The Crusades: Holy War or War Between Empires?
The Crusades are a controversial episode of the history of Christianity. Initially, it was believed to be the blessed war, but the perspective of the victims shows the crusaders as the cruel invaders. The primary purpose of the crusades was the prevention of the spread of Islam across the former Roman Empire and the recovery of Jerusalem. Such a goal was motivated by the intention to defend and expand Christendom, but their real purpose is argued even today. The hypothesis that the crusades were a political enterprise rather than a holy war is still popular. However, the political government and the church were integral in the Middle Ages, so the pope’s interest had undoubtedly had a serious political impact on Europe.
Although the first crusades happened closer to the end of the 11th century, the causes should be traced several centuries earlier. Tyerman defines the threat of pagans and Islam to Christianity between the eighth and ninth centuries as the main reason for the occurrence of the crusades. The rapid spread of Islam over the territories that once belonged to the Roman Empire raised the concern of Christians due to several reasons. First of all, these lands were inhabited by populations that were Christian previously, and the expansion of Islam was viewed as threatening to them. That is why the protection of the Christian people under Muslim rule was declared as one of the purposes of the crusades.
Another of high importance was the concern about Jerusalem and other holy places that were considered sacred for Christianity. This fact explains why the crusades were poetically called ‘pilgrimages,’ as their participants fought for the sacred land. Such a noble goal mobilized voluntary military forces from different parts of Europe, promising the various spiritual merits, such as indulgence, for taking part in a holy war. It should be mentioned that the first participants belonged to the privileged elite and even royal families who sought fame and chivalric feats. As these classes of people became Christianized, the church, inversely, became militarized.
The impact of the crusades on Middle-Age Europe should be evaluated considering religious, political, and socio-economic scopes. Europe of that period was a hostile place, and some opinions claim that the crusades were the main reason for this. However, Tyerman believes that the crusades were not a cause but a result of the violence of Europe, claiming that they only reflected the desires and customs of that period. The scholar defines three aspects on which the crusades had an effect – the direct impact on the life of crusaders, the economic and cultural influence on the community that had to pay increased taxes, and the destructive effect on the victims. Although the crusades were expensive and did not bring any economic benefits, Blaydes and Paik find an indirect positive effect on the political development of the countries participating in the crusades. The scholars also identified the direct connection between the crusades and the development of trade with the eastern countries.
The question of whether the crusades’ real intention was religious or political is complicated, as the Middle Ages were characterized by tight bonds between the monarchies and the church, who often followed similar interests. Thus, any enterprise that aimed at aiding Christianity was considered to be beneficial for the countries. The church’s apprehension of the threat that Islam bore to Christianity and the heritage of the Roman Empire was at the root of the crusades. The large-scale of these wars had a long-term effect on society, economics, and culture. The concern about the growth of Islam solidified the position of Christianity in Europe and united eastern and western Christians who cooperated in the crusades.