The Crusades and Their Modern Impacts

Circa 1250, A crusader is shot by a Muslim warrior during the Crusades.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Although members of other religions obviously suffered at the hands of good Christians throughout the Middle Ages, it should not be forgotten that Christians suffered as well. Augustine's exhortation to compel entry into the church was used with great zeal when church leaders dealt with Christians who dared to follow a different religious path.

During the first millennium, death was a rare penalty, but in the 1200s, shortly after the beginning of the crusades against the Muslims, wholly European crusades against Christian dissidents were enacted.

Cathari: the Freethinkers of Southern France

The first victims were the Albigenses, sometimes called the Cathars, who were centered primarily in southern France. These poor freethinkers doubted the biblical story of Creation, thought that Jesus was an angel instead of God, rejected transubstantiation, and demanded strict celibacy. The Cathars also took the dangerous step of translating the Bible into the common language of the people, which only served to further enrage religious leaders.

In 1208, Pope Innocent III raised an army of over 20,000 knights and peasants eager to kill and pillage their way through France. When the city of Beziers fell to the besieging armies of Christendom, soldiers asked papal legate Arnaud Amalric how to tell the faithful apart from the infidels. He uttered his famous words: "Kill them all. God will know His own."

The Proselytizing Waldensians

Followers of Peter Waldo of Lyon, called Waldensians, also suffered the wrath of official Christendom. They promoted the role of lay street preachers despite official policy that only ordained ministers be allowed to preach. They rejecting things like oaths, war, relics, veneration of saints, indulgences, purgatory, and a great deal more which was promoted by religious leaders at the time.

The church needed to control the sort of information which the people heard, lest they be corrupted by the temptation to think for themselves. They were declared heretics at the Council of Verona in 1184 and then hounded and killed over the course of the following 500 years. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII called for an armed crusade against populations of Waldensians in France.

Wars of the Cross

Dozens of heretical groups suffered the same fate. Christians did not shy away from killing their own religious brethren when even minor theological differences arose. For them, perhaps no differences were truly minor any deviation challenged the authority of the church and the community. It was a rare person who dared to stand up and make independent decisions about religious belief, made all the more rare by the fact that they were massacred as quickly as possible.

The Crusades might have elicited a great deal of disruption in their homeland, but it wasn't until modern times that Arabic developed a term for the phenomenon: al-Hurub al-Salibiyya, "Wars of the Cross." When the first European armies hit Syria, Muslims there naturally thought that this was an attack from the Byzantines and called the invaders "Rum," or Romans.

While the Muslim people realized they were facing a new foe they didn't recognize that they were being attacked by joint European forces. French commanders and French knights tended to be at the forefront of the fighting in the First Crusade, so Muslims in the region referred to the Crusaders as Franks no matter what their nationality. As far as the Muslims were concerned, this was simply another stage in Frankish imperialism that had been experienced in Spain, North Africa, and Sicily.

Nur al-Din and the Common Purpose Among Muslims

Muslim leaders began to understand that this was not Rome reasserting itself or Frankish imperialism anymore. They were facing an entirely new phenomenon in their relations with Christendom--one that required a new response.

That response was the attempt to create greater unity and a common sense of purpose among Muslims. The first leader to begin this process was Nur al-Din, and his successor, Salah al-Din (Saladin), is remembered even today by both Europeans and Muslims for both his military skills and his strong character.

Despite their efforts, Muslims remained majorly divided and, at times, even indifferent to the European threat. Occasionally religious fervor took hold and inspired people to participate in campaigns against the Crusaders, but people who didn't live around the Holy Land simply didn't worry about it and those who did sometimes signed treaties with Crusader leaders against rival Muslim kingdoms. As disorganized as they were, though, the Europeans were usually far worse.

In the end, the Crusaders didn't make much of an impact. Muslim art, architecture, and literature are almost entirely untouched by the extended contact with European Christians.

Muslim and Christian Antisemitism

There were Jewish communities--some quite large--throughout Europe and the Middle East before the Crusades. They had established themselves and survived over the course of many centuries, but they also provided tempting targets for marauding Crusaders. Caught between two warring religions, the Jews were in a most untenable position.

Christian antisemitism obviously existed long before the Crusades, but poor relations between Muslims and Christians served to exacerbate what was already a troubled situation. In 1009 Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the sixth Fatimid Caliph in Egypt and later the founder of the Druze sect ordered the Holy Sepulchre and all Christian buildings in Jerusalem be destroyed. Later, in 1012 he ordered all Christian and Jewish houses of worship destroyed.

One would think that this would have simply worsened relations between Muslims and Christians, despite the fact that Amr Allah was also considered mad and Muslims contributed heavily to the rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre later on. For some reason, however, Jews were also blamed for these events.

In Europe, a rumor developed that a “Prince of Babylon” had ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre at the instigation of the Jews. Attacks on Jewish communities in cities like Rouen, Orelans, and Mainz ensued and this rumor helped lay the basis for later massacres of Jewish communities by Crusaders marching to the Holy Land.

Churchmen Try to Protect the Jews

Christendom and it its leaders were not united in violence against the Jews, however. Some, including many churchmen, wished the Jews no harm and sought to protect them.

A few were successful in protecting local Jews from marauding Crusaders and managed to enlist the aid of local families to hide them. Others tried to help but gave in to the mobs lest they be killed as well. The archbishop of Mainz changed is mind a bit too slowly and had the flee the city in order to save his own life but at least a thousand Jews weren't so lucky.

Of course, Christianity had been promoting vile images and attitudes about Jews for centuries. Through action or inaction, the church encouraged treating Jews as second-class citizens, and this led, quite readily, to dehumanizing them.

Baptism and Kiddush ha-Shem

There is no way to tell how many Jews died in Europe and the Holy Land at the hands of Christian Crusaders, but most estimates put the numbers at several tens of thousands. Sometimes they were offered the choice of baptism first (conversion or the sword is an image more commonly attributed to Muslim conquests, but Christians did it as well), but more often they were killed outright.

Quite a few others chose to determine their own fates rather than wait for the tender mercies of their Christian neighbors. In an act called kiddush ha-Shem, Jewish men would first kill their wives and children and then themselves as a form of voluntary martyrdom. Ultimately the Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East were the most affected by the Christian Crusades against Islam.

Modern Muslims and the Crusades

Because of the Crusades, any western incursion into the Middle East is often regarded as a continuation of the medieval enforcement of Western religion and imperialism. If Muslims were to be concerned solely with conflicts they lost, they would be faced with a record of European colonialism throughout the Middle East and beyond. There are good arguments that modern problems are, in part, a legacy of European colonial borders and practices.

European colonialism completely reversed a legacy of self-rule and conquest which had existed in Muslim countries since the time of Muhammad. Instead of being the equals of, if not superior to, the Christian West, they came to be ruled and dominated by the Christian West. This was a significant blow to Muslims' sense of autonomy and identity, a blow that is continually represented in current events.

The Crusades are treated as the defining paradigm for relations between Islam and Christianity. European colonialism is almost always treated not as a separate event from the Crusades but instead a continuation of them in a new form--just as is the creation of the state of Israel.

Nonetheless, the Crusades were a spectacular failure. The land conquered was relatively small, not held for very long, and the only permanent loss was the Iberian peninsula, a region that was originally European and Christian anyway. Muslims suffered no long-term effects from the Crusades and, in fact, Muslim forces rebounded to capture Constantinople and move further into Europe than Christians moved into the Middle East. The Crusades were not simply a Muslim victory but, over time, proved Muslim superiority in terms of tactics, numbers, and the ability to unify against an external threat.

Muslim and Jewish Relations Today

Although the Crusades generally tend to be viewed through the lens of humiliation, one bright spot in the whole affair is the figure of Saladin: the military leader who united the Muslims into an effective fighting force that essentially drove out the Christian invaders. Even today Arab Muslims revere Saladin and say that another Saladin is needed to get rid of the current invaders in Israel. Jews today are regarded by many as modern-day Crusaders, Europeans or descendants of Europeans holding much of the same land that made up the original Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is hoped that their “kingdom” will soon be eliminated as well.

The American War on Terrorism

When promoting the war against terrorism, President George W. Bush originally described it as a "crusade," something he was forced to back off from immediately because it only reinforced Muslims' perception that the "war on terrorism" was merely a mask for a new Western "war on Islam." Any attempt by western powers to interfere with Arab or Muslim affairs is viewed through the twin lenses of Christian Crusades and European colonialism. That, more than anything, is the contemporary legacy of the Crusades and one which will continue to afflict relations between Islam and Christianity for a long time to come.

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Cline, Austin. "The Crusades and Their Modern Impacts." Learn Religions, Oct. 1, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, October 1). The Crusades and Their Modern Impacts. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "The Crusades and Their Modern Impacts." Learn Religions. (accessed March 28, 2023).