The Crusades were a series of military campaigns organised by Christian powers in order to retake Jerusalem and the Holy Land back from Muslim control. There would be eight officially sanctioned crusades between 1095 CE and 1270 CE and many more unofficial ones. Each campaign met with varying successes and failures but, ultimately, the wider objective of keeping Jerusalem and the Holy Land in Christian hands failed. Nevertheless, the appeal of the crusading ideal continued right up to the 16th century CE, and the purpose of this article is to consider what were the motivating factors for crusaders, from the Pope to the humblest warrior, especially for the very first campaign which established a model to be followed thereafter.
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Who Wanted What?
Why the Crusades happened at all is a complex question with multiple answers. As the historian J. Riley-Smith notes:
It cannot be stressed often enough that crusades were arduous, disorientating, frightening, dangerous, and expensive for participants, and the continuing enthusiasm for them displayed over the centuries is not easy to explain. (10)
An estimated 90,000 men, women, and children of all classes were persuaded by political and religious leaders to participate in the First Crusade (1095-1102 CE), and their various motivations, along with those of the political and religious leaders of the time, must each be examined to reach a satisfactory explanation. Although we can never know exactly the thoughts or motivation of individuals, the general reasons why the crusading ideal was promoted and acted upon can be summarised according to the following key leaders and social groups:
Merchants – to monopolise important trading centres currently under Muslim control and earn money shipping crusaders to the Middle East.
The Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire had long been in control of Jerusalem and other sites holy to Christians but, in the latter decades of the 11th century CE, they lost them dramatically to the Seljuks, a Turkish tribe of the steppe. The Seljuks, already having made several raids into Byzantine territory, shockingly defeated a Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert in ancient Armenia in August 1071 CE. They even captured the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071 CE), and although he was released for a massive ransom, the emperor also had to hand over the important cities of Edessa, Hieropolis, and Antioch. The defeat astonished Byzantium, and there followed a scramble for the throne which even Romanos” return to Constantinople did not settle. It also meant that many of the Byzantine commanders in Asia Minor left their commands to stake their claim for the throne in Constantinople.
Meanwhile, the Seljuks took full advantage of this military neglect and, c. 1078 CE, created the Sultanate of Rum with their capital at Nicaea in Bithynia in northwest Asia Minor, which was captured from the Byzantines in 1081 CE. The Seljuks were even more ambitious, though, and by 1087 CE they controlled Jerusalem.
Several Byzantine emperors came and went but some stability was achieved during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118 CE), himself a veteran of Manzikert. Alexios could not stop the Seljuks though, and he had only himself to blame for his territorial losses as it was he who had weakened the military provinces (themes) in Asia Minor. Alexios had done this in fear of the rising power, and thus potential threat to himself, of the theme commanders. Instead, he had bolstered the garrisons of Constantinople. The emperor had also been doubtful of the loyalty of his Norman mercenaries, given the Norman control of Sicily and recent attacks in Byzantine Greece. Seeing the Seljuk control of Jerusalem as a means to tempt European leaders into action, Alexios appealed to the west in the spring of 1095 CE to help kick the Seljuks out of not just the Holy Land but also all those parts of the Byzantine Empire they had conquered. The sword of Christendom could prove a very useful weapon in preserving the crown of Byzantium.