World History 1 214 - 13.4.3 Experiencing the Crusades

Despite the relatively brief existence of the Crusader States, they offered an example of Christians, Muslims, and Jewish people living and working together in a Christian kingdom surrounded by hostile states. Initially, however, the ignorance and religious bigotry of the crusaders led them to expel populations of Muslims or Jewish people from holy sites or places of strategic importance. In several cases, they perpetrated violent expulsions, killing civilians.

European Catholics also found in the conquered areas native Christian populations with a variety of different creeds. In most cases, these Christians were permitted to stay, but eventually, conflict over religious authority developed as Catholic bishops were named (by the pope or by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem) as heads of communities with few Catholics. The Christians of the Middle East had also been acculturated by centuries of living under Muslim rule, which meant the Christianity of the east looked very different from that practiced in Europe. In some communities, Christians spoke Arabic, dressed like their Muslim neighbors, and worshipped in ways different from those of Catholics in Europe. The Greek Orthodox Byzantines were unhappy with the establishment of a well-organized religious rival in the Holy Land. Many native communities distrusted the crusaders not because they were of a different religion but because they arrived with brutality and did not share the cultural practices of the area.

Despite the initial violence by crusaders that scarred and scattered some Jewish and Muslim communities, policies of toleration and protection emerged. These had less to do with the crusaders’ growing familiarity with the religious and ethnic groups in Outremer and more to do with the lack of settlers from Europe. Lords needed workers, and if they could not be had, then native communities had to be preserved, not brutalized. Even when Europeans began to adopt local cultural habits and grew familiar with Islamic practices, distrust of the unfamiliar remained common on all sides. The Islamic poet and warrior Usama ibn Munqidh, for example, could count Christians among his friends, but he admonished his readers never to trust the “Franks,” or the newly arrived crusaders, whose ignorance he highlighted in his writing.

In Their Own Words

A Muslim View of the Crusades

Usama ibn Munqidh was a Muslim poet and warrior who fought during the Crusades. Like many Muslims, he believed the crusaders were barbarians and invaders, but he came to know some of them very well. He understood that they were different from the Christians of the Middle East, who shared common cultural traits with Muslims. In the following passage, Usama records his experiences in Jerusalem when he tried to pray facing Mecca and was accosted by a Christian who tried to make him face east, as a Christian would.

Everyone who is a fresh emigrant from the Frankish lands is ruder than those who have become acclimated and have held long association with the Moslems. Whenever I visited Jerusalem I always entered the Aqsa Mosque, beside which stood a small mosque which the Franks had converted into a church. When I used to enter the Aqsa Mosque, which was occupied by the Templars, who were my friends, the Templars would evacuate the little adjoining mosque so that I might pray. One day I entered this mosque . . . and stood up in the act of praying, upon which one of the Franks rushed upon me, got hold of me and turned my face eastward saying ‘This is the way thou shouldst pray.’ A group of Templars hasted to him, seized him and repelled him from me. I resumed my prayer. The same man, while the others were otherwise busy, rushed once more on me and turned my face eastward, saying, ‘This is the way thou shouldst pray!’ The Templars again came in . . . and expelled him. They apologized to me, saying ‘This is a stranger who has only recently arrived from the land of the Franks and he has never before seen anyone praying except eastward.’ Thereupon I said to myself ‘I have had enough prayer.’ So I went out and have ever been surprised at the conduct of this devil of a man, at the change in the color of his face, his trembling . . . at the sight of one praying towards [Mecca].

—Usama ibn Munqidh, Memoirs of an Arab-Syrian Gentleman at the Time of the Crusades, translated by P.K. Hitti

  • Why do you think the Templars, Christians devoted to defending Outremer, would be so friendly with ibn Munqidh, a Muslim?
  • What parts of this passage show the acclimation of western Europeans to life in the Middle East?

The crusaders organized their government in feudal terms, but the native populations never became serfs owing service to their lords. Instead, they paid their taxes in cash or in goods. This form of payment was based on existing practices, and in many ways, the crusaders left rural agricultural production unchanged. Christian landlords used forms of taxation and village administration similar to those their Muslim predecessors had, and they relied on Muslim scribes and interpreters given the diversity of the people and languages in the region. Islamic and Jewish communities maintained their own schools and legal institutions. Despite the earlier violence and ongoing religious and ethnic tensions, the desire for trade and prosperity helped ease some of the tensions between the crusaders and native communities.

The lack of settlers from Europe ensured that the number of soldiers in Outremer was small. This was why the church promoted the crusading orders, and why the crusaders built imposing fortresses and castles, like the famous Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, that could be defended by a relatively small number of soldiers (Figure 13.22). Some European families, especially aristocrats with a family connection, went on sending crusaders, such as the dukes of Burgundy who continued to support the crusading movement. Many crusaders wrote letters to loved ones describing the military engagements in which they had taken part, often using provocative language to cast Muslims in a negative light. Often their expectation was that they would return home, and many pilgrims and crusaders did so rather than settling in the Holy Land.

A drawing of a rectangle shaped tall stone fortress is shown. The outside wall displays square and round columns, small openings in the walls and notches along the top. Inside the fortress, another stone building is shown more to the left side, with some rocky land shown in the bottom right. The structure is multi-tiered with square and rectangle sections, some lower and some higher, with sparse openings and few doorways. The roofs are flat and notches line the tops of all the walls. A long flag flies at the tallest tower top. The land outside the fortress is barren and rocky.
Figure 13.22 This is a nineteenth-century artist’s drawing of the compact fortress of Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, built to be defensible by a small number of fighters. (credit: “The Krak des Chevaliers as it was in the Middle-Ages” by Guillaume Rey : Étude sur les monuments de l’architecture militaire des croisés en Syrie et dans l’île de Chypre (1871)/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

While European settlers in Outremer remained few, other types of Europeans kept the cities and ports busy, both during the period of the Crusader States and after their fall. In addition to pilgrims, administrators, and scholars, merchants from the Italian city-states like Venice and Genoa benefited from the crusading movement. They profited by shipping pilgrims and fighters to Outremer and wrested lucrative concessions to establish their mercantile outposts in cities like Constantinople, Antioch, and Acre. Their contact with the trading emporiums of the Middle East connected Europe to the trade routes that extended across Afro-Eurasia and increased Europeans’ consumption of spices, silk, lacquerware, and ceramics from China.

These trading connections were not the only result valued by the Italian merchants. They were also eager for better knowledge of the peoples and geography of the lands, with an eye to establishing direct trading contacts with the distant civilizations that produced luxury goods Europeans began to demand. The best example is the fourteenth-century merchant and explorer Marco Polo, who followed the land routes to China. The Italian merchants kept up their trade and contact with different Islamic kingdoms, and the wealth of their mercantile cities inspired the kings of Europe to patronize their own merchants and explorers to help them capitalize on the riches of the world that flowed into the Mediterranean. This age of exploration and trade was accelerated by European experiences in the Crusades.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax