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The crusades were traditionally viewed as holy wars conducted from 1095 to 1291 that attempted to liberate (from Muslim control) and protect sites in the Holy Land sacred to Christendom. Soon they took on a broader mission: defending Christian order, under the sign of the cross, against unbelievers and enemies of the church. Many twenty-first-century scholars have adopted a “pluralist” view that recognizes an Age of Crusades spanning five hundred years.
- The Reconquista: Iberia’s Crusades
- The Jerusalem Journey: The “First Crusade”
- Crusades in the Baltic
- Reconquering Jerusalem
- The North African Campaigns
- New Types of Crusades
- The Mongols
- Early Modern Explorations and Colonization
The word “crusade,” derived from the Old Spanish cruzada, is best translated as “an undertaking marked by a cross” and most commonly means a Christian holy war. The original goal of the crusades was the liberation of Jerusalem and other sites in the Middle East sacred to Christendom, but by the early thirteenth century the crusade had evolved into an institution of the Roman Catholic Church with a more general mission: upholding and extending Christian order against all unbelievers and enemies of the church everywhere. As a result, Latin Christian Europe came into conflict not only with the Islamic world but also with the non-Christian peoples of the Baltic, the Byzantine Empire, the Rus’ (a Slavic polity centered in Kiev), and even nonconformist Christians at home, such the Cathars of Languedoc, the so-called Albigensian heretics. Crusading also took on a missionary element, largely due to the impetus of the new mendicant orders, specifically the Franciscans and Dominicans. Consequently, crusading zeal and objectives impelled the Roman Church to send diplomats and missionaries to Mongolia and China between the mid-thirteenth and mid-fourteenth centuries and played an equally significant role in propelling Europe’s transoceanic voyages of discovery of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Likewise, Catholic Iberia’s overseas policies in the Americas, along the coastal shores of Africa, and in South and East Asia were colored by crusading values.
Historians debate the dates encompassed by the crusades and the crusaders’ theaters of operation. One school, known as the “traditionalists,” limits the crusades to the period that began with the calling of the First Crusade in 1095 and ended with the destruction of the last crusader strongholds on the mainland of Syria-Palestine in 1291. Traditionalists further limit the crusades to holy wars fought between Latin Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa during these two centuries. For the traditionalists, true crusades had Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land as their exclusive focal points. The other school, known as the “pluralists,” which is in current ascendancy in scholarly circles, has a broader view. Pluralists count as crusades the Spanish Reconquista, holy wars launched against pagans and other perceived enemies in the Baltic and Eastern Europe, and wars called by the papacy against heretics and political enemies in Western Europe. They also greatly expand the chronological limits of the crusades, finding proto-crusades well before 1095 and a vibrant crusading tradition well after 1291. Some take the Age of the Crusades down to as late as 1798, when Napoleon captured the island of Malta from the Order of the Hospital of Saint John, a religious order that assumed military functions in the twelfth-century crucible of the crusades. The perspective of this article is pluralist, but only goes so far as seeing the struggles between Catholic Europe and the Ottoman Empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the last vestiges of crusading. Given this span of over five hundred years, it was only natural that crusading, as ideal and reality, was in constant flux. As an idea and an institution, the crusade took a century to develop into full theoretical and institutional form—essentially during the pontificate of Pope Innocent III (r. 1198–1216). Even after it had achieved this level of coherence, crusading continued to respond to new stimuli and challenges.
Despite such evolution, certain crusade constants were in place from the beginning and remained an integral part of crusading to the end. These were: (1) the belief that a crusade was a holy war waged on behalf of Jesus Christ and given legitimacy by the Roman papacy; (2) the certainty that one achieved a close relationship with Jesus through this act of love; (3) the belief that this was also a penitential act of self-sacrifice that earned spiritual merit, chief of which was a plenary indulgence, or full remission of the church-imposed penance due for sins; (4) the fact that its participants, women as well as men, enjoyed a special, quasi-clerical status by virtue of their crusade vows; (5) and the obligation and right to wear a cross, thereby becoming a crucesignatus—one signed with a cross.
Throughout these centuries of crusading, hundreds, even thousands of crusades of every size, make-up, and objective were launched. In light of the personal nature of crusading—a penitential act of love and sacrifice—arguably every crusader was a crusade unto him- or herself. Given this reality, medieval Europeans did not assign numbers to their crusades—not even the major ones. Western historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, laboring under the assumption that true crusades were only those that were directed toward the liberation or defense of Jerusalem, could not resist the temptation to enumerate what they considered to be the major crusades, but even then they were not able to reach complete consensus regarding how they should number the crusades that took place after the first five, namely after 1221. Some counted seven major crusades between 1096 and 1272; others, as this article does, counted eight. Each was a large, papally blessed expedition that had as its intended mission (regardless of what diversions it might have taken) the engagement of Muslim enemies in or around the Holy Land. That noted, we can gain perspective on the inadequacy of this numbering system by first looking at a series of crusades in Iberia that are not counted among the canonical eight.
The Reconquista: Iberia’s Crusades
The crusades can be said to have roots in the struggle in Iberia between Christians and Moors. In April 711 an Islamic force crossed the strait separating Africa and Spain, and by 715 most of the peninsula, except for the northwest, was in Muslim hands. Christian counterattack, however, was underway by century’s end. These earliest battles were not crusades, but they were the opening rounds of the Reconquista, a series of Iberian wars between Muslims and Christians that became official crusades in the early twelfth century and lasted down to 1492. These early struggles, particularly those of the eleventh century, provided a model for the First Crusade. In 1064 an army of Spaniards and French captured and plundered Barbastro, with the support of Pope Alexander II, who offered the soldiers a plenary indulgence for their efforts.
As Spain was the land that gave the papacy inspiration for the crusade, it was fitting that in 1118 Pope Gelasius II granted unambiguous crusader status to an expedition against Muslim Saragossa. For the almost four hundred years that followed, Christian crusaders, both Spanish and foreign, waged holy war against a variety of Islamic powers in the peninsula. In the process, crusading left a deep imprint on Iberian Christian culture. Finally, on 2 January 1492, the combined crusader forces of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, captured Granada, the last Moorish stronghold on the peninsula.
One of the witnesses of the Catholic monarchs’ triumphal entry into the city on 6 January was a Genoese sea captain who understood that now, with the dream of the total reconquest of Spain realized, the Catholic monarchs might fund his enterprise to reach the court of the Mongol Great Khan of Cathay by sailing west, little realizing that the Mongols had been thrown out of China in 1368. In their ignorance, Columbus and many others believed that reestablishing direct contact with the Great Khan would be a positive step toward the recovery of Jerusalem—a natural extension of the victory at Granada.
The Jerusalem Journey: The “First Crusade”
In response to pleas for help from the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, whose lands in Anatolia (present- day peninsular Turkey) were being lost to Seljuk Turkish advances, Pope Urban II delivered a sermon at Clermont in France on 27 November 1095 calling upon the knighthood of the West to aid the Christians of the East and also to liberate Jerusalem. Convinced that “God wills it,” the pope offered everyone who made the journey to the East a full indulgence. Thus was born the First Crusade in 1096, a phenomenon that many Western contemporaries referred to as the “Jerusalem journey” and saw as a special type of penitential pilgrimage—an armed pilgrimage with military as well as spiritual objectives.
Between 1096 and 1101 three major waves of crusaders, each numbering in the tens of thousands, marched east. The first and third waves met with disaster, but the second wave, known also as the Crusade of the Great Lords, managed to capture Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.
Jerusalem and a number of other key sites captured by the second wave became the nuclei for four crusader states: the county of Edessa (1097–1150); the principality of Antioch (1098–1268); the kingdom of Jerusalem (1099–1291); and the county of Tripoli (1109–1289). Although free of control from any mother country in Europe, these four states of Outremer (the land across the sea) are often cited as examples of early European overseas colonialism. Whatever they were, the four states were Western Christian enclaves in lands where the populations were predominantly Eastern Christian and Muslim.
Some intermarriage and cultural exchange on a personal level took place, as was evident in the Franks (as all Western, or Latin, Christians were known to Easterners) who were born and raised in the crusader states. Called derisively poulains (young colts) by newcomers from the West, these native-born colonists were often indistinguishable in dress and manners from their non-Frankish neighbors.
Italian maritime cities, most notably Genoa, Pisa, and Venice, established huge trading emporiums in such key port cities as Acre (Palestine) and Tyre (south Lebanon), from which they transported to Europe Eastern goods in unprecedented quantity. The textiles, spices, dyes, slaves, and sugar that flowed into Europe not only enriched and made possible the growing power of these three commercial giants, they also sharpened the European taste for the goods of Asia.
One taste that knew no limits was the desire for sugar. Western colonists learned from their Muslim neighbors how to grow sugarcane on large slave plantations and how to refine it. In the late fifteenth century and following, Europeans would create sugar-producing slave plantations and mills off the west coast of Africa and in the Americas, thereby radically altering the demographic and ecological faces of these lands.
Despite poulains, Italian merchants, and sugar production, the crusader states were not major avenues for cultural exchanges between Western Europe and the Levant (the eastern shores of the Mediterranean). The great influx of ancient Greek and Islamic learning that entered Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for example, originated in Muslim Spain and Sicily and not in the crusader East.
One of the most significant consequences of the crusader states is that all four, but especially the principality of Antioch, brought their Frankish lords into direct competition with the Byzantine Empire, whose emperor claimed lordship over lands now occupied by Westerners. In one of world history’s most ironic turn of events, the crusades, which began as an effort to aid Eastern Christians, ended up dividing the Byzantine and Latin branches of Christendom.
On their way to the Holy Land, early crusaders passed through Byzantine territory, and the presence of often-disorganized crusader forces in an alien land resulted in a series of misunderstandings and conflicts, some quite bloody. The result was that by the Third Crusade (1188–1192) the emperor of Byzantium, Isaac II, entered into an apparent conspiracy with Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria, to harass and destroy German forces crossing Anatolia. Isaac’s plan failed, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I, chose not to attack Constantinople. The imperial capital was not so fortunate a little more than a decade later. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the army and fleet of the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) found itself attacking, capturing, and pillaging the city on 12–13 April 1204. This act, and the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which held the city until August 1261, completed the rupture between the churches and peoples of Byzantium and the West.
One of the many significant results of the Fourth Crusade was the conquest of most of Greece and the Greek islands by Western crusader forces and the establishment of the Venetians (and later the Genoese) in the Black Sea, which became the West’s point of entry into the markets of Central Asia and beyond. Portions of mainland Frankish Greece, as occupied Greece is often called, remained in Western hands until the mid-fifteenth century, and some Greek islands were Western possessions until the end of the seventeenth century.
Meanwhile, Islam and the Christian West continued to struggle in the Holy Land and Egypt. Muslim conquest of Edessa in 1144 occasioned the Second Crusade (1147–1149), which failed to achieve any success in the East but which also became the opportunity for the crusader West to expand the scope of enemies against whom it waged holy war.
Crusades in the Baltic
Soldiers of the Second Crusade (1147–1149) fought on three fronts: Iberia, where they participated in the capture of Lisbon in 1147; the Middle East, where they failed miserably in an aborted attempt to take Damascus in 1148; and the Baltic, where Christian Europe began a series of crusades of conquest, colonization, and conversion that lasted from 1147 to 1525. During these almost four hundred years, German and Scandinavian crusaders waged war against various pagan and Christian peoples along Europe’s northeastern frontier. Unlike the crusades in the Middle East, the Baltic Crusades contained an overt missionary purpose. Also, unlike the crusades in the Levant and the Reconquista, the Baltic Crusades were not fought to recover land previously held by Christians. These were wars of conquest and expansion, although they were often justified as defensive reactions to cross-border incursions. Unlike the crusader states of the Latin East, lands conquered along the Baltic were systematically settled and culturally transformed, at least to the point that their indigenous peoples were converted to Latin Christianity. First Wends (a Slavic people), Livs, Letts, and Estonians, and later Prussians and Finns, underwent conquest, dispossession, colonization, and conversion.
Not all of the Baltic Crusades ended in success. Due to intensified animosities between Rome and Constantinople, by the early thirteenth century the Roman Church considered all Christians who followed the Byzantine rite, including Russians and Ukrainians, to be schismatics who rejected the Godordained authority of the Roman pope. Consequently, from 1240 to 1242 Swedish, Danish, German, and Estonian crusaders participated in a series of papally authorized expeditions against the Christian Rus’. Led by Prince Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod, the Rus’ threw back the invaders in 1242.
On 2 October 1187 the armies of Saladin retook Jerusalem and came close to driving the Franks totally into the sea, thereby occasioning the Third Crusade (1188–1192), the Crusade of the Kings, so-called because of the involvement of King Richard I Coeur de Lion (Lion-Hearted) of England, King Philip II of France, and Emperor Frederick I of Germany and Italy. The Third Crusade was unable to recapture Jerusalem, but it did reconquer significant portions of the Syrian-Palestinian coast, thereby giving the truncated crusader states another century of life. The capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem now shifted to the port city of Acre.
The North African Campaigns
By the end of the Third Crusade, Western strategists understood that Jerusalem could not be rewon without first conquering Egypt, the heart of the empire bequeathed by Saladin to his heirs. The main body of the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) was headed for an assault on Egypt before it was diverted to Constantinople. The Fifth Crusade (1217–1221) reached Egypt, where it enjoyed early success, but then ended in disaster. The same was true of the Seventh Crusade (1248–1254), whereas the Eighth Crusade (1270– 1272), the West’s last major crusade before the fall of the crusader states, ended anticlimactically after the death outside Tunis of its principal leader, King Louis IX of France, the thirteenth century’s most celebrated crusader, whom the Roman Catholic Church canonized as a saint in 1297.
New Types of Crusades
The only thirteenth-century crusades to the East to succeed in rewinning Jerusalem were the Sixth Crusade (1227–1229), in which Emperor Frederick II successfully negotiated the transfer of Jerusalem into Frankish hands (1229–1239), and the so-called (and unnumbered) Barons’ Crusade (1239–1241), in which crusader leaders again negotiated the return of Jerusalem, which Islamic forces had taken back in 1239. This time Christians held the city for only three years. In 1244 Muslim mercenaries out of Central Asia, the Khorezmian Turks, whom the Mongols had driven west, recaptured Jerusalem in a bloodbath, and the city remained in Muslim hands until 1917.
In the early thirteenth century the Roman papacy began to employ full-fledged crusades to fight enemies at home—heretics, such as the Cathars of southern France (the Albigensian Crusade of 1209–1229), and political enemies who threatened papal secular authority in Italy, such as Emperor Frederick II and his descendants (1240–1269). Crusades such as these continued well into early modern times, in such incarnations as the five Anti-Hussite Crusades (1420–1431) and various Holy Leagues formed by the papacy in the sixteenth century.
On another front, the thirteenth-century papacy sought first to launch crusades against and then to ally with a new force from the East—the Mongols, who overran large portions of Christian eastern Europe in a campaign that lasted from 1236 to 1242. Fortunately for the West, the Mongols withdrew back to the Volga in 1242. This withdrawal took place, however, only after they destroyed a combined Polish and German army and then a Hungarian army.
Tales of atrocities convinced western Europeans that the Mongols were the forces of the Antichrist as foretold in the Book of the Apocalypse. In response, Pope Gregory IX called a crusade against them in 1241, and his successor Innocent IV renewed it in 1243, but both were futile gestures. Western Europe was too engaged with internal struggles, namely papal crusades against Frederick II, to rouse itself against a foe, even a demonic foe, that had mysteriously retreated.
Fearing the Mongols would return, the pope and King Louis IX of France dispatched several missions to them. Beginning in 1245 and lasting to 1255, the embassies were charged with discovering Mongol intentions and converting these so-called devil’s horsemen to Catholic Christianity. The envoys, who were mainly Franciscan friars, encountered only Mongol indifference. To the Mongol mind, the West had only one option: submission.
Following the Mongol capture of Baghdad in 1258, these horsemen from the steppes of inner Asia drove as far west as northern Galilee (in modern Israel), where an Egyptian army defeated and turned them back at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260. Given this setback, the Mongol il-khans (rulers subordinate to the Great Khan) of Persia were now willing to discuss an alliance with the Christian West against Islamic Egypt. Because the Mamluk sultans of Egypt were placing increasing pressure on the rapidly deteriorating crusader states, the West was willing to ally with the Mongols against Islam, provided they converted to Christianity. With this dream in mind, King Louis IX of France set off on his ill-fated Eighth Crusade, confident that he and the emir of Tunis, who presumably would convert to Christianity, would link up with the Mongol il-khan of Persia, and together they would liberate Jerusalem.
In 1287 the il-khan of Persia dispatched an ambassador to the West to offer yet another alliance proposal. Known as Rabban (Master) Sauma, the envoy was a Turkish monk and native of northern China who belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient branch of Christianity known incorrectly to those outside its fold as “Nestorianism.” Sauma met with the kings of France and England, as well with Pope Nicholas IV, and received warm expressions of encouragement from all three. He left Rome in April 1288 with several papal letters for the il-khan. Shortly thereafter, in 1289, the pope sent Friar John of Montecorvino to the il-khan’s court. Before anything could come of these negotiations, the il-khan, Arghun, died, and his successor embraced Islam in 1295. All hopes for a Mongol-Latin crusade were dashed.
Rebuffed by the Mongol il-khanate of Persia, Friar John set off for the court of the Mongol Great Khan in China in 1291, arriving there, by way of India, in 1294 or 1295. Too late to meet Khubilai Khan, who died in 1294, the Franciscan friar set up a mission church in the Mongol capital of Dadu, also known as Khanbalik, which was located in the heart of present-day Beijing. This mission, which later spread to southern China, enjoyed imperial protection until the Chinese evicted the Mongols in 1368. Although the succeeding Ming dynasty (1368–1644), which reasserted Chinese rule, was hostile to all foreign elements associated with the hated Mongols, this mission church probably continued to exist until the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. In its more than a century of existence, the mission attracted only a few Chinese converts, but it served resident merchants from the West—largely Italians—and it also succeeded in convincing a number of “Nestorian” Turks to accept the authority and rites of the Roman Church.
After 1294–1295 the Mongol Empire underwent substantial changes for the worse, and before the fourteenth century ended, the empire was dead. Christian Europe, however, was unaware of the Mongol Empire’s fate and never forgot the dream of linking up with the Great Khan. Many motives drove Columbus to sail west toward the Indies, but certainly one of them was the dream of a crusade alliance with the Mongols against Islam.
Early Modern Explorations and Colonization
Similar crusade motives helped drive Portuguese explorations along the African coast. Henry, prince of Portugal, known as the Navigator (1394–1460), used the resources of the Order of Christ, a Portuguese crusader-military order founded in 1319, to finance the fleets that he sent out. The prince, who crusaded in North Africa in 1415, 1437, and 1458, justified this use of crusade-dedicated resources because, as his contemporary biographer, Gomes Eannes de Azurara, noted, he wanted to know the extent of the lands held by the Muslims, and he sought yet-unknown Christian princes who would ally with Portugal in the struggle against Islam.
In like manner, although the Spanish conquistadors who conquered major portions of the Americas and the Portuguese adventurers who sailed though the Indian Ocean were driven by many motives, not least of which was a desire for gold and glory, it is not difficult to find in their accounts crusading themes and sentiments that were already more than four hundred years old.
Afonso Albuquerque, Portuguese viceroy of India, a commendador of the Order of Santiago, an Iberian crusader-military order that had been founded in León in 1170, and who had fought Muslims in Morocco, the Atlantic, and Italy prior to going to the Indian Ocean, won a singular victory over an Arab fleet off of Hormuz in 1507. According to a posthumous compilation of his papers, when Albuquerque’s sailors fished the bodies of Muslim sailors from the waters, they found about eighty who had been killed by arrows, although no one in the Portuguese fleet had possessed a bow or knew how to use one. The source then notes: “It seems that Our Lord desired on that day to perform this miracle so that He might show the captains, who shrank from engaging in this business, how certain of victory over their enemies are they who fight with true faith against infidels.” That putative miracle and sentiment could just as easily have been recorded and expressed by any chronicler of the First Crusade. But a sixteenth-century poet, Luís Vaz de Camões, who had lost an eye fighting Moors in North Africa, was as impressed by this reported incident as any twelfth-century crusade historian would have been. He noted in his great national epic, the Lusiads, which placed the exploits of Portuguese mariners in the Indian Ocean into the context of the crusades, that this miracle showed “How God will fight for them who fight for Him.”
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