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The Origin of the Crusades

by Eric Pement

In the weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center (September 11, 2001), the evening news focused on Osama bin Laden, the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the rise of Muslim extremists, and "Fundamentalist Islam" (the sort that promotes polygamy, death for adultery, and head-to-toe covering of women). One question was repeatedly asked: Why do they hate us so much?

The Palestinian issue is one reason. Our global exportation of pornography is another. A third reason, which both Islamic and non-Islamic commentators have brought up time and again, was the Crusades—a lingering, festering sore that has not healed in over 900 years.

For most Americans, the word crusade evokes images of a mass vendetta of self-righteous people, a relentless and usually misguided effort to right a perceived injustice. For many Muslims, the word crusade designates an uglier sort of evil. When President Bush explained his determination to uproot terrorism, describing his plan as a crusade, he quickly corrected himself.

For comparison, imagine that the World Trade Center had been bombed by Israeli fanatics, and Bush was televised saying that he would create a "final solution" to the threat of Jewish terrorism. The impact would be similar. Many Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians also have deep, negative associations with the Crusades. Yet Evangelicals often have no qualms about using this term. Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ is one example.[1]

Soldiers of the Cross?

The Crusades were a series of military expeditions to wrest Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land from Muslim control, conducted under the banner of the cross. The word crusade comes from the Latin word crucesignatus, "one signed by the cross." The Crusades began at the instigation of Pope Urban II in 1095, drawing armies from all over Europe and lasting nearly 200 years. They stopped shortly before 1300.

Some historians extend the Crusades another 200 to 400 years, to include other armed incursions against Islamic territories (or, depending on one's point of view, to reclaim formerly Christian territories from Muslim conquerors), as well as military actions against Christian heretics and pagan threats in Europe. Here, I limit the Crusades to the Holy Land.

The Crusades are a significant chapter of church history, not simply because of what they accomplished (mostly negative), but also because of the types of people involved. The leaders of the Crusades, or people who were connected with them in one way or another, comprise a who's who of leaders of Europe.

The list includes Richard the Lion-Hearted (king of England), several kings of France, several kings of Germany, as well as kings of Hungary, Austria, and elsewhere. It also covers notables such as the son-in-law of William the Conqueror (Stephen of Blois). Every pope for 200 years endorsed the Crusades, as did many spiritual leaders: Bernard of Clairvaux, Catherine of Sienna, and Thomas Aquinas (the latter somewhat obliquely). The noble Francis of Assisi went on the Fifth Crusade as a noncombatant.

Holy War

The Crusaders came from countries throughout Europe, mostly from France, Germany, and England. Prior to the Crusades, Christians generally viewed war as an evil, on occasion the lesser of two evils. For example, Augustine held that there might be a "just war" in which the more loving thing to do is to kill those who commit great evil, rather than let them take over—just as amputating a gangrenous limb is better than letting the gangrene spread. [2] In the fourth century, Martin, bishop of Tours, refused to take up arms after his conversion and is often quoted as saying, "I am a soldier of Christ; I am not allowed to fight" (Dowley 1995, 52).

But Pope Gregory VII (papacy in 1073–1085) reversed this long-standing policy and the "soldiers of Christ" (militia Christi) came to designate armed warriors whose meritorious Christian duty included battle. A few years later, Pope Urban II (1088–1099) motivated the Crusaders, promising that God would hold them guiltless of any blood shed while securing the Holy Land. Indeed, Urban promised a "plenary indulgence" from purgatory for all who went on the Crusade.

Over the next 200 years, hundreds of thousands went to war. The Crusaders were a mixed lot, ranging from kings, bishops, and knights to mobs, clans, and entire families on a pilgrimage for which they had made no preparation. Often lacking in military leadership or basic organization, many had literally no idea who they were going to fight or why.

Over the next 150 years in the Near East, the victims of the Crusaders included Greek Orthodox as well as Jews and Muslims. The Crusaders slaughtered thousands of European Jews en route to the Holy Land. In their shock tactics against the Turks and Saracens ("tent-dwellers," a generic term for Muslim Arabs), the Crusaders engaged in torture, mutilation of prisoners, and mass murder. Crusade historian Fred Wright notes, "The Crusaders in their excess had a world view that allowed them to carry out acts of murder, rape, looting and pillaging because in their mental world they were not dealing with a group of people who were considered within the same categories as themselves" (1995, 178).

The Crusades are a horror not simply because of the sheer numbers of people killed (cumulative figures are hard to come by in any of the sources I have seen, though it doubtless amounts to six or seven figures), but also because of the cruelty and mindless killing of people who were not military targets, were not hostile, and were sometimes on the same side as the Crusaders.

Background Factors

When the Crusades began, the Eastern (Greek-speaking) and the Western (Latin-speaking) churches had been split for over 40 years. In earlier centuries, the Church in the East had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Church in Rome. Their alienation grew with the passage of time, focusing on the proper use of icons (eighth century), the insertion of the filioque[3] into the Nicene Creed (ninth century), the celibacy of the Roman priesthood, and the Catholic use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist.

Though Roman popes and Orthodox patriarchs had excommunicated each other hundreds of years previously, it was never permanent. The "Great Schism" of 1054 was the last straw: Pope Leo IX placed an anathema against the patriarch of Constantinople (Michael Cerularius), who in turn excommunicated the pope and all his followers.

Thus, meaningful communication between the churches was virtually nil at a crucial juncture. This communication breakdown led the popes to act independently of the Eastern Church, rather than in cooperation with it.

Muslim Expansion and Outrages

While the Great Schism was developing, a new Islamic faction came into power. Named after Seljuk, an early Turkish chief who converted to Islam, the Seljukian Turks conquered Armenia, Persia, Mesopotamia, and would eventually expand into Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The Seljuks took their orders from caliphs in Baghdad (now the capital of Iraq).

Since A.D. 638, Muslims had been in control of Jerusalem. Although Muslim rule did not permit the evangelization of Muslims or the building of new churches, existing churches in Jerusalem could continue and Christian pilgrims were given unobstructed access to their sacred sites. This accommodation occurred because the Qur'an looks upon Christians and Jews as "people of the book," i.e., monotheists who are to be treated differently from idolaters and unbelievers.

However, in the eleventh century the attitude toward outsiders changed. Seljuk Muslims had taken control of the central routes leading to the Holy Land, and safe passage was no longer possible.

Pilgrimages to the Holy Land, sometimes prescribed as an act of penance, were now quite dangerous. Christian pilgrims were likely to be robbed, raped, or killed. Mass pilgrimages were sometimes organized for safety, but even these numbers were not adequate. Sometimes the admission fee to "enter" Jerusalem was raised to impossibly high rates and people who had traveled six months were turned away at the city gates (Schaff 1907, 223). A group of seven thousand pilgrims, led by three bishops and an archbishop, set out from Germany in 1064 and encountered many pilgrims returning from the Holy Land in tears.

A contemporary chronicler writes, "These men reported the deaths of innumerable companions and disasters endured by themselves and displayed wounds still gory. They declared loudly that nobody could pass by that route, since the most savage race of Arabs occupied the whole territory, thirsting for human blood." The German pilgrims continued on to the Holy Land, but were met with savage resistance by the Turks. One of the bishops records the public gang-rape of an abbess (the "mother superior" of a convent) until she died, in the full view of nuns who were unable to protect her (Wright 1995, 11).

When the Seljuks conquered Jerusalem in 1076, conditions for pilgrims worsened, many now being imprisoned or sold into slavery. The reports of such outrages were delivered to the pope. However, these factors, influential in themselves, were not the spark that set off the crusading movement.

The Direct Cause of the Crusades

In 1071, the Seljuks stunningly defeated the Byzantine (Orthodox) army in Armenia, capturing the Eastern emperor. They went on to capture Antioch in Syria (where the disciples were first called Christians) in 1085 and Nicaea (site of the First Ecumenical Council) in 1092. With a raging Islamic army virtually on the doorstep of Constantinople, in the spring of 1095 the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus swallowed his pride and appealed to the pope for assistance.

Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern empire, and its churches contained priceless treasures, manuscripts, and relics from the beginning of Christianity. Though an earlier pope had expelled the Orthodox Church four decades earlier, Pope Urban II could hardly stand to see this keystone city lost to an army of marauders. He also hoped, perhaps, that intervening on their behalf could heal the Great Split.

The Council of Clermont, France, was convened by Pope Urban II on November 18, 1095. Present were 14 archbishops, 250 bishops, 400 abbots, and thousands of others. On the ninth day of the Council, Pope Urban gave his famous appeal. According to David Schaff, "The address was the most effective sermon ever preached by a pope or any other mortal. It stirred the deepest feelings of the hearers and was respected throughout all Europe" (Schaff 1907, 227). The pope declared that the Church must immediately aid their persecuted brothers in the East, since the Turks ("an accursed race") had devastated the kingdom of God. He vividly portrayed the abuses occurring in the Holy Land, and "he promised the cancellation of debts, exemption from taxes, and a crown of eternal life to all participants" (Austin 1983, 186). He said that Christ Himself would lead the armies across sea and mountain, that Jerusalem awaited their rescue. "The way is short, the toil followed by an incorruptible crown."

The crowd cried back, "Deus vult, Deus vult" (God wills it, God wills it). Pope Urban responded affirmatively, "Yes! Let these words be your war-cry when you unsheath your sword. You are soldiers of the cross. Wear on your breasts or shoulders, the blood-red sign of the cross. Wear it as a token that His help will never fail you, the pledge of a vow never to be repealed" (Schaff 1907, 229).

Thousands took the vow at once, some sewing the cross onto their clothing and others branding a cross directly into their flesh with hot irons. They were ready to go to war and to die at Jerusalem to obtain the kingdom of God. Wandering preachers spread the message throughout Europe.

The First Crusade began in March of the following year, 1096, with a wave of between ten thousand and twenty thousand enthusiastic but incompetent warriors setting out for Constantinople. Nearly all of them died in Hungary or Bulgaria, victims of starvation, disease, or bandits. Only a handful of them reached Constantinople. The next waves were somewhat more successful.

Historian Mark Noll summarizes the result: "The First Crusade did succeed in capturing Jerusalem in 1099. But it accomplished this with such crass military bluntness—slaughtering Jews and Arab Christians as well as Muslims—that already the underside of the crusading ideal was becoming altogether too apparent" (Noll 1997, 140).

The First Crusade was the only crusade to achieve a real military purpose, the capture of Jerusalem. The Crusaders were able to hold on to Jerusalem for 88 years until the city fell to the Muslim commander Saladin in 1187. A little over a century and at least seven additional crusades passed before it was clear that the Church in the West, headquartered at Rome, could not maintain, protect, and control the principal cities of the Holy Land, distant from them by roughly two thousand miles and many months of travel. The frontiers of Europe itself were being threatened by Turkish and pagan forces by the dawn of the fourteenth century—the distance was just too great to manage.

One cannot help thinking of the advice given in the movie The Princess Bride. The Crusaders "fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is: Never get involved in a land war in Asia" (Vizzini in The Princess Bride, 1987).

What Motivated the Crusaders?

What mentality and type of thinking spurred hundreds of thousands of people to voluntarily leave their homes, travel across the known world, and fight a people they had never seen, of whose religion they knew virtually nothing?

I see four predisposing factors that made people amenable to the idea of a crusade, so that the notion of a sacred war became not simply "conceivable" but sufficiently virtuous as to be a holy obligation in the sight of God. (I announce my indebtedness here to Fred Wright, author of The Cross Became a Sword, a first-rate historian of the Latin and Old French source records.)

The first factor is the effect of literature in medieval society. Before the invention of the printing press, the homes of both nobles and commons were entertained with tales of heroes and romance. This occurred both in epic poetry and prose stories, which were copied by hand and read orally day and night. Among the French people, where the Crusading movement got its start, a premier work was the Chanson de Roland ("The Song of Roland"), an epic poem of some four thousand lines. This epic is "said to have been more influential upon crusading theology than the Bible" (Wright 1995, 24).

The Song of Roland tells the story of the Emperor Charlemagne in a march against Abbasid Muslims in Spain in the eighth century. Though this story underwent significant alteration from generation to generation, the focus is on Roland, a noble knight who engages in battle with Muslim enemies, who are the very quintessence of evil. Archangels find a place with Roland in the poem, and as he takes his last breath on the field of battle, he is ushered into heaven. In other words, the literature of the day had themes that predisposed people toward the idea of a heavenly reward for Christians dying on the field of battle against a satanic army.

The second factor is the Middle Age fascination with relics and holy objects. In the song mentioned above, as Roland dies he places beneath his body his trusty sword, Durendal, praying that the Muslims will not discover its secrets. For hidden within its golden hilt is a small trove of relics:

St. Peter's tooth, St. Basil's blood, it holds!
Hair of my Lord, St. Denis there enclosed,
Likewise a piece of blessed Mary's robe;
To Paynim [pagan] hands ‘twere sin to let you go …

These relics gave Roland his power on the battlefield. The fascination and devotion to relics was not confined to the French laity, but were a dominant feature of Europe in the Middle Ages. Sacred relics were treated as amulets or charms, providing people with supernatural power, protection, or spiritual blessings. To our Westernized minds, this seems much like superstitious gullibility, but to most of the educated people of Europe (up to and including the papacy), relics themselves were unimaginably attractive.

The Crusaders were obsessed with finding pieces of the True Cross, the Lance of Longinus which pierced the side of Jesus, anything which might have once belonged to the saints or even to Judas Iscariot. The quest for the Holy Grail was not simply limited to the knights of King Arthur, but was a driving force in the eleventh century.

The Holy Land, especially the city of Jerusalem, was a gem of immense proportions, and the thought of it being in the hands of unbelievers was, to the medieval mind, like the thought of Osama bin Laden possessing a working, suitcase-sized nuclear weapon. When we understand the power medievals ascribed to relics, the attractiveness of recapturing Jerusalem for Christ becomes more apparent.

Third, a pilgrimage itself was a source of virtue. The Crusades were not simply military campaigns or expeditions to foreign soil. They were also "pilgrimages" with the expectation of both finding God's blessing in the journey and seeing His glory in the destination. It was a sacred trip to a sacred place, much as the Ha’aj to Mecca has been to Muslims from around the world.

Finally, the Crusaders found additional "pulls" by the spirit of the times. Though they were not distinctly millenarian (as has been mistakenly thought by earlier scholars), the idea of doing battle on the Holy Land itself, over the Holy City of Jerusalem, and knowing that in the process you will be forgiven of all your sins, does have a certain eschatological appeal. More than that—it carries overtones of the final Great Battle of God against the forces of the Antichrist in the Book of the Revelation.

The Crusaders believed in miracles. In the Children's Crusade (between the fourth and fifth crusade, about A.D. 1212), some twenty thousand children whose average age was ten to eighteen embarked to the Holy Land. Literally thousands of children walked from France and Germany to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, expecting the seas to part for them. (Even if the waters had parted, they had no real idea how far the distance is from Italy to Jerusalem.)

If we think that our time is uniquely plagued with a case of "end-times madness" and an increase of false prophecies, we are fooling ourselves. In the pope's summons to join the First Crusade, when people are summoned to travel to Jerusalem to battle the Saracens (whom they believe to be agents of Satan), we have a battle of cosmic proportions. It's not merely a fight over real estate; it's a Battle of Armageddon. For instance, when the Crusaders first arrived at Jerusalem, they marched around the city barefoot with priests at the head of the line, expecting the walls of Jerusalem to fall down before them as they had fallen down at Jericho.

The spirit of the times said this was the end of the age, the last battle of the great God Almighty. When the battle lines are drawn by God, few people want to be found on the sidelines, watching all the action safely at home. Instead, they want to be on the front lines, where they believe Christ will be (invisibly) leading the armies and who may, at any moment, appear on His white horse as the skies split apart and the hosts of heaven appear at His side.

The Unholy Fruit of the Crusades

Sadly, the heritage of the Crusades is one of shame, an occasion of sorrow rather than pride. Instead of mending the schism between Rome and Constantinople, the Crusaders made the split permanent when they themselves sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The damage done to relations between East and West lasted for centuries.

The savage butchery of Muslims and Jews was even worse, both in terms of degree of cruelty and in the numbers of those killed. The Crusaders profaned the name of Christ and hindered the gospel for centuries, not simply by their actions but also by the thinking that led Christians to view forced conversion or military conquest as acceptable goals in achieving the spread of Christianity.

However, we do the Crusaders and ourselves a disservice by interpreting them as simply bloodthirsty psychotics driven by ignorance or lust for money. Those factors were present, to be sure. However, there were other social, political, and cultural factors also at work in European history, which make the Crusades not excusable but at least more understandable. Some of those same factors are at work in our world today, whether between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, Hindu and Muslim in India, or Israeli and Palestinian in the same lands where Crusaders once marched.

Original publication information:
Eric Pement, "The Crusades: Christendom's Unholy Wars Revisited," Cornerstone (Chicago, ISSN 0275-2743), volume 31, issue 123 (2002), pages 16-19, 23.

Minor errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar in the print edition are corrected where discovered. Footnote 1 was added after publication.


[1]. In 2011, Campus Crusade for Christ changed its corporate name to "Cru." For some years prior to this, they had been using words other than "crusade" for their international branches. 

[2]. Augustine, The City of God. Bk. 19, chap. 27, sec. 7. Cited in Wright 1995, 102-103, and Sidberry 1985, 71. 

[3]. Filioque—the Roman addition to the Nicene Creed, affirming that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father "and the Son" together. This insertion without consulting the Eastern churches was deemed not only insulting and arrogant, but also heretical. 

Works Consulted or Cited

Ambroise. 1941. The Crusade of Richard Lion-heart. Translated by Merton Jerome Hubert, with notes by John L. La Monte. New York: Columbia University Press. (Ambroise is credited as a thirteenth-century eyewitness to the Third Crusade; the original Old French manuscript is in the Vatican library.)

Archer, Thomas A., and Charles L. Kingsford. 1894. The Crusades: The Story of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Austin, Bill R. 1983. Austin's Topical History of Christianity. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers.

Dowley, Tim, ed. 1995. Introduction to the History of Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Duggan, Alfred. 1964. The Story of the Crusades: 1097-1291. New York: Pantheon Books/Random House.

Galli, Mark. 1993. "Bloody Pilgrimage." Christian History 12, no. 4.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. 1953. A History of Christianity. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Marshall, Caroline T. 1993. "Did You Know? Little-known or Remarkable Facts about the Crusades." Christian History 12, no. 4.

Noll, Mark. 1997. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Tyndale House Publishers.

Runciman, Steven. 1951-1954. A History of the Crusades. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schaff, Philip, ed. 1907. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 5, The Middle Ages, from Gregory VII to Boniface VIII, 1049-1294, by David S. Schaff. Reprint; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.

Setton, Kenneth M., ed. A History of the Crusades. 4 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955 (vol. 1); 1962 (vol. 2); and Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975 (vol. 3), 1977 (vol. 4).

Sidberry, Elizabeth. 1985. Criticism of Crusading. Oxford: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.

Strayer, Joseph R., ed. 1984. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. See esp. vol. 4, pp. 14-62 for several related articles.

Wright, Fred. 1995. The Cross Became a Sword: The Soldiers of Christ and the First Crusade. Harpenden, Herts (United Kingdom): RW Publishing.

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