This is part 4 of our series on the Crusades.

The plan for this episode, the last in our look at the Crusades, is to give a brief review of the 5th thru 7th Crusades, then a bit of analysis of the Crusades as a whole.

The date set for the start of the 5th Crusade was June 1st, 1217. It was Pope Innocent III’s long dream to reconquer Jerusalem. He died before the Crusade set off, but his successor Honorius III was just as ardent a supporter. He continued the work begun by Innocent.

The Armies sent out accomplished much of nothing, except to waste lives. Someone came up with the brilliant idea that the key to conquering Palestine was to secure a base in Egypt first. That had been the plan for the 4th Crusade. The Crusaders now made the major port of Damietta their goal. After a long battle, the Crusaders took the city, for which the Muslim leader Malik al Kameel offered to trade Jerusalem and all Christian prisoners he held. The Crusaders thought the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was on his way to bolster their numbers, so they rejected the offer. Problem is, Frederick wasn’t on his way. So in 1221, Damietta reverted to Muslim control.

Frederick II cared little about the Crusade. After several false starts that revealed his true attitude toward the whole thing, the Emperor decided he’d better make good on his many promises and set out with 40 galleys and only 600 knights. They arrived in Acre in early Sept. 1228. Because the Muslim leaders of the Middle East were once again at odds with each other, Frederick convinced the afore-mentioned al-Kameel to make a decade long treaty that turned Jerusalem over to the Crusaders, along with Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the pilgrim route from Acre to Jerusalem. On March 19, 1229, Frederick crowned himself by his own hand in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

This bloodless assumption of Jerusalem infuriated Pope Gregory IX who considered control of the Holy Land and the destruction of the Muslims as one and the same thing. So the Church never officially acknowledged Frederick’s accomplishments.

He returned home to deal with internal challenges to his rule and over the next decade and a half, the condition of Palestine’s Christians deteriorated. Everything gained by the treaty was turned back to Muslim hegemony in the Fall of 1244.

The last 2 Crusades, the 6th and 7th, center on the career of the last great Crusader; the king of France, Louis IX.

Known as SAINT Louis, he combined the piety of a monk with the chivalry of a knight, and stands in the front rank of all-time Christian rulers.  His zeal revealed itself not only in his devotion to religious ritual, but in his refusal to deviate from his faith even under the threat of torture. His piety was genuine as evidenced by his concern for the poor and the just treatment of his subjects. He washed the feet of beggars and when a monk warned him against carrying his humility too far, he replied, “If I spent twice as much time in gambling and hunting as in such services, no one would find fault with me.”

The sack of Jerusalem by the Muslims in 1244 was followed by the fall of the Crusader bases in Gaza and Ashkelon. In 1245 at the Council of Lyons the Pope called for a new expedition to once again liberate the Holy Land. Though King Louis lay in a sickbed with an illness so grave his attendants put a cloth over his face, thinking he was dead, he rallied and took up the Crusader cross.

Three years later he and his French brother-princes set out with 32,000 troops. A Venetian and Genoese fleet carried them to Cyprus, where large-scale preparations had been made for their supply. They then sailed to Egypt. Damietta once again fell, but after this promising start, the campaign turned into a disaster.

Louis’ piety and benevolence was not backed up by what we might call solid skills as a leader. He was ready to share suffering with his troops but didn’t possess the ability to organize them.  Heeding the counsel of several of his commanders, he decided to attack Cairo instead of Alexandria, the far more strategic goal. The campaign was a disaster with the Nile being chocked with bodies of slain Crusaders. On their retreat, the King and Count of Poitiers were taken prisoners. The Count of Artois was killed. The humiliation of the Crusaders had rarely been so deep.

Louis’ fortitude shone brightly while suffering the misfortune of being held captive. Threatened with torture and death, he refused to renounce Christ or yield up any of the remaining Crusader outposts in Palestine. For the ransom of his troops, he agreed to pay 500,000 livres, and for his own freedom to give up Damietta and abandon the campaign in Egypt.

Clad in garments given by the sultan, in a ship barely furnished, the king sailed for Acre where he stayed 3 yrs, spending large sums on fortifications at Jaffa and Sidon. When his mother, who acted as Queen-Regent in his absence, died—Louis was forced to return to France. He set sail from Acre in the spring of 1254. His queen, Margaret, and the 3 children born them in the East, returned with him.

So complete a failure might have been expected to destroy all hope of ever recovering Palestine. But the hold of the crusading idea upon the mind of Europe was still strong. Popes Urban IV and Clement III made renewed appeals, and Louis once again set out. In 1267, with his hand on a crown of thorns, he announced to his assembled nobles his purpose to go a 2nd time on a holy crusade.

In the meantime, news from the East had been of continuous disaster at the hand of the “Mohammaden” enemy (as they called Muslims) and of discord among the Christians. In 1258, 40 Venetian vessels engaged in battle with a Genoese fleet of 50 ships off Acre with a loss of 1,700 souls. A year later the Templars and Hospitallers held forth in a pitched battle, not with the Muslims, but  each other. Then in 1268, Acre, greatest of the Crusader ports, fell to the Muslims Mamelukes.

Louis set sail in 1270 w/60,000 into disaster. Their camp was scarcely pitched on the site of ancient Carthage when plague broke out. Among the victims was the king’s son, John Tristan, born at Damietta, and King Louis himself.  His body was returned to France and the French army disbanded.

By 1291, what remained of the Crusader presence in the Holy Land was finally uprooted by Muslim control.

Those more familiar with the history of the Crusades may wonder why I’ve neglected to mention the disastrous Children’s Crusade of 1212, inserted between the 4th and 5th Crusades. The reason I’ve decided to mostly skip it is because historians have come to doubt the veracity of the reports about it. It seems now more apocryphal than real, conflated from several disparate reports of groups that wandered around Southern Europe looking to hop on to another campaign to capture Jerusalem. The story goes that a French or German child of 10 years had a vision in which he was told to go to the Middle East and convert the Muslims by peaceful means. As he shared this vision and began his trek to Marseilles, other children joined his cause, along with some adults of dubious reputation. As their ranks swelled, they arrived at the French coast, expecting the seas to part and make a way for them to cross over to the Middle East on dry land. Never mind that it was a trip of hundreds of miles. Anyway, the waters failed to part, and the children, most of them anyway, ended up dispersing. Those who didn’t were rounded up by slavers who promised to transport them to the Holy Land, free of charge. Once they were aboard ship though, they were captives and were hauled to foreign ports all over the Mediterranean where they were sold off.

As I said, while the Children’s Crusade has been considered a real event for many years, it’s recently come under scrutiny and doubt as ancient records were examined closely. It seems it’s more a product of cutting and pasting various stories that took place during this time. The children were in fact bands of Europe’s landless poor who had nothing better to do than wander around Southern France and Germany, waiting for the next Crusade to be called so they could go and hopefully participate in the plunder of the rich, Eastern lands.

I want to offer some commentary now on the Crusades. So, warning, what follows is pure opinion.

For 7 centuries Christians have tried to forget the Crusades, but critics and skeptics are determined to keep them a hot issue. While Jews and Muslims have (mostly rightly, I think) used the Crusades for generations as a point of complaint. In more recent time, New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have raised them like a crowbar and beaten Christians over the head with them. Isn’t it interesting that these God-deniers have to first assume Biblical morality to then deny it? If they were consistent with their own atheistic beliefs they’d have to find some other reason to declaim the Crusades than that it’s wrong to indiscriminately kill people. Why, according to their Darwinist evolutionary, Survival of the Fittest motif, shouldn’t they in fact applaud the Crusades? After all, they were advancing the cause of evolution by getting rid of the weaker elements of the race.

But no! The New Atheists don’t use this line of reasoning because it’s abhorrent. Instead, they have to first don a belief in Christian morality to attack Christianity. Talk about being hypocritical.

And let’s get our facts straight. The 20th Century saw more people killed for political and ideological reasons than all previous centuries combined! Between the Communists, Nazis, and Fascists, well over 100 million were killed. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong were motivated by an atheistic agenda, one rooted in a social application of Darwinism.

Karl Marx, the ideological father of Communistic socialism, applied Darwin’s evolutionary ideas to society and turned human beings into mere parts of a vast machine called the State. Anyone deemed a cog instead of a gear was to be removed so the machine could run as the leaders wanted. In the name of Communism, Stalin killed at least 20 million; Mao, about 70 million!

Adolf Hitler was inspired by the atheist Fredrick Neizsche’s Darwinian concept of the ubermensche = the superman; humanity’s next evolutionary step. He justified the killing of 10 million saying the Final Solution was simply removing those who would hinder humanity’s evolution. He employed an entire army of science-minded killers who believed it was right and good to rid the world of “human weeds” as they called Jews, Slavs, homosexuals and the infirm.

It takes a colossal ignorance of history to neglect this. Yet the New Atheists ignore the facts because they destroy their premise that atheism has the moral high ground.

As calculated by historical evidence, the Crusades, Inquisition and witch trials killed about 200,000 in all over a period of 500 years. Adjusting for population growth, that would be about a million in today’s terms. That’s just 1% of the total killed by Stalin, Mao and Hitler; and they did it in a few decades!

So, let’s keep the Crusades, as brutal as they were, and as utterly contrary to the nature and teaching of Christ as they were, in the proper historical perspective. No! I’m not justifying them. They were totally wrong-headed! To turn the cross into a sword and slay people with it is blasphemous and deserves the loud declamation of the Church.

But let’s not forget that the Crusaders were human beings with motives not unlike our own. Those motives were mixed and often in conflict. The word crusade comes from “taking the cross,” after the example of Christ. That’s why on the way to the Holy Land the crusader wore the cross on his breast. On his journey home, he wore it on his back.

But the vast majority of those who went crusading were illiterate, even most of the nobles. They weren’t taught the Bible as Evangelicals are today. People throughout Europe thought salvation rested IN THE CHURCH and was doled out by priests at the direction and discretion of the Pope. So if the Pope said Crusaders were doing God’s work, they were believed. When priests broadcast that dying in the holy cause of a Crusade meant they’d bypass purgatory and gain immediate access to heaven, thousands grabbed the nearest weapon and set off.

For Urban and the popes who followed him, the Crusades were a new type of war, a Holy War. Augustine had laid down the principles of a “just war” centuries before. Those principles were . . .

  • A Holy War was conducted by the State;
  • Its purpose was the vindication of justice, meaning the defense of life and property;
  • And its code called for respect for noncombatants; civilians and prisoners.

While these principles were originally adopted by the Crusaders when they set out on the 1st Campaign, they evaporated in the heat of the journey and reality of battle.

The Crusades ignited horrible attacks on Jews. Even fellow Christians were not exempt from rape and plunder. Incredible atrocities befell the Muslim foe. Crusaders sawed open dead bodies in search of gold.

As the Crusades progressed, the occasional voice was lifted calling into question the propriety of such movements and their ultimate value. At the end of the 12th C, the abbot Joachim complained that the popes were making the Crusades a pretext for their own advancement.

Humbert de Romanis, general of the Dominicans, in making out a list of matters to be handled at the Council of Lyons in 1274, was obliged to refute no less than 7 well-known objections to the Crusades. They included these 4 . . .

  • It was contrary to the precepts of the NT to advance religion by the sword;
  • Christians may defend themselves, but have no right to invade the lands of another;
  • It is wrong to shed the blood of unbelievers;
  • And the disasters of the Crusades proved they were contrary to the will of God.

Christians in Europe during the 14th and 15th Cs were to face far more pressing problems than a conquest of the Holy Land. So while there was still an occasional call for one, it fell on deaf ears.

Erasmus, writing at the close of the Middle Ages, made an appeal for the preaching of the Gospel as a way to deal with Muslims.  He said the proper way to defeat the Turks was by conversion, not annihilation. He said, “Truly, it is not meet to declare ourselves Christian men by killing very many but by saving very many, not if we send thousands of heathen people to hell, but if we make many infidels Christian; not if we cruelly curse and excommunicate, but if we with devout prayers and with our hearts desire their health, and pray unto God, to send them better minds.”

The long-range results of 2 centuries of crusading were not impressive. If the main purpose of the Crusades was to win the Holy Land, to check the advance of Islam, and heal the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches, they failed spectacularly.

For a time, the 4 Crusader kingdoms held a beach-head on the Mediterranean coast of the Holy Land. In them, three semi-monastic military orders formed: the Templars, whose first headquarters were on the site of the old Temple of Jerusalem; the Hospitallers, also known as the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, originally founded to care for the sick and wounded; and the Germanic Teutonic Knights. These orders combined monasticism and militarism and had as their aims the protection of pilgrims and perpetual war against Muslims. They fielded 500 armed knights. Their great castles guarded the roads and passes against attack. For 2 centuries the Templars in their white robes decorated with a red cross, the Hospitallers in black robes emblazoned with the white Maltese cross, and the Teutonic Knights in white robes with a black cross were common sights in Crusader States and across Europe.

While the Crusades seem to us today a terrible betrayal of Biblical Christianity, we must bring the historian’s mindset to them and consider them against the times in which they occurred. This doesn’t excuse them, but it does make them a bit more understandable.

European society of the Middle Ages was ir-redeemably warlike. In feudal Europe, the whole economic and social system depended on the maintenance of a military; the knights, permanent professional soldiers; by necessity due to the cost involved, noblemen whose only profession was fighting. The city-states of Italy were frequently at war. In Spain, a line was drawn across the map for centuries by the presence of the Muslim Moors. So even if Christians had wanted to create a peaceful society, it would have been socially and practically difficult to do.

One way of dealing with this was to idealize warfare. That is, casting war as a contest between good and evil. In the development of the idea of the Christian knight, there was an attempt to give the spiritual battle a corresponding literal application. The knight was a ‘soldier of Christ’, a warrior for good.  At a time when priests and monks were deemed the only ones able to make contact with God, the Crusades were a way for laypeople to enter the spiritual realm and rack up some serious points with God. Priests fought the good fight by prayer; now laymen could fight as well, with a sword, mace, or if that’s all they could afford, a pitchfork, until they got to the battlefield where hopefully they’d find a more suitable weapon.

So it was important for medieval Christians to convince themselves the war they were fighting was justified. A sophisticated system of identifying a ‘just’ war developed. Augustine had said a good deal about this, explaining that someone whose property or land was stolen is entitled to get it back, but that this was different from warfare designed to enlarge one’s territory. The underlying principle was that reasonable force could be used to maintain order.

The late 11th C saw the arrival of a new thought; not Augustine’s “Just War,” but the concept of “Holy War”, one God called His people to fight to restore Christian control to the Holy Land. This was war which could not only be regarded as ‘justified’, and the sins committed in the course of it forgiven, but meritorious. God would reward those who fought it. Guibert of Nogent, in his book The Acts of God through the Franks, explained how to identify a Holy War. It wasn’t motivated by the desire for fame, money or conquest. Its motive was the safeguarding of liberty, the defense of the State and the protection of the Church. He considered this kind of warfare a valid alternative to being a monk.

This idea was so engaging to the Medieval mind that as the 12th C wound on it had to be discouraged as it seemed everyone began seeing knighthood and combat as spiritual warfare. Bullies have always been able to villainize those they want to victimize. They justified their brutality by calling it a divine mission. So priests and theologians emphasized not all fighting came under the same umbrella. Crusading was special.

Of course, one of the major tenets of Muslim theology is jihad, Holy War to spread the faith. Despite loud protests by some today, the fact remains that the Islam Mohammad taught, which of course is true Islam, endorses jihad. How else did it spread from its desert base in Arabia across the Middle East, North Africa, and into Europe in such a short time if not by the power of the scimitar?

I find it interesting that modern Muslims decry the Crusades when it was their own bloody campaigns that took the lands the Crusaders sought to what? RECLAIM! How could they RECLAIM something what wasn’t CLAIMED and conquered by the Muslims previously? I say it again: This in no way justifies the Crusades. They’re an indefensible period of Church history that stands as a dark stain. But let’s be clear; if they’re a stain on Church history, the conquests by the Muslims that predate the Crusades are just as dark.

Into His Image