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Crusades and Counter-Crusades

Paul Crawford

After the astonishing success of the First Crusade, many crusaders fulfilled their vows by completing their pilgrimage at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and went home.

Others stayed, however, and continued to build up the society known as Outremer (Old French for "Across the Sea"), consisting of the four Crusader States established by the First Crusade. They quickly became part of the world of the Middle East, and were viewed as just another set of players in the power struggles of the area.

One of their contributions to history was the formation of the military religious order, or "military order," in the early part of the twelfth century. These orders, a fusion of the monastic and knightly callings, were both a response to the desperate need for manpower in the East, and an example of the way the Church was attempting to tame and even monasticize the warrior class.

Eventually, however, as the Muslim world began to recover from the disruptions caused by the Turkish invasions, major Muslim leaders began to emerge. These men sought to reunite the Islamic world under one ruler, and they quickly saw that one way to gain prestige as an Islamic leader was to show that one could win victories against the Christian Franks (or "polytheists," as the Muslims often called them). In this way the Islamic Counter-Crusade arose. The Islamic Counter-Crusade was a form of Jihad, an Islamic doctrine which roughly parallels, but does not exactly duplicate, the Christian doctrine of Holy War.

The first such leader was Zengi. On Christmas Eve, 1144, Zengi's troops took the capital of the County of Edessa and destroyed the oldest Crusader state.

The West reacted strongly to this disaster, and the result was the Second Crusade, preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and led by King Louis VII of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. The Second Crusade was a near complete failure, however, and people quickly lost interest in another such expedition.

Meanwhile, successors to Zengi such as Nur ed-Din continued nibbling away at the Crusader states. After Nur ed-Din's death the mantle of Islamic leadership fell on a Kurdish officer named Salah ed-Din, or Saladin as he is commonly known in the West. Saladin was arguably the greatest of Muslim generals, and possessed an appealing and admirable character. In 1187 he caught the entire army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at the mountain known as the Horns of Hattin, near the Sea of Galilee, and annihilated it. Within a few months he held all of the Kingdom except for the seaport of Tyre and a nearby castle.

Tyre held out, however, and the West once again came to the aid of the Crusader states by mounting the Third Crusade. Led by King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, King Philip II Augustus of France, and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, it managed to recover much of the lost territory. It passed into European and Muslim folklore as a time of great chivalry, particularly between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted, who became the principle crusade leader. But despite Richard's best efforts, Jerusalem was not recovered. Both Richard and the local barons agreed that unless the powerbase of Egypt was in friendly hands, Jerusalem could not be kept even if it could be captured.

In 1198 the great medieval pope Innocent III came to power. He was intensely interested in crusading, and one of his first acts was to promote a Fourth Crusade. Unfortunately, this crusade suffered a series of mischances and never reached the Holy Land at all. Through the intervention of Venetian commercial interests and disinherited Byzantine princes, it was diverted against the current government of Byzantium and ended in the capture and disastrous sack of Constantinople in 1204. Although the Byzantines recovered their capital in 1261, the Fourth Crusade did lasting damage to their Empire. By the time it was over, the frictions and misunderstandings between East and West which had begun with the First Crusade had turned into permanent hatred.

Disappointed, Innocent began preparations for another crusade. He died before it got under way in 1217. The Fifth Crusade was directed against Egypt, in recognition of the strategic reality which Richard had noted, and it was very nearly a complete success. But in the end it too failed.

The Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Crusades accomplished some limited objectives. None was really successful, though the Seventh Crusade in particular, led by King Louis IX (St. Louis) of France, has come down to us as a romantic episode equal in some ways to the Third Crusade. Meanwhile, the Muslim Counter-Crusade recovered from the setback of the Third Crusade, and in 1291, the Christians were driven from their last strongholds. The Holy Land was once again lost to Christendom.

Having seized the initiative, the Muslims retained it. It was difficult to get Western Europeans interested in crusades unless they lived in areas bordering the Muslims, and France and England were about to begin the Hundred Years' War, a conflict which would distract them and absorb their resources. Notable lesser crusades were in fact mounted in 1365 (Crusade of Alexandria), 1396 (Crusade of Nicopolis), and 1444 (Crusade of Varna), and there was scarcely a time when someone, somewhere, was not on a small scale crusade. But the Turks increasingly seemed invincible. In 1453 they took Constantinople from the last survivors of the Byzantine Empire, putting an end to nearly 2,000 years of Roman Imperial rule in the East. They also pressed ever deeper into Central Europe.

  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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