The Crusades

It is natural to the human mind,' says Dr. Robertson, to view those places which have been distinguished by being the residence of any celebrated personage, or the scene of any great transaction, with some degree of delight and veneration. To this principle must be ascribed the superstitious devotion with which Christians, from the earliest ages of the church, were accustomed to visit that country which the Almighty had selected as the inheritance of his favorite people, and in which the Son of God had accomplished the redemption of mankind. As this distant pilgrimage could not be performed without considerable expense, fatigue, and danger, it appeared the more meritorious, and came to be considered as an expiation for almost every crime. An opinion which spread with rapidity over Europe about the close of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century, and which gained universal credit, wonderfully augmented the number of credulous pilgrims, and increased the ardor with which they undertook this useless voyage. The thousand years mentioned by St. John [Rev. xx. 2, 3, 4] were supposed to be accomplished, and the end of the world to be at hand. A general consternation seized mankind; many relinquished their possessions, and, abandoning their friends and families, hurried with precipitation to the Holy Land, where they imagined that Christ would quickly appear to judge the world.

While Palestine continued subject to the caliphs, they had encouraged the resort of pilgrims to Jerusalem, and considered this as a beneficial species of commerce, which brought into their dominions gold and silver, and carried nothing out of them but relics and consecrated trinkets. But the Turks having conquered Syria about the middle of the eleventh century, pilgrims were exposed to outrages of every kind from these fierce barbarians. This change happening precisely at the juncture when the panic terror which I have mentioned rendered pilgrimages most frequent, filled Europe with alarm and indignation. Every person who returned from Palestine related the dangers he had encountered in visiting the holy city, and described with exaggeration the cruelty and vexations of the infidel Turks.

Among the most notorious of those who had returned with these accounts, was a monk known by the name of Peter the Hermit. By all accounts this individual seems to have been a weak-minded and contemptible being. He is represented as running from city to city, and from kingdom to kingdom, bareheaded, with naked arms and legs, and bearing aloft a ponderous crucifix in his hand, imploring and preaching with an enthusiastic madness on the necessity of wresting the Holy Land from the hands of the infidels. In a more enlightened age, Peter the Hermit would probably have been confined as a troublesome lunatic; in this, however, he was not only allowed to go on, but was encouraged and abetted in his career. The ambitious Hildebrande had expressed a strong desire to send armed forces from Europe to exterminate the Mohammedans from Palestine, in order that another country might be brought under his spiritual subjection; and Urban II, who at this time occupied the chair of St. Peter, warmly seconded the efforts of the enthusiastic monk. Nor was Peter's success small. Vast multitudes proclaimed themselves ready to engage in the undertaking. Two great councils of the church, one of them held at Placentia, and the other at Clermont, in Auvergne, attended by prelates, princes, and immense multitudes of the common people, declared enthusiastically for the war (1095). The pope himself attended at the last, and Peter and he having both addressed the multitude, they all exclaimed, as if impelled by an immediate inspiration, 'It is the will of God! it is the will of God!' These words were thought so remarkable, that they were afterwards employed as the motto on the sacred standard, and came to be looked upon as the signal of battle and rendezvous in all the future exploits of the champions of the cross. Persons of all ranks now flew to arms with the utmost ardor. The remission of penance, the dispensation of those practices which superstition imposed or suspended at pleasure, the absolution of all sins, and the assurance of eternal felicity, were the rewards held out by the church to all who joined the enterprise; and to 'the more vulgar class,' says Mr. Hallam, were held out inducements which, though absorbed in the overruling fanaticism of the first Crusade, might be exceedingly efficacious when it began to flag. During the time that a Crusader bore the cross, he was free from suits for his debts, and the interest of them was entirely abolished; he was exempted, in some instances at least, from taxes, and placed under the protection of the church, so that he could not be impleaded in any civil court, except in criminal charges or questions relating to land.'

It was in the spring of the year 1096, that Peter set out for Judea, at the head of a promiscuous assemblage of 80,000 men, with sandals on his feet, a rope about his waist, and every other mark of monkish austerity. Soon after, a more numerous and better disciplined force of 200,000 followed, including some able and experienced leaders. Godfrey of Bouillon, Robert, Duke of Normandy (son of William the Conqueror of England), the Counts of Vermendois, Toulouse, and Blois, are a few of the more illustrious. The progress of this immense mass of human beings on their journey was marked by misery and famine. They had vainly trusted to Heaven for a supernatural supply of their wants, and in their disappointment they had plundered all that came in their way. 'So many crimes and so much misery,' says Mr. Hallam, 'have seldom been accumulated in so short a space, as in the three years of the first expedition;' and another historian says that a 'fresh supply of German and Italian vagabonds,' received on the way, were even guilty of pillaging the churches. it is certain that before the hermit reached Constantinople, the number of his forces had dwindled down to 20,000. Alexis Comnenus, then emperor of Constantinople, who had applied to the states of Europe for assistance, without much hope of obtaining it, in order that he might be enabled to resist a threatened attack by the Turks upon himself, was surprised and terrified at the motley group of adventurers who had now reached the shore of his dominions. He readily afforded them the means for transporting themselves across the Bosphorus, and performed the same friendly office to the larger force which followed under Godfrey and others; glad, apparently, to have the barbarians of the north, as his subjects called them, out of his dominions. The Sultan Solyman met the army of the hermit, if army it could be called, and cut the greater part of it to pieces on the plains of Nicea. The second host proved more successful. In spite of their want of discipline, their ignorance of the country, the scarcity of provisions, and the excess of fatigue, their zeal, their bravery, and their irresistible force, enabled them twice to overthrow old Solyman, to take his capital Nice, and after an obstinate resistance, the city of Antioch also (1098). At length (1099) they reached Jerusalem, much diminished in numbers, and broken in spirit; but with persevering assiduity they proceeded to lay siege to the city, and in six weeks they became its masters. Their cruel conduct to the inhabitants attests the barbarous feelings of their hearts. Neither arms defended the valiant, nor submission the timorous; no age nor sex was spared; infants on the breast were pierced by the same blow with their mothers, who implored for mercy; even a multitude of ten thousand persons who surrendered themselves prisoners and who were promised quarters, were butchered in cold blood by these ferocious conquerers. The streets of Jerusalem were covered with dead bodies. The triumphant warriors, after every enemy was subdued and slaughtered, turned themselves, with sentiments of humiliation and contrition, towards the holy sepulchre. They threw aside their arms, still streaming with blood; they advanced with reclined bodies and naked feet and heads to that sacred monument; they sung anthems to Him who had purchased their salvation by His death and agony; and their devotion, enlivened by the presence of the place where Tie had suffered, so overcame their fury, that they dissolved in tears, and bore the appearance of every soft and tender sentiment. So inconsistent is human nature with itself, and so easily does the most effeminate superstition ally both with the most heroic courage and with the fiercest barbarity.

With a becoming foresight, the Crusaders established a Christian kingdom in the heart of Palestine; and at the head of it, by universal consent, was placed Godfrey, whose goodness and justice had signalized him, and gained him respect in the midst of the general wickedness. The pope, however was too eager to enjoy the triumph to which he had looked forward, and sending an ignorant and obtruding ecclesiastic to assume this command, Godfrey retired; and thus was lost undoubtedly the best chance that Europeans ever had of really posessing the Holy Land. The Turks had now time to recover their strength and renew their attacks they did so: many of the Crusaders had in the meantime returned home, and those of them who remained, surrounded and menaced by such foes, at last implored aid from Christendom. There the spirit which had been raised by Peter the Hermit was far from being extinguished; and another, more eloquent and more learned than Peter - namely, St. Bernard - had arisen to keep alive the flame of devotion. Roused by his preachings, Europe sent forth a second Crusade (1147). It consisted of 200,000 French, Germans, and English, in two divisions, the first led on by Conrad III of Germany, and the second by Louis VII of France. Strangely enough, both these leaders permitted themselves to be drawn into a snare by false guides, furnished by the Greek emperor and both armies, one after another, were withdrawn amidst the rocks of Laodicea, and after being nearly starved. by famine, they were cut to pieces by the Sultan of Iconium. This Crusade prayed the most disastrous of them all. 'Thousands of ruined families,' says Russell, 'exclaimed against St. Bernard for his deluding prophecies: he excused himself by the example of Moses, who, like him, he said, had promised to conduct the Israelites into a happy country, and yet saw the first generation perish in the desert.'

It was shortly after this period that the illustrious Saladin appeared (1180) Born among an obscure Turkish tribe, this individual fixed himself by his bravery and conduct on the throne of Egypt and began to extend his conquest in the East. The still existing, though wretchedly-supported kingdom of the Christians in Palestine, proving an obstacle to the progress of his arms, Saladin directed his power against it, and assisted by the treachery of the Count of Tripoli, he completely overcame the Christians in battle (1187). The holy city itself fell into his hands after a feeble resistance; and except some cities on the coast, nothing remained to the Christians of all that a century before, it cost Europe so much to acquire. The followers of the cross, however, were not yet wholly disheartened; and a third great Crusade was entered into before the end of the twelfth century.

The three greatest sovereigns of Europe - Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, Philip Augustus of France, and Richard Coeur de Lion of England - all took part in the scheme. The forces of Fredrick were earliest in the field. He had passed through the unfriendly territories of the Greek empire, crossed the Hellespont, and defeated the infidels in several battles, before Richard or Philip had stirred from home. The Christians of the East were beginning to look with hope and pride on so great assistance; but they seemed fated to be unfortunate. Fredrick died (1190) from having thrown his body, heated by exertion, into the cold river of Cydnus; and his army, like the others that had gone before it, dwindled into nothing. The united armies of Richard and Philip followed. In their progress, the feelings of envy and national hatred rose above the object which had brought them together. Philip returned, disgusted or dismayed, shortly after they reached their destination; and Richard was thus left alone to uphold the glory of European arms. He did it nobly. With a mixed army of French, German, and English soldiers, amounting in all to 30,000, Richard performed feats of valor which have not been surpassed in the history of any time or nation. On the plains of Ascalon, a tremendous battle was fought with Saladin, and that brave and great man was defeated, and 40,000 of his soldiers are said to have been left dead upon the field of battle. But this conquest was unavailing, and the followers of Richard began to fear that there would be no end to their struggles. The zeal which had brought so many of them from their homes, and sustained them so long in absence, at last abated. Saladin readily concluded a treaty by which Christians might still be permitted to visit the tomb of Christ unmolested, and Richard left the Holy Land for ever. It is due to the memory of Saladin (who did not long survive this period) to state that, after he made himself master of Jerusalem, he never molested the Christians in their devotions - a circumstance which, by contrast, reflects infinite disgrace on the cruel barbarities of the first Crusaders. In his last will he ordered alms to be distributed among the poor, without distinction of Jew, Christian, or Mohammedan; intending by this bequest to intimate that all men are brethren, and that when we would assist them, we ought not to inquire what they believe, but what they feel - an admirable lesson to Christians, though from a Mohammedan. But the advantages in science, in moderation, and humanity, seem at this period to have been all on the side of the Saracens.

There were no more great Crusades. Considerable bands of private adventurers still continued to move eastward; but disaster and disgrace attended every effort, and Europe at last became disheartened when the bones of two millions of her sons lay whitened on the plains of Asia, and so little had been accomplished. Nevertheless, in the year 1202, Baldwin, Count of Flanders, was able to raise another considerable army for the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre; but having reached Constantinople at a time when there was a dispute in the succession to the throne, he readily laid aside the project of the Crusade, took part in the quarrel, and in the course of five months he was himself the emperor. The citizens of Venice in Italy, who had lent their vessels for this enterprise, shared in the triumphs of the piratical Crusaders: they obtained the Isle of Candia, or Crete. Baldwin, however, was soon driven from the throne, and murdered; though the Latins, as his successors from the West were called, kept possession of Constantinople for fifty-seven years.

At this period (1227) a great revolution took place in Asia. Ghenghis Khan, at the head of a body of Tartars, broke down from the north upon Persia and Syria, and massacred indiscriminately Turks, Jews, and Christians, who opposed them. The European settlements in Palestine must soon have yielded to these invaders, had not their fate been for a while retarded by the last attempt at a Crusade under Louis IX of France. This prince, summoned, as he believed, by Heaven, after four years' preparation set out for the Holy Land with his queen, his three brothers, and all the knights of France (1248). His army began their enterprise, and we may say ended it also, by an unsuccessful attack on Egypt. The king went home, and reigned prosperously and wisely for thirteen years; but the same frenzy again taking possession of him, he embarked on a Crusade against the Moors in Africa, where his army was destroyed by a pestilence, and he himself became its victim (1270).

Before the end of the thirteenth century (1291) the Christians were driven out of all their Asiatic possessions. 'The only common enterprise,' says Robertson, 'in which the European nations were engaged, and which they all undertook with equal ardor, remains a singular monument of human folly.'