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Impearls: Crusades III - The End of the Crusades

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Earthdate 2003-12-03

Crusades III – The End of the Crusades

The Cause of the Crusades (to be specific, the cause of the First Crusade) was explored in an earlier article, as was the civilizational relationship between the East Roman Empire and the states of the medieval West.  Once the Crusades were launched, they continued intermittently in progress for centuries.  It turns out that the original cause of the (First) Crusade differs from the reasons why they continued on for so long, and why they came to an end is for a different reason yet.  What were those causes?

Since we've been using The Cambridge Medieval History as a major reference to the Middle Ages, it's worth noting that one can take an overall view of the whole of the medieval period by simply reviewing the titles of the (originally) eight volumes in the set, which summarize in a nutshell the (its) story of the Middle Ages in the West, to wit:

I.  The Christian Roman Empire and the Foundation of the Teutonic Kingdoms
II.  The Rise of the Saracens and the Foundation of the Western [Holy Roman] Empire
III.  Germany and the Western Empire
IV.  The Eastern Roman Empire
V.  Contest of [Western] Empire and Papacy
VI.  Victory of the Papacy
VII.  Decline of Empire and Papacy
VIII.  The Close of the Middle Ages

Notice that the overall story of the later medieval period, revealed by the names of the volumes of The Cambridge Medieval History, is a long-drawn-out contest between the Papacy and the Western (or Holy Roman) Empire, in which the Papacy was for a time victorious, but after which both Papacy and Empire declined.

Recall the questions of why, once launched, the Crusades became a movement which continued for centuries, and why they ultimately came to an end.  While for the Eastern Empire, as previously noted, the Crusades were “simply a series of barbarian invasions of a particularly embarrassing kind,” for the West the Crusades served as a key instrument in the great play during the Middle Ages by the Papacy for ultimate power.  The Crusades thus continued so long as they proved to be a source of increased power and influence for the Papacy; they came to an end when the “sacred office” became so corrupted in view of the public by secularizing influences resulting from its acquired Imperial role that that power base evaporated.

Here's how historian E. J. Passant, writing in The Cambridge Medieval History, described the matter: 1

The Crusades were initiated by the Papacy, and from the moment of Urban II's appeal to the Council of Clermont down to the fall of Acre — and indeed for long after — they remained one of the first preoccupations of every Pope.  Describing the policy of the Curia of so late a date as the middle of the fourteenth century, Viollet remarks that “Rome ne cessait guère, dans l'intérêt général de la chrétienté, d'entretenir de grands mais stériles projets de Croisade; c'est pour elle un impérissable honneur.”  And what was true of the French Papacy of Avignon was far more true of the Popes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries at the height of their power.  It were strange if this continuous direction for two hundred years of the armed forces of Europe in the campaign against the infidel should have left no mark upon the Papacy itself.  When Nicholas II, in 1059, issued the decree regulating the election of future Popes, the great effort of the Church to emancipate itself from the secularisation involved in its acceptance of a feudal constitution began.  The long struggle with the Empire, which opens between Hildebrand and Henry IV, and which continued relentlessly throughout the period of the Crusades, was an attempt — successful in the main — to organise the Church as a “societas perfecta,” to use a phrase of later controversy, independent of the secular power within its own sphere, and only dependent upon that power in so far as it needed the sword of material force to carry out the sentences of spiritual judgment.  In all other respects the Divine Society was to be as superior to the secular as its very nature demanded.  The attempt to attain this ideal, with all its tremendous implications, involved the Popes not only in continual warfare with successive Emperors but also in decisive conflict with the Kings of England and France, and, in an increasing degree, it involved the secularisation of the Papacy itself.  To be successful its occupants must be statesmen first and men of God second; to carry on war they must raise men and money, and resort to shifts of all kinds to do so; to seize every advantage, to shape policy to fit every change of circumstance, they must be prepared to use diplomatic dissimulation and, if necessary, to lie with hardihood.  That this process of degradation, from the lofty heights of spiritual control to the lowest levels of political expediency, set in, is not difficult of proof; it suffices to compare Gregory VII with Innocent IV, or the enthusiastic response with which the call to the First Crusade was met, with the indifference and even hostility which greeted such appeals in the later thirteenth century.  The wheel had gone full circle, and the attempt to free the members of the Church from secular control ended in a more subtle secularisation of its very heart — the Papacy itself.

In that process the Crusades played an important part.  They were one of the main sources of papal strength throughout the twelfth century, for they provided the Popes with the moral support of Europe, and placed the Papacy in a position of acknowledged leadership which was one of the greatest value in the struggle with the secular powers.  The literal mind of the Middle Ages found it more easy to understand the task of succouring the earthly Jerusalem by the force of arms than that of gaining the heavenly Jerusalem by the practice of the Christian virtues, and in this case the natural man could at once find an outlet for his martial energies and also, by virtue of the indulgence attached to the Crusade, make certain of attaining the heavenly reward.  Every motive of self-sacrifice or self-interest, every desire for glory or for gain, was appealed to by the call to the Crusade.  The noble could hope to carve out a principality in the East; the merchant to make gain by transporting the crusading armies and supplying their necessities; the peasant to escape from the crushing burdens of his servile status.  But foremost in the minds of all, at least in the early days, was the unselfish desire to regain for Christ the city made sacred by His life and death, and, inspired by this common aim, men of every class and country of Europe flocked to take the Cross at the instigation of the one authority acknowledged by them all — Christ's earthly Vicar.  Here for the first time Christian Europe gave expression to a common mind and will, and it is of the highest significance that this mind and will had been formed and educated by the Church and was now placed at the service of the Church's head.

There can be little doubt that this moral enthusiasm of Europe proved in the twelfth century an almost incalculable assistance to the Papacy in its struggle with the Empire.  To this force of a united Christendom behind them the successors of that Gregory VII who died in exile owed much of the great advance which they were able to make in the century after his death.  For the Crusades were a living parable of the doctrine of the superiority of the spiritual sword.  They were organised by the Popes and directed by their legates, and, what was more, all those who took the Cross became by that act the subjects of the Papacy in a new and special sense.  Their goods during their absence, themselves before they departed and until they returned with their vows fulfilled, were removed from secular and placed under ecclesiastical jurisdiction.  The Kings of France or England, of Hungary or Naples, the very Emperors themselves were, as crusaders, at the orders of the Pope, and the value of the moral compulsion of public opinion upon which the Popes could rely in forcing reluctant monarchs to take the Cross is clearly evidenced by the example of Henry II in his extreme old age, or of Philip Augustus, or of Frederick II.  It is difficult indeed, except by this explanation, to account for the amazing difference between the position of the Papacy at the accession of Urban II, staggering under the defeat of Gregory VII and the schism which followed, faced too with a Church as yet but half-hearted in support of the reforming policy, and the position of almost undisputed supremacy occupied by Innocent III.  After making all allowances for the ability of Alexander III and the persistence with which the “Hildebrandine” policy was pursued, after taking into account all the circumstances which were favourable to Innocent III's own assertion of his claims — the folly of John, the death of Henry VI, and the youth of Frederick II — there remains the fact that in an age when emotional religion was becoming steadily more powerful, the Pope, as leader of the conflict with the infidel, was enabled to command to an unprecedented degree the devotion of the faithful.

Yet, in the thirteenth century, much of this prestige and much of this popular devotion were lost.  It was not merely that the Holy Land little by little fell into the hands of the Saracen and that the respect given to success was withdrawn when failure followed.  The Papacy might have retained undiminished reverence had it failed, as St Louis failed, with clean hands and for no lack of high courage.  But the very success which had attended the crusading appeal proved too strong a temptation to the Popes, and the appeal to take the Cross not only ceased to attract but definitely alienated the faithful when it was used as a weapon in the struggle against the Hohenstaufen.  The list of so-called crusades in the thirteenth century, not directed against the Saracen, makes sad reading.  No good Christian, indeed, was likely to be shocked by an appeal to take the Cross against the infidels of Provence, though a full Holy Land indulgence for forty days' service might seem almost too easily won when “the greater part of the faithful returned home after the forty days were over”; but since the expedition of Prince Louis against the English king was announced as a crusade, since the papal feud with the Hohenstaufen, so obviously maintained to safeguard the Papal States from danger, was provided with religious sanctions, it is not improbable that Matthew Paris represents a genuine popular reaction, and not merely his own opinion, when he writes of the “crusade” of 1255:  “When the faithful heard this, they marvelled that he should promise them reward for shedding the blood of Christian men that was in former time promised for the shedding of infidel blood.”

But, apart from the direct effect upon public opinion of this misuse of the Crusade for party ends, there emerged from the crusading movement two financial weapons of lasting importance to the papal armoury — the indulgence and the tithe.  […]


1 E. J. Passant (M.A., Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge), Chapter IX: “The Effects of the Crusades upon Western Europe,” Volume V: Contest of Empire and Papacy, edited by J. R. Tanner, C. W. Previté-Orton, and Z. N. Brooke, The Cambridge Medieval History, planned by J. B. Bury, Cambridge at the University Press, London, 1926; pp. 320-323.

UPDATE:  2003-12-13 12:00 UT:  A supplemental article Crusades IV – the Byzantine Crusades, concerning crusades undertaken by the Eastern Empire itself, has been posted.

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