Summary of The Major Crusades

Thus the Crusades began, at the close of the eleventh century, when William Rufus was King of England, when Henry IV. was still Emperor of Germany, when Anselm was reigning at Canterbury as spiritual head of the English Church, ten years after the great Hildebrand had closed his turbulent pontificate.

I need not detail the history of this first Crusade. Of the two hundred thousand who set out with Peter the Hermit,--this fiery fanatic, with no practical abilities,--only twenty thousand succeeded in reaching even Constantinople. The rest miserably perished by the way,--a most disorderly rabble. And nothing illustrates the darkness of the age more impressively than that a mere monk should have been allowed to lead two hundred thousand armed men on an enterprise of such difficulty. How little the science of war was comprehended! And even of the five hundred thousand men under Godfrey, Tancred, Bohemond, and other great feudal princes,--men of rare personal valor and courage; men who led the flower of the European chivalry,---only twenty-five thousand remained after the conquest of Jerusalem. The glorious array of a hundred and fifty thousand horsemen, in full armor, was a miserable failure. The lauded warriors of feudal Europe effected almost nothing. Tasso attempted to immortalize their deeds; but how insignificant they were, compared with even Homer's heroes! A modern army of twenty-five thousand men could not only have put the whole five hundred thousand to rout in an hour, but could have delivered Palestine in a few months. Even one of the standing armies of the sixteenth century, under such a general as Henry IV. or the Duke of Guise, could have effected more than all the crusaders of two hundred years. The crusaders numbered many heroes, but scarcely a single general. There was no military discipline among them: they knew nothing of tactics or strategy; they fought pell-mell in groups, as in the contests of barons among themselves. Individually they were gallant and brave, and performed prodigies of valor with their swords and battle-axes; but there was no direction given to their strength by leaders.

The Second Crusade, preached half a century afterwards by Saint Bernard, and commanded by an Emperor of Germany and a King of France, proved equally unfortunate. Not a single trophy consoled Europe for the additional loss of two hundred thousand men. The army melted away in foolish sieges, for which the crusaders had no genius or proper means.

The Third Crusade, and the most famous, which began in the year 1189, of which Philip Augustus of France, Richard Coeur de Lion of England, and Frederic Barbarossa of Germany were the leaders,--the three greatest monarchs of their age,--was also signally unsuccessful. Feudal armies seem to have learned nothing in one hundred years of foreign warfare; or else they had greater difficulties to contend with, abler generals to meet, than they dreamed of, who reaped the real advantages,--like Saladin. Sir Walter Scott, in his "Ivanhoe," has not probably exaggerated the military prowess of the heroes of this war, or the valor of Templars and Hospitallers; yet the finest array of feudal forces in the Middle Ages, from which so much was expected, wasted its strength and committed innumerable mistakes. It proved how useless was a feudal army for a distant and foreign war. Philip may have been wily, and Richard lion-hearted, but neither had the generalship of Saladin. Though they triumphed at Tiberias, at Jaffa, at Caesarea; though prodigies of valor were performed; though Ptolemais (or Acre), the strongest city of the East, was taken,--yet no great military results followed. More blood was shed at this famous siege, which lasted three years, than ought to have sufficed for the subjugation of Asia. There were no decisive battles, and yet one hundred battles took place under its walls. Slaughter effected nothing. Jerusalem, which had been retaken by the Saracens, still remained in their hands, and never afterwards was conquered by the Europeans. The leaders returned dejected to their kingdoms, and the bones of their followers whitened the soil of Palestine.

The Fourth Crusade, incited by Pope Innocent III., three years after, terminated with divisions among the States of Christendom, without weakening the power of the Saracens (1202-4).

Among other expeditions was one called the "Children's Crusade" (1212), a wretched, fanatical misery, resulting in the enslavement of many and the death of thousands by shipwreck and exposure.

The Fifth Crusade, commanded by the Emperor Frederic II. of Germany (1228-9), was diverted altogether from the main object, and spent its force on Constantinople. That city was taken, but the Holy Land was not delivered. The Byzantine Empire was then in the last stages of decrepitude, or its capital would not have fallen, as it did, from a naval attack made by the Venetians, and in revenge for the treacheries and injuries of the Greek emperors to former crusaders. This, instead of weakening the Mussulmans, broke down the chief obstacle to their entrance into Europe shortly afterward.

The Sixth Crusade (1248-50) only secured the capture of Damietta, on the banks of the Nile.

The Seventh and last of these miserable wars was the most unfortunate of all, A.D. 1270. The saintly monarch of France perished, with most of his forces, on the coast of Africa, and the ruins of Carthage were the only conquest which was made. Europe now fairly sickened over the losses and misfortunes and defeats of nearly two centuries, during which five millions are supposed to have lost their lives. Famine and pestilence destroyed more than the sword. Before disheartened Europe could again rally, the last strongholds of the Christians were wrested away by the Mohammedans; and their gallant but unsuccessful defenders were treated with every inhumanity, and barbarously murdered in spite of truces and treaties.

Such were the famous Crusades, only the main facts of which I allude to; for to describe them all, or even the more notable incidents, would fill volumes,--all interesting to be read in detail by those who have leisure; all marked by prodigious personal valor; all disgraceful for the want of unity of action and the absence of real generalship. They indicate the enormous waste of forces which characterizes nations in their progress. This waste of energies is one of the great facts of all history, surpassed only by the apparent waste of the forces of nature or the fruits of the earth, in the transition period between the time when men roamed in forests and the time when they cultivated the land. See what a vast destruction there has been of animals by each other; what a waste of plants and vegetables, when they could not be utilized. Why should man escape the universal waste, when reason is ignored or misdirected? Of what use or value could Palestine have been to Europeans during the Middle Ages? Of what use can any country be to conquerors, when it cannot be civilized or made to contribute to their wants? Europe then had no need of Asia, and that perhaps is the reason why Europe then could not conquer Asia. Providence interfered, and rebuked the mad passions which animated the invaders, and swept them all away. Were Palestine really needed by Europe, it could be wrested from the Turks and with less effort than was made by the feeblest of the crusaders. Constantinople--the most magnificent site for a central power--was indeed wrested from the Greek emperors, and kept one hundred years; but the Europeans did not know what to do with the splendid prize, and it was given to the Turks, who made it the capital of a vital empire. All the good which resulted to Europe from the temporary possession of Constantinople was the introduction into Europe of Grecian literature and art. Its political and mercantile importance was not appreciated, nor then even scarcely needed. It will one day become again the spoil of that nation which can most be benefited by it. Such is the course events are made to take.

In this brief notice of the most unsuccessful wars in which Europe ever engaged we cannot help noticing their great mistakes. We see rashness, self-confidence, depreciation of enemies, want of foresight, ignorance of the difficulties to be surmounted. The crusaders were diverted from their main object, and wasted their forces in attacking unimportant cities, or fortresses out of their way. They invaded the islands of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Africa North, and Greece possessions. They quarrelled with their friends, and they quarreled with each other. The chieftains sought their individual advantage rather than the general good. Nor did they provide themselves with the necessities for such distant operations. They had no commissariat,--without which even a modern army fails. They were captivated by trifles and frivolities, rather than directing their strength to the end in view. They allowed themselves to be seduced by both Greek and infidel arts and vices. They were betrayed into the most foolish courses. They had no proper knowledge of the forces with which they were to contend. They wantonly massacred their foes when they fell into their hands, increased the animosity of the Mohammedans, and united them in a concert which they should themselves have sought. They marched by land when they should have sailed by sea, and they sailed by sea when they should have marched by land. They intrusted the command to monks and inexperienced leaders. They obeyed the mandates of apostolic vicars when they should have considered military necessities. In fact there was no unity of action, and scarcely unity of end. What would the great masters of Grecian and Roman warfare have thought of these blunders and stupidities, to say nothing of modern generals! The conduct of those wars excites our contempt, in spite of the heroism of individual knights. We despise the incapacity of leaders as much as we abhor the fanaticism which animated their labors. The Crusades have no bright side, apart from the piety and valor of some who embarked in them. Hence they are less and less interesting to modern readers. The romance about them has ceased to affect us. We only see mistakes and follies; and who cares to dwell on the infirmities of human nature? It is only what is great in man that moves and exalts us. There is nothing we dwell upon with pleasure in these aggressive, useless, unjustifiable wars, except the chivalry associated with them. The reason of modern times as sternly rebukes them as the heart of the Middle Ages sickened at them.

I have said that the Crusades were a disastrous failure. I mean in their immediate ends, not in ultimate results. If it is probable that they arrested the conquests of the Turks in Europe, then this blind and fanatical movement effected the greatest blessing to Christendom. It almost seems that the Christians were hurled into the Crusades by an irresistible fate, to secure a great ultimate good; or, to use Christian language, were sent as blind instruments by the Almighty to avert a danger they could not see. And if this be true, the inference is logical and irresistible that God uses even the wicked passions of men to effect his purposes, as when the envy of Haman led to the elevation of Mordecai, and to the deliverance of the Jews from one of their greatest dangers.

In the Middle East, there was tremendous cost in lives and money, but no permanent conquest of the Holy Land; Islam was not slowed. What did happen, though, was the hastened the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The divided and quarreling Muslim powers found temporary unity against the Europeans, but in the longer run the Western distraction made them more vulnerable to the thirteenth century Mongols from China. Finally, the Crusades worsened relations between Muslims and Christians. Respect almost disappeared. When hostility took political expression among Muslims, it birthed a new kind of political radicalism with a militant edge.

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