The Crusades—A ‘Tragic Illusion’
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN ITALY
SOME nine hundred years ago, in 1096, the First Crusade was about to begin. If you had lived in Western Europe then, you might have witnessed large movements of men, wagons, horses, and ships. They were headed for Jerusalem, the holy city, which had been under the control of Muslims since the seventh century C.E.
That was the first of the Crusades. Many historians list eight major ones. These expeditions scarred the history of East-West relations. They were accompanied by massacres and cruelty committed in the name of God and Christ. The last major Crusade began 174 years later, in 1270.
The word “crusade” comes from the Latin word crux, which means “cross.” Members of the many expeditions sewed the symbol of the cross on their clothing.
The declared motive for the Crusades was to take Jerusalem and the so-called holy sepulcher from the Muslims. But the causes ran deeper. Except for a few incidents, relations between the professed Christians living in the Middle East and the Muslims had been relatively calm. An important factor that led to the Crusades was the turbulent political, economic, and religious climate that prevailed in Europe.
In the 11th century, new rural lands were being given over to agriculture, in an effort to increase food production. City areas were enjoying new life. The population was growing. However, when a famine plunged large numbers of peasants into poverty, many poured into the cities, where unemployment and misery awaited them. Protests often erupted.
At the top of the social hierarchy were numerous feudal barons. These professional warlords wanted to take advantage of the political vacuum created by the breakup of Charlemagne’s empire and conquer new estates.
The church of Rome was also experiencing a period of turmoil. In 1054 it lost control of the Eastern Church. In addition, many of the clergy were being accused of immorality and of meddling in politics.
The Appeal at Clermont
In this climate the First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II. In his eyes military action to reconquer Jerusalem and Palestine would serve several purposes. It would consolidate the unity of Western Christendom and reaffirm the primacy of the Roman Church. It would provide a vent for perpetual disputes among the upper classes. In exchange for religious and, above all, economic benefits, these would put their military expertise to work for a “noble” cause, becoming the armed wing of the church.
On November 27, 1095, before a council at Clermont, France, Urban launched his appeal. The church painted a dark picture of their foes, as those deserving of divine retribution. Foucher de Chartres, a priest who took part in the First Crusade, said that the war was necessary to defend Eastern “Christians” from Muslims. An immediate remission of sins was promised for those who died on the road or in battle. The feudal lords could thus convert their fratricidal disputes into a “holy” war against the “infidels.” At that council, a cry resounded that was to become the motto of the First Crusade: “God wills it!”
The Two Departures
Once the departure date, August 15, 1096, was fixed, the pope ensured the support of lay lords, to whom military operations were entrusted. The church guaranteed the protection of their estates for the duration of the undertaking. The less well-off were urged to finance the mission with alms.
However, some departed before the established date. This was an untrained and undisciplined mob and included women and children. They were called pauperes Christi (Christ’s paupers). Their goal: Jerusalem. They were led by rabble-rousers, perhaps the most famous of whom was Peter the Hermit, a monk who had begun preaching among the masses toward the end of 1095.
According to medieval chronicler Albert of Aix, Peter had previously traveled to Jerusalem. It was said that one night he had a vision in which Christ exhorted him to go to the patriarch of Jerusalem, who would give him a letter of credentials to take back to the West. Albert said that the dream came true and that after receiving the letter, Peter set out for Rome, where he met the pope. Albert’s account mixes reality with fantasy, but the alleged dreams, visions, and letters were powerful instruments in leading the masses.
The band that gathered around Peter the Hermit left Cologne on April 20, 1096. Not having the means necessary for the sea voyage, the pauperes had to face the long journey to the Holy Land on foot or in dilapidated wagons. Finding themselves almost immediately without food or arms, along the way they began to plunder local populations caught by surprise at the arrival of this undisciplined throng of “soldiers of Christ.”
The first to fall afoul of them were European Jews, accused of lending money to corrupt bishops. Atrocities were committed by the followers of Peter the Hermit against Jews, in places such as Rouen and Cologne, the city of departure. Albert of Aix states that when the Jews at Mainz “saw that the Christians did not spare even their little ones nor had pity on anyone, they threw themselves on their brothers, wives, mothers, and sisters and slew one another. The most heartrending thing was that mothers themselves cut their sucklings’ throats or ran them through, preferring them to die at their own hands rather than be killed by the arms of the uncircumcised.”
Similar episodes were repeated on the journey to the Balkans, en route to Asia Minor. Once the mob reached Constantinople, Emperor Alexius I, to avoid any repetition of such disorders, facilitated the passage of the pauperes onto the Asian shore. There, numerous women and children as well as the sick and the aged were slaughtered by Muslim forces. Only a few survivors succeeded in returning to Constantinople.
In the meantime, during the summer of 1096, trained armies set out. These were headed by famous leaders of the day. The unruly early departure of the pauperes had worried Pope Urban, who made arrangements to regulate the flow to the East. Those setting out now had to demonstrate sufficient means of sustenance. The aim was to limit the participation of women, children, the aged, and the poor.
Conquests and Other Massacres
After rendezvousing at Constantinople, the troops, barons, and surviving pauperes proceeded toward their goal. Again, episodes of violence were perpetrated in the name of God. Chronicler Petrus Tudebodus recounts that during the siege of Antioch, after massacring their enemies, the crusaders “threw all their bodies into a mass grave and brought their severed heads back to [their] camp in order to determine their number, with the exception of four horseloads of those heads, which were sent to the coast, to the emir of Babylon’s ambassadors.”
On July 15, 1099, Jerusalem fell to the crusaders. Raymond of Aguilers narrates: “A horrible spectacle could be seen. Some [of the enemy], the fortunate ones, had been decapitated; others fell from the walls riddled with arrows; many others burned among the flames. Piles of severed heads, hands, and feet could be seen in the streets and squares of the city.” But again, the crusaders tried to justify the violence in the name of religion.
End of an Illusion
The victory gave birth to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. This institution had a precarious existence because of rivalry that soon erupted between the feudal lords who had established themselves in the East. In the meantime, the Muslims reorganized militarily. It was certainly not their intention to lose territory in Palestine.
In the course of time, other Crusades were mounted, the last in 1270. However, because of defeats, many began to doubt the legitimacy of such enterprises undertaken in the name of religion. If God really approved of these “holy” wars, they thought, he would certainly have favored those who claimed to act with his blessing. Yet, from the 13th century on, church jurists tried to justify such religious wars and the clergy’s role in them.
The ardor that animated the first crusaders waned. More than anything, the continuation of the wars would ultimately damage the economic interests of the West. So the arms were turned on the internal enemies of European Christendom: the Arabs in Spain, the “heretics,” and the pagan peoples of the North.
In 1291 the city of Acre, the last crusader stronghold, fell to the Muslims. Jerusalem and the ‘Holy Sepulcher’ remained in Muslim hands. During two centuries of conflict, economic and political interests had dominated religious questions. Italian historian Franco Cardini observes: “By this time the Crusades had progressively evolved into an intricate political and economic operation, a complex power play involving bishops, abbots, kings, alms collectors, bankers. In this game . . . it was Jesus’ sepulcher that lost all its importance.” Cardini also says: “The history of the Crusades is the history of the biggest mistake, the most complex deceit, the most tragic, and in some ways the most ridiculous, illusion of all Christendom.”
The Lesson Ignored
The Crusades and their failure should have taught that economic greed and desire for political prominence can lead to fanaticism and massacre. But the lesson has been ignored. The evidence lies in the many conflicts that have continued to stain many parts of our planet with blood. In these, religion often serves as a front for abominations.
Not for much longer though. Very soon the spirit that fostered the Crusades and that continues to foster modern-day “holy” wars will pass away along with all false religion and the whole system subject to the domination of Satan.—Psalm 46:8, 9; 1 John 5:19; Revelation 18:4, 5, 24.
[Picture Credit Line on page 12]
The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck
[Pictures on page 15]
Top: Jewish cemetery in Worms, Germany—a reminder of the massacre in the First Crusade
Left: Stone head of a crusader
Far left: The crest of a renowned crusader family
Crest and head: Israel Antiquities Authority; photos: Israel Museum, Jerusalem