The Military and Political Effects of the Crusades

Military, Political, Religious, and Social Consequences

From 'L'Ouvrier' (1862): Saint Louis leaves for Crusades
From 'L'Ouvrier' (1862): Saint Louis leaves for Crusades. Getty Images

The first and perhaps most important thing we should bear in mind is that when all is said and done, from a political and military perspective the Crusades were a massive failure. The First Crusade was successful enough that European leaders were able to scratch out kingdoms which included such cities as Jerusalem, Acre, Bethlehem, and Antioch. After that, though, everything went downhill.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem would endure in one form or another for several hundred years, but it was always in a precarious position.

It was based upon a long, narrow strip of land with no natural barriers and whose population was never entirely conquered. Continual reinforcements from Europe were required but not always forthcoming (and those that tried didn't always live to see Jerusalem).

The whole of its population was around 250,000 concentrated in coastal cities like Ascalon, Jaffa, Haifa, Tripoli, Beirut, Tyre, and Acre. These Crusaders were outnumbered by a native population around 5 to 1 — they were allowed to govern themselves for the most part, and they were content with their Christian masters, but they were never actually conquered, merely subdued.

The military position of the Crusaders was maintained largely by a complex network of strong fortifications and castles. All along the coast, the Crusaders had fortresses in sight of one another, thus allowing quick communication over large distances and the mobilization of forces relatively quickly.

Frankly, people liked the idea of Christians ruling the Holy Land, but they weren't very interested in marching off to defend it. The numbers of knights and rulers willing to spend blood and money in defense of Jerusalem or Antioch was very small, especially in light of the fact that Europe was almost never united itself.

Everyone always had to worry about their neighbors. Those who left had to worry that neighbors would encroach upon their territory while they weren't around to defend it. Those who stayed behind had to worry that those on the Crusade would grow too much in power and prestige.

One of the things which helped prevent the Crusades from being successful was this constant bickering and infighting. There was, of course, plenty of that among Muslim leaders as well, but in the end, the divisions among European Christians were worse and caused more problems when it came to mounting effective military campaigns in the East. Even El Cid, a Spanish hero of the Reconquista, just as often fought for Muslim leaders as he did against them.

Aside from the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula and the recapture of some islands in the Mediterranean, there are only two things we can point to which might qualify as military or political successes of the Crusades. First, the capture of Constantinople by Muslims was probably delayed. Without the intervention of Western Europe, it's likely that Constantinople would have fallen much sooner than 1453 and a divided Europe would have been greatly threatened. Pushing back Islam may have helped preserve a Christian Europe.

Second, although the Crusaders were ultimately defeated and pushed back into Europe, Islam was weakened in the process. This not only helped delay the capture of Constantinople but also helped make Islam an easier target for the Mongols riding in from the East. The Mongols eventually converted to Islam, but before that happened they shattered the Muslim world, and that too helped protect Europe in the long run.

Socially speaking the Crusades had an impact upon the Christian stance on military service. Before there was a strong prejudice against the military, at least among churchmen, on the assumption that Jesus' message precluded warfare. The original idea forbade shedding blood in combat and was expressed by St. Martin in the fourth century who said “I am a soldier of Christ. I must not fight.” For a man to remain holy, killing in warfare was strictly prohibited.

Matters changed somewhat via the influence of Augustine who developed the doctrine of “just war” and argued that it was possible to be a Christian and kill others in combat. The Crusades changed everything and created a new image of Christian service: the warrior monk. Based on the model of the Crusading orders like the Hospitalers and the Knights Templar, both laity and clerics could regard military service and killing infidels as a valid, if not a preferable way of serving God and the Church. This new view was expressed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux who said that killing in the name of Christ is “malecide” rather than homicide that that “to kill a pagan is to win glory, for it gives glory to Christ.”

The growth of military, religious orders like the Teutonic Knights and the Knights Templar had political implications as well. Never seen before the Crusades, they didn't entirely survive the end of the Crusades, either.

Their vast wealth and property, which naturally inspired pride and contempt for others, made them tempting targets for political leaders who had become impoverished during the wars with their neighbors and the infidels. The Templars were suppressed and destroyed. Other orders became charitable organizations and lost their former military mission completely.

There were changes in the nature of religious observance as well. Because of the extended contact with so many holy sites, the importance of relics grew. Knights, priests, and kings continually brought back bits and pieces of saints and crosses with them and increased their stature by placing those bits and pieces in important churches. Local church leaders certainly didn't mind, and they encouraged locals in the veneration of these relics.

The power of the papacy also increased a bit in part due to the Crusades, especially the First. It was rare that any European leader set off on a Crusade on their own; typically, Crusades were only launched because a pope insisted upon it. When they were successful, the prestige of the papacy was enhanced; when they failed, the sins of the Crusaders were blamed.

At all times, though, it was through the offices of the pope that indulgences and spiritual rewards were distributed to those who volunteered to take up the Cross and march to Jerusalem. The pope also often collected taxes to pay for the Crusades - taxes taken directly from the people and without any input or assistance from local political leaders. Eventually, the popes came to appreciate this privilege and collected taxes for other purposes as well, something that kings and nobles didn't like a bit because every coin that went to Rome was a coin they were denied for their coffers.

The very last cruzado or crusade tax in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado was not officially abolished until 1945.

At the same time, though, the power and prestige of the church itself were somewhat diminished. As pointed out above, the Crusades were a colossal failure, and it was unavoidable that this would reflect poorly on Christianity. The Crusades started out being driven by religious fervor, but in the end, they were driven more by the desire of individual monarchs to enhance their power over their rivals. Cynicism and doubt about the church increased while nationalism was given a boost over the idea of a Universal Church.

Of even wider importance was the increased demand for trade goods - Europeans developed a tremendous appetite for cloth, spices, jewels, and more from the Muslims as well as lands even further east, such as India and China, spurring an increased interest in exploration. At the same time, markets were opened in the East for European goods.

Such has always been the case with wars in far-off lands because war teaches geography and broadens one's horizons - assuming you live through it, of course.

Young men are sent to fight, they become acquainted with the local culture, and when they return home they find that they no longer want to do without some of the things they had grown accustomed to using: rice, apricots, lemons, scallions, satins, gems, dyes, and more were introduced or became more commonplace throughout Europe.

It is interesting just how much of the changes were encouraged by climate and geography: the short winters and especially the long, hot summers were good reasons to set aside their European wool in favor of the local attire: turbans, burnooses, and soft slippers. Men sat cross-legged on the floors while their wives adopted the practice of perfumes and cosmetics. Europeans — or at least their descendants, intermarried with the locals, leading further changes.

Unfortunately for the Crusaders who settled down in the region, all of this ensured their exclusion from all sides.

The locals never really accepted them, no matter how many of their customs they adopted. They always remained occupiers, never becoming settlers. At the same time, Europeans who visited decried their softness and the effeminate nature of their customs. The descendants of the First Crusade had lost much of the distinctive European nature which made them strangers in both Palestine and Europe.

Although the port cities which Italian merchants hoped to capture and did indeed control for a time were all lost in the end, Italian merchant cities ended up mapping and controlling the Mediterranean, making it effectively a Christian sea for European trade. Before the Crusades, trade in goods from the East had been widely controlled by Jews, but with the increase in demand, the growing number of Christian merchants pushed the Jews aside - often through repressive laws that restricted their ability to engage in any trade in the first place. The many massacres of Jews throughout Europe and the Holy Land by marauding Crusaders also helped clear the way for Christian merchants to move in.

As money and goods circulate, so do people and ideas. The extensive contact with Muslims led to a less materialistic trade in ideas: philosophy, science, mathematics, education, and medicine. Hundreds of Arabic words were introduced into European languages, the old Roman custom of shaving one's beard was returned, public baths and latrines were introduced, European medicine improved, and there was even influence on literature and poetry.

More than a little bit of this was originally of European origin, ideas which the Muslims had preserved from the Greeks.

Some of it was also later developments of the Muslims themselves. Together, all of this led to faster social developments in Europe, even allowing them to surpass Islamic civilization - something which continues to rankle Arabs to this very day.

Financing the organizing the Crusades was a tremendous undertaking that led to developments in banking, commerce, and taxation. These changes in taxation and commerce helped hasten the end of feudalism. The feudalistic society was sufficient for individualistic actions, but it wasn't well-suited to the massive campaigns that require so much organization and financing.

Many feudal nobles had to mortgage their lands to moneylenders, merchants, and the church - something which would later come back to haunt them and which served to undermine the feudal system.

More than a few monasteries populated by monks with a vow of poverty in this manner acquired vast estates that rivaled the richest nobles in Europe.

At the same time, tens of thousands of serfs were granted their freedom because they volunteered for the Crusades. Whether they died in the process or managed to come home alive, they were no longer tied to the land owned by the nobles, thus eliminating what little income they had. Those who did return no longer had the secure farming position they and their ancestors had always known, so many ended up in towns and cities, and this hastened the urbanization of Europe, closely connected to the rise of commerce and mercantilism.