a common defense. Another, more positive, change also appeared, however. Although the new feudal elite remained largely French and Latin Christian, they also absorbed local cultural practices, as nobles took on local dress and ate local foods. Intermarriage with native nobility became the norm. In addition, there was a surprising amount of religious toleration, something that scandalized European visitors. Jews and Muslims were left largely to their own devices, even if Baptism was encouraged.
While the crusading states developed their own cultures, Muslim forces gathered for another counterattack. This time, however, the Muslims were completely unified. In 1171, Saladin, who had been a Vizier for the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, usurped the throne and proclaimed himself sole ruler in Egypt. From 1174 to 1186, Saladin embarked on a campaign to reunite all the Muslim territories in Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. He quickly gained a reputation as both a brilliant fighter and shrewd diplomat. Those who opposed Saladin were dispatched viciously; those who yielded were shown mercy. In 1187, fired by the Islamic idea of jihad, Saladin turned his attention to the crusader states, defeating crusader armies rapidly even though both sides were of equal strength. Jerusalem fell on October 2, 1187, though without the bloodshed that had accompanied the Christian taking of the city. Saladin and his armies gained a reputation for courtesy and chivalry, ransoming nobles rather than killing them. Those Christians unable to pay the ransom were, however, sold into slavery.
News of Jerusalem’s fall sent shivers throughout Europe. It was said that Pope Urban III died of sadness upon hearing the news. Urban’s successor, Gregory VIII, issued a bull calling for a crusade and requiring that all Christians fast in atonement for the lost city. Four kings responded to the Pope’s call. In 1189, William III of Sicily stopped fighting with the Byzantines long enough to set sail for the East, though he died on the way. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa also heeded the Pope’s call, though he was already 70. In May 1190, Frederick defeated a Seljuk army in Anatolia. On June 10, however, he drowned while trying to cross a stream. The German army that traveled with him disintegrated after the Emperor’s death and only a remnant reached the Holy Land.
The two remaining kings that went on the third crusade were, at that point, in conflict. Philip II Augustus of France and Richard I the Lion-Heart of England were fighting over English holdings in northern France. These disputes were set aside in 1190 so that the two could lead an army against the Muslims. Philip and Richard were very different. Philip was a calculating and unscrupulous leader. His skills lay in setting up a siege, rather than fighting it. Richard, in contrast, had no administrative skill, but was a military genius. In 1187, the crusaders took the important coastal city of Acre, but that was as far as things went. Philip, who was ill, felt that he had completed his crusading vow and went home. Richard continued the fight, but thanks to Saladin’s leadership, was unable to take Jerusalem. He returned to Europe in 1192, only to be taken prisoner by Leopold of Austria. That is, however, another story.
The third crusade’s failure caused a notable drop in support among the populace. Crusades had become too expensive and the repeated calls to attack the infidel increased cynicism not only toward the crusades but also the church. Slowly, the Popes wasted the moral authority they had gained in the tenth and eleventh century. In 1202, Innocent III preached the Fourth Crusade. Innocent had been preparing this crusade for years. In 1199, he levied a tax on clerical incomes to pay for the next expedition. However, more money was needed, and so the Pope took up contact with Venetian merchants. This was a fateful decision, since the Venetians had trading connections with Egypt, which was to be the next target, and were unlikely to support an attack there.
When the crusaders arrived in Venice in the summer of 1202, they did not have enough money to pay the Venetians for their shipping services. Thus, they accepted the Venetian suggestion that the army take the Hungarian city of Zara and turn it over to Venice as payment. Innocent III was wary of the plan, but approved it in order to get the army to the Holy Land. After this battle a rival claimant to the Byzantine throne asked the crusading armies to attack Constantinople. Innocent was against this but could not stop it. On April 13, 1204, the armies took Constantinople and sacked the city. Many works of art promptly made their way back to Venice, where they still reside. This was the final disaster for the crusading movement, and it created an enduring bitterness between the Eastern and Western churches.
The last four crusades do not mount to much more than tales of disaster. In 1212, religious hysteria among the masses led to the so-called Children’s Crusade. Two groups of children were involved in this affair. In France, a shepherd boy named Stephen claimed to have had a vision of god and attracted 30,000 children to go with him to the Holy Land. The children headed to Marseille, where merchants put them on ships and sold them into slavery in North Africa. In Germany, a 10-year-old boy from Cologne convinced 20,000 children to go on crusade with him. Most of these children were sold into slavery in the East. In 1215, Innocent III called for the Fifth Crusade. An army made it to the Holy Land in 1218, but was forced to leave by 1221. The Sixth Crusade left for the Holy Land seven years later under the leadership of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. (He was supposed to have led the fifth crusade, but was excused due to political unrest in Germany.) In 1229, Frederick II gained back Jerusalem and Bethlehem, though through diplomacy, rather than war. Those territories were lost again by 1244. In 1245, Louis IX of France, or Saint Louis, responded to the call for the seventh crusade. He arrived in the Holy Land in 1248 and got himself captured by 1250. He left in 1254, after ransoming most of his people free.
There was one final call for a crusade in 1267 and a repentant Louis responded again. This crusade was a reaction to the rise of a vicious ruler in Egypt named Baybars. In 1265, Baybars took Caesarea, Haifa, and Arsuf, massacring the inhabitants. Then in 1268, he slaughtered everyone in Antioch. Baybars’ ruthlessness was partly a response to the Mongols, who had deposed the last Caliph in 1258. Any community that had collaborated with the Mongols, especially Christians, was pitilessly slaughtered, when the Muslims took the city. Thus, in 1270 Louis set out on crusade, though without notable support from anyone outside of France. This crusade, the last, ended in complete disaster. Most of the troops died of disease after landing in North Africa, including Louis and his son John Tristan. The last of the crusader strongholds fell in 1291.
The end of the Crusades came not merely due to Muslim strength but also the loss of interest in Europe. The sense of a common enemy had long since dissipated. The Popes had squandered much of their moral authority by not allowing extensive reforms within the papacy, and people became more willing to attack the Pope—a trend that would reach its height in 1517, when a German monk named Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, the Popes also directed the crusading spirit inward against internal enemies, which exacerbated the criticism. In 1209, Innocent III called for a crusade against the Albigensians in southern France, a radically dualist sect that owed much of its theology to the Manicheans. In the Albigensian view, the material world was fundamentally evil, which meant that Jesus could not have taken physical form. By 1229, northern French nobles had destroyed the Provençale kingdom that had supported the Albigensians, though the heresy continued. An Inquisition worked diligently during the 13th and 14th centuries to eliminate the heresy’s remnants. This was another troubling trend that had serious implications for the future.
There were other reasons for Europe’s loss of interest. The crusades had become horribly expensive, as armies became more professional. In the eleventh century, the costs of crusading had been born mostly by the individual knights. By the thirteenth century, however, knights were serving their lords for pay. Moreover, Outremer, as the French called the crusader states, moved further away from Europe’s cultural sphere. After two or three generations in a foreign land the immigrants lost contact with home and perceived connections between the two were lost. The Pope continued to care for these Christian regions, but Europeans in general developed other interests and other needs. These interests included political problems, and economic changes. France was probably aided by the departure of its unruliest knights to the Holy Land, but by the 14th century it was locked in battle with the English for northern France. The Italian city states also concentrated more on trade with the Muslim kingdoms than war.
There were long-term implications for Europe in this. European ship building improved dramatically during the thirteenth century, as a result of the military situation. This knowledge would be useful in the fifteenth century. Moreover, the break between Eastern and Western Christendom was now irreparable. The Fourth Crusade so embittered the Orthodox Community that any thought of a united Christendom was anathema. The West had turned away definitively from the east. In a future lecture we will consider how this break played itself out in the competition between European kings.