This lesson explores the results and impact of the Crusades. We examine the social impact, the political impact and the economic impact of three centuries of crusading.
The Many Repercussions of the Crusades
The Crusades had a profound impact on Western civilization. Western society had to come to terms with its clear inferiority to the advanced cultures of the East, even as it wrestled with the implications of religiously sanctioned violence. Western Europe's economy exploded as the Venetians expanded their trade networks and Europe's monarchs spent lavish sums on campaigns, castles and luxuries. Medieval politics were transformed under the pressure of shifting alliances and a politically active papacy.
Social Impact of the Crusades
The social repercussions of the Crusades began with the very First Crusade. Perhaps the most obvious of these repercussions involved the role of violence in Christianity. Christianity was, at its inception, an intensely pacifistic religion. Christianity did not come to dominate the Roman Empire through strength in arms, but through the strength of their example.
It was Christians' willingness to suffer horrible violence in the name of their God that inspired so many to convert to Christianity. Once Christianity became the state religion of Rome, it adapted to allow for the violence necessary to build and maintain an empire. Though Church fathers, like St. Augustine, had laid groundwork justifying violence in the name of faith, their attitudes towards violence seem more like an apology for a necessary sin, rather than an endorsement of holy warfare.
This concept of violence as, at best, a necessary evil seems to have been the attitude of medieval Christians before the Crusades. Indeed, Pope Urban II may well have called the First Crusade in an attempt to reduce violence among Christians, by redirecting that violence toward Muslims. Unfortunately for the Pope, his plan backfired. Whatever his intentions, Urban had not only justified violence, he'd commanded it.
Holy warfare became the will of God, the duty of every Christian. Did the Pope actually make the kings of Europe violent? No. They were plenty violent to start with. Pope Urban was clearly playing to the violent tendencies of his audience when he called for the First Crusade. However, by promoting divinely sanctioned violence, the Pope had removed whatever restraint Christianity had held over the warlike kings of Europe.
Rather than feeling guilty about murdering people, Crusaders came to expect heavenly rewards for murdering people. The indulgences, or get-out-of-hell-free cards, that the Pope granted to crusading knights can be seen in much the same light as the 72 virgins promised to suicide bombers with Jihad.
Yet, in many ways, the medieval crusades were far worse than anything attempted by modern religious terrorists. Rather than being carried out by a small sect of extremists, like today's suicide bombers, the religiously fueled murderous rampages of the Crusades were carried out by lords, kings and emperors, leading entire nations in centuries of futile, suicidal, senseless bloodshed.
If Urban had hoped to bring about peace in Europe by promoting xenophobia, or the fear and hatred of foreigners, he must have been sorely disappointed, for in the years that followed, Europe became an ever more violent place, while at the same time, it became much more cosmopolitan. Compared to the ancient and advanced civilizations of Constantinople and the Middle East, Western Europeans must have felt rather primitive. That's certainly how the Greeks and Arabs saw them - illiterate, degenerate, unwashed, uncivilized barbarians.
Western Europe's literacy rate was dismal compared to the highly literate Greeks. Western European culture was primitive and violent compared with the refined civilizations of the East. Arabs and Greeks could relax in heated baths or shower beneath running water, while Western Europeans rarely bathed at all.
Constantinople was one of the largest cities on Earth. Its population was greater than Paris, London and Rome combined. Though the Westerners berated the Easterners as decadent and soft, it's clear that the Westerners wanted what those Eastern cultures had. They wanted running water, they wanted massive wealth, they wanted to command huge armies, they wanted to wear silks, eat spiced foods and smell perfumes.
Europeans returned from the Crusade full of new desires and ambitions. Western aristocrats developed a taste for Eastern luxuries, and Western scholars began to embrace a philosophical tradition, which had begun with the Greeks and had flourished under Islam. These impressions from the East would be instrumental in shaping the civilization of the West.
Economic Impact of the Crusades
The trade of ideas and luxuries with the East had already been underway for a century or two before the Crusades even began. Italian city-states, like Venice and Florence, were making a killing bringing Eastern goods to the Western market. With the Crusades, the West's appetite for these luxuries grew exponentially. To meet this demand, the Italian city-states had to overcome several obstacles. The first was the Arab dominance of the Mediterranean. Yet, the Arabs were not a great naval power, and by the end of the First Crusade, they had been essentially driven from the seas, and the Italians had established trading outposts along the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Yet, between Italy and their new Eastern marketplaces lay the ancient and powerful Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines had an excellent navy, and for centuries they had thwarted the efforts of the Italians to gain a stranglehold on Mediterranean trade. The Venetians solved this problem by leading the crusaders to sack Constantinople, the capitol of the Byzantine Empire, in the Fourth Crusade.
With the Byzantines out of the way, the Italians, and especially the Venetians, enjoyed unchallenged power over the Mediterranean Sea. As if the lucrative trade in luxuries was not enough, the Italian city-states enjoyed another huge windfall from the Crusades. European monarchs did not just want to bring Eastern luxuries to the West; they wanted to bring Western armies to the East. They wanted to establish colonies in the Holy Land.
They needed to build huge castles to defend their colonies, and they needed to keep their forces supplied with arms and provisions. Wealth began moving across the Mediterranean at a dizzying rate, and at the heart of all this exchange were the Italian city-states, making money hand over fist. The massive wealth amassed by the Italian city-states would eventually give rise to the Italian Renaissance.
Political Impact of the Crusades
These massive expenditures on the part of European monarchs had a profound effect on European politics. As kings struggled to deal with the logistics of moving thousands of soldiers across thousands of miles, and the incredible expense of maintaining military outposts, like Acre in the Holy Land, systems of bureaucracy and taxation were perfected, and Western Europe's first nation states began to emerge.
Europe's kings began to wield ever-greater power. Yet, the concentration of power into so few personalities led to growing international tensions, as family grudges came to determine the courses of entire nations. The shifting alliances, emotional strain and crippling expense of the Crusades served only to exacerbate these problems. Louis VII divorced his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, after the Second Crusade.
She got her revenge by marrying Henry II of England. This gave England, which already had a foothold in Normandy, power over some of the richest lands in Southern France. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for the 100 Years War. The conflict between European monarchs was made even worse by the Third Crusade, in which Henry's son, Richard the Lionhearted, antagonized the nobility of France and Germany to such a degree that he was held hostage for an incredible sum. This ransom, combined with the already massive expenses of the Crusade, crippled the English crown for many years, and forced Richard's successor, his brother King John, to sign the Magna Carta to keep his lords from rebellion.
While Europe's monarchies were growing stronger, the Papacy grew ever weaker. Though Pope Urban II greatly increased the power and prestige of the Papacy with the stunning success of the First crusade, his successors had far less luck in the crusading game. Their failure results from a couple factors. At the simplest level, the constant, devastating failure of each subsequent crusade led to a steady decrease in papal prestige.
Yet the real deathblow to the Papacy came from the abuse of crusading by Popes. Once Popes began using Crusades against their political enemies, the Papacy began to lose the moral high ground it had held for centuries. The fact that Popes were offering people indulgences in exchange for killing off their political rivals, or even just for charitable donations to armies killing off their political rivals, further eroded the Papacy's credibility. The plummeting power and prestige of the Papacy would eventually result in the Protestant Reformation.
To review, the impact of the Crusades on Western Civilization cannot be overstated. On the social front, religious violence became a holy duty, and the West raced to catch up with the far more advanced cultures of the East. On the economic front, the Italian city-states, especially Venice, had cornered Mediterranean trade just as Westerners were acquiring a taste for Eastern luxuries and ideas.
European kings spent massive amounts of wealth and resources sending armies on crusade. The immense wealth that poured into Italy during the Crusades would fuel the Italian Renaissance.
On the political front, the monarchs of Europe had to reorganize their kingdoms to pay for these expensive Crusades and even more expensive colonies in the Holy Land. The funneling of resources and energy toward these massive projects greatly increased the power and prestige of Europe's monarchs.
As the Western Monarchy became ever more powerful, the Papacy grew ever weaker. The Pope's prestige was tarnished by repeated failures of crusades, while the practice of declaring crusades against political rivals eroded the Papacy's moral high ground. The trends that began in the Crusades would eventually give rise to the Renaissance and the Reformation.
After completing this video lesson, you should be able to explain the social, economic and political impacts of the Crusades.