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Additional Background

Paul Crawford

From this account it might appear that the beginning of the Crusades was a purely military and political affair. This was not the case, however. There were many other elements which laid the groundwork for the phenomenon of crusading, which involved the participation of Christians in organized warfare on behalf of their religion and their God.

In the beginning Christianity had an ambivalent attitude towards warfare. Pacifism was never the official position of the Church; although there was always a pacifist faction within Christianity, some of the first Christian converts were soldiers and apparently remained at their jobs after their conversion (see Acts 10). After the Roman government became officially Christian, however, Christian officials needed guidelines for the use of violence. In response to this need the doctrine of Just War was evolved. It assumed that violence was evil, but acknowledged that passivity in the face of others' violence might be a greater evil. Consequently three main conditions were laid down; if these conditions were meet,Christian people could engage in warfare without fear of damnation. The war must have a Just Cause, it must be waged under Due Authority, and the Christian combatants must have Right Intentions.

The theological structure of Just War is complicated, but in brief, it meant that the war must be waged either to avoid a likely injury or to rectify a past injury; it must be waged under the direction and at the call of a supreme governmental authority; and that the violence employed might not be excessive (i.e., only that degree of violence which was absolutely necessary might be imposed).

In the tenth and eleventh centuries, a number of churchmen (primarily monks) became concerned about the moral and organizational state of the Church. They formed a movement, sometimes known as the Cluniac Reform movement, which eventually took control of the papacy and brought sweeping change to Western Christianity.

One of these changes involved an adjustment to the Just War doctrine. Church and state were closely intertwined in this period, and some thinkers concluded that this meant that Christ's Will for mankind, embodied in the Church, could also be advanced by the political structures of Christian peoples. They also theorized that violence might not simply be the lesser of two evils (as the doctrine of Just War stipulated); violence, they said, was morally neutral, and those who used violence to advance Christ's kingdom might be doing positive good. The doctrine is known as Holy War.

Another change involved the noble warrior classes of the West. Fighting men had defended Christian civilization against successive waves of barbarian assaults in the second half of the first millennium, but by the eleventh century the barbarians (including Vikings, Magyars, and others) were either tamed or destroyed. Only the Muslims, or "Saracens," were left. In areas which were far from the Muslim frontier, these noble warriors turned their energies on each other or worse, on the non-combatants around them. This endemic violence in society plainly contradicted Christian teaching and deeply troubled thougp×¾Palestine and the Heavenly Jerusalem. Bad as it might be for unbelievers to hold the earthly city, it would be much worse for them to rule the heavenly one.

Socio-economic factors contributed to the formation of the Crusades as well. In the second half of the first millennium West Europeans adopted a number of agricultural innovations, including the heavy plow and the horse collar. It seems likely that these innovations increased food production, which in turn increased population, making manpower for expeditions available (and possibly creating pressure on existing resources which led men to begin looking for external adventures, according to some historians). In addition, the rise of a class of lesser nobles who collected and disposed of local production with relative efficiency may have contributed, by focussing resources in the hands of the very people who could most profitably assist the crusades.

Some scholars used to make much of the idea that crusaders gained great wealth from the Crusades, and that most crusaders were motivated by greed and a hunger for power. The primary sources do not bear this out, as crusading seems to have been a hard, lonely, expensive, dangerous proposition. Few if any serious students of the Crusades accept this explanation today.

It also used to be fashionable to portray the crusaders as musclebound, dull-witted warriors led by fanatical clerics, out to slaughter anything which crossed their path. While such individuals certainly participated in the crusades (and have been present in every age of history), the primary sources do not support this view either. It took considerable erudition and careful thought to formulate the doctrines which supported the crusades, and it took great skill to shepherd large numbers of men and women across strange and hostile territory. This view, too, is now mostly discredited.

There are other factors which laid the groundwork for the Crusades, but those described here were some of the most important ones.

One should keep in mind that the Crusades were an immensely complex phenomenon, spread across many lands and centuries. Many motivations for crusading existed, and many probably coexisted within the minds of individual crusaders.

  1. Introduction
  2. Military and Political Background
  3. The First Crusade
  4. Crusades and the Counter-Crusades
  5. The Later Crusades
  6. Additional Background
  7. Crusading Vows & Privileges
  8. Legacy

Copyright (C) 1997, Paul Crawford. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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