The roots of the Crusades

Why were the Crusades? The causes were mixed and varied. They were in part that wanderlust which seems to have been one of the factors in the invasions of the Roman Empire and its successors in Europe of which we have had much to say in earlier chapters. They were in part economic. In the generation or more preceding the First Crusade Western Europe had repeatedly suffered from famine. To the thoughtful of that time Europe, sparsely settled by twentieth century standards, appeared to be overpopulated. It had more mouths than the economy of the time could feed and observers were not wanting who believed the land to be groaning under the weight of its inhabitants. Many sought release in these expeditions to the East. The Italian cities, now beginning to grow and looking eastward for trade, encouraged the Crusades as a means of furthering their commercial enterprises. There was the personal factor. Ambitious men saw in the Crusades opportunity for adventure, fame, and power.

At the outset the desire of the Byzantine Emperors for aid against the Moslem Sel-juk Turks contributed to the Crusades. In the eleventh century the Byzantine Empire fell on evil days. These began in 1025 with the death of the Emperor Basil II and were accentuated when in 1056 the Macedonian dynasty which had brought to the realm large accessions of territory and of power came to an end. Internal dissensions combined with foreign invasions to threaten the very existence of the realm. In the West the Normans conquered Southern Italy, long a Byzantine possession. From the north barbarians forced their way to the very walls of Constantinople. Even more formidable were the Seljuk Turks. Originally from Central Asia, converts to Islam, in the eleventh century they built an empire which included Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. They fought their way into Asia Minor and in 1071, the year of a decisive victory of the Normans in Southern Italy, inflicted a stunning defeat on the Byzantine army in Armenia, near Lake Van, and overran much of Asia Minor. The accession (1081) to the imperial throne of Alexius Comnenus brought vigorous leadership to Constantinople. This was continued by his immediate descendants. Some territory was regained, but only by what proved to be a reprieve.

It is the religious factors which are here chiefly our concern. They were undoubtedly potent. First of all in the minds of many was the rescue from the Moslem of the places in Palestine, especially Jerusalem, which were sacred to the Christian. For centuries Christians from the West, like those from other regions, had been making them the goal of pious pilgrimages. To bring them into Christian hands and keep them was ostensibly the chief objective of the Crusades.

Another phase of the religious motive was the protection of the Byzantine Empire against the Moslem Turks. As we have said, the Turks were threatening this historic bulwark of Christendom. The Byzantine Emperors appealed to the Christians of the West for assistance and the Popes were disposed to give it.

Intimately related to this second religious motive was a third, the desire of the Popes to heal the breach between the Western and Eastern wings of the Catholic Church and to restore Christian unity. In the tenth and eleventh centuries relations between East and West had deteriorated. Greek Catholics were scandalized, perhaps not unwillingly, by the state of the Church in the West — by the weak Popes of that period of Papal decline, by the spectacle of bishops leading armies, something which their wing of the Church did not know, and by reports of the generally low state of the faith in the West before the reforms which were beginning to get under way in the latter part of the tenth century. With some of these reforms they were not in accord, notably the emphasis upon the celibacy of the priesthood. There remained, too, the chronic sources of irritation which we have repeatedly noted. In 1054 the friction had reached an acute point when, in negotiations between the Papacy and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Papal legates laid on the altar of Saint Sophia at the hour of solemn service a sentence of excommunication of the Patriarch. The latter replied with a strong denunciation of the Latin position. The rupture was not necessarily final, for there had been earlier ones which in principle had been healed, but it was serious, and the Popes wished to remove it.

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