Medieval Monday – Crusaders

It’s Memorial Day in the United States.  Today we honor the men and women of the armed forces who have fought and in some cases died to protect our country.  It’s also Medieval Monday, which got me to thinking about all of the men (and occasionally women) who fought and died to protect what they believed in a thousand years ago.

My thoughts specifically turned to the Crusaders.  These intrepid men left their homes to fight for a cause they believed in hundreds of miles away from their homes and loved ones.  Yes, you could argue that the whole thing was political rather than religious and that a whole mess of atrocities were committed as knights from the Christian West encountered Islamic soldiers in the Middle East. …  Hey, wait a minute.

There were nine numbered crusades between 1095 and 1272 along with a handful of other named crusades, such as the Children’s Crusade.  While the original crusades were called by Popes and the men fighting in them were blessed and granted plenary indulgence, the origins of the crusades were in Middle Eastern politics that dated back centuries.

Remember that the land that was referred to as the Levant in the Middle Ages, what is now Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, was part of the Roman Empire.  The Roman Empire fizzled and fell apart with the somewhat arbitrary date of 476.  The eastern half of the Roman Empire lived on as the Byzantine Empire.  But in 636 Palestine was captured by Islamic forces.  This effectively meant that the Holy Land and Jerusalem, sites that were important to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, were in the hands of the enemy.

However, important religious sites in Jerusalem were still open to Christian pilgrims from the West and Christian churches were still allowed in the area.  This remained true for more than four hundred years as one dynasty of Islamic rule was conquered by another and another, up until the Great Seljuq Empire conquered the area.  In 1009 the commander of the Seljuq Turks attempted to destroy Christian sites of worship and persecute pilgrims who attempted to come anywhere near the area.  He effectively closed off the Holy Land to the West.

Big mistake.  Not only did that really annoy the Christian West, as the Seljuq Turks soon learned, the economy of the region depended largely on “tourist” income from the pilgrims journeying to the holy sites.  Realizing their mistake, the Seljuq Turks quickly reversed their policy and rebuilt some of the churches they had destroyed, allowing Christian pilgrims to return.  But the damage had already been done.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, memories were long.  The Christian West still hadn’t forgotten the threat that Islamic invaders had represented to the Frankish kingdom during the time of Charles Martel.  The Iberian peninsula was still occupied by Islamic people.  The remainder of the Byzantine Empire was threatened by the advance of the Seljuq Turks as well.  Top that off with a resurgence in religious piety in the eleventh century and the ever-present problem of younger sons full of fight who were unable to inherit land due to inheritance law.

The immediate cause of the First Crusade was the loss of the area that is now Turkey to the Seljuq Turks in 1071 and the subsequent appeal by Emperor Alexios I to Pope Urban II for help.  When diplomatic solutions failed, Pope Urban II called the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095.  Men from all over Christian Europe answered the call.

Let’s think about what it would have mean for these knights to take up the cross and fight for the cause.

In 1095 a knight would have been responsible for providing his own equipment.  This meant swords and armor, horse and shield, and everything that was needed to maintain those things.  This would often involve pages, squires, and all the supplies to keep them going.  That kind of equipment was not cheap.  Often these men would spend everything they had and beg, borrow, or steal to get more.  Answering the call could bankrupt an entire manor.

Distance in the Middle Ages was nothing to laugh at either.  In many cases knights would have to transport themselves from far away kingdoms to the rallying points, traveling for months before the crusade even started.  Most of the crusades set off from Italy and southern France.  That was quite a haul if you were from England.

Then you had to consider that not all of the participants got along.  The kingdoms of Europe had their own wars to contend with.  France hated England and the smaller kingdoms throughout what we now know as Germany and Italy didn’t exactly think each other were great.  And yet they all had to work together to achieve a common goal.  Not to mention the fact that when they arrived in the lands of the people they were meant to be saving they weren’t exactly given a warm welcome.

As I discovered in doing research about life expectancy and death in the Middle Ages, a good third to half of medieval men died of dysentery or as the result of wounds on the battle field.  Many Crusaders marched into climates they were unfamiliar with that swarmed with diseases they had never encountered.  These were not pretty deaths, but they were frequent.  That’s not even getting into how brutal medieval warfare was.

There was also a theory that so many Crusaders died in the Holy Land due to a lack of sex.  Yes, that was an actual concern at the time.  Being so far separated from their wives for so long was seen by medieval physicians as deleterious to the knights’ health.  It probably did little to help their morale to know that when they left there was a strong chance they would never see home again.

So many of the men who left to fight these “holy wars”, who took up a cause that they believed was ordained by God, never returned.  But they believed in their mission.  They believed that their souls and the souls of their loved ones could be saved by their noble sacrifices.  You have to respect a man who would give up so much, perhaps more than a modern soldier gives up when he serves his or her country, for a cause they believed in.

And so, as we honor those who serve today, stop for a moment and remember the legacy of men, going back a thousand years and more, who have left their lives behind to fight for what they believe is right.

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10 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – Crusaders

  1. I hadn’t heard about the concern over abstinence from sex. Interesting.
    The first crusade is the most interesting one for me–his fellow crusaders had to rouse Robert of Normandy from his vacation in Capri to come and help besiege Jerusalem.

    Glad you brought up Charles Martel. I thought everyone had forgotten him.

    • I need to be a responsible historian and go back and find where I read about the fear of abstinence from sex as being damaging to the Crusaders (although I think it was in this book next to my computer, “1215: The Year of Magna Carta” by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham. – Awesome book, btw). Actually, the Middle Ages was very highly sexed. Sex was even seen as a cure for disease. But I digress….

      I LOVE Charles Martel! You gotta love a guy who swoops in (sort of) out of nowhere and takes charge of most of Europe. =D

  2. Exceptional posting. Though I have done reserarch on the Templar and their constant pressence in the Holy Land, after the first crusade and I have to wonder other than Orders such as this how many crusading knights really went on crusade driven by the dictates of the cause vs as a way to redirect their need to fight and for younger sons to gain or win spoils of war as a means of acquiring an income of sorts. If you are interested in Crusader medicine there is a great book called: MEDICINE IN THE CRUSADES: WARFARE, WOUNDS AND THE MEDIEVAL SURGEON by Piers D Mitchell. Also from a non western view there is the book AN ARAB-SYRIAN GENTLEMAN AND WARRIOR IN THE PERIOD OF THE CRUSADES by Usamah ibn-Munqidh ttranslated by Phillip K Hitte. Both are good for research.

    • Ooo! Thanks for the recommendations!

      Yeah, I tend to lean more towards the “rowdy young men looking for an excuse to fight someone” explanation of a lot of the later crusades. But for Memorial Day at least I can imagine that they all had the noblest of causes. 😉

  3. Very nice, Merry. And the responses have provided great information, too. You’re so right when you mentioned that the Crusades were marred by internal coflicts.Richard I (Third Crusade) was another good example of that. Phillip of France actually left the action early so he could come home and filtch some of Richard’s holdings. And that’s just one lovely piece of in-fighting Richard was involved in.

    Good post!!

    • Absolutely! My “Noble Hearts” trilogy (points to the right) takes place against the backdrop of that time period. Bless his heart, Richard I was a mess.

  4. Merry, I do love your posts. I’ve watched a lot of movies about the Crusades, but this really makes you think about just what those men were giving up.

  5. Wonderful post as I write my protagonist’s journey through the Middle Sea heading toward the Third Crusade. I hadn’t heard of the ‘sex’ thing and am surprised because of the Church constraints of the times. Then again I suppose lust doesn’t just cover sex, it can cover violence as well and maybe rampant sex was an outlet for the anticipated violence to come in Outremer.
    Thanks for the titles which I shall add to my research list.

    • A lot of what the Church said and wrote about sex was in reaction to what was actually going on with people. For a long time historians assumed that if the Church said you shouldn’t do it, people wouldn’t do it. But more research is showing that if the Church said you shouldn’t do it that was in reaction to the fact that everyone was doing it. The Middle Ages were pretty steamy! Well, the High Middle Ages. The Early and Late Middle Ages are a different story.

  6. Don’t forget the effect the destruction of the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 by the Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah had on Christian Europe. Its rather like the effect the 9/11 attacks had, but magnified by 100.

    An important thing to understand about the crusades is that if you remove the ideological axe-grinding, what you have is, in a military context, are fairly small wars, waged by small armies over a small area. They weren’t especially bloody or horrible, The infamous sack of jerusalem was not in any sense exceptional, and had happened many times in the past (such as the sack of the city in 614 by the Persians, when the christian population was essentially exterminated)..the usual fate of a city taken by storm was to be sacked and the population put to the sword,. It was considered a legitimate act under the laws of war.

    It was not until the 20th century that the muslims even regarded them as being very important..they were seen as a minor episode in a long era of muslim dominance and a glorious victory over the infidels .Their importance was magnified only when it became politically useful to various groups.

    While the crusades aren’t really militarily significant, they were economically significant. When the muslims overran the middle east in the 600’s, western europe found itself cut off from the eurasian trade routes. The economy, which had been recovering from the migrations and wars immediately crashed, which set the stage for the rise of feudalism and the invasions by the saracens, vikings and steppe peoples. The crusades reconnected western europe to these trade routes with all the resulting benefits.

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