1100 - 1300

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The High Middle Ages:  1100 - 1300

bulletRise of Towns (Kehoe et al.,  pp. 321 - 322)
By 1100 the decline of culture following the 9th century Invasions had begun to be reversed.  The economic system based on manorialism and the political system based on feudalism was producing a small surplus.  There was a revival of trade, fairs were held, and town life was returning.

The importance of the rise of towns can not be overemphasized.  In addition to the clergy, nobility, and serfs, a new social class of townsmen, burghers, or bourgeois--a new Middle Class of craftsmen, artisans, traders, and merchants--was making its appearance.

The Culture of the High Middle Ages is in many ways a town based culture.  Gothic Cathedrals and universities are located in cities.  And even though religion remained the most important institution of society, new ideas are being nurtured.

Within towns, the Guild System developed.  Craftsmen were organized into masters, journeymen, and apprentices.  The guild prescribed both quality and price of products.  Communal government in tows was based on these guilds.  New ideas of republican government made their reappearance.  "Town air makes free."  This principle allowed run away serfs to become free townspeople if they could live a year and a day on their own.  


bulletThe Crusades (Kehoe et. al., pp. 354 - 362)
bulletThe Empire and the Church (Kehoe et. al., pp. 342 -345; pp. 347 - 352))
bulletFeudal Monarchy in France (Kehoe et. al., pp. 364 - 368)
bulletFeudal Monarchy in England (Kehoe et. al., pp. 372 - 378)
bulletCulture of the High Middle Ages (Kehoe et al.,  pp. 323 - 337)
bulletRomanesque and Gothic Churches (Kehoe et al.,  pp. 329 - 332)
bulletRelics and Pilgrimages (Kehoe et al.,  pp. 335 - 337)
bulletUniversities (Kehoe et al.,  pp. 323 - 327)
bulletScholasticism (Kehoe et al.,  pp. 327 - 328) 
bulletLiterature (Kehoe et al.,  pp. 332 - 334)


Medieval Culture

 NOTE:  This section is taken from Thomas J. Kehoe, Harold E. Damerow, and Jose Marie Duvall, Exploring Western Civilization to 1648:  A Worktext for the Active Student.  Dubuque, Iowa:  Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1997.  PP 323 - 334.

The University System

During the Early Middle Ages, monastic schools educated the would-be clergy, the priests and monks of the Church. Limited in their number and in their curriculum, these monastic schools were never meant to serve society as a whole. In the High Middle Ages cathedral schools located near the seats of bishops in large towns began to exceed the monastic schools in their numbers and importance. The number of students attending cathedral schools increased so much that the bishop would turn the direct control of the school over to a church officer, called the chancellor, who was obliged to instruct the rich or poor without a fee. As time went on, these cathedral schools attracted students from a wide geographic area, gradually evolving into universities.

Not unlike university students of today, medieval students (all male) attended lectures, took notes, studied for examinations, learned the art of oral disputation, questioning and thinking on one’s feet. However, there were notable differences. Classes were taught in Latin, the universal language of the Church and scholarship, not in the everyday tongue (the vernacular). Every student who entered the university was expected to be well versed in classical Latin grammar and literature. (How many students do you know who can read Virgil?) For lectures professors read authoritative texts, such as the Bible or the work of Aristotle, and made comments on these texts.

          The curriculum consisted of studying the seven liberal arts, the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Upon completion of the liberal arts curriculum after three or four years, if the student passed rigorous, comprehensive examinations, he would be awarded a baccalaureate degree, which is similar to our Bachelor of Arts. A significant difference between then and now is that students were examined orally and in public after a program of study rather than after a specific course. Students also had individual tutors and studied under a master. Today we have a great variety of programs from animal behavior to underwater archaeology, but we have the Middle Ages to thank for our degree system.

          After three or four more years of study, further examinations, and the writing of a Master’s thesis (still used), the student would be granted a Master’s Degree. Graduation in the arts, the Master of Arts degree, was the common entrance into the professional studies. Now the student could decide to specialize in law, medicine, or theology. Most doctors of theology studied for fifteen years, obtaining their doctorate after age thirty-five. More popular as a source of job placement and advancement, however, was a doctorate in law, which took seven years. Because kings, merchants, and law courts required trained individuals to interpret and adjudicate, legal studies were the route to upward mobility, much the same as they are now.

          Most universities specialized in specific areas of study. For example, the University of Bologna devoted itself to the study of the law; Paris specialized in the study of theology and logical thinking; and Salerno became a center for the teaching of medicine. Interestingly, the medical student at Salerno did not dissect cadavers, as this activity went against the teachings of the Church; they only studied their medical textbooks (Hippocrates, Galen, Averroes, and others) and took lecture notes.

          At times many of the students were rambunctious (perhaps too much studying, gambling, or drinking). There were riots and altercations between the townspeople and the students, who frequently were clergy and wore clerical robes. Many students felt abused by excessive price gouging for food and lodging charged by the townspeople. The townspeople thought the students were rowdy, snooty, and above the law. For example, the University of Cambridge evolved out of a “town” and “gown” riot when, in 1209, students left Oxford University over the turmoil. Rather than being informal locations in rented rooms, “colleges” eventually emerged with residence halls endowed by wealthy patrons. For example, Robert de Sorbon endowed the Sorbonne, the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Paris.

          From the handful of universities brought into existence in the twelfth century, there were at least eighty known universities at the end of the fifteenth century, including schools at Heidelberg, Prague, Vienna, and Salamanca. It is ironic that many students who wear a cap and gown at their graduation are unaware of the tradition that medieval students wore clerical gowns all the time, not only at graduation, and that their degree of Bachelor, Masters, or Doctorate conferred by the chancellor of the university, which may be written in Latin, dates back to the twelfth century.


          Scholasticism is a term used to describe both the teaching methods and the theological and philosophical doctrines taught in the schools of Medieval Europe. Scholastics would examine the writings of famous authorities, make comments on them, and attempt to resolve conflicts through the use of logical reasoning. An intellectual problem that especially preoccupied the Scholastics was the relationship between faith and reason.

          ST. ANSLEM (1033-1109), sometimes considered to be the father of Scholasticism, demonstrated the use of reason to bolster rather than question Christian faith. He used reason to prove the existence of God. His ontological (ontology is the study of being) proof holds that a being who exists in reality is greater than one who merely exists in the mind. Since we think of God as a being greater than any other, God must really exist.

          PETER ABELARD (1079-1142) also encouraged the use of reason. His book Sic et Non (Yes and No) contains over 150 theological propositions and shows that different authorities can be used to support or oppose each thesis. The only way to resolve these conflicts is through reason. Abelard was a popular and contentious teacher who fell in love with a pupil of his, Heloise. He seduced her and when she had a child, he secretly married her, even though he was supposed to be a celibate cleric. When her uncle Fulbert found out, he had Abelard castrated. She went off to a convent and he became a monk. Their love story has caught the imagination of students ever since. Today the lovers are reunited in a cemetery in Paris.

          While Abelard’s theological work is not widely known today, that of ST. THOMAS AQUINAS (1224-1274) is. Aquinas, a Dominican monk, wrote the Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology), a celebrated compendium on God, morality, and just about every theological question of his day. The rigorous scholastic methodology applied in this work is quite challenging for the beginning student, who is better advised to look at the Summa Contra Gentiles (Summary Against the Gentiles) which uses reason to defend Christianity against Islam. Aquinas wrote numerous other works, including commentaries on the works of Aristotle (the Philosopher for Aquinas), whose major writings had been reintroduced to the West at that time.

          When Aquinas considers the relationship between faith and reason, he believes both are sources of truth since both are given to humans by God. He was convinced, for example, that we can know the existence of God by faith and can prove God’s existence by reason. He believed, however, that the mysteries of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, could neither be proven nor disproven by reason. But what if there appeared to be a conflict between reason and faith? Aquinas was persuaded that any conflicts were due to faulty human reasoning rather than errors in faith, which came directly to man by divine revelation. For Aquinas the concepts of faith are more certain than ideas reached by mere human deliberation. Contrast Aquinas’s world view with that of many contemporary scholars who consider the beliefs of faith to be much less certain than scientifically-validated facts.

Art and Architecture

 In this AGE OF FAITH, the Church was the central, unifying force in people’s lives. All eyes are focused on glorifying God and achieving eternal life. Nowhere is this focus better revealed than in the achievements of Christian art as exemplified in the churches, monasteries, and the cathedrals of this period.

Romanesque Architectur

The first architectural style to appear was Romanesque, in the manner of the Romans. Around the ninth and tenth centuries, the Magyar and Viking invaders had looted and burned hundreds of wooden churches and monasteries

throughout Europe. Starting in the eleventh century, in combination with the Cluniac reform movement, abbeys and monasteries were reconstructed of stone, a more permanent building material, in the Romanesque style. The ancient Roman form of the basilica, rectangular in shape, was changed to add a transept, crossing the central part (nave) of the church at right angles. This extension created the shape of a cross or cruciform floor plan, symbolizing Christ crucified. An apse (a semicircular opening that extended the church) was present at the head of the cross. The altar, positioned at the intersection of the cross, traditionally faced east, the main entrance west. Arched barrel vault ceilings, now constructed of stone, required massive walls to support their weight. In some cases the walls were 10 to l2 feet thick with narrow slit-like apertures for windows. These small, rectangular openings allowed little light to enter, creating an air of mystery, gloom, and impregnability. Other features of Romanesque architecture include rounded arches, twin towers, and large interior piers supporting the weight of the roof.

Brightly colored mosaics (pieces of colored tile or glass) and frescoes (freshly painted wet plaster) brightened the dark interior. Stiff, elongated, expressionless sculptures of saints, apostles, and the holy family, stationed inside and outside, were meant to awe and to inspire the churchgoer. It seems that the stonemasons of that era were unfamiliar with either classical Greek or the more naturalistic Roman figures; however, the elongated figures heightened dramatic effect. More interesting to students are the bizarre demons, fanciful monsters, mythological creatures that fill the tops of columns. These creatures were artists’ visions of what hell might hold. Some of the more dramatic examples of Romanesque architecture are found at England’s Southwell monastery, France’s Church of the Madeleine at Vezelay, dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen, and Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, which contains the body of St. James as a relic. The major cathedrals housed relics, such as the body, the bones, the teeth, the hair of a saint, who could intercede for the petitioner. Vast numbers of worshippers went on pilgrimages to cathedrals to pray for miraculous cures, the souls of their dead relatives, spiritual renewal, or to receive indulgences (remission of the punishment due for their sins).

Gothic Architecture

          Starting in twelfth-century France, there developed a new style of architecture know as the Gothic. Some of the more well-known examples of Gothic cathedrals include France’s Chartres, Reims, and Notre Dame; England’s Salisbury and Canterbury; and Germany’s Strasbourg. Much time, energy, pride, deep religious faith, and financial resources were devoted to their construction. Some cathedrals took 50 to 350 years to complete; for example, Reims in France took 79 years to finish.

          The word cathedral comes from cathedra or seat of a bishop’s see or diocese. A cathedral is a much larger version of a church, housing a large school, choir, and pilgrimage site. The town had to be large enough to finance and support its construction. Not only did the townspeople give donations, but also the guild members, wealthy merchants, bankers, and nobles gloried in being part of the process. Towns would vie with one another to have the most magnificent cathedral, for it was also a symbol of urban pride.

          Distinctive characteristics of the Gothic style of cathedrals, which evolved in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, include pointed arches (the shape of hands folded in prayer), lofty spires, stained glass windows, ribbed vaults in the ceiling, and flying buttresses. These buttresses are outside arched stone piers, which support the much thinner walls of the Gothic style. The open ceilings reveal unbelievable spaciousness; in some cases the ribbed vaults soar to celestial heights, such as the one at Beauvais built to 167 feet before it collapsed.

          The sculptures on the Gothic style were more human and naturalistic. For example, the smiling angel of the Annunciation at Reims Cathedral does not appear foreboding, but rather appealingly cheerful. Also the plants, vines, flowers, and leaves that were now sculpted displayed a love of nature that was not present in the Romanesque style. Some of the cathedrals, such as Notre Dame in Paris, had gargoyles used as downspouts. These are fanciful, grotesque creatures that ward off evil spirits, according to medieval beliefs. The interior was illuminated by the exquisitely designed stained glass windows. An extremely large stained glass window, called the rose window from the blending of colors at Chartres Cathedral, appeared over the west portal entrance to these houses of worship. Their brilliant hues of reds, blues, golds, greens figuratively inspired the love of God. The illiterate could stare at the representations of the Bible stories, trying to understand as well as reconstruct them. Some of the vivid colors with their artistic placement in the lead frames made the reflected light burst into a million diamond sparklers. This is why these cathedrals are called MONUMENTS IN STONE, truly symbolizing the medieval devotion to the glory and splendor of God.


          Latin was the universal language of the Church, scholars, and the very few literate lay individuals of the Middle Ages. Some of the finest examples of Latin are found in the hymns, chants, and devotional works of the Church. The Gregorian chants of the monks are not only still sung, but have also found their way into top-selling European recordings. Exuberant, lusty poems written by anonymous university students were part of the counterculture of the time. Cleverly constructed and witty, these Goliardic (in honor of a fictitious St. Golias) verses praised the pleasures of this world as opposed to the glories of the next.

          Written in the vernacular (everyday tongue of the French, Spanish, German, Italian) were the epic poems. The earliest Anglo-Saxon heroic poem Beowulf was written in Old English by a Northumbrian monk in the late eighth or ninth century. Extolling loyalty, heroism, and bravery, Beowulf recounts the legend of a Swede who journeys to Denmark to slay a dragon/monster. One of the most famous epics written in an early French dialect is The Song of Roland, a tale of another stalwart hero. Other epic poems of warfare, chivalry, and loyalty to one’s overlord include the Nibelungenlied (German) and the Poem of El Cid (Spanish).

          Long poems sung by minstrels and troubadours at nobles’ courts were called chansons de geste (“songs of great deeds”). Extremely popular, these poems recounted magical events, with wizards and fairies possessing supernatural powers, and were overlaid with romantic themes. With the forces of good pitted against the forces of evil, these songs of heroic deeds provided dramatic intrigue long before the soap operas of today engaged the eager viewer. In the Reading from the Time section, you will discover the lay of Marie de France, which is representative of these romantic poems. Chretien de Troyes was another author who launched the romances of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, Merlin, and others in their legendary court of Camelot. During this Age of Chivalry, noblewomen were placed figuratively on a pedestal to be worshipped from afar and were thought to be worthy of unrequited love and daring deeds. In reality, they were very much subordinate to their fathers and husbands and carried substantial household responsibilities. However, in these long poems, romantic love was an ennobling, fiercely exciting force that tore people apart as well as glued them together with dramatic intensity.

          Medieval dramas were originally enacted in churches. Morality plays such as Everyman with personified virtues and vices, offered insight into the human condition and tried to inspire people to live saintly lives. Passion plays dramatized the last days of Christ, including his crucifixion. Miracle plays revolved around the lives of the saints, such as St. Catherine of Siena. There were pageants on religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday.

          The poet laureate of the High Middle Ages who created a treasure of vernacular literature is an Italian, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). The Divine Comedy, his allegory of the soul’s journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise, left a lasting impression on Western Civilization. With his vivid images of sinners consigned to one of the nine concentric circles of Hell according to their earthly misdeeds, Dante immortalized visions of the afterlife for all time. In his 100-canto long poem, Dante synthesized the medieval quest for the divine as the purpose of life.

          Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400), in his Canterbury Tales, wrote of pilgrims on a journey to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, England. He developed memorable descriptions of people representative of their times and of the human condition. The scholarly Clerk of Oxenford cares more for books than fine clothing, while the Wife of Bath claims that what women really want is to be dominant over their husbands. These tales still amuse and delight readers, just as they did the readers in Chaucer’s day.

Kehoe, et. al.  PP. 334 - 339

The Medieval Church

Expressions of Popular Piety

          In the Western Europe of the Middle Ages the Christian church, what today is called the Roman Catholic Church, played a central role in the lives of the people. Most medieval humans were not concerned with whether God existed, which was a given, but rather how they could be sure of reaching heaven.


By the twelfth century, the church had established seven sacraments. The sacraments were visible signs of the inward reception of God’s grace, which was necessary for salvation. Baptism ushered the new-born into the Christian life, freeing one from the taint of original sin. Confirmation prepared the adolescent to take on adult responsibilities. Extreme unction prepared the Christian for death. The sacrament of penance absolved him of grave sin, which would otherwise land him in hell. A form of union with Christ was possible through the reception of the Eucharist, which was thought to contain the actual body and blood of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine (after a priest had said the words of consecration during the ceremony known as the Mass). If a man became a priest, he received the sacrament of holy orders, while heterosexual couples celebrated their ties with the sacrament of marriage. Most of these sacraments (baptism and marriage were the exceptions) had to be administered by a priest. Thus the clergy controlled the flow of grace needed for eternal bliss.


Popular worship had many outlets besides the sacraments. We have already mentioned the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages. There was also the veneration of the saints, persons who had led especially holy lives and were believed to be capable of interceding with God on behalf of ordinary sinners. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was especially honored since it was believed that she had particular weight with God. In fact, she was recognized as the Queen of Heaven and believed to be a compassionate mother for every Christian.


Along with the honoring of the saints came the veneration of relics, which were objects closely associated with the departed saint. A limb or some other body part was a prime relic. But clothes of the departed saint, splinters of the cross on which Christ died, even remnants of the five loaves Jesus used to feed the multitude were venerated during the medieval period without great concern for their authenticity. There were many reports of miracles produced by touching relics. A relic’s value was measured by the reports of miracles it performed, not by established historical pedigree. Relics were prized possessions of churches.


People made pilgrimages to churches and shrines, especially if they contained important relics associated with holy persons. The practice of going on a pilgrimage might be compared to going on a tour to some popular attraction today. The setting for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was a pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Canterbury, England, where the martyred St. Thomas à Becket was buried. It was believed that many cures were worked at the invocation of the saint. The refusal of the Seljuk Turks to permit Western European pilgrims to visit the Holy Land was one of the justifications used to launch the crusades. The church encouraged the practice of visiting holy shrines by granting to the pilgrims indulgences or the remission of penance due for sins.


New Monastic Orders


Religious Orders and Reform

          The founding of the Benedictine monks by Benedict of Nursia was mentioned earlier. The endeavors of these monks and similar religious orders or groups, whether in manual labor on farms or in copying texts, contributed to strengthening both the church and society in general. It was not long before their services were used by kings, dukes and counts, as well as bishops and popes. The abbots found themselves responsible for providing knights for feudal armies and wise counsel to the politicians of their day. As the scope of their activities broadened and as generous contributions poured in from wealthy benefactors anxious about the next life, it was easy to grow complacent and indulgent of the flesh. Fortunately for the church, there were periodic movements for reform and renewal, which provided new groups of men and women dedicated to God and church.


One such group developed around the monastery of Cluny in Burgundy, France. Founded in 910 by William I, Duke of Aquitaine, Cluny was free of the jurisdiction of local bishops and dukes and subject only to papal authority. Its regime represented a modification of Benedict’s rule. More stress was put on copying of manuscripts and elaborate liturgical services than on field labor and private prayer. Corrupt living within the monastery was not tolerated. The influence of the Cluniacs quickly spread to other monastic establishments throughout Europe. Many of these monasteries were daughter houses of the original in Cluny and were ruled by priors appointed by the abbot in Cluny, whose authority they accepted. Cluny’s influence spread beyond the monastic circle to the church in general.

          The Cluniac campaign stressed several areas of reform. Simony, or the selling of sacred objects and offices, was to be stopped. All priests were to adhere to the requirement of celibacy by giving up concubines or wives. Just as Cluny was free from the jurisdiction of the local duke, all church officials were to be freed from the control of political authorities. The practice of kings and others appointing church officials was to be ended. In the eleventh century many of the reforms sought by the Cluniac movement were instituted by reforming popes. In 1059, Pope NICHOLAS II (1059-1061) decreed that the COLLEGE OF CARDINALS, which had served as assistants to the pope, were to elect new popes. The idea was to free the papacy from the control of political officials. When Hildebrand, who was a monk from a Cluniac monastery, became Pope GREGORY VII (1073-1085) the papacy itself came to be an outpost of the movement. Success brought wealth and deep involvement in the political system. By the middle of the twelfth century, the Cluniac order was itself in need of reform.



Fortunately for the church, other religious orders with fresh zeal came forward. One of these was the CISTERCIANS, an order founded in 1098 at Citeaux, in a remote area not far from Dijon, France. By the middle of the next century, there were over 300 monasteries with 11,000 monks and nuns. They led austere lives following the rule of Benedict with greater rigor than Benedict himself probably contemplated. Great emphasis was put on manual labor. Cistercian farming activities in remote areas helped to bring more land under cultivation and contributed to the development of western European commerce. The best known Cistercian of the Middle Ages was SAINT BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX (1090-1153) who became a counselor to popes and kings. He led the attack on the rationalist teachings of Peter Abelard.



The thirteenth century saw a new development: the rise of religious orders whose members did not stay in secluded cloisters, but went out into the towns and the countryside to preach to ordinary folks. Members of these orders were often called FRIARS (brothers) or MENDICANTS since they would beg to earn their bread rather than concentrate on farming as the Cistercians. The Franciscans were one of these mendicant orders. Their founder, ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI (c.1182-1226) in Italy, embraced a life of idealized poverty and service to the poor. Initially this order owned nothing in common or individually, but some modifications of this strict poverty were eventually made. The Franciscans were encouraged by the church as an attractive alternative to groups such as the Waldenses, who also embraced poverty but were more critical of abuses within the church and were condemned as heretics. By 1220, Francis had thousands of followers and Franciscan missions were established in many places in Europe and even in the Holy Land.


A contemporary of Francis was St. Dominic (c.1171-1221), born in Spanish Castile. Dominic became interested in converting the Albigenses of southern France, who were heretical dualists, believing all material things were evil. After working among the Albigenses or Cathari, Dominic was inspired to found a new order, popularly known as the DOMINICANS, who would seek to convert the world to the Catholic version of Christianity. In order to create effective preachers, Dominic placed more emphasis on education than Francis did. He followed the example of Francis in requiring his followers to take vows of poverty and live on donations. By the time of Dominic’s death in 1221, there were some 500 friars and 60 priories throughout western Europe. The Dominicans became famous educators. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, leading medieval intellectuals, were members of the order. As leaders in the campaign against heretics, they also came to staff the offices of the INQUISITION, the church tribunal charged with suppressing heresy.


The Crusades

Urban II at the Council of Clermont in southern France near the end of 1095, preached the First Crusade to recapture the Holy Land.  Emperor Alexis of the Byzantine Empire had asked for help against the Seljuk Turks.

Peasants' Crusade 1096
First Crusade 1096 - 1099
Second Crusade 1147 - 1149
Third Crusade 1189 - 1192
Fourth Crusade 1202 - 1204
Fifth Crusade 1219 -1221
Sixth Crusade 1128 - 1229
Seventh Crusade 1248 - 1254
Eighth Crusade 1270  

Peasants' Crusade 1096

First Crusade 1096 - 1099

Fall of Edessa, 1144

Second Crusade 1147 - 1149

Saladdin's re-conquest of Jerusalem, 1187

Third Crusade 1189 - 1192

Death of Saladdin, 1193

Pope Innocent III

Fourth Crusade 1202 - 1204

Sack of Constantinople, 1204

Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204 - 1261

Fifth Crusade 1219 -1221

Sixth Crusade 1228 - 1229

Frederick II occupies Jerusalem, 1228

Seventh Crusade 1248 - 1254

     Led by King Louis IX, St. Louis

Eighth Crusade 1270

Surrender of Acre and end of Christian presence in Holy Land, 1291


Kehoe, et. al.   PP. 352 - 358.

The Crusades

          The power of the medieval church is seen not only in the attempts of the popes to dominate the political leaders of their time, but also in the phenomena of the Crusades, which sent whole armies off to the Middle East to rescue the Holy Land. The time is November 27, 1095; the place is Clermont, France. The Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Commenus (1081-1118) had asked the pope for aid against the advance of the Seljuk Turks. Pope Urban II (c. 1088-1099), at the Council of Clermont, delivers an impassioned speech to a crowd of nobles and commoners, urging them to take up the cross (Crux in Latin, hence Crusade) and wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims. The crowd goes wild, shouting in unison, “It is the will of God.” With this phrase as a slogan, thousands will fight for 177 years to recapture the shrines in Jerusalem, embark on other worthy (or nefarious) endeavors, slaughtering and pillaging in the name of religion, politics, and greed.

          When we talk about this period, we have to focus on the religious climate of the times. All classes of medieval people were concerned about their souls passing into heaven, about receiving absolution for their sins and achieving eternal salvation. So when the reigning pope promised remission for sins for the recapture of the Holy Land, the response was overwhelming. If the Crusaders were successful, the Pope would again be acknowledged as the leader of all Christendom.

          Because there was an excess of young warriors and no real conflict to focus their energies, the Pope wished to channel their aggressiveness into a Crusade. This excess was caused by the inheritance laws of the time. Under PRIMOGENITURE, only the eldest son inherited land, estates, and the title. The younger sons were left to seek land, glory, plunder, and adventure in other outlets. By diverting these energetic knights into a Crusade, the Pope would rid Europe of excess militaristic zeal. The armed warriors would now fight Muslims instead of each other.

Peasants’ Crusade: 1096

           Long before the knights could organize after Pope Urban II’s sermon, a firebrand preacher, Peter the Hermit (c.1050-1115), excited and inspired a group of French peasants to take off for Jerusalem. Two French contingents and three German peasant groups abandoned their rural lives to march across Europe. The tragedy was that the Germans vented their anti-Semitic hatred as they went along, massacring Jews in the Rhineland despite the efforts of bishops to save them. When the sick and exhausted survivors of the Peasants’ Crusade arrived in Constantinople, Emperor Alexius prudently shipped them off to be slaughtered in Asia Minor by the Seljuk Turks.

First Crusade: 1096-1099

          The soldiers of the First Crusade were largely French under the leadership of Godfrey of Bouillon, his brother, Baldwin of Flanders, Raymond of Toulouse, and others. In July 15, 1099, Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Crusader knights. First-hand accounts relate horrible atrocities and blood up to the knees of the Crusaders’ horses in the Temple of Solomon. Christians massacred both Muslims and Jews in a savage orgy of blood lust. The following testimony is an account from an actual participant in the First Crusade:

...But now that our men had possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious ceremonies are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.[i]


After the Muslim defeat, the Crusaders held four principalities in the Holy Land: the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the capstone of their conquests—the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. These kingdoms lasted for about 45 years. The Crusader States were beachheads of Christendom, stretching 500 miles along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. There were six more major Crusades and many more minor expeditions to the Holy Land, but the spirit and success, judged by Western standards, of the First Crusade were never duplicated.

Second Crusade: 1147-1149

          Because the Crusaders were supplied by the sea and were small pockets of warriors in Muslim territory, their stronghold at Edessa was easily captured by Islamic armies. Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most saintly monks of the time, convinced two monarchs, Emperor Conrad of Germany and Louis VII of France to pursue the Second Crusade from 1147 to 1149. Since the two monarchs were at odds with each other and the Muslims had superior military strength, their efforts achieved nothing. This Crusade failed miserably.

Third Crusade: 1189-1192

          When in 1187 Jerusalem fell to Saladin, an exceptionally competent Muslim commander, three of the most powerful rulers in Europe called for the Third Crusade (1189-1192). These monarchs were: The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Philip Augustus of France, and King Richard I (Richard the Lionhearted) of England. Due to lack of coordination, their combined forces could not retake Jerusalem. However, they did manage to capture a port, Acre, on the Mediterranean. Richard the Lionhearted negotiated a pact with Saladin, allowing Christian pilgrims access to their holy shrines once more.

Fourth Crusade: 1202-1204

          Pope Innocent III, the vigorous pope at the apex of the movement of papal power, summoned this paradoxical Crusade. When the Crusaders could not pay for the sea passage they had booked to the Holy Land from the commercial trading city-state of Venice, the doge (leader) of Venice suggested an alternative mode of payment: the capture of a Christian city, Zara, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. This city was a commercial rival of Venice, and the doge saw in the Crusaders an opportunity to subdue his enemies. Incensed over the capture of Zara, Pope Innocent excommunicated all who took part (though he later rescinded the excommunication of the warriors).

           Now the unimaginable happens. A pretender to the Byzantine throne, Alexis IV, promises the Latin Christian warriors an enormous sum of money if they would help restore the throne to him and his father, who would then become co-rulers of the Byzantine Empire. As you may have guessed, the Crusaders do as they are asked; however, when it comes time to pay, the now Emperor Alexis reneges on his agreement. The Crusaders sack, loot, and pillage Constantinople in retaliation, establishing Latin Christian control over this Byzantine capital. Christians are slaughtering fellow Christians at both Zara, Constantinople, and in other victories over the Byzantines. The Crusaders never reached the Holy Land. They took control of Constantinople and established a sixty-year Latin Empire of Constantinople. The Roman Catholic crusaders were pleased with their acquisition of Constantinople because they felt the Easterners were heretics who had left the fold.

Children’s Crusade

          The purity and innocence of children was tested in the Children’s Crusade of 1212. A band of French youngsters heeded the call of Stephen of Cloyes, a shepherd boy. He and a German lad, Nicholas from Cologne, had visions of Christ calling them to liberate the Holy Land. Poor and believing French and German youngsters reached Marseilles, and possibly Pisa, to embark for the Holy Land. Some drowned in storms; others were sold to Islamic slave traders in North Africa or to brothels in Italy. There may have been fifty thousand souls altogether. Very few of these unfortunate children ever returned home.

Effects of the Crusades

          As we have seen, thousands of Jews, Muslims, Christians, men, women, and children, were slaughtered for the goal of recapturing the Holy Land. Although Palestine was held for short periods, holding it on a long-term basis was not an attainable objective for the West. It remained in Muslim hands until 1918, when it was captured by General Allenby in World War I.

          Some historians feel that by outfitting the Crusaders, the Italian commercial cities of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice became wealthy. Other historians argue these cities would have traded with the eastern world anyway, without the benefit of supplying the Crusaders. These cities prospered, became commercial rivals among themselves, and by 1350 paved the way for the Age of Exploration and the Italian Renaissance.

          One long-term legacy of the Crusades was the enmity aroused between Christians and Moslems. Many of our problems in the Middle East have come from this continued animosity. However, while the young Crusading warriors were away, there was more peace in Europe. The absence of these knights led to the growth of nationalism and an increase in the powers of the kings of England and of France. In other words, the powers of the nobles declined; and with this decline, the institution of feudalism lost some of its prestige. Geography, travel, and tales of the East stimulated interest in exploring faraway lands. The enthusiasm for crusading gradually lost its appeal among the nobles and common folk as they became more and more preoccupied with affairs in their nation-states. By the conclusion of the thirteenth century, the Crusading movement had lost most of its appeal.

            [i] A.C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1921), pp. 261-262.