When Worlds Collide: Confronting the Crusades

Nigel Saul sets the scene for our major new series on the crusades of the eleventh century.

Nine hundred years ago this month the First Crusaders prepared to cross from Europe into Asia. They had set out in the autumn of the previous year in response to Pope Urban ll's call to liberate the Holy Land. Many of Europe's leading lords took part among them Godfrey of Bouillon, Stephen of Blois and Robert of Normandy. Leaving Constantinople in late June they crossed Asia Minor and entered Syria. Between October 1097 and June 1098 they besieged the great fortress of Antioch. After Antioch's fall they pressed on southwards into Judea. In July 1099, after a month's close siege. they took Jerusalem and gained possession of the Holy Places.

The triumphant capture of Jerusalem initiated nearly five centuries of Christian military endeavour against the infidel. Further large-scale crusades to the Latin East were preached in 1144 following the fall of Edessa and in the 1190s after the loss of Jerusalem. In the thirteenth century there were many more crusades. Expeditions became smaller but more diverse: passagia were led to Egypt, the western 'Mediterranean and even the shores of the Baltic and the Black Sea. At the same time, Christian definitions of the enemy widened: by the thirteenth century, alongside the Muslims were numbered Mongols, pagans and even non-Catholic Christians.

Since its earliest days the crusading movement had been controversial. To the Byzantine Greeks, who had at first welcomed it. It posed a threat to the integrity of their empire. In the west, by the thirteenth century, critics inveighed against the politicisation of the movement and its manipulation by the papacy'. Controversy has continued into modern times. Crusading has been denounced l)y Protestant historians who have characterised it as a manifestation of Catholic bigotry. Periodically it has appeared as if its only defenders have been Catholic apologists.

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