The Call of the Crusades: An Idea Promoted by Pope Urban II at the End of the 11th Century Continues to Resonate in Modern Politics. Jonathan Phillips Traces the 800-Year History of 'Crusade' and Its Power as a Concept That Shows No Sign of Diminishing

By Phillips, Jonathan | History Today, November 2009 | Go to article overview

The Call of the Crusades: An Idea Promoted by Pope Urban II at the End of the 11th Century Continues to Resonate in Modern Politics. Jonathan Phillips Traces the 800-Year History of 'Crusade' and Its Power as a Concept That Shows No Sign of Diminishing


Phillips, Jonathan, History Today


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Crusade: according to circumstance, either a toxic byword for conflict between Christians and Muslims or a shorthand for what people believe to be a good and worthy cause. In the former context one might quote Osama bin Laden or, in parallel, the allegations made against Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security company, in Iraq: '[he] views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe.' In a more secular arena, any western politician asking for a cut in hospital waiting lists might call for a 'crusade'. Yet such utterly divergent meanings originate with an idea conceived over 800 years ago, a concept that has produced one of the most long-lasting and adaptable legacies of the Middle Ages. Tracing how 'crusade' has evolved, mutated and been appropriated by individuals across the broadest possible spectrum is to follow an intriguing and often surprising trail.

In November 1095 Pope Urban II called upon the knights of France to journey to the Holy Land and liberate the city of Jerusalem and the Christians of the east from Muslim power. In return they would be granted an unprecedented spiritual reward--the remission of all their sins--and thereby escape the torments of Hell, their likely destination after lives of violence and greed. The response to Urban's appeal was astounding; over 60,000 people set out to recover the Holy Land and secure this reward and, in some cases, take the chance to set up new territories. Almost four years later, in July 1099, the survivors conquered Jerusalem in an orgy of killing. While most of the knights returned home, the creation of the Crusader States formed a permanent Christian (or 'Frankish') presence in the Levant. In 1187, however, Saladin defeated their forces at the Battle of Hattin and brought Jerusalem back under Muslim control. The Franks held onto other lands until 1291 when they were finally driven out by the Mamluks of Egypt to end Christian rule in the Holy Land.

Yet the roots laid down by crusading proved extraordinarily deep, in part because of the idea's flexibility. In the course of the 12th and 13th centuries crusades were launched against the Muslims of Spain and other enemies of the faith such as the pagan tribes of northeastern Europe (the Baltic Crusades). Further targets included the heretical Cathars of southern France, as well as the Mongols and the Greeks. The preservation or the recovery of Jerusalem was undoubtedly the most important and prestigious of these endeavours and, while certain expeditions (such as the crusade in southern France) were controversial, crusading as a whole took place with the broad approval of European society. As the range of targets shows, crusading was not a static concept. Other developments in medieval society intertwined with and influenced the idea, most particularly chivalry. Crusading offered a platform for knights to show bravery and integrity. The idea of fighting for God, the ultimate lord, gave service in crusading armies a special attraction, although at times knights' determination to win fame for themselves could cause them to put notions of honour ahead of the greater Christian cause.

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Crusading was too deeply established within Catholic Europe to disappear after the loss of the Holy Land in 1291. The reconquest of Spain continued; the Teutonic Knights (another military order first set up in the Holy Land) took control of areas of the Baltic and during the late 13th and early 14th centuries many nobles journeyed there to fight the pagans and gain glory. One noteworthy participant was Henry Bolingbroke. Long before he became King Henry IV, the young knight made two visits to the Baltic, in 1391 and 1392, to gain a noble reputation and to serve Christ's armies; Bolingbroke also went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage in 1393.

The Ottomans emerged as the primary focus for crusades and their drive into south-eastern Europe prompted several attempts to rouse new crusading expeditions. …

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The Call of the Crusades: An Idea Promoted by Pope Urban II at the End of the 11th Century Continues to Resonate in Modern Politics. Jonathan Phillips Traces the 800-Year History of 'Crusade' and Its Power as a Concept That Shows No Sign of Diminishing
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