How the Crusades Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, Candace. How are you doing?

Candace Gibson: Doing well, Jane. It's funny, there's a lot of words in our language that pack a whole lot of meaning. And sometimes you can say one of these words and start a riot without even meaning to. And one of the ones I'm thinking of is crusade.

Jane McGrath: Sure, that's a hot button word, for sure. If you look at even President Bush, he mentions it then a lot of uproar begins. He gets attacked for thinking that this war on terrorism is suddenly a Holy War about religion.

Candace Gibson: Right. And that's the trouble with using crusade even casually, like if you're on a crusade for restocking the office fridge with Diet Coke, you don't want to say that necessarily because the word invokes a lot of bloodshed and -

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: - a lot of political strife, too. And a lot of corruption, really, if you look at what the crusades was all about. And it's hard to pinpoint what exactly that was, because there were many many crusades, not just one. It was a whole series that spanned a couple of generations. It began around 1095. And they started definitely centered around religion. But even in their earliest stages, there was some political wheeling and dealing going on.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And if you look at how the Pope got mixed in with it, it was actually the emperor of the Byzantine empire that went to the Pope and asked, "Hey, can you help us out because these Seljuk Muslims in particular are starting to take over my empire and my lands. So can you come over here and help us?" And the Pope saw this as both political and religious because he was hoping to unite the east and west churches, which had separated a few decades before that.

Candace Gibson: Right. And the great schism of 1054. And it's funny because the emperor knew that if he allied with the Pope, he could get the manpower he needed to get his empire back. Because he didn't have the forces to accomplish that goal. But back in Europe, there were knights from the feudal system who were just very listless and they were getting bored. So they were causing trouble at home, and the Pope thought, "Well, we've been trying to restore peace on the home front from these boyish and tumbling around knights. So if we could give them something constructive to, like reclaim the Holy Land, well it's a win-win for everyone."

Jane McGrath: That's true. And they got more than they bargained for, actually. The speech that the Pope gave to instigate knights to take up arms and march to the Holy Land actually ended up spurring on even peasants, who were very ill equipped to go and fight the sophisticated Muslim warriors.

Candace Gibson: And that's something really important to mention, too. Europe at this time was actually somewhat backward compared to the forces and the countries that they were about to go up against. They were sophisticated. They were more intelligent. They had better warfare. And Europe was in a dark time. And it actually cost a lot of money to go off and be a crusader. I think that knights had to mortgage their homes and liquefy their assets, and then walk 3,000 miles to get over to where all the fighting was occurring.

Jane McGrath: That's true. I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision for them.

Candace Gibson: It wasn't. And so when these peasants got inspired, especially under the charismatic guidance of Peter the Hermit, a disaster ensued. They were up against and enemy that had methods of warfare that no one was prepared for, let alone the peasants - but even the knights who had been in training to be soldiers.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. When they arrived, at least where the Byzantine emperor was, he knew that the peasants weren't equipped. And he kept saying, "No. Hold up until we can bring real reinforcements to you." And they just marched on.

Candace Gibson: And the Turkish leaders loved it.

Jane McGrath: I'm sure they did.

Candace Gibson: They pretty much took stock of the situation and were like, "If this is how easy the crusades are going to be, we don't have anything to worry about."

Jane McGrath: That gave them a certain confident, I bet.

Candace Gibson: It did. And it would be shattered later, but - just to reinforce the point - the reason that so many people were inspired to go was that the Pope told them a couple of things about the crusades. One being that going to the Holy Land and reclaiming Jerusalem for Christianity would substitute for a journey of penance. And the other thing was that if you went and you accomplished this goal, you'd be absolved of all your sin and you'd have guaranteed entry to heaven.

Jane McGrath: So basically, if you went and died on the battlefield, you wouldn't be so bad off if you ended up getting eternal life as a result.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So people thought, well what do I have to lose?

Jane McGrath: And also, if you look at what was instigating their motivations, at least the peasants - they were hearing stories about how the Muslims were performing atrocities on these pilgrims, who just wanted to peacefully go to their holy lands. And it wasn't just the Muslim control of the holy lands that instigated this, because the Muslims had control over it for decades before that. What happened was the Seljuk Muslims actually came in. And the stories started coming out, whether true or not, that they started violently abusing the pilgrims that came. This is what instigated, at least peasants in Europe, to say, "This is wrong." And you can imagine who they could use that as a motivation to go to the Holy Land.

Candace Gibson: Right. So they thought they were doing a very righteous deed, when in fact the Pope was scheming alongside his political ally. And it didn't quite turn out like anyone thought it would, because it wasn't a cut and dried deal. The crusade stretched on for a really long time. And like we said, when the crusading forces - most of them were French, at least during the first crusade - when they encountered the Muslims, they had all these tactics of warfare that no one was prepared for - one of which was called Greek fire. And essentially what this was, is they would load up pottery with fire and then catapult it at the crusaders.

Jane McGrath: That's brilliant.

Candace Gibson: I know, it really was. And it would shatter into pieces and fire would spread everywhere, or else they would take rags soaked with oil and studded with nails and set those ablaze and catapult those over. So the crusaders had these moving wooden reinforcements, like towers, that they would put up as a bastion against the offensive forces. But the nails from the fiery rags would just stick in and burn everything down. And the crusaders eventually got wise to this and they would hang up animal skins soaked in vinegar to help repel the fire. And they also realized that their movements on the field and their fancy lines and defense mechanisms weren't going to cut muster here. And so they got stronger armor, they invented the crossbow, and they had to get used to some of the unconventional warfare tactics, like screaming and whistling and all these strange noises that the Muslim forces would make just to serve as a distraction. It was a total mess, I'm sure, on the battlefield because it wasn't gentlemen fighting. It was mayhem, really.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And given how much they had to overcome, it's surprising the crusaders were able to eventually seize Jerusalem and break in with their catapults and ladders. And once they got in there, they ended up pillaging the city in ways that, according to our modern sensibilities, pretty horrible. They actually burned down a synagogue full of innocent Jews. And it certainly doesn't justify what they were doing, but it seemed similar to what other armies at the time were doing. That doesn't excuse it, but people nowadays see it as such - one of the things that gets associated with the crusades was how vicious they were. So this is one of the reasons.

Candace Gibson: And the siege of Jerusalem is one of the most salient events in all of the crusades. And the mantra they had going into the crusades was that God wills it. And no matter what happened, no matter how many people died or how bad things got, it was God's will that they were going and fighting. And even when the crusaders were stricken with disease or were so hungry that they cut open their animal's stomachs to drink the blood -

Jane McGrath: Ew.

Candace Gibson: I know, a really gory - again, God wills it. And when they seized Jerusalem, they were so bereft. They were on death's doorstep. They didn't have anything going for them really. And one of the crusaders had a vision that they were supposed to march barefoot around Jerusalem, surround the city, and then slowly work their way inward. And that's exactly what they did.

Jane McGrath: It worked.

Candace Gibson: It did. And like you were saying, all heck broke loose after that. It was a quite a mess. But for all the successes - and again, we use that term loosely - of the crusade, there were some really awful tragedies, too, on the crusaders behalf.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's true. And if you look at one of the crusades, at least, it's loosely defined as a crusade because the Pope certainly didn't back it. It was called the Children's Crusade. And I was actually taught this in my Catholic school upbringing. And my teacher would tell us of the story where these thousands and thousands of kids were loaded on ships to cross the Mediterranean and go towards the Holy Land to hopefully, through their childish innocence, convert the hearts of the Muslim and win over the land for Christian forces. And actually the children were sent to sure death - either shipwreck or sold into slavery, which was a total disaster. And all the kids ended up either dying or - you know. So that's actually a legend. But what actually happened is a little bit more fuzzy. Historians are not sure it happened at all. But it dates back to these two different kids who actually didn't know each other - Steven in France and Nicholas in Germany - both of them claimed separately to get divine visions of Christ telling them, "You need to get control of the Holy Land. And you need to go to the Holy Land and get it for the Christian Forces." And Nicholas actually went to the Mediterranean and he believed that it would dry up by the time he got there. Steven, in France, went to the king of France saying he had a letter for him.. And the king of France was less than impressed. He was like, "Oh, go home. Come back when you're older if you still believe this." And what happened to these kids - and there were probably thousands of kids that were gathered up as a following for these two, Steven and Nicholas. What happened to them was probably a tragedy. But it's important to note that the church wasn't behind these. And so if you call them a crusade, you have to take it with a grain of salt. And also, historians even question whether these were children at all, because the word used in the research was actually puer, which is the Latin word for boy. But if you look at the use back then, it could've been just a word for a lower-standing man. So we're not even sure about anything that happened.

Candace Gibson: And that's what's so difficult about interpreting the crusades and recording it for posterity, all the events that took place. A lot of the tales that we know were handed down through oral history or they were accounts that were biased depending on someone's religion or political affiliation. And as we mentioned before, as the crusades went on, they got more and more political. And one of the major reasons for this was that the land that the crusaders won, they weren't quite sure what to do with it. And the answer seemed pretty obvious. You give it back to the Byzantine empire - that's who the Pope was aligned with in the first place.

Jane McGrath: You would think.

Candace Gibson: I guess people felt that they were entitled to it. They endured that much to win it and so -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, there were betrayals behind that as well. The crusading forces thought that the Byzantine empire had betrayed them in some senses. So at that point, they felt that they were entitled to the land themselves. And so lots of mix-ups happening.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. So they became crusader states, but they didn't last very long because they didn't have any sort of strong centralized government. So they were eventually overtaken again by the Muslim forces.

Jane McGrath: And this happened over and over again. And eventually, even the Pope started saying, "If you go and fight this so-called crusade, you're going to be excommunicated." And yet people still went on thinking, God wills it, God wills it.

Candace Gibson: It's crazy. And if you look at different artists renderings of the crusaders coming home, they're usually old men with long beards. They look very bedraggled. They're straddling horses that look like they're on their last legs, literally. And to me, that's a perfect representation of the end of the crusades. People come home and they're like, "Wait. What were we fighting for? I'm not quite sure what happened." And the fact that the beginning of the crusades was based on a political decision and somewhat a bit of lies in the first place, makes it really hard to figure out how it impacts history today, if it even does.

Jane McGrath: And that's actually the question I was thinking about for you. How deeply did the crusades impact history?

Candace Gibson: That's a tough question. And I think some people might say that all the events of the crusades have impacted relations between Europe and the Middle East and power struggles between the church and the state today. And a lot of historians say that that's fiction. Because the crusades were so twisted politically and because they took place during such a dark time in Europe, that there's really a blip on the radar. And it certainly didn't seem like that at the time, and maybe when we look back - and we look today at people who are demanding reparations, or at least an apology, from the church, they seem like quite a big deal. But I think most historians agree that it's just a part of the past that didn't really influence how things are today.

Jane McGrath: That's crazy.

Candace Gibson: I know. It really is. But there's so much more, obviously, to learn about the crusades. You can read about them on howstuffworks.com.

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