The Crusades A Background

The Crusades, a movement which began in the 11th century, was a complicated and many layered affair which had a profound impact on the shaping of Europe.

The development of trade was one aspect but equally important was the intellectual development it fostered and in Europe itself, the crusades were to have a long lasting political impact.

Peter the Hermit leading the First Crusade

Peter the Hermit leading the First Crusade

So just how did the crusades come about, what is the background?

The Christian West underwent a renewal and revitalization during the 10th century and the 11th century. The  most important to emerge being the Cluniac and Gregorian  Reforms.

    • The Cluniac Reform movement was a religious model that arose out of the french Benedictine monastery founded in Cluny in 910.
    • The abbots associated with the monastery were extremely pious and determined and it was their desire to see the church cleansed of worldly influences.
    • They insisted on celibacy and sought to stop the sale of church offices.
    • This new high moral status gave Pope Gregory VII the chance to assert a new supremacy over the European monarchs. The right of monarchs to appoint clergy was renounced .
    • The church was emerging as a confident powerful force.

Gregorian Reforms

Pope Gregory went on to broaden his  conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society.

    • For him, God’s law was the only law and the Pope was the supreme person placed on earth to act for God on earth and therefore there was no other who could reign above him.
    • In this way he would have been the supreme ruler of all, there would have been no states.
    • This obviously could not become a reality so Pope Gregory rather cleverly described the coexistence of church and state as a divine ordinance, and emphasized the necessity of union between them.
    • What remained though, was Gregory’s absolute unbroken belief that the two powers were not on an equal footing and that the church was superior to the state and the monarchs in all matters.
    • The Gregorian reforms put the church in it’s most powerful position yet.

He formulated the clergy’s position of supremacy over the secular rulers in his ‘Dictatus Papae’

The power struggle between church and state continued over the many centuries during which the crusades were fought.

Against this backdrop of power struggle the Turkish tribe  the Seljuks, began advancing into the near east.

    • They were a family of Oghuz Turks from Central Asia, living in the area east of the Caspian Sea near the Aral Sea.
    • These Turkish nomads led by a leader, Seluk, were ever searching for greener pastures for their animals and managed to create a vast empire, stretching from the Marmara Sea to Central Asia and from the Caucasus to India and Yemen.
    • Its borders were so vast that it was called the “Great” Seljuk state.
    • This advance by the Muslim Seljuks, was noticed by the Christian west and after their occupation of the holy ‘Christian’ sites, Pope Gregory VII, in 1074, was planning a crusade to liberate them.

The Seljuks

By 1095 Pope Urban II preached a sermon at Clermont, promoting the crusades

‘They (the Seljuks) have killed and captured many and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them’

    • The church, in it’s new powerful position felt able to demand some allegiance to the crusade, their ‘supreme’ position gave them authority over the state.
    • At the same time the monarchs used the crusades to legitimize their reigns in their own countries as truly ‘Christian’ rulers.
    • Anyone who joined the crusade was promised a remission of their sins, a motivator for the poor maybe but what motivated the noble classes to join a crusade?
    • The possibility of material and political gains were certainly important motivating factors. For younger sons, who were excluded from inheriting their family wealth it was an opportunity to become military leaders and catch the eye of other influential people and maybe acquire booty and lands.
    • For those involved in trade, the crusades brought opportunities both in providing for the crusaders and for opening up new trade routes.

The crusades therefore, could be seen on many fronts to have useful purpose and by 1096 the call to arms had been taken up by the first straggly and disordered  band of adventurers.


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