Wars are violent, brutal, and bloody. The Crusades were no exception, just one more in a long line of useless, stupid wars that people now romanticize for some reason.
The lasting legacy of the Crusades is used to support international terrorism against the West, to explain the relationship between the Christian and Muslim worlds in poorly-researched history papers, and is used as a meme on the internet by people who are “proud to be an infidel.”
With the Crusades, there was no good guy or bad guy. The truth is that European power was on the rise at the end of the first millennium. Christendom was finally able to respond to the Islamic wars of expansion that rose from the founding and spread of Islam in the Middle East.
But even with all that money and power, the Christian kings of Europe were still stupid, inbred products of the Middle Ages. The Islamic powers in the Middle East were struggling against each other for regional dominance.
The two were bound to butt heads.
Muslim armies and Christian armies could be equally brutal. I mean it when I say there is no good guy or bad guy. Between one and three million people died in the Crusades – one percent of the world’s population at the time. It doesn’t matter who started it, after nine crusades (only the first and sixth being anything close to a “success”), these wars were ridiculously destructive, even for medieval combat.
Eventually, the Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land. And when you really read the history, it makes you wonder how they were able to stay so long.
1. Crusaders weren’t the best strategists.
In 1187, the Islamic leader, Saladin, tricked the Crusader Armies into leaving their fortified position (and their water source) in what is, today, the deserts of Israel by attacking an out-of-the-way fortress near Tiberias. After a brief war council, the Crusaders decided to march on Saladin’s army.
In an open field.
After crossing a desert.
Did I mention they left their water source to walk nine miles in full armor?
They were so thirsty, their lines broke as the knights made for the nearby springs. That’s where Saladin slaughtered them. He began his campaign to recapture Jerusalem the next day, which he did, three months later.
Arguably the greatest victory for the Crusaders came at Ascalon, after the fall of Jerusalem in 1099. The Crusaders caught the Muslims by surprise, but were still outflanked by an Egyptian army that was actually ready to fight. Luckily, the Crusaders had heavy cavalry the Muslims did not.
But due to petty bickering, they never captured Ascalon.
2. They murdered a lot of Jews.
By 20th century standards, murdering six million Jewish people makes you history’s greatest monster, and rightfully so. To this day, no one can seriously name their child “Adolf” without subjecting it to a lifetime of sideways glances.
But back at the turn of the millennium, no one seemed that concerned. Even though Jewish families both funded and supplied the Crusaders, they were still overly taxed and massacred by the thousands.
During the First Crusade, God supposedly sent German knights an “enchanted goose” to follow. That goose had a totally different agenda. It led them to a Jewish neighborhood, which the knights immediately slaughtered. There were anti-Jewish massacres at cities like Worms, Mainz, Metz, Prague, Ratisbon, and others. Confused about why these are still European cities? Me too. The Crusaders hadn’t even left Europe before they decided to murder Jews.
The Crusaders eradicated roughly one-third of Europe’s Jewish population.
3. They also killed a lot of Christians.
The First Crusaders also killed Christians in Byzantium, Zara, Belgrade, and Nis. More than that, they actually had a Crusade against a vegetarian, pacifist sect of Christians in France, called Cathars.
The Crusade against the Cathars amounted to a genocide. The fun doesn’t stop there. During the Fourth Crusade, Crusaders hitched a ride to Palestine on Venetian ships but ended up not being able to pay Venice for the sealift. Instead of paying them, the Venetians used the Crusader armies to sack Zadar, a city in modern Croatia. They sacked the city and its Christian population fled to the countryside.
Then, they practically broke the seat of power held by Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine Empire, which brings me to…
4. Christianity lost a lot of power because of Crusaders.
When the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Christian Byzantine Empire, the empire never recovered. By 1453, Ottoman Muslim armies were banging away at the walls and gates of the city.
Crusaders toppled the Byzantine Emperor Alexius III and when his brother tried to submit to the Pope, he was killed in a coup. It caused the Crusaders to declare war and sack the city — during Easter — murdering a lot of Christian inhabitants and destroying much of the fabled city. Which might have been Venice’s 95-year-old, blind leader’s plan the whole time.
When the Muslim Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, the last Christian empire in the Middle East was gone. Good job, Crusaders.
Muslim armies offered to give control of Jerusalem back to the Crusaders during the Fifth Crusade in exchange for the city of Damietta in Egypt. But the Crusaders refused, so the Muslims took both cities.
5. They lost a lot of important relics.
Legend says that when the Fatimid Caliph wanted to destroy Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Christians hid the True Cross that held his body. The Crusaders, geniuses they were, carried it into battle.
And, of course, lost it to Saladin at the Battle of Hattin.
On top of that, Europeans, in general, were just obsessed with holy relics during the era. So, things like the buried remains of Catholic saints and items associated with those saints were stolen en masse, many never to be seen again.
6. A lot of them just gave up.
When Frederick Barbarossa died after marching his horse into a damn river (before he could even get to the Third Crusade), many of his knights committed suicide, believing God abandoned them. Others turned around and went home.
That’s not even the end of it.
When Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, Pope Pius II tried to buy him out instead of fighting him. In exchange for Mehmet converting to Christianity, the Pope offered to “appoint you the emperor of the Greeks and the Orient… All Christians will honor you and make you the arbiter of their quarrels… Many will submit to you voluntarily, appear before your judgment seat, and pay taxes to you. It will be given to you to quell tyrants, to support the good, and combat the wicked. And the Roman Church will not oppose you.”
7. They just weren’t that good at it.
The first Crusaders were led by two monks, Peter the Hermit (whose proof of leadership was a letter written by God and delivered by Jesus himself) and a guy called Walter the Penniless. The first thing they led the armies of Christendom against was, of course, Jews. And they were really good at that.
But these weren’t the knights and heavy infantry we’ve come to know. These were people inspired by the idea of taking up the cross — mostly conscripted, illiterate peasants. By the time they reached the Middle East, Peter already abandoned them and Turkish spies lured them out of their camp, into a valley, where the Turks just massacred them.
8. Crusaders literally ate babies.
Not only were they bad at strategy, Crusaders (like most armies of the time, to be honest) were also bad at logistics — you know, the getting of stuff to the fight. Stuff like food.
A contingent of French knights pillaged, raped, murdered, and tortured people across the Byzantine lands, a decidedly Christian empire. In the countryside near Nicea, they turned to eating the peasants as well, reportedly roasting babies on spikes. When German knights found out, they started doing the same thing.
But they did the same thing to the Muslims, too. After capturing Maara in 1098, they discovered the city they just laid siege to for a few weeks had no food. Big surprise.