The Muslim Reconquest and the Later Crusades, 1144-1291 | The Late Middle Ages in Eastern Europe

It is a wonder that the crusader states lasted so long. It was not the castles or the military orders that preserved them so much as the disunion of their Muslim enemies. When the Muslims did achieve unity under a single powerful leader, the Christians suffered grave losses. Beginning in the late 1120s, Zangi, governor of Mosul on the Tigris, succeeded in unifying the local Muslim rulers of the region. In 1144 he took Edessa, first of the crusader cities to fall.

As an answer to the loss of Edessa, St. Bernard himself preached the so-called Second Crusade in Europe. He aroused enormous enthusiasm, and for the first time Western monarchs—King Louis VII of France and King Conrad III of Germany—came to the East. But the Second Crusade proved a shattering failure. As the German and French armies passed through Constantinople, relations with the Byzantines were worse than ever. It is quite likely that the emperor, Manuel I Comnenus (r. 11431180), mixed chalk with the flour that he sold them before he managed to get them across the Straits.

The Western armies were almost wiped out in Asia Minor. When the remnants reached the Holy Land, they found themselves in hopeless conflict with the local lords, who feared that the newcomers would take over the kingdom. The crusaders’ failure to take Damascus in 1149 brought its own punishment. In 1154 Zangi’s son, Nureddin, took it, and Muslim Syria was united against the Latins.

The next act of the Muslim reconquest was carried out in Egypt by a general of Nureddin’s who was sent to assist one of the quarreling factions in Cairo. This general became vizier of Egypt and died in 1169, leaving his office to his nephew Saladin, who became the greatest Muslim leader of the Crusade period. A vigorous and successful general, Saladin brought the Muslim cities of Syria and Mesopotamia under his control and distributed them to faithful members of his own family.

By 1183 his brother ruled Egypt, his sons ruled Damascus and Aleppo, and close relatives ruled all the other important centers. Internal decay in the kingdom of Jerusalem and a squabble over the throne gave Saladin his chance, and a violation of a truce by an unruly crusader lord gave him his excuse. In 1187 Jerusalem fell, and soon there was nothing of the kingdom left to the Christians except the port of Tyre and a few castles.

These events elicited the Third Crusade (11891192). The Holy Roman emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, led a German force through Byzantium, only to be drowned in Asia Minor (1190). Some of his troops, however, continued to Palestine. There they were joined by Philip Augustus of France and Richard I, the Lionhearted, of England, each at least as interested in thwarting the other as he was in furthering any common cause. The main operation of the Third Crusade was a long siege of the seaport of Acre, which was finally captured in 1191. Jerusalem itself could not be taken, but Saladin signed a treaty with Richard allowing Christians to visit the city freely.

When Saladin died in 1193, the Christians obtained a respite. Reinforcements from the West, however, had dwindled away to a small trickle. The failures in the East were partly balanced by successes in Spain, where, by the end of the thirteenth century, the Christians had restricted the Muslims to the kingdom of Granada in the southeastern corner of the peninsula; far to the northeast, the pagan Lithuanians and Slays received the attention of the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic region.

Innocent III came to the papal throne in 1198 and called for a new Crusade, the Fourth. Several powerful lords responded. The Venetians agreed to furnish transportation and food and also to contribute fifty armed warships on condition that they would share equally in all future conquests. The doge (duke) of Venice, Enrico Dandolo (c. 1108-1205) agreed to forgive the debt temporarily if the crusaders would help him reconquer Zara, a town on the eastern side of the Adriatic that had revolted against Venetian domination.

So the Fourth Crusade began with the sack and destruction of a Roman Catholic town in 1202. Angrily, the pope excommunicated the crusaders, who settled down to pass the winter in Zara before pressing on. Their primary worry was finance; the leaders had badly overestimated the number who would join the crusade and had committed themselves to a larger contract to which the Venetians intended to hold them.

During the winter the crusaders turned their attention to a new goal: Constantinople. The German king, Philip of Swabia, proposed that the massed army escort Alexius, a young prince with a strong claim to the Byzantine throne, to Constantinople and enthrone him in the place of a usurper. If successful, Alexius would finance the subsequent expedition. The idea had much to recommend it, for it would serve to pay off the debt, would restore the unity of Christendom by bringing Byzantium under its rightful and friendly heir, and would most likely vastly expand Venice’s power. Most of the knights agreed to this plan.

In the spring of 1203 a greatly augmented crusader fleet, with enthusiastic Venetian support, attacked Constantinople. In the initial onslaught the attackers won a resounding naval victory, though the city held. A second attack on land and sea broke through the defenses, and Alexius III fled the city. The young Alexius was then crowned as Alexius IV.

While he was away pursuing Alexius III, the city was badly damaged by the worst fire in its history, probably begun when a group of Franks set fire to a mosque in the Saracen quarter. Angry, Alexius IV declined to make the promised payment. Certain that he could neither bring peace with the increasingly impatient crusaders nor defeat them in battle, a group of senators, clergy, and the populace deposed Alexius IV.

In March 1204 the crusaders and Venetians agreed to seize the city a second time, to elect a Latin emperor who would receive a quarter of the empire and its booty, and to divide the other three quarters equally between Venetians and non-Venetians. The second siege ended in a second capture and a systematic three-day sack of Constantinople.

The pope himself criticized the outrages committed by the crusaders. What was destroyed in the libraries of the capital is untold. Despite general destruction, the Venetians salvaged much of great value and beauty, shipping it all back to their city. The booty included the four great bronze horses that had been a symbol of the city since Constantine, a host of sacred relics the Greek emperors had been collecting, and hundreds of works of Byzantine art. The crusaders now paid their debt in full to the Venetians.

The zeal that had driven men toward the Holy Land was thoroughly tainted by the Fourth Crusade. Perhaps most of all, it was diluted by the struggle between the papacy and its European opponents: first, the Albigensian heretics of southern France between 1208 and 1240; and second, the emperor Frederick II between 1220 and 1250. In these affairs the popes were offering those who would fight against a European and nominally Christian enemy the same indulgence they offered those who fought Muslims. All these developments brought disillusionment when combined with the spectacle of repeated military failure.

Perhaps the culmination of tragic futility was the so- called Children’s Crusade in 1212, when throngs of French and German children went down to the Mediterranean, expecting that its waters would divide before them and open a path to the Holy Land along which they could march to a bloodless victory. When this failed to happen, several thousand pushed on to Marseilles and other seaports. There many were sold into slavery.

The rest was a history of short-term victory measured against long-term defeats. In the Fifth Crusade (1218-1221) the Christians attempted the conquest of Egypt and failed. Emperor Frederick II personally led the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229). No fighting was involved, partly because Frederick was too sophisticated to fight when he could get what he wanted by diplomacy.

Speaking Arabic and long familiar with the Muslims from his experience in Sicily, he secured more for the Christians by negotiation than any military commander since the First Crusade had secured by war. In 1229 he signed a treaty with Saladin’s nephew that restored Jerusalem to the Latins. Bethlehem and Nazareth were also handed over, and a ten-year truce was agreed upon. But the Egyptian ruler now took into his service several thousand Turks from central Asia who took Jerusalem in 1244. Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands until 1917.

Now St. Louis, king of France, launched the first of his two Crusades, sometimes called the Seventh (1248— 1254), aimed at Egypt. Louis himself was taken prisoner and had to pay a very heavy ransom. In 1250 the household troops of the Egyptian sultan (called Mamluks, or slaves) took power into their own hands in Egypt. Soon after, the Mongols, fresh from their victories in Asia, invaded Syria and were defeated in battle by the Mamluk general Baibars, who immediately made himself sultan.

Baibars reduced the number of strongholds remaining to the crusaders, taking Antioch in 1268. He delayed his advance in fear of a new Crusade (the Eighth) by St. Louis in 1270, then resumed it when the king landed in Tunis and died there. The Muslims took Tripoli in 1289 and Acre in 1291.

The century-long, partly secular sequel to the first hundred years of more pious crusading fervor was now over, and the Christian settlements were wiped out. They were not deeply mourned even in western Europe, from which so much blood and treasure had flowed for their establishment and defense. They had proved divisive, had distracted attention from the building of states in Europe, and had produced little of spiritual value.

There would be a final burst of crusading. Between 1305 and 1378, the Roman Catholic church sought not so much to recover Palestine as to protect its lands against non-Christian peoples. Crusaders fought from Alexandria to the Canary Islands, from Livonia to Greece, in defense of the Faith, while the papacy devoted enormous effort to planning, taxing, and campaigning, especially through naval warfare. The church also used economic sanctions against those who threatened it. Still, except for the capture of Smyrna and, for a time, Alexandria, these last crusades achieved little.

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