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Introduction to the Crusades

T he time of the Crusades was a decisive period in the development of the Western world as we know it today. For the first time, intellectual, political and economical circumstances co-operated to produce a major undertaking. For little more than two centuries, Western civilisation maintained an outpost in Palestine and developed there a Latin kingdom with full-fledged features of its own. The Crusades were a striking display of what medieval Europe could produce, in good and in bad likewise.

H istorians today generally view eight campaigns as crusades. These took place between 1095 and 1291, and there were numerous lesser ventures besides the eight. Similarly, there were half-hearted attempts to recover the lost Palestine after 1291, but none succeeded.

I n the late 11th century, the general populace was very pious, even if in an endearingly simple manner. Salvation in Christianity was largely based upon deeds, and therefore all good Christians wished to embark upon pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The three main attractions in this field were Rome with the shrines of both Peter and Paul, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but of course, the biggest of all was Jerusalem. The fact that the Seljuq Turks held the town was a major obstacle, though. All routes to the Holy City were patrolled by Muslims who were very much disposed towards harassing the pilgrims in most ingenious ways, which often ended in the pilgrims being relieved of their property and life.

A t the Council of Clermont in 1095, pope Urban II preached to all the Christian world to unite for the cause of liberating Jerusalem. Urban in effect marked war against the infidels as holy war, and as such pleasing to God. He also wished to limit the combat between Christians themselves by directing the warlike tendencies against the Muslims. Yet another feature was a widespread and very strong belief that the end of the world was at hand, and it was better to have a go at salvation by joining the Crusade than to sit back and risk eternal damnation.

I n the ensuing First Crusade, knights played a major role. The masses of the Crusade were largely a badly organised mass of poor but pious people, and were it not for the valiant effort of a few good knights, the Crusades would never have made it past Constantinople. For example, the so-called "People's Crusade" which was drummed up by Peter the Hermit and consisted of ordinary but frenzied people and a few armed men, was all but hacked to easy pieces by the Turks in 1096, because they lacked the power of the main Crusader force. The largest contingent did better, and gradually the military leadership of the campaign formed into the military Orders, chiefly the Knights Hospitallers and the Templars.

H ugues de Payns and Geoffrey de St. Aldemar formed the Pauperes Commilitones Christi with seven other knights to remedy the outrageous situation. First they bound themselves into Augustinian rules. In 1118 Baldwin I, the King of Jerusalem, assigned the Temple of Solomon to the knights as their abode. This resulted in a change of the Order's name: Militia Templi Solomonis they now called themselves.

T o sum this up, the driving forces behind the Crusade were the religious fervour of the medieval man, the Papal endorsement of war against the Infidel enemy, and thirdly, the state Europe was in politically and financially. The Crusades would not have been possible before the late 11th century, but at that time the hot air in Europe had to find an outlet, lest Europe become a theatre of war in its own right. Well, there was always Palestine. Besides, the First Crusade was the first real attempt to block the Muslims from trying to gain entry to Europe.

A curious side note to this page is the Crusade against the Cathars (also known as the Albigenses). It was proclaimed in 1208 by Pope Innocent III and continued some twenty years, from 1209 to 1229. This Crusade against the Cathars was a perversion of the crusading spirit. When asked before the storming of one Cathar town how the crusaders could tell the heretics from the good Catholics, the churchman in charge of the attack said something like, "Kill them all; God will know his own." There were Catholics sympathetic to the Cathars who defended them and apparently Templars actually fought on both sides, although certainly all their official fighting was done on behalf of the Pope and the Church. With the final military conquest of the area of southern France occupied by the Cathars, known as the Languedoc, the crusade was ended and the Inquisition was established in 1233 to finish the job. They were still at it a century later.

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