Crusades were Christian military expeditions organized mainly to recapture Palestine during the Middle Ages. Palestine, also called the Holy Land, was important to Christians because it was the region where Jesus Christ had lived. Palestine lay along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and Muslims had taken control of it from Christians. The crusaders, who came from Western Europe, organized eight major expeditions between A.D. 1096 and 1270. This was a period when Western Europe was expanding its economy and increasing its military forces. The Crusades were a part of a broad Christian expansion movement.
Kings, nobles, and thousands of knights, peasants, and townspeople took part in the Crusades. They had two goals, to gain permanent control of the Holy Land and to protect the Byzantine Empire, a Greek Christian empire centered in southeastern Europe, from the Muslims. But many crusaders also fought to increase their power, territory, and riches. The crusaders won some battles and established a crusader kingdom along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, but their victories had no permanent effect. However, the Crusades increased already existing contacts between the West and the East. These contacts led to additional trade and commerce.
The crusaders failed to accomplish their main goals. They recaptured the Holy Land for a time but could not establish lasting control over the area. Western and Eastern Christians united to fight the Muslims. But relations between the two groups of Christians, especially as a result of the Fourth Crusade, became so bitter that they led to a heritage of hate. The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. In addition, the pope’s prestige declined because some popes used the Crusades for personal and political gain.
However, the Crusades also enriched European life. For example, they further stimulated economic growth by bringing increased trade between cities that bordered the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa prospered and grew powerful by carrying crusaders and their supplies to the Middle East, where these cities gained privileges in territories conquered during the Crusades. Goods from Asia passed through these territories on the way to the cities in Italy.
Western Europeans also learned how to build better ships and make more accurate maps during the Crusades. They began to use magnetic compasses to tell directions. The Crusades were of only modest importance compared to the great commercial expansion or the rise of monarchies in Western Europe. In the minds of the people of the crusading era, however, the Crusades seemed very important.
Historians once thought the crusaders who returned to Europe acquainted Westerners with the goods and ways of life in the East. The historians thought that this contact greatly influenced life in the West. As a result of the Crusades, historians once argued, Europeans were introduced to such items as sugar, silk, velvet, and glass mirrors.
Modern historians, however, reject these arguments. They say that Europeans had known of sugar, silk, velvet, and glass mirrors before the Crusades. These historians point to a wide amount of interchange between Muslims, Byzantines, and Europeans many years before the Crusades. Venice, above all, had served for many years as a link between the East and West.