What Christianity and European Civilization Gained from the Crusades?

By Taha Ghayyur

The Crusades were launched in 1095 C.E. from the West to save Eastern Christendom (Byzantium) from the Muslim Rule. When they ended, the whole Christendom was under Muslims.

When Pope Urban II preached his emotive sermon at Clermont, France, calling on Christian princes in Europe to go on the First Crusade to rescue the Holy Land (Jerusalem) from the Muslim Turks, Muslims at the time seemed about to threaten the Bosphorus. Three centuries later, when Pope Pius II preached the Last Crusade the Turks (Muslims) were crossing the Danube. Of the last fruits of the movement, Rhodes fell to the Muslims in 1523 CE, and Cyprus, annexed at last by Venice, passed to them in 1570 CE.

Crusaders’ Contact with Muslim Civilization: Before and After

When the Crusaders from the West began their holy mission in 1095 CE to capture and rule the Byzantine Christian and Muslim lands of the East, the two religions that the West regarded as hostile by nature, were actually living in a certain degree of harmony in the East. By the end of the crusades, the entire East was in tragic conflict, and the followers of each faith were brutally fighting to subdue each other.

Seen in the perspective of political history, the whole Crusading movement was a vast fiasco. They made no permanent conquests of Jerusalem. They did not impede the advance of Islam. Far from aiding the Eastern Empire, they hastened its disintegration. The almost miraculous success of the First Crusade at the end of eleventh century set up Frankish states in Outremer; and a century later, when all seemed lost, the gallant effort of the Third Crusade preserved them for another hundred years. The tenuous Kingdom of Jerusalem was probably a tiny outcome from so much energy, enthusiasm, sacrifices, and bloodshed.

Even though the negative memories and effects of the Crusades by far exceed those of the positive outcomes, it is incredibly significant to study and highlight the positive changes in the Western civilization, from scientific progress to higher standards of medical facilities, from development in art to inventions in agriculture, brought about by the contact of Crusaders with the Muslim Spain. As Steven Runciman states, “The era of the Crusades is one of the most important in the history of Western civilization. When it began, Western Europe was only emerging from the long period of barbarian invasions that we call the Dark Ages. When it ended, the great burgeoning that we call the Renaissance had just begun.” [1] It is these destructive and fruitful outcomes of the Crusades and the subsequent contact of Western Christendom with the Muslim Civilization in Spain that this exposition seeks to underline and analyze.

5 Nightmares European Christendom & Muslims Lived With

There are five significant immediate and long-term devastating consequences of the Crusades.

1- The obvious negative outcome of the Crusades was the hardship and loss of life suffered by the many naïve, sincere, yet ignorant, Crusaders themselves, which eventually affected the morale of the Western Christians in several ways. “When considering the hardships and deprivations endured by the armies of Christendom along the many paths to Jerusalem, one can only marvel at how the crusaders were able to lift a lance or sword, let alone fight effectively, upon their arrival in the Holy Land.”[2] Most crusaders did not particularly look forward to Crusades. They disliked leaving home: a theme in crusade poetry is sadness at the abandonment of loved ones. They dreaded the journey, especially if it was by sea. Moreover, they were often hungry and had to forage.

2- The atrocities, disasters, and the immeasurable suffering that the Crusaders inflicted upon the lands they invaded, cast a heavy shadow over the relationship between the Muslims and the Western Christendom. From the beginning the Crusades were characterized by individual deeds of heroism. As Friedrich Heer elaborates:

Heroic zeal and readiness to face death (as extolled in the Song of Roland) wereat an early date yoke-fellows of a zest for atrocities and disaster. Consider for example the Crusaders’ lust for blood as it was displayed at the capture of Jerusalem in the First Crusade. Western sources claim the slaughter of 10,000 Muslims; Arab sources put the figure at 100,000, including women and children. The impact of this on the Arab world was appalling. The Muslims had been as unprepared mentally for the Crusades as were the Byzantines [Eastern Christendom], and it was only now, in reaction, that they learned to hate the Latin West, and to call the Franks ‘Christian dogs.’[3]

The blood-bath of the First Crusade was followed by similar disastrous campaigns. In 1191 CE, during the Third Crusade, since the negotiations with the Muslim army leader, Saladin, dragged too long, Richard Coeur de Lion ordered the massacre of two to three thousand Muslim prisoners. The entrails of the corpses were searched for hidden gold, which had been swallowed by the prisoners, and the bodies burned so that the ashes might be sifted for it. Horrified at this atrocity, the Islamic world became permanently suspicious of the West.

In Spain, King Ferdinand set up a Christian law court throughout the country where Muslims were often brought on untrue and fabricated charges, and were burnt to death as punishment enjoined by the law court. A general order was issued in 1514 CE, to confess Christianity or face death, with the result that some Muslims escaped to the hills, and others professed Christianity and were baptized. However, many kept practicing Islam in their homes.[4]

While the First and Third Crusades created, or at least widened, the gap between the Western Christendom and Islam, it was the Fourth Crusade, in 1204 CE, which set an unbridgeable gulf between Eastern and Western Christendom. It was in the Fourth Crusade that the Constantinople was captured and sacked. Even the fellow Christians of the East were not spared.

More artwork and cultural treasures were destroyed on this occasion than at any other time throughout the Middle Ages, not excepting the Turkish conquest of 1453 CE. Villehardouin, an eyewitness, reported that it was impossible to estimate the amount of gold, silver, precious stones, silver vessels, silks, furs and rich clothing taken in the sack.[5]

3- Interestingly, the Crusades were initially launched by the Pope ‘in pursuit of rescuing the fellow Christians of the East from the rule of the infidels’! It was a strange rescue; for when the work was over, Eastern Christendom still lay under the infidel domination. In the areas where Crusaders took charge of the government, they treated their Christian subjects worse than the rulers before them. The Frank Crusaders also interfered in the religious practise of the local churches. When they left the city, they left the local Christians looted and unprotected to bear the wrath of later conquerors, such as Mongols.

4- Another upshot of the Crusades, or rather of the ill-success of the Crusading movement and its diversion from its original aim of capturing the holy lands, was the unleashing of a powerful reaction throughout the Western Europe; waves of criticism, derision, and indignation swept England, France, Germany, and Italy. In France, there even grew up a kind of ‘counter-crusade’, supported at times by the queen, the towns, and broad masses of the people: Jacob, the ‘Master from Hungary’, called on the poor and lowly to go with him to the Holy Land and revolt against the Latin knights, monks, and priests.[6]

5- Similarly, the aftermath of the Crusades gave a sudden rise to intolerant attitudes among the people of various faiths, especially towards the heretics and pagans. What used to be known as ‘open’ Middle Ages was suddenly transformed into increasingly narrow and constricted later Middle Ages. What bothered the Franks of the Western Christendom was the fact that their fellow Christians of the East, Syrian Christians, had for centuries held high and honourable positions at the courts of the Caliphs and the Muslim princes, as physicians, scribes, astronomers, interpreters, and officials. Furthermore, some places of worship were used by both Muslims and Christians. For instance, at Acre the great mosque had been converted into a church, but a side-chapel was left free for Muslim worship.[7]

It should also be noted, the teaching of the Early Church about tolerance was balanced and the Greek Fathers accommodated the heretics, pagans and people of different faiths within their Christian society. However, the advent of the Crusades replaced any remnants of tolerance with hatred, suspicion, and narrow-mindedness among the Christians, Muslims, and Jews forever.

9 Ways European Christians Benefited from Crusades

With all these diverse destructions, the Crusades also yielded a few advantages to the European Christians, and to humankind at large. As the First Crusade was unleashed, Muslims in the East had risen to the enviable status of internationally-reputed centre of civilization and culture. The interaction of European Crusaders with the cultural, scientific, and industrial progress of the Muslims brought about a series of extremely wholesome changes in their individual and collective thought and behaviour. As W. M. Watt states, “We sometimes belittle the extent and importance of the Islamic influence in our heritage, and sometime(s) overlook it altogether. We must acknowledge our indebtedness to the full. To try to cover it over and deny it is a mark of false pride.”[8] Nine of these positive consequences are of significance to the present discussion.

1- While several Christian priests and preachers in the West spread a strong wave of hatred, misconceptions, and hostility against Muslims, several Crusaders were touched by the show of hospitality, tolerance and kindness on the part of some of the Muslim Caliphs (rulers) of North Africa and Spain. Thus, Crusades allowed thousands of Christians for the first time to learn more about Islam and the Muslims from first-hand sources. An estimable glimpse of such fruitful interaction is portrayed in the following account: Oliverus Scholasticus relates how the Muslim Sultan al-Malik-al-Kamil supplied a defeated Frankish army with food:

Who could doubt that such goodness, friendship and charity came from God? Men whose parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sister had died in agony at our hands, whose lands we took, whom we drove naked from their homes, revived us with their own food when we were in their power.[9]

2- The increase in the Christian piety as a result of regular contact with the Holy Land now was probably the only positive outcome of this catastrophe, from the moral or ‘religious’ point of view. The humanity of Jesus was more personalized and realized, and the veneration of relics became more popular, as Europe was now flooded with pieces of the True Cross and bones of patriarchs from Jerusalem.

3- In order to meet the mounting expenses of crusades the big Christian feudal lords of France and Italy had to sell their estates. This brought Europe’s most deadly feudal structure to a virtual collapse. The life of peasants improved, and serfs could buy their freedom. In addition, this measure served as a valuable tool in transforming the European governments.

As a result, many European rulers got rid of the pressures of the insurgences of their erstwhile mighty feudal barons. This led to emergence of strong, centralized and stable governments.

It is also significant to emphasize the role that the great city Constantinople played in shaping the future political system of the West. “Constantinople has also justly been described as the ‘medieval Versailles’, providing the model for all other emperors, kings, and princes, the pattern for the conduct of court life and politics throughout the West.”[10]

4- On the termination of the Crusades, when trade and commercial relations between the Muslims and the European Christendom grew, the commerce and industry in Europe registered unusual progress. The new level of economic activity also changed the European and Christian attitudes towards wealth. For instance, for the first time, coined money became more common in Europe by 1200 CE. Furthermore, Italian merchants established banks, and provided for Bills of Exchange. This increase in trade, for instance, led Crusaders to discover and bring back new spices from the East, which allowed the food to last longer and taste better. Not only that, the Europeans now got fine cloths manufactured in the Middle East. Even though there may have been other factors to contribute to this exponential growth in commerce, Crusades certainly did play a major role in facilitating the European economy.

5- Perhaps it was in the field of education and literature that the Christian-Muslim interaction, during the period of Crusades and after, produced most fruitful and long-lasting results. It was the Muslims’ great fondness for the arts, literature and philosophy that opened doors of art and science for the Europeans. For eight hundred years the Christian nobles in Spain took pride in learning from the Muslims, in language, style, and expression.[11] During their rule in Spain, the Muslims established all over the country universities, schools, laboratories and magnificent libraries, which contained resources for academic research of all kinds. In the universities of Cordova, Seville, Malaga, Lisbon, Jaen, and Toledo students from Italy, France, Germany, and England would come to receive education in various sciences and arts. In fact, manufacturing paper out of cotton and jute was one of their most remarkable achievements, which contributed tremendously to the spread of literacy in later Western Civilization. The Muslim scholars also translated books on Greek philosophy into their own languages. F. Heer further elaborates:

It was from the example of Toledo Cosmopolitan (under the Muslim rule from 712 CE to 1085 CE) that Europe first learnt to understand that learning knows no frontiers, that it is universal, global, and ‘human’, that it concerns mankind as a whole, without respect of race and religion. At Toledo Arabs, Jews, and Greeks worked with Spaniards, Frenchmen and Germans, and last, but not least, with Englishmen.[12]

6- Particularly in the field of theology and philosophy, renewed contact with the Muslim world had far-reaching benefits for the European Civilization. In Cordova some of the greatest Jewish and Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages were born, such as Maimonides and Averroes. Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who was a Muslim scientist and theologian, played a major role in reviving the philosophy of antiquity. He was known as “The Commentator” because of his commentaries on Aristotle, which were widely read and distributed. When the works of these philosophers in Spain were introduced into the Western Europe in the thirteenth century, they gave rise to an intense theological and philosophical activity.

7- In terms of modern methods of warfare, the Muslim Spain was also far superior. For instance it was the Muslims of Spain who first invented the tools for dismantling forts. In fact, the accounts of some Crusaders clearly indicate that the Crusaders were not aware of the artillery and gunpowder used by the Muslim armies, and that the Crusaders acquired the methods of producing them from the Muslims. Alfonso XI states: “Muslims of the city would hurl resounding objects and apple-sized iron shells. These shells covered such a long distance that they hit the enemy ranks directly and at times fell beyond the lines.”[13]

8- Another obvious refreshing impact of the confrontation between the Eastern and Western Christendom was on Europe’s architecture. Consequently, the structure of the European buildings, raised after or during the time of the Crusades, began to reflect the many a charming and elegant facet of the Constantinople and Arab architectural styles. For instance, the Muslims of Spain invented a cement of such a remarkable quality to build Al-Hamra Palace, which still remains an object of wonder for the tourists of the world.

9- The discussion of positive results of the East-West interaction cannot be complete without highlighting the contribution of Muslim Spain to the field of agriculture and gardening. The rulers of Spain developed agriculture to the extent that it became a perfected art. They turned hundreds of thousands of square miles of barren and deserted land in Spain into magnificent gardens of fruits, trees, and greenery. Spain and the entire European continent came to know of rice, cotton, saffron, pomegranate, and peach through these gardens. They also produced unique olives and dates in Andalusia. Europe was introduced to several sophisticated and unknown gardening and farming techniques through the written accounts and experiences of Arab farmers, which later served to develop the science of Botany in Europe.[14]

Shift in Civilization

Despite all forms of devastation and hostility brought about by the Crusades, they proved to be a blend of vices and virtues for Christianity and for the humanity in general. Some of these losses and benefits have had short-term effects on Christianity. However, most of the consequences of the Crusades were far-reaching and permanent, especially the material benefits gained by the Latin Christendom from the Byzantium and the Islamic civilization. From political and historical standpoint, the Crusading movement was an immense failure, and contributed nothing other than massacres, atrocities, and insecurity to humanity. Neither were the Crusaders able to ‘rescue’ the fellow Christians of the East from tyrannical rules of the infidels, nor were they able to produce a unique sustainable civilization of their own. However, their civilization did change for the better, and forever, in ways unimaginable, due to their interaction with the civilizations of Constantinople and Spain. Indeed, “when they began, the main seats of civilisation were in the East, at Constantinople and at Cairo. When they ended, civilisation had moved its headquarters to Italy and the young countries of the West.[15]

[1] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Vol. III (London: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 393.
[2] Earle Rice, Jr., Life During the Crusades, (San Diego, CA: Lucent Books Inc., 1998), p. 50.
[3] Friedrich Heer, The Medieval World Europe 1100-1350, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1993), p. 104.
[4] Akbar S. Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 3 (Brooklyn, New York: Dar-us-Salam Publishing House, 2001), p. 218.[5] Heer, The Medieval World Europe, p. 105.
[6] Heer, The Medieval World Europe, p. 109.
[7] Heer, The Medieval World Europe, p. 112.
[8] W. Montgomery Watt, The Influence of Islam in Medieval Europe, (England: Edinburgh University Press, 1972), pp. 1-2.
[9] Heer, The Medieval World Europe, p. 112.
[10] Heer, The Medieval World Europe, p. 100.
[11] Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, 3:220.
[12] Heer, The Medieval World Europe, p. 194.
[13] Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, 3:220.
[14] Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, 3:219.
[15] Runciman, A History of the Crusades, 3:394.


Filed under Christianity, History

2 responses to “What Christianity and European Civilization Gained from the Crusades?

  1. Ahmed Al-Sabbagh

    nice blog

    Happy New Year

    Wish you all the best in the upcoming year


    Cairo, Egypt

  2. kamal yousif

    elsalam alikom, this big effort and amount of information colected and analized can be extended to extract theories and stragedes to make substantential understandings and changes for both christians and muslims , when moawya changed the islamic rule of alrashideen kalifs to to omayate kingdom – this change till know has its deep effect and control over muslims live and religion – since that time the strong positive effective force stated with islam is diminshing incloding scientific , culteral , poletical , human rights , .. , we should notice that this does not contradict with the fact islamic world is progressing though with negativ accleration speed in the conterry of the upgoing and advancing western contries , that i think what lead to the big biffrences which are still going on but also i think the same kind of changes started again by islamic and arabic peoples revelutions know – i think supported by western christians -, and i hope it will be a good chance for muslims and christians to lead big changes that will benifit all humanity .

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