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.