The Crusades are one of the most contentious historical events in world history. A Catholic in Italy, a Muslim in Turkey, and a Jew in Eastern Europe are likely to have polarizing views on the subject. For some islamophobes and white supremacists, it is even a rallying cry in their conflict with Islam.
This controversy around has made the Crusades one of the murkiest and controversial parts of world history. In this piece, we’re going to unpack and examine the positive and negative impact of the Crusades.
What were the Crusades?
Before we discuss their impact, you should know what the Crusades were. The Crusades were a series of religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean, starting in 1095.
It originated at the Council Clermont from a speech by Pope Urban. In that speech, he made a call to arms to assist the Byzantine Empire in their war against the Seljuk Turks. Included was the demand for an armed pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem.
An enthusiastic response met the Pope’s call to action, and European lords sent thousands of soldiers east to fight.
Early results led to the establishment of kingdoms like Jerusalem and the Principality of Antioch. Within two centuries, though, the entire Levant was reclaimed after Acre fell in 1291.
As a side note, the Reconquista in Spain is a Crusade, but not what historians refer to when discussing this period.
How have the views of the Crusades changed?
Discussing the Crusades’ impact is incredibly tricky because views have changed dramatically over the years. The destruction of Muslim cities was positive for Europeans 1,000 years ago, but many would view this as barbarism today.
We will be looking at this through a modern lens, but if you’re interested in historiography and how people in the past viewed the Crusades’ effects, here are some resources:
- William of Tyre completed Historia in 1184. It offers insights into how Europeans viewed the Crusades while they were going on.
- History of the Turks by Johne Fox provides a Protestant view doing the Reformation. His work is a strong critique of the Catholic Church’s failures.
- There was little interest in the Muslim world for the Crusades until the 19th century. Namık Kemal’s biography on Saladin was one of the earliest works to address it.
What were the positive effects of the Crusades?
Though it is hard to find anything beneficial in armed conflict, there were undoubtedly beneficial technological and societal changes that came out of the Crusades for both sides.
The spread of modern banking in Europe
Historians can trace banking as far back as 5,000 years ago in India, Sumeria, and Assyria, and continuing through the Roman Empire.
The rise of Christianity put an end to this, as the Church deemed Usury (interest) a sin. Without interest, money lending quickly lost its popularity except in specific communities like European Jews.
When the Crusades started, the nobility needed to transfer large sums of money across Europe to finance the war. Orders of knights like the Hospitaller and Templar served as bankers in the Middle East.
It expanded further when people began making pilgrimages to the captured city of Jerusalem. Knights Templar began accepting currency and providing demand notes that could be cashed in for any Templar holding throughout Europe and the Middle East.
The removal of the stigma around banking significantly accelerated the adoption of banking until Venice established the first bank in 1157.
The Crusades weakened Feudalism
The Crusades significantly undermined Feudalism, which was the widely adopted political system in Europe during this period. Feudalism depended on a strong aristocracy with a servant class of serfs tied to their lands.
When the Crusades began, knights and lords began mortgaging and selling their lands to fund their expeditions. Thousands squandered this money or perished, causing their lands to revert to the hands of the Monarchy.
By definition, Feudalism depends on the decentralization of power from the Monarch down to the lowest fiefdom. With newfound centralized power, Monarchs no longer depended on their vassals for soldiers and taxes. The Black Death would finish what the Crusades started only a few centuries later.
The Transfer of Ideas
The Crusades placed many people who had never been over 100 miles away from where they were born in direct contact with foreign cultures.
As a result, Middle Eastern culture and ideas began taking root in Europe. One of the most prominent areas was in art and architecture. European castles began adopting the style and functionality of cities and downs found in the Levant. Wall mosaics and illuminated manuscripts also made their way into Western European society.
Muslim knowledge of mathematics and science were far more advanced than Europe’s at this time as well. When Crusaders returned home, they brought this knowledge with them sewing seeds of knowledge that would eventually sprout into the Rennaisance and Age of Discovery.
Expanded trade and urban prosperity
When Rome fell, trade and urban life declined in Eastern Europe. Feudal holdings were mostly self-sufficient units, with outside contact mainly occurring through paying tribute or waring with neighboring lords. Even if people desired to trade, roads were often too unsafe to travel on.
To the East, though, urban life and trade had never declined. Under Muslim rule, cities like Acre, Alexandria, and Tripoli flourished.
Before the Crusades, there was some trade between Italian merchants and Byzantium, as well as with trading hubs like Siciliy, which was under Muslim control at the time. The Crusades expanded this dramatically, by increasing demand.
The thousands of Western Europeans that flooded the Levant began to familiarize themselves with goods they had never seen before. When they returned home, they brought back the knowledge of and demand for these goods.
Initially, it was Italian cities that began to build ties with ports in the Levant. Venice, Florence, and Genoa all prospered during this period. Soon, new trade routes formed inland as Monarchs grew more powerful and able to keep the roads safe. Soon, places like London and Paris began to prosper as well.
Rise of the merchant class
Before the crusades, there was a small class of free artisans and merchants, even in Western Europe. They weren’t tied to the land and were free to travel at will.
When trade began opening up during the Crusades, this class grew and gained power as they began to drive more and more economic activity. By the 15th century, merchants had become the elite class in many European cities and wielded power through large guilds.
Without the growth in the merchant class, European history would be different. Their activities drove mercantilism and, eventually, capitalism, which defines our world today.
The negative effects of the Crusades
The significant progress that came to Europe from the Crusades did not come without many negatives. The Crusades are likely responsible for some of the worst societal and political tensions we face today.
War and senseless violence
The Crusader mentality was extremely violent. They believed in their right to displace Muslims and Jews from the Holy Land at all costs. This mentality led to an estimated 1.7 million people dying.
These weren’t even military deaths, as most of those who died in the Crusades were likely civilians. In the Sige of Jerusalem alone, crusaders may have killed over 10,000 civilians.
The violence wasn’t even only against Muslims. Many Europeans used the Crusades as an excuse to carry out horrible massacres of their Jewish neighbors.
Nothing the Crusader’s work was pointless. They managed to set up a few short-lived kingdoms, before being driven out in the 13th century.
Opened the door for invasion
Though I want to point out that this is only a negative impact for Europeans, the Crusades ultimately sped up what it tried to stop – the expansion of Muslim powers into Eastern Europe.
The initial purpose of the First Crusade was to drive back the Seljuk Turks but quickly devolved into an obsession with putting Jerusalem back under Christian control.
Crusaders did not return conquered land. Instead, they set up competing satellite kingdoms that further weakened Byzantium. By the fourth Crusade, Byzantium and the Crusaders were at war, resulting in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. Eventually, this led to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of a large chunk of Eastern Europe.
Rise in antisemitism
Though there had been some tension between Jews and Christians since Roman times, they had coexisted relatively peacefully before the Crusades. Pope Urban’s decree in 1095 kicked off the world’s first Pogrom (violent massacre) against Jews.
In the Rhineland, 12,000 Christians killed 12,000 Jews in a matter of months. Pogroms followed in England, France, and Spain. England eventually would kill or drive out its entire Jewish population until the 17th century.
The Crusades set a precedent for Europe’s treatment of Jews. Pogroms occurred regularly up until the 20th century, culminating in the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
Modern justifications for violence
The Crusades have taken on new meanings in our modern era amongst the far right. In March 2019, Brenton Tarrant murdered 51 Muslims in the city of Christchurch. In January 2019, Kansas sentenced three men to prison for planning a terrorist attack on Muslims in Garden City.
The three men in Kansas referred to themselves as Crusaders, while Brenton Tarrant was obsessed with Crusader symbols, even naming the weapons he used after famous battles of the Crusades. These anti-Islamic sentiments are on the rise, and where you find them, you will discover crusader mythology used as a justification.
On the other extreme, Islamist extremists such as ISIS flip the justifications around. Their attacks are attacks against crusaders and their allies.
The Crusades have become a justification even for the less extreme. Just days after September 11th, George Bush said, “this crusade, this war against terrorism, is going to take a while,” barely concealing his excitement.
The adverse effects of the Crusades likely outweigh the good. New ideas and economic benefits for a select portion of the world can’t exceed the sheer human suffering. Many of the word problems, particularly in the last twenty years, can be traced back to the Crusades. Until societies have a better understanding of it, people will continue to use it to justify violence against others.
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