I was just debating with a Catholic acquaintance. He ascribed merit to the Catholic crusades and said that many historians agreed with him.

Are there any historians who believe that the crusades were not motivated as a distraction from internal conflicts?

His chief comments were that the crusades protected Europe from invaders. I was taught that the crusades were a distraction from problems in Rome and the Pope. What was the multifold motivation for the crusades?

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    Ignore anyone who says that "many historians agree with me", unless they cite specific historians. Just ask any of the historians who agree with me and they'll tell you that I'm right.
    – MCW
    Jun 10, 2015 at 14:16
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    I don't think Rome had any distractions that needed a Crusade to fix at the time of the first Crusade. Various Christian states had energetic nobles that it might have been useful to direct against the Muslims rather than have them cause a fuss at home, but that was not the Pope's motive.
    – Oldcat
    Jun 10, 2015 at 17:00
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    @MarkC.Wallace 's title change changes the question a lot, I'd like to hear a motivation for that, otherwise I think we should undo it. Jun 12, 2015 at 9:01
  • The original title was (a) unanswerable, and (b) didn't match the content of the question. The question in the body is answerable and means the question is about a single subject. Revert if you disagree; I was only trying to help.
    – MCW
    Jun 12, 2015 at 16:01
  • Re the current capitalisation edit war. From the style guide produced by the Department of History at Portland State University: "Capitalization, "crusade" and "holy land" - Conventional use generally admits the capitalization of specific crusades, e.g., First Crusade, Second Crusade, Children's Crusade, Baltic Crusade. However, "crusades" should not be capitalized when used in a general sense, nor should "crusaders." "Holy land" should not be capitalized, since it is not a common or ecumenical designation for a particular place" May 12, 2020 at 2:25

3 Answers 3


I think you can't really separate the two sets of motivations for the crusades (religious fervor/ political or power-grabbing issues) from one another. In a time where politics and religion were habitually and naturally intermixed it's hard to expect something else.

A look at the list of leaders of the First Crusade to examine their personalities can be useful here (it's a study in mini-prosopography, if you like):

  • Raymond IV of Toulouse - a really pious man (he refused to be crowned king of Jerusalem [famous story, look it up]), also a great noble who badly wanted to be even greater and to found his own principality.
  • Godfrey of Bouillon - another rather pious man who was also a savvy political operative (he did not refuse the rule of Jerusalem, just humbly asked to be styled Protector instead of King).
  • Baldwin of Boulogne (Godfrey's younger brother) - the proverbial medieval younger-son-with-no-patrimony who was looking for a principality of his own, by whatever means.
  • Bohemond & Tancred of Taranto - Also mostly looking for land to grab.
  • Robert of Normandy - a good-for-nothing perennial rebel who was so poor he couldn't get out of bed for lack of clothing appropriate to his rank.
  • Hugo of Vermandois - Empty boaster.
  • Robert of Flanders - Seems to have been in it mostly for religious reasons (and glory). He did not try to carve up his own principality.

To sum, it was a (un)healthy mix of religious fervor, greed and striving for glory.

As for the context of the Crusades, they were sort of a counter-movement by Christian Europe against the previous great Moslem movement of conquest. For example, Raymond had fought against the Moors in Spain before the Crusade - so there was clear continuity between the Spanish Reconquista and the Crusades.

  • Note that none of the issues you describe include "distractions from internal conflicts". That's quite the 20th Century kind of description of how intellectuals think history works, far more often than it really happens.
    – Oldcat
    Oct 8, 2015 at 21:46
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    There's also the third reason of "Give the spares something to do", which is an "internal politics" reason, but only a "land grab" reason for the spares, not so much for their rulers and older siblings who were just glad to see the back of them.
    – Spencer
    May 11, 2020 at 17:21
  • @Spencer That too! May 13, 2020 at 10:13

The motivation for the various crusades differed.

The first crusade was to a large extent a response to the increasing power of the Muslim empire. This seemed to have worried Christian powers for some time, and when the Byzantine Emperor asked for military help from the Pope to fight off Turkic Muslims the Pope responded with a speech at the Council of Clermont calling for all Christians to help the Christians in the east to fight the Muslims.

This crusade was successful, partly because the Muslim leaders did not recognize that there was a religious element to the invasion, and that the ultimate aim was to "liberate" the holy land from the Muslims. They instead just treated it as another element in the internal fights that was already going on within the Muslim leaders anyway. Therefore there was no concerted Muslim response, and the Christians could pick off local rulers one by one. (ref: Amin Maalouf, "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes")

So the motivation for this crusade was mostly political, although since that politics to a large extent was about increasing the power of the Catholic Church and stopping the expansion of Islam, that politics has a religious part to it. Some of those who took part may in addition have had religious reasons, but most of those who took part tended to do so to grab land and loot.

The second to ninth crusades were attempts to reconquer land that was taken in the first crusade but subsequently lost. As the crusader states that were established after the first crusade quickly lost any pretense to have a religious motivation and just became a part of the local power politics, fighting with other local leaders and often even intermarrying with Muslims, the attempt to re-conquer these lands could use religious reasons only as pretext.

They were therefore fully politically motivated, in any reasonable meaning.

Then there were any other minor crusades. The Northern Crusades and The Albigensian Crusade had a similar mix of politics and religion as the first crusade, politics in as much as it was about extending the power of Christian leaders, and religious in as much as it was about spreading Christianity (or in the case of The Albigensian Crusade, to get rid of a heretical Christian sect).

The Aragonese Crusade was purely political, as it was a Pope vs a Catholic king.

So, in summary, mostly political, but since there was no separation of church and state at this point, there was a religious facet to some of the crusades.

  • (some more references will arrive later) Dec 30, 2013 at 22:03
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    Good answer overall but can you cite a single instance of the Crusader nobles intermarrying with Muslims? (I guess common Frankish folk sometimes did but that's not we're discussing here, right?) Dec 30, 2013 at 22:55
  • @FelixGoldberg OK, I'll dig, but a quick check indicates that I need to re-read a book or two to find examples. :-) Dec 31, 2013 at 10:12

Even as someone with an Anglo-Saxon background, I find it informative to look upon the Crusades in the way the residents of the area must have viewed them — a series of barbarian invasions from the north-west.

Yeah, the Crusaders had their reasons. In their own minds they were completely justified. But the same could be said for the Huns and the Mongols and the Vikings. If we are going to give their side that much weight, we should at least be willing to do the same for other wave invaders of history.

So while I could list some "motivations", I don't really find them nearly as compelling as it appears your friend does. The main issue was that there was a perceived military imbalance. Europeans thought they could whip the Turks and the other Near-East rulers if they acted together. The rest is just the rationalization for doing so that they happened to arrive at.

  • I also think it was also about channelling the all the free energy, like why Hideyoshi invaded Korea
    – Rohit
    May 11, 2020 at 19:11

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