The Merchants of Venice
The Voyage Home
Man of a Million Lies?
A Note on Religion
A Note on the Texts
Map of Marco's Journey
For more than two centuries, there were many Crusades, each begun for different reasons. However, it is the first four which have captured modern imagination and it all began with a call for help from the pope.
On November 25th, 1095, Pope Urban II addressed a huge gathering in the Auvergne Hills outside Clermont in France. He told them that "from the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth. An accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and devastated them by sword, plunder and fire." Stirring up the mobs bloodlust, he went on to recount tales of the atrocities committed by Turkish infidels against Christians in the Holy Lands.
Unfortunately, that is all they were; tales. There is no historical evidence that any of these supposed atrocities ever took place. What it did achieve was a kind of unification of French Christians and a healing of the rift between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox religions. This enabled the pope to take advantage by setting himself up as the supreme ruler of the church.
The pope's original call had been on the behalf of Emperor Alexus Comnenus of Byzantium to defend his people against the Turks. His wish was for a well-disciplined band of professional soldiers, led by aristocrats, to aid his own forces. What he got was a huge, disparate army of undisciplined, ill-prepared, quarrelsome peasants who had been promised salvation in Heaven from all their debts and sins on earth in return for joining the crusade. Naturally this attracted men from all walks of society. With the Cross (Crux in Latin) as their symbol, they marched to the Middle East crying, "Deus Hult" - God wills it.
The heavily fortified city of Antioch fell to the crusaders after much bloodshed in which even women and babies were put to the sword until, as one chronicler put it, "their horses waded through blood". One account of the First Crusade was entitled Gesta Dei Per Francos - What God Accomplished Through the French. All it achieved was a token presence along the western coast of Palestine.
The Second Crusade in 1145 was begun after the fall of the Christian state of Edessa in the Holy Land. It was led jointly by the kings of France and Germany. After more slaughter, it ended in expensive failure when the forces of Saladin pushed the crusaders back to the sea - they ended up with less than they had started with!
When Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1189, the English launched the Third Crusade led by Richard I, the "Lionheart". They recaptured the city of Acre and recovered a Christian presence along the Palestinian coast. They failed to retake Jerusalem however, and in 1192, a truce between the opposing sides was drawn.
In 1202, the Christian armies appealed to the city state of Venice for assistance. Venice however, a powerful trading capital, had strong links with the Middle East but had been under commercial pressure from Byzantium. They agreed to assist in a Fourth Crusade, but hi-jacked it for their own ends. They seized the Hungarian city of Zara before pressing on to sack Constantinople, their greatest rival. They continued to take over parts of the Byzantine Empire over the next fifty years becoming, along with neighbouring Genoa, the most powerful city on earth at that time. It is clear to see by now just how far the original Christian ideals had been corrupted.
A number of other crusades followed, all led by different peoples for different reasons. Yet over two centuries of bitter conflict failed to achieve a Christian dominance in the Holy Land. Ironically, before the crusades, the Muslims had always been very tolerant of the Christians in their lands. Today, Jerusalem is still a city divided into quarters, each representing different faiths, each existing in an uneasy truce.
The Fourth Crusade ended in 1204. Just two years later, another vast army was assembled and began storming the nations of the east. This was the beginning of the Mongol Empire.