ORB Masthead with site navigation toolbar; see bottom 
of page for text version of toolbar

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME


The Impact of the Crusades

by Thomas Madden

Ed. note: the following summary of the crusades is taken from Thomas Madden's excellent Concise History of the Crusades, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Ltd., 1999, pp. 213-215, and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author and the publisher. The entire book is a fine and up-to-date survey of crusading, suitable for students and the general reader alike.

For medieval men and women, the crusade was an act of piety, charity, and love; but it was also a means of defending their world, their culture, and their way of life. It is not surprising, then, that the crusades lost their appeal when Christians no longer identified themselves first and foremost as members of one body of Christ. By the sixteenth century, Europe was dividing itself along political rather than religious lines. In that new world, the crusade had no place.

It is easy for moderns to dismiss the crusades as morally repugnant, cynically evil, or as Runciman summed them up, "nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God." Yet such judgements tell us more about the observer than the observed. They are based on uniquely modern (and, therefore, western) values. If from the safety of our desk we are quick to condemn the medieval crusader, we should be mindful that he would be just as quick to condemn us. Our infinitely more destructive wars waged for the sake of political and social ideologies would, in his opinion, be lamentable wastes of human life. In both societies, the medieval and the modern, men fight for what is most dear to them. That is a fact of human nature that is not so changeable.

It is common today to brand the crusades a failure even at attaining their original goals. Jerusalem was conquered, it is often asserted, but the crusader kingdom was short-lived. It may seem so from our own day, but it is not so. Jerusalem remained in crusader hands for 88 years, and the kingdom lasted in Palestine for 192 years. only distracted Muslim powers; they also formed a buffer between the Arabs and Turks and the vulnerable Byzantine Empire. It is true that the Fourth Crusade did immeasurable damage to the city of Constantinople, but it was Byzantium's subsequent weakness that made it permanent. It cannot be said (although it is often said) that the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 was responsible for the fall of the empire in 1453. Byzantium survived 192 years after it regained its capital. It is in those years that the seeds of the empire's downfall can be found. Despite the many tragedies, the crusades may well have added years to the life span of the Byzantine Empire.

For good or ill, the crusading movement did have long-term effects. In the judgement of the Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon, the crusades sapped from western Europe wealth and human lives that would have been better spent at home working hard and fostering friendly relations with the Muslim world. Like all scholars of that era, Gibbon saw medieval Christianity as a vile superstition, and those who fought for it as ignorant or deceived. It is highly questionable, however, whether Europeans would have beaten their swords into ploughshares merely because they lacked an external enemy. More likely they would simply have continued to wage internal warfare with greater vigor. Given the steady Muslim conquest of Christian lands over the centuries, it also seems unlikely that good relations could have been forged between the two religions without first establishing firm and secure borders.

There can be little doubt that the crusades slowed the advance of Islam, although how much is an open question. The presence of the crusader states in the Near East for almost two centuries certainly destabilized Muslim power, and therefore hindered unification into a single Islamic state. Even the crusades that failed or did not materialize forced Muslim powers to divert resources from conquest to their own defense. At the very least, then, the crusades bought western Europe some time. Judging by the number of occasions it narrowly escaped Turkish invasion in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, Europe had need of that time.

In a less direct sense, the crusades did play a part in the eventual neutralization of the Muslim threat. In Spain, where traditional crusade chivalry lasted longer than anywhere else, veterans of the reconquista and crusades in North Africa became the conquistadors of the New World. Although the conquests of Mexico and Peru were not themselves crusades, crusading culture played a crucial role in them. Popes, Spanish monarchs, and conquistadors naturally viewed the people of the New World through the lens of four centuries of crusading. The conquistadors were warriors of Christ in an infidel land. There, they carved out new Christian states. Without hesitation, they raised their swords against the barbaric cruelties of Aztec human sacrifice, which, they were convinced, were Satanic in origin. And they were desirous of booty, which the New World had in abundance. These were all well-established characteristics of the crusades.

Spanish galleons laden with New World gold and silver financed more than one Holy League against the Turks. But more than that, the new wealth, coupled with a rise in industrial technology, allowed Europe to purchase raw materials from the Ottomans and sell back to them the finished goods at a bargain price. The resulting trade deficit, and the repeated failure of the Ottoman Empire to embrace technological advances in anything other than military applications, ultimately doomed the Turkish economy. Europe never did win a decisive war against the Turks until World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was already a dilapidated shell. Unable to compete with Europe's skyrocketing economy, the Ottoman Empire slowly bled to death. In the end, the discovery and exploitation of the New World not only saved western Europe, but propelled it to world hegemony. The Muslim threat was neutralized not by the crusades to the East, but to the West.

Copyright (C) 1999, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.