Marxism Can Help Us Make Sense of the Medieval Crusades

The Crusades seem like a classic example of religious ideology triumphing over materialism. But a closer look shows that multiple class interests underpinned the crusading enterprise, from merchants seeking trade routes to peasants evading feudal oppression.

First Crusade: Godfrey of Bouillon (1060–1100) and the crusaders sailing toward the Holy Land. Miniature from the “Romance of Godfrey of Bouillon and Saladin,” 1337. BN, Paris, France. (Leemage / Corbis via Getty Images)

The medieval crusades have lost none of their fascination to the contemporary world, not least due to the multiple ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Some people like to see those conflicts through the misleading framework of a “clash of civilizations,” from Islamophobic agitators in Europe and the United States to the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whose propaganda compared him to the twelfth-century general Saladin.

There is certainly an abundance of unreliable, anachronistic commentary on the Crusades in circulation today. But what really happened during Europe’s crusading age? And what was the driving force behind these adventures — religion, politics, social interests, or some blend of the three?

The Crusading Era

The Crusades were a series of military expeditions directed by the papacy from the eleventh century onwards. The First Crusade was launched in 1095 by Pope Urban II, and from the perspective of the papacy it was a great success, reclaiming control of Jerusalem for Christianity in 1099. The crusader knights established a kingdom of their own, modeled on the social structures of Western Europe at the time.

Thereafter, successive popes sought to utilize crusading in a variety of ways. There were repeated massive undertakings to the Near East, smaller crusades against Muslims in Iberia or pagans in the Baltic region, and even crusades against Christian heretics much closer to home, such as the Cathars in the French region of Languedoc.

The heyday of crusading was the period of the Early and High Middle Ages from circa 1100 to 1400. In the century after the First Crusade, Muslim leaders such as Saladin fought to regain control of Jerusalem, which eventually passed out of crusader hands for good. The Fourth Crusade, launched in the early thirteenth century, never even reached the Holy Land and culminated in the sack of the Byzantine capital Constantinople in 1204 by knights who had become embroiled in the empire’s power struggles with the rising mercantile power of Venice.

Although in theory the papacy could, even today, launch a new crusade, in practice the idea of crusading became so discredited that Martin Luther and the reformers of the sixteenth century saw it merely as a way for the papacy to extract money for expeditions that never took place. The view that crusading was essentially a racket organized by the church was also influential at a later stage among Enlightenment thinkers.

Marxism and the Crusades

Does Marxism have anything to offer in terms of understanding crusades and crusaders? Crusading doesn’t feature in the classic works of Marxist historians writing about the medieval period. Noting this gap, history professor Marcus Bull wrote the following:

There is no serious Marxist interpretation of the crusade and its motivations — perhaps because problems of human agency obtrude a little too disconcertingly when large numbers of people consciously engage in something that on the surface appears so eccentric in relation to the broad trends of social change. Perhaps, too, because the “poor” are seldom more than a shadowy presence in the dynamics of a crusade, cultural Marxist analysis is a lost cause.

Bull’s argument consists of two parts. The first is that eccentric, conscious, human behavior is hard for Marxists to explain as it doesn’t go with the flow of social change; the second is that it’s difficult for us to identify the impact of the poor on the Crusades.

We can deal with the second point easily. The sources for the medieval period are challenging. They are scant and rarely take a specific interest in the actions of the poor, let alone their motivations. Yet there is enough evidence to say something about the deeds of the poor on crusade when the sources are read carefully.

Albert Einstein once wrote, “It’s the theory which decides what can be observed,” and this applies to history as much as the natural sciences. For most of the twentieth century, the history of the Crusades was written from a male perspective that overlooked the participation of women (with the exception of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine on the Second Crusade). Yet as soon as you read the sources to learn more about the participation of women — and if you do so after engaging with feminist theory — then the presence of women in the Crusades is obvious and striking. Women as crusaders, that is, and not only as camp followers.

Varieties of Marxism

Marxist history shouldn’t just give a voice to the poor: it should also be able to explain their interaction with other classes and how the whole historical moment is full of social tension that has the potential to lead to change. Can Marxism say something unique about the other social orders involved in crusading: the middle ranks of soldiers and the merchants or the knights? Can it rise to meet the challenge of Bull’s first point, of having something new to say about human beings who seem to be acting in a fashion that is eccentric from the perspective of social trends?

Imagine a peasant family from Northern France departing on crusade in the spring of 1096, such as the families described by Guibert of Nogent: “Pauperes whose oxen had been fitted to a two-wheel cart and iron-clad as though they were horses, so as to carry in the cart a few possessions together with small children.” We can picture the children gasping at every new city that came into view and asking whether this was the Jerusalem to which they were aiming.

We must acknowledge that Bull has a point if, when we think of “Marxism,” we mean the kind of analysis that tries to explain moments like this by using concepts such as the forces and relations of production. Trying to fit the particulars of human history into a sequence of stages from one mode of production to another is a barren enterprise. No historian has ever successfully shed new light on events by invoking such a model, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels never referred to it when they actually wrote history themselves.

What is Marxist history if it is not schematic in this fashion? All the historical writings of Marx and Engels, for a start. And these are inspiring works. They encourage an appreciation of the maneuvers of rival classes in a particular historical moment, of the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals trying to give voice and direction to their class, of the (sometimes hidden) meanings of statements and documents in terms of class conflict, and of the various possible outcomes of the situation. In these respects, however, Marxism is not unique, since many anarchists and feminists have also written in this spirit.

Let us return to our peasant family. Can we use this spirit of “history from below” to challenge Bull’s assertion that the peasants were not conforming to the overarching social trends of their times? Yes, but not by talking about modes of production. Rather, we can identify trends that very much fit their behavior.

Merchant Capital

Abram Leon, for example, pointed to one important trend of the period that certainly was a consideration for some crusaders. Leon was a Belgian Jewish Marxist who was active in the resistance to Nazism and perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He left behind a classic work, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation, which discussed the history of antisemitism in Europe. Leon argued that the Crusades were the expression of the will of city merchants to carve a road to the Orient.

There is strong evidence to support this idea. In the generation before the First Crusade, several French and Italian urban communes were struggling to liberate themselves from the rule of the secular aristocracy or from bishops who had been appointed by royal decree.

These communes were often in alliance with the reform papacy of Gregory VII, which sought, among other things, to reassert Vatican control over the appointment of bishops: this meant that they both influenced the papacy and were in turn amenable to papal initiatives such as crusading. The most important crusading city, Genoa, had already created a commune in 1052, and elected consuls governed the city by the time of the First Crusade.

In 1101, after the capture of Jerusalem, a fleet from Genoa made a convention with the city’s crusader king Baldwin I. The agreement that they reached supports Leon’s insight. Not only would they share the loot from any captured city: the Genoese would also be given a section of the city to reside in, with their own consuls to govern it.

In addition, they received special tax privileges on their trading activity, which now took over the valuable European end of the Silk Road that traversed Central Asia to China. Enterprising crusading merchants of this sort encouraged and welcomed the emigration of Christian peasants to settle the lands around their new conquests.

Knightly Prowess

Another broad trend of the era that contributed to the emergence of crusading was a growth in the numbers of knights without access to land. The French medieval historian Georges Duby drew attention to the way that bands of “youths” would draw together to fight in tournaments and in the wars of their elders, in order to win fame, followers, and, if possible, an heiress whose lands would allow them to become magnates in their own right.

These “youths” were not necessarily young in terms of age, but they were seen as iuvenes due to their social position, lacking land and children. They eagerly grasped the opportunity of the crusade to win fame, and a church desperate to escape their depredations encouraged them to do so.

The late tenth and early eleventh century had seen the emergence of the Peace of God and Truce of God movements, which were alliances between the clergy and the peasantry intended to stop the violence of these knights. These movements were very clear expressions of a trend that helps us make sense of the appearance of the Crusades later in the eleventh century.

Prevented from engaging in warfare, robbery, and pillage within Europe, many of these knights took up the cross and went to fight in the Near East. They were only too happy to escort peasants and runaway serfs on the journey to possible Christian settlements at its end.

Land and Freedom

What about the medieval peasant experience? Were there “push” factors that encouraged some of them to be receptive to the crusading message so that they decided to sell up and leave for a promised land of milk and honey? Very definitely.

Both in 1095 and in 1146, the years in which the first two crusades were being preached, famine and disease were more widespread in Europe than at any other time in the period between 1000 and 1200 CE. Eyewitnesses said that desperation, not piety, drove many to take the cross. Ekkehard, abbot of Aura, wrote that the participants included “crowds of those who worked the land, women, and children” and that some of them “admitted to having taken the [crusading] vow through misfortune.”

Church approval for the enterprise also meant that by adopting the idea of going on crusade, runaway serfs and women could legitimate their actions. Many lords remaining in Europe regretted the sight of their abandoned fields following the arrival of a popular preacher of the crusades. As Gerhoh of Reichersberg witnessed in respect to the Second Crusade: “There were no lack of peasants and serfs on the expedition, the ploughs and services due to their lords having been abandoned without the knowledge or against the will of their lords.”

Within the larger crusading armies, there were clear social tensions, and visionaries would emerge to voice the outlook of the poor. Of course, these peasant families were journeying in order to kill Muslim farmers and take their homes and land, so they can hardly be seen as inspirational revolutionaries.

Their social position, however, was of fundamental importance in explaining why they elevated certain lowly leaders as their captains and defied kings and lords in their conduct. The success or failure of a particular crusade often depended more on its internal political struggles between king, lord, knight, merchant, and peasant than any simple military narrative.

It is thus possible to draw up a full picture of the Crusades that is very much informed by what we can broadly term Marxist analysis, if by that we mean all those historians who write with a perspective informed by sensitivity to class conflict. Such analysis focuses on specific trends of each historical moment, rather than invoking transhistorical laws derived from the concept of the mode of production.

In the case of the Crusades, those trends included the rise of a merchant class within urban spaces free from royal control, the accumulation of discontent among large numbers of lowly knights, and the onerous work experience of peasants and serfs.