History of the Crusades: Origins, Politics, and Crusaders

crusadesRichard I leaving England for the Crusades 1189. Painting by Glyn Warren Philpot


The Crusades of medieval times have rather proved to be a contentious subject matter, especially given its association with religious fanaticism. But beneath this veneer of political analogy (that tends to be exaggerated), we must understand that the Crusades, while embodying a clash of cultures, also resulted in various spheres of cultural synthesis – via trade networks, adoption of habits, and dresses, and even architecture. So without further ado, let us tread the path of objective history and present to you – the origins, political scope, and military nature of the Crusades, from circa late 11th century AD to the late 13th century AD.

The Origins and Starting Phase of the Crusades –

Religious Hysteria or New Found Power?

Council of Clermont, illumination from the Livre des Passages d’Outremer, circa 1474 AD. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Most historians accept that Crusades as a term can be misleading, since it was rarely used during the period of what we know as the First Crusade, circa 1099 AD. For example, the First Crusade itself was often referred to as the iter (journey) or peregrinatio (pilgrimage), thus possibly reflecting how the campaign was contemporarily viewed as a manifestation of religious duty as opposed to just religious warfare.

In any case, the historical affair was kickstarted at the Council of Piacenza (circa 1095 AD) when the Eastern Roman emperor Alexios I Komnenos requested military aid from Pope Urban II, probably in the form of mercenaries who would fight against the encroaching Seljuk Turks. Later that year, at the momentous Council of Clermont, the Pope officially made the call for a Crusade to take over the Holy Land.

The rest, as they say, is history – with the proclamation resulting in the People’s Crusades followed by the First Crusade. But the question can be raised – were these Crusades fueled by the religious hysteria of Europe? Well, in some part, it was certainly religious enthusiasm, with the Church playing its role in even interpreting natural phenomena like meteor showers, lunar eclipses, blood moons, and aurora borealis as divine signs.

Such perceptions were accompanied by call-to-arms for waging war on the ‘infidels’ and ‘heretics’ that not only included Muslims but also related to people of Jewish faith and neo-Gnostic sects like the Bogomils. We should also note that Islamic realms for their part did propagate jihad as a religious duty for wresting control of territories (in the Mediterranean coasts, Levant, and Anatolia) under the banner of Islam.

However, beyond the veneer of religion, the Crusades can be seen as the geopolitical extension of Europe’s emergence from the proverbial chaos after the fall of the Carolingian Empire. The 11th century did see an economic revival of sorts for many a Western European realm.

Furthermore, the earlier 9th century Carolingian Frankish interlude also served as a catalyst for cultural influence shared between Europeans and Eastern powers – so much so that many Western elements began to serve as mercenaries in the ‘exotic’ frontier armies of the Eastern Romans (thereby also becoming familiar with ‘Islamic’ style of warfare).

And lastly, the Catholic Church was beginning to gain political mileage that often superseded even its religious authority. To that end, the call to Crusades was possibly an intentional measure taken by the Pope with the aim to politically unite the Eastern Orthodox church with the emergent Catholic church of Europe.

The Peasants’ Crusades

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While it may come as a surprise to some, the First Crusade was actually preceded by at least four expeditions (with coinciding campaigns) – all of which failed in their objective of even reaching the Holy Land in the Levant. These expeditions are commonly known as the Peasants’ Crusades.

The first of the endeavors was possibly led by Peter the Hermit and Walter Sans Avoir (often mistakenly referred to as Walter the Penniless), and they did manage to reach Constantinople. However, shortly afterward, the undisciplined host was utterly devastated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Civetot.

In fact, the trademark of such Peasants’ Crusades often pertained to a series of misadventures, pogroms (that possibly resulted in around 10,000 Jewish deaths), and unintended encounters. For example, a third expedition, in spite of being well-disciplined, lacked leadership and was consequently destroyed by the Hungarians.

Similarly, the fourth expedition, although led by a few members of the nobility, was viewed with suspicion in southeastern Europe (possibly due to the recklessness of their predecessors), and it was also wiped out after an unsuccessful siege of a Hungarian frontier town.

The ‘Miracle’ of the First Crusade

Image Source: WeaponsandWarfare

In terms of numbers, the host of the First Crusade possibly started out with around 30,000 infantry and around 4,500 horsemen – and they were led by cultured and experienced military men like Raymond IV (from southern France), Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin I (heading an army from Lorraine and Germany), and Bohemond of Taranto and his nephew Tancred (the Italo-Normans; both of whom were versed in Arabic).

However, while chroniclers had ‘poetically’ dealt with the nobility and leaders of the First Crusade, the fact remains that some of the average European soldiers who participated in the armed endeavor were desperately poor. In fact, at times the objective of reaching and conquering Jerusalem seemed so far-fetched to many of the ordinary folks and soldiers who accompanied their leaders (keeping in mind the earlier disastrous attempts of the Peasants’ Crusades) that they plundered and looted just for survival, as opposed to making profitable gains.

And at times starvation and poverty reached maddening levels (like during the Siege of Antioch) that fueled fanatical behavior on the part of some of the poor Crusaders. One pertinent example would relate to the so-called Tafurs, a group of destitute Crusades who seemingly cultivated bizarre codes of conduct that prevented them from acquiring wealth while allowing murder and even (possibly fabricated by later sources) cannibalization of their enemies.

Another factor that popular history seems to miss is that the original Crusader army that initially made its way across Anatolia, was much reduced in size when it arrived at the gates of Jerusalem (possibly equating to some 12,000 men with only 1,300 knights).

The reasons for this could be many, including attrition, desertion, and disease. The reduction of available military forces was particularly harsh for the knights since it encompassed the loss of many horses. To that end, by circa 1098 AD (and some years afterward), many of the supporting Crusader cavalries in Syria possibly fought on mules, with horses being reduced to mere hundreds in number.

And yet, in spite of such severe shortcomings and challenges, the Crusaders speedily made their way across the enemy-held Anatolia (for example, the forces of Godfrey of Bouillon averaged 15.5 miles per day for 89 days). And finally, aided by Genoese-made siege weapons, the ‘rag-tag’ forces managed to capture Jerusalem – the symbolic heart of the Holy Land.

Suffice it to say, their feat was perceived as a miracle, not only by themselves but also by the successive generations of European Crusaders who went on to launch further campaigns in the following centuries. In essence, the First Crusade set the template for the ensuing expeditions of the Crusades – both in terms of logistics and religious zeal.

The Sundered Islamic Realms

12th-century Muslim troops in the Levant. Image Source: MaryAnnBernal

Many have talked about the seemingly miraculous success of the First Crusade. However, on the practical level, one should also try to comprehend the complex geopolitical situation of the Islamic side during the era (circa early 12th century) and how it might have given some form of advantage to the Crusaders. By this period, the centralized nature of the yesteryear Caliphates had long been relegated in favor of regionalized administrations.

To that effect, the Levant was already contested by the Seljuks (who were also hard-pressed in Anatolia by their Danishmend rivals), Fatimids, and regional Arab dynasties – thus creating a precarious status quo. Simply put, their interfaith squabbles and political machinations resulted in a shaky front that was ill-suited to defending against ‘external’ threats, like the Crusades.

Added to that, the power of the Great Seljuks had almost eroded in neighboring Iraq, while the Fatimids just managed to survive their own civil wars. Some historians have also theorized how the military elite of the Turks, mostly comprising the ghulams (slave-soldiers), had deteriorated when it came to martial capabilities, possibly due to their overindulgence in political games.

Moreover, the diluted nature of the power exerted by the Fatimids over Jerusalem can be summed up by how the city was only captured by them (from the Seljuks) only a few months before the arrival of the Crusaders. The city, by circa 1099 AD, was even guarded by the disfranchised remnants of the previous Turkish garrison.

The Jerusalem Factor in the Crusades

Image Source: Scout.com

But beyond its symbolic scope associated with the Crusades and the Holy Land, the city of Jerusalem itself was thoroughly depopulated, and thus its strategic value was questioned. One of the reasons for such dire circumstances directly pertained to the Crusaders’ actions, which led to the barring of Muslims and Jews from the Holy City, while many of the native Christians also fled the settlement.

However, it should be noted that, as evidence suggests from the surviving letters found inside the Cairo Geniza (contrary to popular notions), not all non-Christians were vindictively slaughtered – some were given the option of fleeing and conversion, while the unransomed ones were probably executed.

Even on the Crusaders’ side, their military presence was becoming precarious, with many of the Europeans returning home after their ‘successful’ crusade. The remaining few hundred Europeans were so paltry in number that they barely managed to guard the gates of the city. As a solution, many of the native Christians were encouraged to migrate to Jerusalem.

Additionally, European settlers were also given concessions to ‘travel’ to the Holy Land, while the port cities and towns (that were still under Muslim control) were wrested away with the significant aid provided by the fleets of the maritime Italian city-states (like Venice and Genoa). Unfortunately, for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, most of these measures failed in the long-term, with stringently adopted feudal structures inhibiting the growth of the inland areas and the commercial monopoly of the Italians dictating the coastal areas.

The Political Scope During the Ensuing Crusades –

The Crusader States and Their Predicaments

Credit: MapMaster. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we mentioned in the earlier entry, manpower shortage had always been a logistical factor for the established Crusader States in the Levant. But the 12th century also brought forth the stricter ideas of feudalism from Europe and combined with the military origins of many of the Crusader leaders, led to a rather ‘conservative’ social structure that was not at all conducive to the dynamic scope of the Holy Land.

In essence, the Crusaders (especially in the Kingdom of Jerusalem) faced the dilemma of co-existing with their Muslim neighbors (who grew powerful and organized over time) and the indoctrinated urge to conquer more lands in the name of Christianity – which often fueled half-addressed strategies and confusing political decisions.

Moreover, given the hierarchical nature of feudal laws and structure of the realms, along with the shortage of manpower that was rather crippling to a feudal society (thus leading to the emergence of military fiefs), many of the Crusader leaders failed to take advantage of the potential commercial aspect of their coastal domains. During the later years, when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was confined to such coastal strips, the situation became even more complex with Italian merchants controlling much of the trade and monetary benefits.

The Impact of the Second Crusade

The departure of the Crusaders. Cressac Chapel fresco, 12th century. Museum of French Monuments, Paris. Credit: Josse/Leemage/Getty Images, Source: ThoughtCo

It was becoming increasingly clear to the Crusaders that there was a clear logistical distinction between winning territories and holding on to territories in the Outremer (the Crusader State-controlled areas of the Levant). The euphoria of the First Crusade was already somewhat stymied by the unceremonious defeat of the Crusades of 1101 AD (also known as the Crusade of the Fainthearted) that entailed hastily arranged minor expeditions by the ones who failed to join the First Crusade.

And then, years later, a hefty shock came in the form of the loss of the County of Edessa (in 1144 AD), the most vulnerable of all the Crusader States – which was overrun by the Zengids of Mosul. In response, a Second Crusade was launched in circa 1147 AD, and it was among the first of the Crusades to be led by European kings (instead of nobles) – namely Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany.

Unfortunately, both the monarchs and their respective forces took different routes to the Holy Land, and the German army was all but wiped out by the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in a series of clashes and ambushes near Dorylaeum. The French army almost met a similar fate at the hands of the Anatolian Turks, but a few remnants of it managed to escape from what is now southwestern Turkey via ships and landed directly at Antioch.

In a grand plan, this European army, although severely depleted, joined forces with the ‘local’ Crusader States to infamously lay siege on Damascus, the jewel of the Islamic world. But once again personal agendas combined with haughty mindsets and improper coordination resulted in a disastrous defeat for the Crusaders, thereby changing the entire political outlook of the Crusades.

Till then, the Crusaders took solace in the false sense of ‘being on the offensive’. But unfortunately for them, both on the strategic and tactical level, the elites of the Crusader States and their European counterparts tended to overlook (or simply disregard) the local assets – like guides and aids.

In spite of such practical ‘lessons’, the failure of the Second Crusade was perceived as a sign of religious shortcoming (as opposed to strategic blunder) on the part of the Crusaders. For example, Bernard of Clairvaux, the major leader in the reform of Benedictine monasticism, being humiliated by the shock of defeat, blamed it on the sins of the men taking part in the Crusades.

From the historical perspective, we should also note that while the Second Crusade failed in the Holy Land, part of it was successful in aiding the Portuguese forces in the Siege of Lisbon and other small-scale undertakings of the Reconquista. There were also some Crusaders, mainly comprising Danes, Saxons, and a few Poles, who launched the Wendish Crusade in a bid to convert the pagan Slavic Obotrites – but the endeavor, while militarily successful, mostly failed in its primary objective.   

The Redemption of the Third Crusade

Battle of Arsuf, circa 1191 AD. Illustration by Jason Juta.

The next major setback for the Crusader States came in 1187 AD, when Saladin and his Ayyubid forces captured (not unexpectedly) Jerusalem and Acre, thereby snatching away the very political legitimacy of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In response, the Third Crusade was launched in circa 1189 AD, this time joined by the kings Richard I of England and Philip II of France, the elderly German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and even the Hungarian prince Géza.

Suffice it to say, the expedition, bolstered by complex preparation, was massive with over 35,000 soldiers from different nationalities. These forces, ranging from English, Norman, Welsh to French, Hungarians, and Genoese, were painstakingly assembled for the crusading effort, and they were further accompanied in the Levant by the Templars, Hospitallers, and the few knights of the Outremer.

Like past instances, the campaign started in a chaotic manner with Emperor Barbarossa losing his life by drowning while crossing the Saleph River. Most of his despondent German host returned to Europe – although they did manage to score small victories in various skirmishes.

The main Crusader contingent, however, was able to take advantage of transport ships that sailed directly from Europe to Palestine. Under the crucial leadership of Richard I (better known as Richard the Lionheart), these forces followed it up with key victories in the Siege of Acre and the Battle of Arsuf. But once again, political machinations, mutual distrust, and even assassinations reared their ugly heads in the Crusader camp.

Thus, in spite of making advances on the path to Jerusalem and recapturing Jaffa, Richard had to reach an agreement with the seemingly ever-altruistic Saladin (who also suffered a spurt of recent defeats). Their agreement specified that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim control but with the clause that the city had to allow safe passage to unarmed Christian pilgrims and merchants inside its walls.

From a practical perspective, the Third Crusade ensured the survival of the Crusader States (and future Crusades) that were severely weakened by not only Muslim counterattacks but also internal dissensions. On the other hand, the endeavor still failed in its core objective of capturing Jerusalem for Christianity.

The Other Crusades

The Second Conquest of Constantinople by Domenico Tintoretto, circa. 1580-1605 AD. Source: Venice11

The following Fourth Crusade, circa 1202 AD, is widely viewed in historical circles as a ‘catastrophic diversion’ (as noted by historian David Nicolle) since its vague goal of taking the war directly to Ayyubid Egypt was conveniently consigned in favor of capturing and plundering a nearer target – Constantinople, the largest city of Christianity (albeit of Eastern Orthodox faith) of the time.

This atrocious event had widespread repercussions in the realm of subsequent history, with the severely weakened Eastern Roman Empire being finally overtaken by the emergent Ottoman Turks in the late 14th century – thus ironically paving the way for Islamic incursions into continental Europe for centuries to come.

The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Crusades (all taking place in the 13th century), although not diversionary in their scopes, ultimately failed in their military objectives due to a combination of factors intrinsic to crusading efforts, like lack of clear goals, logistical limitations, political interferences, and the ‘revived’ power of the Muslim foes.

Among these campaigns, the Sixth Crusade is noteworthy because it actually allowed the namesake Kingdom of Jerusalem to retain control of significant parts of Jerusalem for 15 years through diplomatic efforts, as opposed to military successes. The Eighth Crusade (circa 1270 AD) was once again diverted to Tunisia, and it tragically ended with the death of King Louis IX of France and much of his army through diseases like dysentery.

Some historians also consider a subsequent military campaign as the Ninth Crusade, and it was probably the last of the major European efforts to reclaim the Holy Land. And while the endeavor, mainly led by Edward I (Edward Longshanks), resulted in some military victories and remarkable political maneuvers like a Franco-Mongol alliance, the Crusade was soon abandoned due to pressure back at home and rivalry in the Crusader States’ camps.

Pertaining to the latter, it should be noted that by the second half of the 13th century, the Outremer states were restricted only to a few coastal strongholds after their continuing defeats against the far more aggressive Mamluks (under Sultan Baibars) – the successors to the Ayyubids.  

The Military of the Crusaders –

Fiefs and Military Organization in the Holy Land

Ruins of the fief of Gibelet (modern Byblos). Source: Wiki Voyage

In the hierarchy of the feudal structure existing in most Crusader states, the king was viewed as the highest-ranking ‘noble’ among the competing political elite. Now in accordance with the feudal norms, the realm was divided into estates and smaller fiefs, with these parcels of lands being governed by the lords and the knights.

Unsurprisingly, in the Crusader states, these fiefs tended to be far smaller than their European counterparts – although the responsibilities of the knight holding the fief were more rigorous, given the desperate situations both inside the kingdoms and along their borders. For example, when it came to military obligation, a knight could be called for an unlimited period to serve in the military.

At the same time, the king also had greater responsibilities toward his knights, because the Crusader leaders clearly valued their military prowess (a factor rather reinforced when combined with the occasional shortage of manpower). To that end, it was the king who had to pay for the knight’s horse and expensive equipment when the latter was campaigning outside the traditional borders. Furthermore, the monarch even had to promise to replace the knight’s lost horses or animals (if any) in the form of a restor.

Now given the complex character of the Crusader kingdoms and the numerous overlapping domains of control (from various lords), the system of fiefs was complicated. At times the fief holder (knight) owed his allegiance and service to more than one lord, while in other instances some of the fiefs were held by the Church and even women.

Many of the lords themselves, unlike their 11th-12th-century European counterparts, did not even live in their estates; rather they collected their revenues while residing in neighboring towns and cities. And lastly, struggling to cope with the cost of the approaching pilgrims from Europe, along with landless peasants, the Crusader realms also introduced the fiefs de soudée, or money-fiefs, that were basically tolls for markets, ports, and bridges – mostly owned by ‘lordly’ urban dwellers.

As for the command structure, the First Crusade (along with subsequent Crusades)  invited separate army contingents from both northern and southern parts of France, along with divisions from Germany and Norman-Italy. So, given the ‘French’ origin of many of these earlier crusaders, the Kingdom of Jerusalem adopted the political customs and offices of the Kingdom of France.

Among them, the senechal was possibly the highest rank holder within the offices of the state. And though many of his duties were ceremonial in nature, the senechal was responsible for doling out (high-level) justice, inspecting castles, organizing garrisons, and most importantly arranging the supply chains for strategic military networks.

Interestingly enough, in spite of these ‘core’ responsibilities, the senechal was just one member of the king’s royal bataille (division). On the other hand, it was the connetable who actually commanded the army under the king’s name, while also representing the monarch in the High Court (when the king was absent). His second-in-command was the marechal, who was responsible for paying the mercenaries, organizing the fighting divisions, and playing his supervisory role in regard to the discipline and equipment of the army.

The Rise of the Military Orders

The charge of the Knights Templar

Among the varied army compositions and contingents, arguably the Military Orders established in the Levant (and in Europe) had the highest success rates when it came to military encounters of the Crusades. In fact, the general notion is quite true that the Templars took a vow to defend their fellow Christians from ‘foreign’ intrusions, especially in the Outremer, the conglomeration of Crusader States in the Levant.

But interestingly enough, the proclivity of the Military Orders towards martial pursuits was only developed as a reactionary measure, rather than a (starting) ideology that dictated religious warfare. To that end, historically, in the aftermath of the First Crusade, some of the Christian warriors actually decided to put away their swords in favor of a monastic lifestyle based around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

But with the establishment of the Christian entities in the Holy Land, the scenario became a logistical nightmare for the nascent Outremer kingdoms – because a great number of pilgrims flocked to these newly conquered lands. And as more visitors turned up around the confines of Jerusalem, local bandits (that also included Muslims who lost their lands) took advantage of the chaos and attacked these common pilgrims.

Afflicted by such unconventional forays, the monastic warriors decided to once again take up their swords (though in the later centuries, some of their actions turned fanatical). As a result, pertinent military brotherhoods were formed, and one of them entailed the Templar Order, officially approved by the Church in 1120 AD. Other ‘effective’ orders included the Order of Hospitallers, who had their origins in the Amalfitan hospital in Jerusalem; and the Teutonic Order – initially composed of a small number of mercenaries and volunteer soldiers.

As for the organization of these brotherhoods, the Templars and Hospitallers basically mirrored the institutions of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, with its command structure dominated by titles like senechal and marechal.

The soldiery supported by this structure was usually composed of a small percentage of knights (who formed the bulk of heavy cavalry) and they headed the other warrior-brothers from the Order, like the sergents (in French) or servientes in Latin. The latter groups played a supporting role on the battlefield, by forming solid infantry lines or at times doubling up as screening medium cavalry.

Mixed Knightly Class, Allies, and Other Local Troops

Turcopole. Source: HKSandham (Twitter)

With so much talk about knights and fiefs, we must understand that given the paucity of available manpower for the military, not every knight in the Crusader states was ‘European’. In fact, after the generation post First Crusade, many of the Europeans married into local influential families, thus leading to the emergence of the ‘mixed’ poulains as a military class.

Some of these poulains were endowed with the title of knights, and as such formed an enthusiastic base for Catholicism in the Holy Land. In the northern Principality of Antioch, mostly dominated by the Normans, a few of the ‘local’ Armenians were also raised to the status of knighthood. All of these knights were expected to form the armored fist of the periodic Crusades, often supported by non-knightly armored and mounted sergeants.

And even beyond strictly military roles, the high social standing of a knight meant that he could be exchanged in return for a slain knight in battle (though such practices were not the norm, especially in the latter part of Crusader history). Interestingly enough, the Kingdom of Jerusalem (possibly) had a particular statute that excused the knights from fighting on foot when defending towns and castles.

Now while from the geographical perspective it may seem that the Crusaders’ Kingdoms were isolated in the Levant, beset by enemies on all sides, the truth is that they did have regional allies. One of the overlooked realms in such circumstances, pertained to Cilician Armenia, a kingdom that itself became increasingly feudalized by the 13th century AD.

Many of their Armenian warriors served in the armies of the Crusader States (especially the Principality of Antioch), as both cavalry and dedicated archers. Similarly, though not geographically connected, both mercenaries and soldiers from the kingdoms of Georgia and Trebizond (one of the remnants of the Eastern Roman ‘Byzantine’ Empire) fought in Crusader State armies, each with their indigenous styles.

Incredibly enough, another overlooked scope for the Crusader State armies relates to the bevy of urban militias who formed their own fraternities. By the 13th century, when the inland domains of the Outremer were gradually snatched away by the Islamic re-conquests (while the Crusades were failing), many of the refugees fled to the coastal towns and cities.

Some of these ‘rich’ settlements continued to expand with integrated communes that allowed the thriving of urban militia contingents, sometimes with their own banners and organizations. These fraternities even provided regular soldiers with both cavalry and infantry arms in defense of the city – and at times these militias were also paid when they campaigned outside the set ‘borders’.

Furthermore, as historian David Nicolle makes it clear (in The Crusades), mercenaries were pretty common in the Crusader states’ armies, especially in the latter times. Some of these mercenaries were basically employed knights, who lacked fiefs, and thus were paid salaries by their overlords. Other mercenaries possibly comprised the highly professional crossbowmen, and their effectiveness against their foes was so pronounced that the Saracens often called crossbows qaws Ferengi, or ‘Frankish bow’.

But arguably the more fascinating soldiery was provided by the Turcopoles (roughly translated to ‘sons of Turks’), who were originally converted Muslim prisoners of war (and later possibly descended from many such converts). Similar to their eastern ghulam counterparts, they mainly served as horse archers with a penchant for focused volleys, as opposed to the agile and light Turkic horse archers.

They crucially filled the gap of mobile-missile contingents in many Crusader armies, and thus were considered invaluable to many military actions during the Crusades. To that end, in spite of their non-knightly status, few of the Turcopoles were even offered special fiefs and inducted into the division of royal Turcopoles, commanded by the state-appointed grand turcopolier.

The Crusader States also took the aid of local troops (although rarely) when it came to traversing through dangerous mountain passes and unfamiliar countryside. One of the most effective of these ‘native’ soldiers pertained to Christian Maronite folks of Lebanon, many of whom functioned as light horsemen and archers.

There were also times when the Crusader kingdoms incorporated Shia Muslims (like Alawites) within their ranks, especially from the Syrian coastal mountains. Over time, these hardy hill-men called jabaliya, often tended to side with the Hashashins (Assassins) of the Nizari Ismaili sect.

The Armor and Weapons of Crusaders

Source: Pinterest

There is a persistent theory shared by historians relating to how the elites of the Egyptian Fatimid army were dressed in a comparable fashion to that of the Eastern Romans and the proximate Mediterranean powers. To that end, there could have been scenarios in the early 12th century when the Crusaders could be mistaken as Fatimids since both the factions made use of heavy cavalrymen armored in ‘doubled’ mail with two layers.

Such protective measures clearly underlined how the knights taking part in the Crusades were wary of Muslim archers, especially the potent Turkic (and later Mamluk) horse archers with their steppe-inspired shooting tactics.  

Similarly, a type of mail armor known as the jazerant was adopted by many a Crusader and its origin lies in the khazaghand – an earlier Islamic armor. Such transmissions of styles possibly took place even before the Crusades, since there are records of Western European cavalrymen serving as mercenaries in the Eastern Roman army (who, in turn, had already adopted many Islamic and Turkish military elements by circa 12th century AD).

Other armor of Middle Eastern origin like the lamellar jawshan and protective horse barding (bard possibly comes from Arabic bardha’ah) may have been used or modified by the Crusaders. However, by the late 12th century – early 13th century, their armor styles were discernibly more ‘European’, while their Muslim foes (like the Mamluks) adopted the more-distinct Turkish style – thereby creating a visual divergence on the battlefield.

For example, the typical armor of a 13th-century knight from the Military Orders comprised a heavy mail hauberk, which covered a quilted aketon (derived from al qutn – the Arabic for ‘cotton’) or gambeson underneath, a mail coif (fort et turcoise) for the head, cuisses for the thighs, and manicle de fer (or mail mittens) for the hands. There might have been occasions when the knight ditched his heavy hauberk in favor of the lighter panceria, while the lower-ranked foot soldiers made use of the traditional cuirie (or coirasses) hardened leather.

As for arms, swords were perceived as very important weapons by medieval European knights – partly because of their forms that insinuated Christian symbolism. Simply put, the typical sword resembled the cruciform with the crossguard cutting a right angle across the grip which extends into the blade. Such imagery must have played its psychological role in bolstering the morale of many spiritual Crusaders.

However, on the practical level, the most effective weapon for the knight probably pertained to the cavalry lance (usually 10 ft in length), with its sturdy shaft usually made from hardy spruce. The supporting infantry brethren made use of a variety of other weapons, including axes, maces (grudgingly adopted from their Muslim foes), and guisarmes (long hafted variants of axes). Some codified statutes also hint at the use of rather ‘exotic’ non-knightly weapons such as crossbows – that were fired from both horsebacks (in a stationary position) and on foot.

The Crusader Castles

Kerak Castle. Credit: Berthold Werner, Source: Wikimedia Commons

While earlier history-based conjectures suggested that Crusader castles were built to serve as primarily defensive structures around frontier areas, such hypotheses are relegated in favor of the theory of how the Crusaders viewed their castles and fortresses as centers of power.

Such fortifications served as ‘multifunctional’ strategic establishments that could be used for both offense (like mounting raids and retreating) and defense, while also acting as protective refuges for the ruling elite. More importantly, on occasions, they served as administrative/political conglomerates of local lords and their retainers surrounded by settlers of European origins.

From the architectural perspective, one should understand that for more than two centuries before the Crusades, the areas in the Levant, coastal Syria, Palestine, and southeastern Anatolia were the theaters of war and raids in the conflicts between the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the Islamic Arabs.

Consequently, the region already boasted its fair share of well-fortified cities and defenses – many of which were further refurbished and expanded upon by the ‘newcomer’ Crusaders. Furthermore, for a significant part of the 12th century, the Crusaders were on the offensive, and this was the time when they also started to invest in building their own castles and fortifications, ranging from the massive Sahyun Citadel in northwestern Syria to the smaller keeps around Petra.

Suffice it to say, the Crusaders were influenced by the design of the ‘local’ Byzantine, Armenian, and Arab fortifications, and as such, incorporated many of the elements into their own structures. These features included the machicoulis, a dropbox-like overhanging structure from where defenders could shoot at the besiegers, and the talus battered-face of the walls that created hard gradients for the approaching siege towers and ladders.

Talking of siege weapons, many of the castles of the period were designed and modified to accommodate defensive siege machines. For example, protruding towers were installed and reinforced as placements for effective weapons like mangonels and trebuchets (that were used in both siege and counter-siege scenarios). Considering all these factors, it comes as no surprise that castle engineers were held in high esteem and handsomely paid by not only the Crusaders but also their Muslim foes.

As for the social and economic aspects pertaining to many such castles, the larger ones, during the Crusades, did have their ostentatious interior settings, bedecked with paintings, carvings, and mosaics. Many of the rich patrons took part in recreational activities like hunting, music-making, and steam-bathing – with the latter clearly inspired by the high culture of the proximate Muslims. On the economic level, the bigger castles also served as industrial and agricultural centers with mills tailored to grain and olive oil production – as mentioned by David Nicolle.

The Decline of the Crusaders

Source: PilotGuides

By the second half of the 13th century, the territories of the Crusader States had shrunk considerably and were limited to the small yet strategically vital coastal areas and strongholds like Tripoli, Acre, Tyre, Sidon, Haifa, and Tartus. As a result, the feudal nature of the Outremer was significantly weakened, with the king and the Italian mercantile empires (like Venice) holding the majority of the lands around these cities.

On the other hand, the nobles, who were expected to provide the bulk of the army with their knights and retinues, were relegated to keeping paltry money fiefs and dilapidated castles (in absence of available lands). In essence, the patchwork of the cities, while maintaining a semblance of Crusader city-states, was incapable of logistically supporting an army – in some cases, even defending against localized threats.

Other military estates and fortifications were held by the zealous Military Orders in frankalmoign (‘freehold’), which excused them from many feudal obligations. In spite of such overtures, they did play their role in defending many of the important frontier castles.

Even political stratagems (that earlier ‘shortsighted’ Crusaders were not really known for), like an alliance with the Mongols, didn’t work out in the long run – especially after the momentous Battle of Ain Jalut where the Mamluks scored an astounding victory. Simply put, while the Mongols were expected to overrun many Muslim realms, the battle caused a shocking reversal of their plans. It also left the Crusader States open to punitive actions from the triumphant Mamluks.

Finally, by the last decade of the 13th century, the Crusaders lost all their coastal strongholds in a piecemeal fashion to the increasingly sophisticated siege warfare practiced by the Mamluks. After this, as historian David Nicolle noted, the overwhelming majority of the military aristocracy borne by the Crusades was almost wiped out or had fled via ships (while a few continued to serve their Mamluk overlords in Tripoli).

The surviving poorer folks of the ‘Crusader stock’ were probably absorbed into the local populace. And lastly, interestingly enough, the Military Orders shifted their attention to naval pursuits instead of wasting their severely depleted resources on a land-based military expedition to retake the Holy Land.

This strategic decision paved the way for the Knights Hospitaller to shift their base to ‘offshore’ locations – initially Cyprus and then Rhodes (which further shifted to Malta in the 16th century), thus essentially ensuring their politically autonomous survival till the Napoleonic Era.

Honorable Mention – The Renegade Crusaders 

Source: Northrop

Historian David Nicolle makes an intriguing point about the oft-overlooked renegade elements of the Crusades. To that end, there had been cases where a significant number of Christian warriors served both Mongols and Mamluks, with most of their numbers being filled by ex-prisoners of war.

The Muslim victory in the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187 AD resulted in the disfranchisement of many a Christian lord, and some of them might have joined the ranks of their enemies. For example, in 1223 AD, the Patriarch of Alexandria claimed how a whopping 10,000 ‘renegade’ Christians served in Islamic armies. There are even sources mentioning how a Spanish Templar commanded the Muslim defending forces of Damascus in 1229 AD.  

Book References: The Crusader World (By Adrian Boas) / The Crusades (By David C. Nicolle)

Other Online References: University of Michigan / Medieval Warfare / Bar-Ilan University / Met Museum / PBS

Featured Image Source: UK Parliament

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