What were the Crusades?

The Crusades were a series religious wars that the Roman Catholic Church started in 1095. They continued in different forms for many centuries. One of the most famous Crusades was the one that took place in the Near East between 1095-1291. It was where European Christian armies tried to retake Jerusalem from Islamic rule.
Other Crusades were launched against Muslims in Iberia, as well as against Christians living in Europe who the Catholic Church considered heretical. The First Crusade (1095-1099), which was initiated by Pope Urban II, saw large parts of the Holy Land occupied by European Crusader States and military orders like the Knights Templar. The Crusades were almost over by the 18th century, and Europe and the Near East were forever altered.

What year were the Crusades founded?

The Crusades began at the Council of Clermont, France in November 1095. Nicholas Morton, senior lecturer and author of "The Teutonic Knights In the Holy Land 1190-1291" (Boydell 2009), shared the story with Live Science via email.

Morton wrote that Pope Urban II made his famous speech at this council and launched the First Crusade. This marked the beginning of the crusading movement. It is rare for historians not to suggest a earlier date. However, many scholars have noticed that some features that quickly became integral to crusading (such a papal authorisations of warfare) are found in earlier years.

However, the Crusades didn't necessarily end in the 13th century. Morton stated that crusading was popularized over the centuries in Western Christendom but remained an important part of Western Christianity for many centuries.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, a well-known historian of the Crusades has shown that the willingness of the papary to start crusading campaigns declined in the 17th century. Riley-Smith however pointed out that certain aspects of the crusading movement remained strong into the 20th century.

Related: Who were Knights Templar, and how did they get there?

Riley-Smith stated that the Knights Hospitaller, a military religious order of Catholics and a product the crusading movement, continued to defend Malta up until 1798. Some military orders also participated in military activities later in life."

In 1085, the Council of Clermont is believed to have initiated the Crusades. Pope Urban II made a speech calling for a reconquest of Holy Land. (Image credit: Public Domain / Bibliotheque nationale de France)

What were the number of crusades?

There were several Crusades that took place between the 11th century and the 13th century, though historians are still unsure of the exact number. Morton stated that historians tend to be consistent in naming five of the most important crusading campaigns to Eastern Mediterranean. He used terms like 'First Crusade' and 'Second Crusade'.

The problem with this system is that it is not complete and was not used by its contemporaries. The First Crusade, which ran from 1095-1099, saw the defeat of Jerusalem by European Christian armies and the establishment of the Crusader States. Some historians have used labels like the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth crusades to identify crusades that occurred in the 13th century. There is however less consistency.

What is the best way to define the Crusades

Morton asserts that it is hard to define what a crusade is. "Neither the papal church nor any other authority referred to the first Crusades in this way. Some writers used to call crusaders 'crucesignati', which meant 'persons marked with the sign of the Cross'. Other times they used other terms like 'pilgrim. He wrote that crusading has evolved over the years, with many forms and operations in different areas. This makes it difficult to define.

Historical historians can use several key characteristics to help them define crusading campaigns. To be considered a 'Crusade,' the campaign must be approved by the pope. To signify their commitment, true Crusaders took a crusading pledge and sewn a cross to their clothes. They also wore symbols that were associated with pilgrimages, such as the'scrip (pouch) of a pilgrim and staff. Crusaders were granted a legal status that allowed them to be protected and to their families in their absences. However, they could also face penalties if they failed to fulfill their vow.

The First, Second, and Third Crusades

Godefroy de Bouillon is shown leading the siege on a Saracen village, c.1099. Image credit: Getty/Print Collector

The first three Crusades are the most well-known. The First Crusade was an important event. Morton stated that the First Crusade was the beginning of the crusading movement. It also led to the conquests of many major cities in the Near East, including Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa.

The Second Crusade (1147-1150), a complex event, was not limited to the Near East. Morton explained that it was in response to the fall the capital of the County Edessa to Zangi, the Turkish ruler. The crusade set out to conquer Edessa but failed to reach its target. It culminated in the defeat at Damascus in 1148. Other frontiers were also covered in the Second Crusade, such as campaigns fought on Iberia (Spain) and Portugal (Baltic region).

Related: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds from the Holy Land

After the dramatic Islamic conquest of Jerusalem, the Third Crusade (1189-1192) was launched. Morton stated that the pope initiated the Third Crusade following the Battle of Hattin in which the Muslim ruler Saladin defeated Jerusalem's kingdom. "The papal response was to raise an enormous new crusade, led by rulers such as Philip II of France, Frederick I of Germany and Richard I (also known as The Lionheart). Morton stated that Jerusalem was still under Saladin's control at the end of Crusade. However, the crusaders were able to retake some of Jerusalem's coastal towns.

What were the Crusader countries?

After their capture of Jerusalem in 1099, four Roman Catholic realms were established in the Middle East by the Crusaders. They are also known as "Crusader States" or "Outremer", which is a medieval French term for "overseas". Morton says that they consisted of the County, Edessa and the Principality of Antioch as well as the Kingdom of Jerusalem and later the County of Tripoli.

Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli covered areas now known as Syria, Lebanon, and Southeast Turkey. Jerusalem was the modern-day Israel, and Palestine. The Crusaders established the states, but the state populations were populated by a small number of Franks -- the Muslim and Eastern Orthodox term used for Western Europeans.

Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle that is located in modern-day Syria. It was once owned by the Count de Tripoli and Knights Templar. (Image credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 / Bernard Gagnon )

Andrew Jotischky, author of "Crusading, Taylor & Francis 2014" wrote that most people who lived in these states were Indigenous Christians or Muslims who spoke a range of Middle Eastern languages.

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Edessa was captured by the Turkish warlord Zangi, in 1144. However, the other states fought back against Muslim forces for many decades. The Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, also known as Baibars at the time, captured Antioch with his army in 1268. In 1289, Qalawun, the Mamluk ruler, defeated Tripoli. Saladin, Sultan from Egypt and Syria captured Jerusalem in 1187. However, the kingdom lasted until Acre fell in 1291.

Are the Crusades restricted to the Near East only?

While the most famous Crusades were in the Near East and Asia, there were also Crusades in Europe. These Crusades were started by ambitious soldiers. Morton says that other commanders attempted to convince the pope to endorse their military efforts after the first of these religious conflicts. "In a matter of decades, crusading operations were launched against the Byzantine Empire in Iberia (Spain, Portugal), and also in the Baltic Region."

Various popes began Crusades against European opponents in the 13th Century. Morton stated that these wars were directed at a wide range of people, including heretics in Western Christendom as well as the political opponents of the pope. The Crusades were able to target those who changed with the Christian movement's policies and agendas.

Morton stated that crusades were conducted in many areas, not just in the Eastern Mediterranean against many different communities and societies. "The journey to Jerusalem has always held a special, unique significance for a modern eye."

Children's Crusade

While they were primarily military campaigns the medieval Crusades were also rooted in Christian religious ambitions. Morton said that they were often spiritual endeavors that could be classified "Popular" movements. He said that "Popular" Crusades were sporadic events in the history of the crusading movements.

They were moments in which preachers and enigmatic leaders, often from humble backgrounds, spontaneously assembled crowds to inspire their followers to join or start a crusading effort. These actions were often done without any license from the papacy.

Peter the Hermit leads pilgrims through a 14th-century depiction the People's Crusade. Image credit: Public Domain

The People's Crusade (1096), and the Children's Crusade (1212) were two of the most well-known Popular Crusades. The Children's Crusade saw thousands of youth from northern France march south towards the Mediterranean coast in the hope of reaching the Holy Land. The People's Crusade was a name for the first part the First Crusade. It involved a large army that Peter the Hermit raised to try to retake Jerusalem, and other parts of the Holy Land.

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The Popular Crusades failed. They never reached their targets. The Children's Crusade did not leave Western Christendom and Peter the Hermit's troops suffered a crushing defeat when they entered Turkish-ruled Anatolia. These campaigns, despite the defeats and military failures they suffered, show just how popular crusading was across the social spectrum in Western Christendom.

Later Crusades

Crusades of the Near East were mainly focused on retaking or maintaining control over Jerusalem during the 13th century. Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, was the most successful of these crusaders. Morton stated that Frederick II briefly reclaimed Jerusalem in 1229. However, it remained in Frankish (Western European), hands until 1244. "In Frederick's instance, he went directly to Jerusalem and secured the Holy City’s return through diplomatic negotiations with Egypt's sultan.

Image credit: Public Domain

The crusader battleground Egypt was also established during this period. "Two other big Crusades, The Fifth and Seventh, tried to conquer Egypt before advancing against Jerusalem. Morton stated that their plan was to secure Egypt's agricultural wealth and the revenues from Egypt's mercantile towns. They would then use these resources to gain the permanent re-conquest Jerusalem. Both failed.

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Crusading moved away from Holy Land, and popes attempted to tighten control over the movements. Morton stated that "Perhaps the greatest developments in crusading in this century occurred in other regions." "The pope launched Crusades against many opponents in many areas at the time. These included the Albigensian heretics of southern France, the Mongols from Central Eurasia, and the pope’s political enemies. Morton stated that the papacy also encouraged the wider population to support the crusading through financial donations, prayer processions, or other religious rites."

Legacy of the Crusades

Morton says that the Crusades' legacy is still powerful even today. He said that the Crusades to Holy Land are best remembered today as one the most turbulent periods in the history and development of relations between Islam and Western Christianity. These Crusades are often viewed as a simple conflict between two opposing religions.

Similar complexity was seen in the Crusades during the Middle Ages. Morton stated that while the Crusades are still remembered in this manner in the 21st Century, the surviving medieval sources -- written by authors of many cultures -- tell a completely different story. They contain statements of hate, violence, massacres and triumphalist incitements for religious war and defeat of other religions. They also contain descriptions of friendships and alliances, as well as statements of respect and admiration, that transcend religious and cultural boundaries. He said that the "frontiers for war in the Near East weren't as clearly defined as 'Christian vs Muslim' and 'Muslim Vs Christian'.

These large-scale military campaigns and religious movements had a profound impact on other areas of human progress in the Near East. They encouraged the creation and sharing of new technologies, art forms, and architectures, as well as the exchange and promotion of ideas and cuisines. Morton stated that the two worlds, Western Christendom and Muslim, learned a lot about each other.