Struggle for the Holy Land: The Economic aspects of the Crusades

Among all periods in human history, perhaps none are more maligned and misunderstood than the Crusades. Today, many use the word as a euphemism for religious intolerance, while others have appropriated it for uses very different than the original meaning: “Crusade against hunger” and “Crusade against crime” are just two modern concepts that have incorporated the Crusades into their titles. Many think that the Crusades were a spur of the moment reaction and a sure sign of bigotry on the part of European Christians toward Islam, but the reality is that the series of wars known collectively as the Crusades were quite complex. Yes, the Crusades were driven by a certain amount of religious fervor, but then, as always, economics played a key role throughout the course of the Crusades.

The primary agency that drove the Crusades was a combination of the expansion of Islamic dynasties by force into traditionally Christian lands and the desire for Western European Christians, and Armenian and Greek Orthodox Christians to a lesser extent, to capture the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher, which they believed was the tomb of Christ. The Crusades were therefore wars of religion and clashes of culture between East and West, but underneath those religious and cultural clashes were a plethora of economic factors that also helped to drive the Crusades. An analysis of the economic aspects of the Crusades reveals that each crusader had to weigh careful economic considerations before one undertook such a major venture. The examination also demonstrates that besides gaining spiritual glory, crusaders stood to gain financially from a successful Crusade through plunder, the acquisition of new lands, and the opening of new trade routes. Ultimately, it will be shown that certain groups benefited, while others suffered economically as a result of the Crusades.

A Brief Historical Background of the Crusades

The term “Crusade” is a word that modern historians have applied to the nine major military campaigns the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned, beginning in 1095, to conquer Jerusalem and the Levant region. The term is derived from the Latin word, crucesignati, which means “those who sign the cross.” The name was given to the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and even children who took the heed of the Church’s call and sewed crosses on their clothing to signify that they were pilgrims and holy warriors in the service of the Church and Christ. The Crusades essentially consumed the history of medieval Europe, culturally, socially, and economically to the point that one cannot discuss the period without considering the Crusades. Besides the nine major, official Crusades to the Middle East, Western Europeans embarked on a number of other minor Crusades to the Baltic region, Spain, and southern France. Understanding the Crusades is therefore vital to understanding medieval Europe; but the Crusades did not happen in a vacuum, nor did Europeans just decide on a whim to undertake them.

Although both Christianity and Islam came from the same Abrahamic source, the latter was the much more militant of the two before the eleventh century. Muhammad (570-632), the founder of Islam, preached a militant tone to what was then the a religion, which is perhaps best typified by his armed conquest of Mecca in 630. After the death of Muhammad, Islam spread quickly by force as Islamic dynasties waged holy war, jihad, against non-believers and were able to spread dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) from Spain in the west to Persia in the east. As Islamic armies under the Umayyad Dynasty and then later the Abbasid Dynasty brought jihad into non-Muslim territories, which they referred to as dar al-Harb (the House of War), Christian communities in Egypt, Syria and Anatolia were placed under sharia law and Christian Europe was threatened. The Islamic Moors invaded and conquered Spain in the eighth century and were able to penetrate as far north as France until they were defeated by a Frankish army led by Charles Martell in 732. On the other side of Europe, in Anatolia, the Muslim Seljuk Turks threatened the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire with repeated attacks that culminated in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, which was an utter defeat for the Christian kingdom.

It was within this historical context that the emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Alexius I (1081-1118), appealed to Urban II (1088-1090), the pope of the Roman Catholic Church for support. Although the Roman and Greek churches had officially split in 1054, they had retained cordial relations for the most part and viewed the expanding sphere of dar al-Islam as a common threat. Urban II was particularly bothered that the Seljuk Turks, who had recently conquered Jerusalem from the Arabs, ended the practice of allowing Christian pilgrims to visit holy sites for a nominal fee. The Turks also destroyed a number of churches and monasteries after they conquered Jerusalem. To rectify the situation, Urban II gathered members of the Church hierarchy in Clermont, France on November 27, 1095 to preach the First Crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Western Christians’ first priority would be to capture the Holy Sepulcher and make the routes between Europe and the Levant safe for Christian pilgrims, while all lands taken in Anatolia and the Levant would be handed over to Alexius I to be reincorporated into the Byzantine Empire. All participants would be granted absolution from their sins and any who died in the course of the crusades would gain automatic entry into Heaven. The call was immediately heeded by disparate bands of people throughout Europe. Noble knights and counts were joined by priests, monks, and even women and children of the lowest classes to create a force that numbered over 100,000 souls. The First Crusade began as a zealous religious war, but even before it got underway economic considerations were manifested.

The Financial Costs and Benefits of the Crusades

The Europeans who made the decision to bear the cross and travel to Levant quickly learned that religious fervor would not keep their stomachs full nor would it pay the bills. The crusader army was actually a confederation of several armies that were led by counts and kings from throughout Europe. The First Crusade was primarily led by French and Norman counts, but they were joined by German, Scandinavian, English, and Hungarian nobles as well. These nobles were also knights and it was their responsibility to fund their own armies. Each knight would have to assemble funds five to six times his annual income to support a crusading army, which meant that they were often forced to sell most of their properties in Europe and/or settle debts owed to them at a loss. To make matters more difficult, Urban II forbade plundering during the First Crusade, although the decree was not always followed by the crusaders. Perhaps one of the best examples of how costly a crusade could be to a noble was experienced by Raymond of Toulouse (1041-1105).

The success of the First Crusade is generally attributed to Raymond’s intelligence, diplomatic skills, and charisma; but his deep pocketbooks also played a considerable role. Before Raymond left Europe with his wife, he divested most his properties to his son and sold what was left to fund his army. He also paid to become the supreme commander of the crusader confederation, although his age and experience on the battlefields of Europe were also a consideration. Truly, Raymond and many of the Western European counts paid extraordinary sums of money to embark on the crusades, some to the point of bankruptcy, but it also cost the Byzantine emperor copious amounts of resources as well.

The First Crusade moved across Europe and into the Middle East primarily overland and because of that and the fact that the Byzantine Empire was aligned with the crusaders, most of the armies traveled through Constantinople. For the most part, Alexius I was leery of the crusaders who he viewed as unrefined brutes that coveted physical wealth more than spiritual enlightenment. For their part, the Western Europeans saw the Byzantines as effete and cowardly people who were unwilling to risk their lives for a noble cause. Alexius I was quite aware of the differences between his people and the Western Europeans and although he agreed to let the vast crusader host travel through his kingdom, he knew that he had to do so with care. As the first wave of crusaders arrived on the outskirts of Constantinople, logistical and financial based problems began to occur for the Byzantine Greeks. Alexius I had not prepared for such a vast number of people to answer the call and he quickly found out that he did not have enough money to supply them. He did not set up markets on the outskirts for the crusaders, who turned to theft and pillaging for food. The crusaders also began to turn their covetous eyes towards the grandeur of Constantinople, which was much greater than any Western European city of the time. To remedy this situation, Alexius I ferried each count and his army across the Bosphorus individually to avoid a major buildup of crusaders near Constantinople. For the moment, Alexius I avoided a major catastrophe. The financial costs of undertaking a crusade could be staggering and were often enough to discourage most people, but the potential pecuniary rewards were enough to entice soldiers of fortune to fill the ranks of the armies of Christ.

Besides the absolution of sins and an assured place in Heaven, some crusaders were forgiven of their debts. Throughout all periods of human history, debt has been the source of individual financial woe, so to have one’s debt erased, especially a sizable amount, could be a strong incentive to go on a Crusade. Still yet, others looked for more tangible benefits that could be gained from taking up the cross. Although Urban II expressly forbade the pillaging of Christian property, it does not mean that it did not happen and it did not protect non-Christians for the most part. On the way to the Levant during the First Crusade, Emich of Leiningen led his own Crusade against the Jews of the Rhineland in 1096. No doubt the Crusade was driven by religion, as Emich argued that Christian armies should not march so far to fight when they let communities of infidels exist in Christian lands; but economics also played a role. Emich, like most of the other counts during the First Crusade, was hard pressed to fund his army and saw an easy solution in the wealthy, yet undefended Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley. Although the Church was opposed to Emich’s Crusade, it did little as it needed his army to augment the crusader host headed to the Holy Land. Emich set somewhat of a precedent as subsequent crusader armies often pillaged the Jewish communities of the Rhineland on their way to later Crusades.

As already mentioned above, the city of Constantinople was another source of wealth that often awed the crusaders enough that many were willing to forget about their holy war and instead attempt to grab whatever riches they could from the Byzantine Empire. Alexius I was in a precarious position when he dealt with the various crusader counts: he had to appeal to them as fellow Christians in order to keep them moving towards Jerusalem and away from Constantinople, while also offering to help fund the last leg of their journey. He quickly found that some of the counts were interested in the worldly prizes of lands and gold more than spiritual enlightenment. In particular, the Norman count, Bohemond I (1054-1111), who would become the first duke of Antioch, saw the Crusades as a chance to expand his realm. When Bohemond met with Alexius I in Constantinople, the men were already acquainted as they had fought several battles over territory in the Mediterranean. Alexius I knew that Bohemond would be recalcitrant towards his demands and may even plan a campaign against Constantinople, so he appealed to the Norman count’s greed. Ann Comnena, the daughter of Alexius I who wrote a biography of her father’s reign and an account of the First Crusade, wrote of their encounter:

Alexius set aside a room in the palace precincts and had the floor covered with all kinds of wealth: clothes, gold and silver coins, objects of lesser value filled the place so completely that it was impossible for anyone to walk in it. He ordered the man deputed to show Bohemond these riches to open the doors suddenly. Bohemond was amazed at the sight. ‘If I had such wealth,’ he said, ‘I would long ago have become master of many lands.’ (Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, Book 10, xi)

The ostentatious display was enough to guarantee Bohemond’s loyalty to Alexius I, at least temporarily, and provided the future prince of Antioch with an impetus to push forward to the Holy Land with a fury. Although there were numerous setbacks, the crusaders successfully captured their objective of Jerusalem in 1099 and soon thereafter established Western European styled kingdoms and economies in the Levant.

The Crusader Kingdoms and the New Military Orders

After the crusaders conquered the Levant during the First Crusade, they were immediately faced with a problem: should they hand the lands over to Alexius I as they promised and if not, how would they manage such foreign lands that were so far from their homes in Western Europe? The first part of question was answered when the counts decided that since Alexius refused to support them when they were besieged by a Turkish army at Antioch, then they were no longer obliged to the fealty oaths they gave the Byzantine emperor. The issue then became how the counts would administer their newly won Middle Eastern lands. Godfrey of Bouillon nominally ruled as the first crusader King of Jerusalem, but after he died Baldwin I was elected by his peers as the first official King of Jerusalem in 1100. Along with the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the counties of Edessa and Tripoli, and the Principality of Antioch were also created following the template of Western European feudalism.  Besides the new political structure, the crusaders also brought a vastly different economic system to the Levant. The economics of the crusader kingdoms were based directly on those of medieval Western Europe, but new innovations had to be made in order to compensate for the vastly different demographics. Islamic historians were amazed not at the feudal structure of the crusader kingdoms, but that the European counts taxed both Christians and Muslims at the same rates. The crusaders had no equivalent of Islamic sharia in the realm of economics. The paucity of knights, who were traditionally the landed nobility in Western Europe, also led to Christian women being able to own land and take a more active role in the economic structure in the region. On the other hand, the lack of land led to legal limits of knights’ holdings; each knight was only allowed one fief. As the crusaders imposed a hybrid feudal system on the Levant, new military orders formed to protect the lands from the infidels who were a constant threat.

Among the more interesting aspects of the Crusades that continue to capture the imagination of people around the world is the creation and expansion of the military orders, especially the Knights Templar. Much of what most people know today about these orders comes from half-truths and outright fiction portrayed in pop culture, but the reality is just as interesting and important. The Knights Templar was given papal recognition and a Rule that was written by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1128. Essentially, the Templars, along with other similar orders, functioned as a hybrid order of monks and knights. Members would live austere lives in monasteries like monks, but would also train in martial skills and venture out to use them against the enemies of Christ as traditional knights. Unlike traditional knights that were culled from the nobility, knights of the military orders could be from any class, as long as their dedication to the cause was genuine. As the Crusades progressed, the Templars became involved in more than just the spiritual and military life of Europe and the Levant; they eventually came to the forefront of economic life.

The Templars were known for constructing a number of churches throughout Western Europe and the Levant that physically resembled the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Like any Catholic church, the Templar churches were used to hold mass, but unlike other churches the Templar’s also evolved into early banks. The initial purpose of establishing banks in Templar churches was purely spiritual: pilgrims headed to the Holy Land could deposit their funds in a Templar bank in Western Europe where a record was made and then collect their funds when they arrived in the Levant after paying a service charge. The Templars never charged interest because usury, the practice of “making money from money,” was deemed a sin by the Church. The service fee, which was usually small, was a way for the Templars to make a little money off the process, while helping their fellow Christians. Templar banking quickly became popular among Christian pilgrims as it was a safe way to transfer large sums of money and the Templars soon became wealthy through the service fees. Although the Templars skirted the rules of usury and prospered for nearly 200 years, the order became the victim of the Inquisition of 1312, after which it ceased to function as a legitimate organization.

The Fourth Crusade: A Crusade for Cash

Economics clearly played a role in the course of the Crusades in general, but it was during the Fourth Crusade when economics, not religion, became the primary concern. The Fourth Crusade began when Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) called for a new Crusade in 1198 to retake Jerusalem. After the stunning victory of the First Crusade, the Europeans found themselves on the defensive in the Second and Third Crusades, seeing their kingdoms diminish one piece at a time, until the sultan Saladin (1137-1187) conquered Jerusalem for Islam in 1187. The Fourth Crusade was intended to be directed at Egypt, which was the center of Saladin’s Ayyubid Dynasty, but quickly went off course when economic problems and greed superseded spiritual and strategic considerations.

When Innocent III ordered the call for the Fourth Crusade, he was determined not to make some of the same economics missteps as his predecessors. He began by ordering collections to be taken in every Catholic Church and then issued that all clergy were obliged to donate a portion of their income to the Fourth Crusade. Although Innocent III believed that the collections would mitigate the chances that crusaders would massacre the Jews of the Rhineland for their wealth, as was done in earlier Crusades, or the looting of Christian villages by crusaders on the way to the Levant, he issued no decree that proscribed either activity. The Fourth Crusade began in a much more cynical way than earlier Crusades and only became more so when the Crusaders appealed to the Venetians for transportation.

During the Crusades, the Republic of Venice was known for its quasi-democratic government and its people’s zeal for the cause of the Crusades. The Venetians were also some of the best mariners in Western Europe and arguably the premier merchants of the period. After negotiating with Innocent III and the major crusader counts, the Venetians agreed to supply the crusader army with one year’s provisions and enough vessels to transport 500 knights, 9000 squires, and 20,000 foot soldiers for a fee of 85,000 marks. As a sign of their good faith and dedication to the cause, the Venetians also agreed to add fifty of their own war galleys at no cost, as long as they received 50% of all booty taken during the campaign. The deal may seem a bit one sided, but the Venetians had to suspend all of their lucrative merchant activity to take part in the massive campaign. With the logistics settled between the Church, Western European counts, and the Venetians, the armies were ready to converge in Venice; but very quickly financial problems surfaced.

Only about one-third of the crusaders arrived in Venice by the summer of 1202, which meant that the counts were unable to make their agreed payments to the Venetians. Enrico Dandolo (1107-1205), the doge of Venice, which was an elected position, quickly found himself stuck between his own constituency and a growing, well-armed crusader army. The extremely old, but by all accounts still intellectually agile, Danolo requested that the crusader counts pay what they could at the time. The payments amounted to little more than a trickle and once more the doge was placed in a tenuous position, so he offered a new compromise: if the crusaders would help the Venetians take the city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast, then most of the payments would be forgiven. The Venetians recently lost Zara to the Kingdom of Hungary and desperately wanted to get it back, but there were problems with the plan: the Kingdom of Hungary was Roman Catholic and its king was an ardent supporter of the Crusaders and the people of Zara were also Roman Catholics. Desperate to pay the Venetians, most, although not all, of the crusader counts agreed to the deal and helped the Venetians quickly overrun Zara. Many of its inhabitants were massacred and its wealth was looted. Innocent III excommunicated the Venetians for their actions against a Christian city, but it soon became apparent that the pope had lost control over the Crusade.

After the destruction of Zara, the crusader counts were approached by a Byzantine prince with a lucrative offer. Prince Alexius Angelus, whose father, the emperor Isaac II Angelus, had been deposed by Alexius III (1195-1203), offered to reward the crusaders handsomely if they would help place him on the throne in Constantinople. Angelus agreed to pay the crusaders the exorbitantly high sum of 200,000 silver marks and in order to get the pope on board with the scheme, stated that he would then place the Greek Orthodox Church under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. The silver was too much for the crusaders to turn down so they then re-organized their troops and made a detour to Constantinople. For his part, Innocent III was not happy with the idea and forbade the crusaders from waging war on another Christian kingdom; but the potential for gaining wealth was too great and so the crusaders simply ignored the pontiff.

The crusader host arrived at the gates of Constantinople in 1203 and immediately made their presence known by setting fire to the city’s suburbs. The threat posed by the crusaders was apparently too much for Alexius III, who fled the city and never returned. The people of Byzantium then released Isaac II from prison to once more sit on throne, but the crusader counts, eager to get paid, insisted that his son also sit at the throne as a co-regent. Alexius IV was then proclaimed co-emperor with his father and in his first act as ruler he opened the doors of the city for the crusader counts. Alexius IV immediately paid half of the agreed sum to the crusaders by confiscating the wealth of his political enemies and pillaging the tombs of the emperors, but he soon found himself confronted by an angry Greek mob due to his actions. Realizing the situation that he was in, Alexius IV then turned on the crusaders who responded by starting one of the worst arson fires in history. The feud between Alexius IV and the crusaders was only paused when the emperor invited the leading counts to his palace where he could keep a closer eye on them. But while he dealt with the crusaders, members of the imperial court conspired against Alexius IV.

Alexius Doukas was a Byzantine noble who saw the events of the Fourth Crusade as his opportunity for more wealth and power. In 1204, as the large crusader army was camped outside Constantinople and its counts were inside the palace, Doukas bribed a guard in order to imprison and kill Alexius IV. With Alexius IV’s death, Alexius Doukas became Alexius V, the emperor of Byzantium, who was in no way obligated to pay the crusaders a single piece of silver. The crusader counts were incensed over the turn of events and soon gathered their numbers for an attack on Constantinople. Bishops who were with the crusader army declared that the war against Byzantium was now a Crusade and therefore legitimate, although Innocent III made no such declaration from Rome. On April 12, 1204 an armed Catholic priest named Alleumes of Clari crawled over the main wall of Constantinople, fought off a number of guards by himself, and then opened the gate from the inside to let in the crusader army. Once inside, the crusaders embarked on a pillaging orgy of immense scale. They destroyed countless icons for their gold, silver, and gems. The Venetians took four bronze horse statues back to their city, where they stand to this day and untold numbers of ancient Roman statues were melted to make bronze coins. Constantinople lost most of its material wealth in one day and it was never able to recover. Although Innocent III called the sacking of Constantinople shameful, the crusader counts divided the Byzantine Empire among themselves, thereby establishing what historians refer to as the Latin Kingdoms of Constantinople.

The Economic Winners and Losers of the Crusades

Although it is difficult to quantify economic progress in the medieval world, it is relatively easy to assess what groups benefited and those did not from the Crusades. Perhaps the kingdom that saw its economic prospects decline the most as a result of the Crusades was the Byzantine Empire. The Greek emperors of the Byzantine Empire continually used their royal coffers to help support the Crusades but got nothing good from the ventures. They were never able to reclaim lands in the Levant that the Western counts promised to hand over to them and worst of all, their empire was economically and physically ravaged during the Fourth Crusade. Although the Greeks were able to retake their empire from the Westerners in the fourteenth century, what remained was little more than the city of Constantinople and that was eventually conquered in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks.

The various Muslim dynasties, which were at war with each other during the early Crusades, actually came out ahead economically as a result of the Crusades. New trade routes were opened to the kingdoms of Western Europe, which allowed the Turks, Arabs, and Persians to trade spices and other exotic goods from the Silk Road to the Europeans for such commodities as furs and oils. Studies also show that the quality of gold during the late Fatamid Dynasty (973-1171), especially during the rule of the Caliph al-Amir (1101-1130), actually increased and even reached a level that was never again exceeded in the medieval Middle East.

Finally, the biggest economic benefactor of the Crusades was no doubt Western Europe. Western European civilization was in its early growth stage during the Crusades and although the crusader kingdoms that were established in the Levant proved ephemeral, Western Europeans gained new knowledge of the wider world from the ventures. As mentioned above, new trade routes were established with the Islamic world that indirectly linked Western Europeans to the Far East. Among all the Western Europeans to financially benefit from the Crusades, no other people did so more than the Italian republics. The merchants of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Pisa developed new accounting methods during the crusades that provided a base for much of Europe’s modern economy. For instance, the Venetians introduced the commenda financing method in which the investor would provide all of the capital for a venture and receive three-fourths of the profits. They also created the societas maris system during the Crusades, where the investor provided two-thirds of the capital and then split the profits equally with the merchant mariners.

The Crusades clearly played an important role not just in the development of world history, but also the establishment of global economic systems. True, religion and culture may have been the major impetus behind the Crusades, but economics also played an important role. Every Crusade needed to be financed and as the Crusades were fought, there were chances for ambitious crusaders to turn a profit as they fought for Christ. Some of the ideas established during the Crusades in the Christian kingdoms of the Levant fell out of use when the Europeans were driven out, but many ideas relating to banking and trade were further developed and provided the basis of the of early modern European economy.