The Crusades: Holy Wars or Increasingly Belligerent Pilgrimages?

The Crusades are remembered unrealistically and romantically as a business of knights on a sacred mission. There is no concept in Christianity of a holy war — the Crusades were essentially pilgrimages that included fighting.

Pope Urban II instigated the 1st Crusade in 1095 to liberate Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks, who treated Christian pilgrims harshly. By the time the Crusaders arrived, the Shia Muslim Fatimid Egyptians had taken Jerusalem; the Sunni Turks did not help them and the Crusaders prevailed.

In 1187 Saladin took Jerusalem back and Pope Gregory VIII proposed a 3rd Crusade. This involved the great soldier, King Richard I.

By the 4th Crusade, the concept had degenerated. Of the 35,000 volunteers, only 11,000 reached Venice; fighting then oscillated from one exploit to another, depending on who could pay; and they were excommunicated for attacking Christians.

The Crusades were not successful in their own terms and were a major drain on resources.

I graduated in English language and literature with Latin subsidiary. I write poetry, act, and have worked in reference and educational publishing for decades. I was commissioned in 1994 to write The Ladybird Book of Kings and Queens, did extensive editing and writing for Harraps 20th-century History series, and was one of the contributors to Helicon's Book of the Millennium, a 4-volume children's world history book.

  • Helen

    Should we really be teaching people there was no concept of ‘holy war’ in Christianity? When by the high middle ages you had the concept of the Milites Christi, when the council of Clermont specifically targeted the knightly class, when there was a specific understanding that ‘Deus vult’ and indeed with the use of those words, Urban II in effect changed the paradigm of Augustine’s Just war to a ‘bellum sacrum’, how can you say it didn’t exist? People’s crusade notwithstanding – and I don’t disagree that there were numerous other popular crusades/armed pilgrimages – the Crusades were land-grabs undertaken by the warrior class, justified by the church as divinely sanctioned. To suggest they were just ‘pilgrimages with fighting’ to me smacks of disingenuous semantics, the subtext of which is to cast Islam as the aggressor.