100+ Significant Moments in Church History

Episode 24: The Crusades

January 28, 2021 Mike Woodruff Season 1 Episode 24
100+ Significant Moments in Church History
Episode 24: The Crusades
100+ Significant Moments in Church History
Episode 24: The Crusades
Jan 28, 2021 Season 1 Episode 24
Mike Woodruff

A.            Welcome to One Hundred Plus, an historical overview of 100 of the most important people, places and ideas of the last 2,000 years. This is a survey of the forces and factors that have shaped today’s world, the Christian faith and you.


In today’s podcast, Mike will be focusing on the Crusades – a series of “military -pilgrimages” that that have been a black eye for the church for 700 years. 


“Let those who were brigands become soldiers for Christ.” Pope Urban II


In his play, Henry IV, Shakespeare has the king state:

1.              We are impressed and engag’d to fight…

2.              To chase those pagans in those holy fields,

3.              Over whose acres walked those blessed feet,

4.              Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail’d

5.              For our advantage on the bitter cross.[1]


He was writing about the Crusades – an event almost unrivaled for the shame it has caused. For 700 years Christians have been trying to forget the Crusades. 


In this lecture - #24 – we are going to look at what happened and why, and you will learn that in some ways they were worse than you might have thought:


For starters, the term Crusades refers to nine different military pilgrimages that spanned 300 hundred years. And the fact is, the number nine is a bit arbitrary. It depends on what you count, arguably there were more conflicts between Christians and Muslims over the Holy Land than that, and the battles span one thousand years.


Additionally, they were unfortunate because they were ill-conceived, un-Christian, horrific, bloody, bigoted disasters.  They were dumpster fires before there were dumpsters! They did not accomplish any of their stated goals and by just about every measurement made things worse. 


On the other hand, you’re are likely to learn that some of what you were led to believe about the Crusades is not very accurate: 


They were not ugly land grabs made by the Pope (It’s complicated, but the land in dispute is more tied to Eastern Empire than Western.  And any land won was supposed to go back to the Byzantines), but the fact is, the land was initially held by Christians and was first taken by force by Muslims.  

Which means, the idea that the Arab world was peaceful until the blood-thirsty Christians went down there are started killing everyone is not true. The fighting had been going on for hundreds of years. The Crusades do not start the conflict. 

B.             As is often the case, context is important. And things were more complicated than they might first appear. 

II.             By way of general overview, we are in the 11th century – which is the Middle of the Middle Ages, or more technically, the High Middle Ages. 

A.            In recent lectures:

1.              We looked at the Great Schism that divided the Eastern and Western church.

2.              We looked at a number of the highs and lows in the papacy in the 8th, 9th and 10th century.

3.              We have also looked at a couple internal reform movements – principally the Cluniac and the Gregorian reforms.

4.              And I have talked about the church’s struggle to manage power well.

B.             Today – at long last – it’s the Crusades.

C.             There were other things going on. 

1.              The Crusades line up with the explosion of Gothic architecture – this is when Notre Dame[2] was built and 500 other Gothic Church buildings.

2.              This is also the glory days for the papacy.  During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Bishop of Rome had huge amounts of power – they had central control over the church and also power over Emperors.

a)              King John, the brother of King Richard the Lion Heart.  John is the one generally maligned in Robin Hood. He and the Pope get into a duel over who appoints the Arch Bishop of Canterbury and John losses big. The Pope comes close to kicking everyone in England out of the church. (He stops priests from hearing confession, and this brings enormous pressure on John, who folds). 

D.            There are other things going on besides the Crusades, but that will be our focus. I am going to break this lecture up into four parts: 

1.              I am going to open by explaining what was going on in the Church and Middle East when they started;

2.              How they got started;

3.              A brief overview of the major Crusades

4.              Some reflection points; 

III.           Number One: The Setting

A.            In the 10th and 11th centuries a handful of things were going on. For starters, the Seljuk Turks, who had migrated down from the North and converted to Islam – and who were effective warriors – had recently replaced the Arab Muslims as the ones in control of the Holy Lands. 

1.              We have not been talking much about Israel or Jerusalem lately. That might strike you as odd, both because: 1) In an overview of 100 of the most important people, events and ideas in the history of the church, you’d expect to hear more about the Holy Land; and 2) because the Middle East has been in the news almost nonstop over the last 100 years. 

2.              The area will come back into play in our discussions as we move into the early 20th century. 

3.              But it has not received much of our attention for three reasons. 

a)              First, remember, the Romans destroyed much of Jerusalem back in 70 AD and drove the Jews out and into the Diaspora. 

b)             To the extent that the church has had influence in the area, it has been the Eastern church more than the Western. And we have not been as dialed in on that half of the Empire;

c)              And, in 637, the region fell into Muslims hands.

B.             That said, the Holy Lands remained important to Christians from the West because since the time of Constantine Christians had been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. 

1.              You might remember that his mother went to Jerusalem and gave a fair bit of money to build-up various churches – including the church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

2.              Going down there was considered a way to grow in faith and – by some – something even more than that. It was a form of spiritual good works.

a)              As an aside, I do not see it as a form of spiritual good works. But I do think it can be a powerful trip and if you get a chance to go, do go.

3.              As we move into the 11th century – which is marked by some economic growth. The Barbarians and Vikings have been put down. Farming is picking up. Trade is picking up a bit. After 700 years of slogging it out, people have a bit more margin in life, and the number of people taking a pilgrimage to Israel is up.  We have record of one bishop leading a tour with 7,000 people.[3] 

C.             So, what does all of this have to do with the Crusades? Well, as we move into the 12th century, the practice of letting Christians do a pilgrimage in the Holy Land – which had been going on for centuries – is stopped. The Seljuk Turks do not want Christians coming down. This causes some tension between Western Christians and the Muslims. 

D.            At the same moment, in the ongoing back and forth border wars that had been constant between the Eastern Christians and the Muslims, the Muslims gain the upper hand and have the Eastern Christians on their heels.

1.              By 1125 the Byzantine empire had won back a lot of the land they had previously lost. But with the rise of the Seljuk Turks, they start losing it again. And in 1071, at a famous Battle in Manzikert, the Emperor not only fails to stop the Muslim advance, but he is captured, and his army is disbursed.[4] 

2.              On the Eve of the call for a Crusade, the Muslims are moving on Nicaea and pressing towards Constantinople. 

E.             In light of this, Emperor Alexius I asks Pope Urban II for help. 

1.              This request comes about a generation after the schism, so there is a sense in which they still feel some kindred spirit and hope to get back together. And Pope Urban II – who had come up via Cluny – wanted reunification and thought this might impress the East. 

2.              On top of this, Pope Urban II, like most Christians at the time, felt as though the Holy Land rightly belonged to the church. 

IV.          Two:  The Call

A.            Pope Urban II decided to honor Emperor Alexius 1st request for help, and so:

1.              On Nov. 22, 1095, in a sermon he delivers at a Council

2.              Pope Urban II lays out a description of what is going on in Holy Land.

3.              He describes the Seljuk Turks as blood thirsty savages. 

4.              He says our Christian brothers need help. 

5.              And he calls on his people to help those in the East defend their land and free the Holy Land.

6.              This is a key moment, and he delivers one of the most influential sermons of all time. We do not have a manuscript, but from accounts we know that he describes an adventurous mission that is part holy war and part pilgrimage. And the crowd goes wild and immediately starts yelling “Deus Volt.” Which means, “God wills it.”

7.              Urban declared “Deus Volt” the Crusade’s motto and urged those going to sew a cross on their clothes – on their back as they were traveling down and on their front after they had fulfilled their mission.”

B.             From what we can tell, he doesn’t think many will go. Perhaps 2,000. But two things make this different. 

1.              For starters, His endorsement moves the church into an acceptance of Holy War.  

a)              The Early Church had been pacifistic. They saw themselves as soldiers of one emperor – Jesus. And their mission is to inflict no harm. 

           They did not fight against their accusers, and because of their illegal status they were not allowed into the Army. 

b)             Starting with Augustine there had been an evolution towards the acceptance of Just War.

(1)           Eusebius – the early 4th century bishop of Caesarea - had started the transition, arguing that Christians were in a war against the devil and evil, which was all over and in different forms. And this suggested that physical battle might be allowed. 

(2)           Augustine takes this further. He doesn’t develop his Just War theory doctrine in one specific place, but over the course of his life he argues that it is OK for a Christian to fight if:


(3)           But to Augustine’s way of thinking, even necessary fighting was sinful and required penance.  

c)              By the time of the Crusades, Augustine had been dead for six hundred years, and his thinking was now standard. Christians now understood that they could serve in the army or be knights. And many were. But it was still viewed as life of sin and so soldiers needed to do a lot of penance.  (more on this in a moment). 

d)             The fact that the Pope calls for an army of Christian soldiers changes everything. It suggests that even beyond being allowed to fight in a just war, there are times when a Christian is expected to fight in a Holy War. No penance is required. And indeed, you get credit for it. 

2.              Which leads to the second matter – which focuses on Urban’s offer of plenary indulgences – which is also brand new. 

a)              We will need to talk more about the medieval Catholic Church’s view of salvation in a later lecture. But for now, know that what the Roman Catholic Church was teaching was:

(1)           When you are baptized your sins are forgiven (on the merit of Christ) and you gain some credit. However, you are on the line for post-baptismal sins.

(2)           When you sin you need to repent (be contrite), confess to a priest and do works of satisfaction.

(a)            These were assigned by a priest: a severe fast, praying the Psalms, a certain amount of money to the poor.

(3)           Repentance and confession removed the eternal consequences of your sin, but you needed to pay for your mistakes – which you either did in this life or in purgatory.

b)             At the time of the first Crusade, the pope made this proposal: 'Whoever for devotion alone, but not to gain honor or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance.' 

c)              In other words, if you go on the Crusade and fulfill your vow, you have fulfilled all of your requirements for penance and will go straight to heaven.

d)             This was new and  huge, especially for a Knight – who had a hard time keeping up with their penance requirements. .

e)              They were looking at a long time in purgatory.

f)              Up until this point, the church said it could do away with some of your time in purgatory but not all. Now it was all. 

3.              So, Urban preaches this sermon, after which lay recruiters are sent out to sign people up they seem to sweeten the deal a bit. Now, if you helped Crusaders go you could get credit. Or if you paid for someone to go you got credit.  And the concept of a war called by the Pope – alongside the Plenary indulgences – wins over many.  Much to the Pope’s surprise, 100,000 people sign up.

V.            Three – An Overview of the Main Crusades:

A.            Over the course of the next four hundred years, there will be nine crusades. And, by virtually every account, they are a disaster.  

1.              The idea that God’s church is going to be advanced through slaughtering “infidels” is horrific in itself. Add to this, once the crusades get launched, the Crusaders end up killing lots of Jews along the way, and they also kill other Christians. 

2.              Now, just to be clear, I am saying they are a disaster. there are Crusades that are military successes, but not that many. And when the Crusades stop – and again, I say there are nine. There is a sense in which military skirmishes between Western Christians, Eastern Christians and Muslims go on for about 1,000 years (not just the 300 – 400 that are associated with the Crusades). But when they stop none of the big objectives have been accomplished. 

3.              And by the way, they may have kept going if it had not been for the Protestant Reformation. 

4.              In fairness, I should note that there is a surprising bit of disagreement surrounding the Crusades among historians. I am saying the big driver was the offer of plenary indulgences. Some say it was apocalyptic zeal, others say it was a chance for adventure, and some say it was a chance to do something for God that mattered other than becoming a monk. 

B.             Let me share a bit about the key Crusades and then make some general observations.

C.             The First Crusade.  So, Pope Urban II issues the call. 100,000 sign up – including 5,000 Knights.[5] And what happens next will sound a bit like a script for a Monty Python movie, although it’s not so funny because many people die.

1.              You need to understand that it’s not just Knights and people with military training who sign up, a bunch of peasants sign up. This is a chance:

a)              to do something for God. 

b)             To gain their own get-out-of-purgatory card

c)              To have an adventure and perhaps gain some plunder or get some land.

d)             Some were there for more noble reasons – devotion to Christ. And some maybe really hated “the infidel.” It is likely that some of all of these may have been in play.

e)              Indeed, they are so excited that they race on ahead before those with experience even develop any kind of plan.. “Who shows up early for a Crusade?”

f)              Without any training or weapons – and without much food – in April of 1096 they head down to Constantinople. 

g)             When they get there, Emperor Alexius I doesn’t really know what to do with them. 

(1)           He had wanted mercenaries not a lawless and unarmed mob, so he directs them across the Bosporus to wait for the others. They do not wait. There are reports that they initially attack the people in Nicaea – who are Christians. What is clear is that they are then wiped out by the Turks.

h)             And it seems as if he sends them across the Bosporus and they are slaughtered. 

2.              The second thing that happens is that the real army shows up and they are also sent to Nicaea across the Bosporus and they lay siege to the city and it falls. (By the way, warfare is a bit boring. Not like in the movies where people scale tall walls. You surround a city and wait for it to starve).[6] 

3.              After conquering Nicaea, they move on Antioch. It takes them four months to get there. In part because some take detour to Edessa and capture it (although it was in Christian hands to start with). 

4.              Antioch is a well-fortified city and the siege goes on and on (for 8 months) and is a problem – remember, you have to feed and pay an army). Those conducting the siege are freezing and starving and some start to peel off from the army and leave. Rumors arrive that the Turks are sending an army to attack the siegers. Just before that happens someone betrays the people of Antioch, the gates are open, the soldiers rush in and slaughter everyone – mostly women and children.  

5.              Then, the invading Turkish army shows up and so they shut the gate and now the siegers are under siege.  This looks bad (no food), but one of the Peasants – Peter Bartholomew – claims that he has had a dream telling him where to find the lance used to kill Christ. He finds it (never mind there is already one on display in Constantinople). The nobles do not believe it’s anything, but the people do. And inspired they overcome the siege.

6.              At this point, they had done what they vowed to do. But they are not well led, and some want to go to Jerusalem – which Pope Urban had mentioned – so they do.

a)              Jerusalem had been under Muslim control for 400 years. Emperor Alexius doesn’t want it. But on July 15th 1099 they attack, and find it poorly defended (the Islamic Caliphate was divided and weak[7]) and they succeed, killing about 3,000. 

b)             You may have heard a description of the event reporting that the soldiers were 'wading up to their knees in blood.' This is an exaggeration, being a line from the apocalyptic Book of Revelation (14:20) used to convey an impression of the scene rather than a real description – a physical impossibility. The crusaders gave emotional thanks for their success as they reached their goal, the tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulcher.

D.            This ends the first crusade. 

1.              Of course conquering the land and occupying it are two different things. 

a)              They will divide the land into a few Crusader states.

b)             There will also be the Creation of Monastic Knights – The Knights of Templar (the Temple) – white robes with a red cross - and the Knights Hospitaller (from which we see the roots for hospitality and hospital). They had black robes with a white cross. And the Teutonic Knights – white robs with black cross.

(1)           They are set up to provide protection for people who want to journey down on pilgrimage. 


VI.          The Second Crusade

A.            As noted, it’s one thing to win a battle. It’s another to govern. And this is even more vexing in a different culture. 

B.             In December 1134, Edessa (one of the main Crusader states) is taken back by the Muslims – with “carnage sufficient to avenge the conquest of Jerusalem” - so in December 1145, another papal bull is issued for another Crusade. Initially nothing happens, then a respected theologian – Bernard of Clairvaux – gets it jumped started.

1.              I should note, some say Bernard is respected and others highlight his anti-Semitic statements.

C.             This Crusade doesn’t have a false start, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems.

1.              For starters, the Byzantine Emperor has not asked for help, and he doesn’t trust the Crusaders.

a)              It’s a bit of an afront because the Emperor in the East feels as though he is in charge.

b)             He makes them swear oaths to him or they will not be fed. 

2.              There is not a lot to do. The wealthy nobleman act like they are on holiday for about six months, then they attack Damascus:

a)              Which was an ally;

b)             Which was heavily fortified

c)              Which had no strategic advantage.

3.              And oh by the way, they didn’t have enough troops to surround the city or enough food to support the troops they did have. So, the people of Damascus just look over the wall and laugh and the Crusade falls apart.

D.            By the way, Jerusalem had remained in the hands of the Crusaders, but between the second and third Crusades it falls to Saladin. But he keeps it open to pilgrims. .      

VII.        The Third Crusade

A.            The third Crusade actually lives up to some of the hype. Richard the Lion Heart – king of England and a noble hero in Robin Hood does battle against Saladin – a Turkish / Islamic leader who is lauded as being a remarkable person: charitable and merciful but also a very effective military leader.

B.             He is leader in Egypt. When a leader in the Caliphate in Palestine dies, he moves in with 30,000 troops and takes over.

C.             Pope Gregory XIII calls for a Crusade to get Jerusalem.

D.            Richard and Saladin fight to a draw. It appears as though Richard is slowing winning, but he gets word from home that he better get back, so he negotiates a truce.

1.              By the way, Richard is not nearly as good a guy in real life as he is portrayed in Robin Hood. And his younger brother, Prince John, is better than portrayed. (More on that in a future lecture) 

E.             Richard and Saladin reach a deal in which Saladin can have the land but the pilgrims can come down.  It works until Saladin dies, then the attacks start again.

VIII.      The Fourth Crusade is next (1202-1204)

A.            In 1198, Pope Innocent II calls this one. (Popes are now calling for Crusades quite often – and not just for Middle East. One gets called for Spain).

B.             This one is an disaster. They head out towards Jerusalem. Detour to Constantinople.  Do not have money they need.

C.             Get involved in some Byzantine politics. End up attacking Constantinople – the “greatest city in the Christian world”  and sacking it. Many killed. They place Emperor sympathetic too West on throne. West will rule for about 100 years.[8]

D.            This was first time Constantinople had ever fallen in 1,000 years, but is beginning of their decline. After this, merger between churches in East and West much more unthinkable.  

E.             As an aside, Constantinople is now weaker and it will fall to Muslims in 1453.

IX.          The Children’s Crusade (1212).

A.            In spite of this series of disasters, crusading remained an attractive concept. In 1212 a group of children (6 – 14) end up on a very ill-conceived Crusade. Apparently inspired by divine visions, two groups of young peasants set out Confident God would honor their faith. They crossed the Alps and some reached the port of Genoa, where the harsh realities of having no money or real hope of achieving anything was made plain when they were refused passage to the East and the entire enterprise collapsed.

X.            There were some other Crusades of note – an Albigensian Crusade – and there is almost one launched well into the 1500s, but we get into the Reformation, and that was a blow to the idea: it viewed the crusades as a manipulative and money-making device of the Catholic Church. And of course did not like the plenary indulgences. 

XI.          But let me stop there and back up for some basics. 

A.            I did not define a Crusade at the beginning of the lecture, because:

1.              although some do – Ryan Reeves calls them a Frankenstein mashup of a military campaign, pilgrimage and penance. I have heard others say: 1) military pilgrimage undertaken for Christ, that is 2) sanctioned by the papacy; 3) that requiring vows and 4) carried protection of the Pope and granted plenary indulgence.

2.              It is clear that when they started no one really knew where they were headed

B.             I think it is worth noting that: 

1.              They were not called Crusade for few hundred years, they are military pilgrimages.

2.              The term means “way of the cross.”.

C.             And also to note that:

1.              in the West, the Crusades were not viewed in the negative light we see them today until about fifty years ago, which is why in the first half of the 20th century you had high schools and colleges (such as Wheaton) selecting the name Crusaders for their mascot;

2.              And in the Arab world, until the 18th century, no one thought anything about them. They seemed to have been a non-event.

3.              And there were lots of examples of Christians and Muslims getting along. 

D.            So, while there is a sense in which we need to own the Crusades. They were a mistake at so many levels. But, we cannot imagine the Kingdom of Christ expanding by the sword. So, we need to own them, but some of what we need to do is understand the bigger picture and place the Crusades in their context. They are part of clashes up until 16th century. 


F.             By the middle of the 15th century the Ottomans had already twice besieged Constantinople and in 1453 Sultan Mehmet II brought forwards an immense army to achieve his aim. Last-minute appeals to the West brought insufficient help and the city fell in May. The Emperor Charles V invoked the crusading spirit in his defense of Vienna in 1529, although this struggle resembled more of an imperial fight rather than a holy war. Crusading had almost run its course; people had become increasingly cynical about the Church's sale of indulgences

XII.        Next Podcast:

A.            We will double back to pick up Aristotle – the Greek philosopher who lived 300 plus years before Christ – because next up is a movement called Scholasticism which impacts the church in some significant ways. That will be episode #25.

B.             I leave you by noting, the Kingdom of God cannot be won with violence..


[1] King Henry is using the invasion into the Holy Lands in part to distract his people from domestic problems. [2] Notre Dame was built between 1163 and 1235. [3] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Word, 1982, p. 205. [4] When Emperor Romanos IV was conducted into the presence of Alp Arslan, the Sultan refused to believe that the bloodied and tattered man covered in dirt was the mighty Emperor of the Romans. After discovering his identity, Alp Arslan placed his boot on the Emperor's neck and forced him to kiss the ground.[12] A famous conversation is also reported to have taken place:[32]Alp Arslan: "What would you do if I were brought before you as a prisoner?"Romanos: "Perhaps I'd kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople.” lp Arslan: "My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free."Alp Arslan treated Romanos with considerable kindness and again offered the terms of peace that he had offered prior to the battle. (Wikipedia). [5] The code of the Christian knight included the following responsibilities: (a) to give his life for his lord – a continuation of the Germanic view of loyalty; (b) not to use his sword for personal gain; (c) not to try to save his own life in defending his lord; (d) to die for his homeland (which could be interpreted as the heavenly Jerusalem); (e) to give his life in fighting heretics, schismatics, and those excommunicated; (f) to defend the poor, widows, and orphans; and (g) to be true to his oath of allegiance. Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume 1, Zondervan, 2005, p. 412. [6] The Crusaders lay siege. At last minute, Emperor of East has his men sneak in and cut a deal for Muslims to surrender to Emperor not to Crusaders.  [7] Another area to receive increasing attention is the reaction of the Muslim world. It is now clear that when the First Crusade arrived the Muslims of the Near East were extremely divided, not just along the Sunni/Shi'ite fault line, but also, in the case of the former, among themselves. Robert Irwin draws attention to this in his 1997 article, as well as considering the impact of the crusade on the Muslims of the region. It was a fortunate coincidence that during the mid-1090s the death of senior leaders in the Seljuk world meant that the crusaders encountered opponents who were primarily concerned with their own political infighting rather than seeing the threat from outside. Given that the First Crusade was, self-evidently, a novel event, this was understandable. The lack of jihad spirit was also evident, as lamented by as-Sulami, a Damascene preacher whose urging of the ruling classes to pull themselves together and fulfil their religious duty was largely ignored until the time of Nur ad-Din (1146-74) and Saladin onwards.[8] At first Innocent was delighted that Constantinople was under Latin authority but as he learned of the violence and looting that had accompanied the conquest he was horrified and castigated the crusaders for 'the perversion of their pilgrimage'.