The Effect of the Crusades
RUDYARD KIPLING: Ballad of East and West.
T HE sacred fire of enthusiasm for the "Cause of God" still flickered faintly in Europe during the years that immediately preceded the fall of Constantinople. Our own Henry V., during his lifetime, sent out a knight of Burgundy, Gilbert de Lannoy, to see what chances there were of the success of a new Crusade; and Henry's dying words showed that he had not forgotten his design. "Good Lord, Thou knowest that mine intent had been, and yet is, if I may live, to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem."
But with the fall of Constantinople, all further hope of wresting the Holy Land from the infidel came to an end. Never again did a prince of the West set out to recover those " holy fields," and to this day they are ruled by the Sultan of Turkey.
It is said of Columbus that he had in mind the idea of stirring up an Eastern War in the "Cause of God" before there had dawned upon him the vision of that Western enterprise which was to open the gate to a new world. And that religious zeal did not die with the Crusades is to be seen in the constant stream of pilgrims to the Holy Land which, for a hundred years, followed the final defeat of Christendom, and which, suspended though it was during the spiritual apathy of the eighteenth century, has continued down to the present day.
But the Age of Warfare was over when Constantinople fell, and with the dawn of that great awakening of thought and literature which we call the Renaissance, men turned away from bloodshed to the joys of discovery and enterprise in a new world.
A little later, when the Wars of the Reformation broke out, and Europe took up the sword anew, the whole spirit of the Western world had changed. The East had lost its glamour, and the antagonism between religious and political parties had waxed so hot in Christendom that the old feud between Christian and pagan was entirely laid aside.
Yet the Crusades, in spite of their apparent failure, had done a great work. First and foremost they had succeeded in deferring the rule of the Turk in Europe, and by the constant checks they offered to his progress, had prevented him from conquering anything but the merest fringe of the West. The advantage of this, apart from considerations of religion, will be seen at once if we compare the condition of the subjects of the Sultan with that of the more progressive of the Christian races of Europe.
But the benefits conferred upon Europe by the Crusades are by no means only of this negative character. The Saracen of the Middle Ages was a learned and cultured gentleman, skilled in medicine, in music, and in various other sciences, and, generally speaking, as much superior to the rough uneducated Crusader of the Western World as he was to the savage Ottoman Turk.
Foes though they were in name, there was always a certain amount of friendly intercourse between the Crusaders and the Saracens, and the former were bound to be affected in some degree by the civilisation of the latter. Sometimes a dark-faced "leech" would return in the train of a Crusading baron to Europe, and there would teach some of his mysteries of healing to the rough- and-ready doctors of the West.
To the Arabs we owe our "Arabic" system of numbers, used instead of the clumsy Roman figures, and the knowledge of the decimal notation, by which nearly every civilised country except our own reckons its money. From Architecture to Geography, all those branches of knowledge which distinguish the educated from the uneducated mind, may be traced back to the keen and subtle intelligence of the East.
Next perhaps in importance comes the opening up of the East to the West for purposes of Commerce. Many a knightly Crusader thought it no shame to carry on an extensive trade in the silks and spices of Palestine in order to fill his coffers upon his return and that he might be recompensed for the expenses of his undertaking. The constant crossing and recrossing of the Mediterranean soon set on foot a steady stream of commercial enterprise between the seaports of Italy and those of Syria, and the existence of a Latin Empire of Constantinople impelled Venice, the main cause of its establishment, to still closer communication with the East. To her, as "the Southern terminus of a great land trade-route," was carried the produce of England, Norway, Flanders, France and Germany as to a huge market, and she distributed it throughout the Eastern world, receiving in return the wealth of the latter to be carried back to Europe. It was only when the discovery of America opened up an entirely new field of enterprise that this great stream of commerce began to diminish.
Another effect of the Crusades was upon the great world of literature. Such a unique event as a Holy War was bound to inspire the writers of history even in the days when such writers were rarely to be found. William of Tyre was only one amongst several chroniclers of the First Crusade, and the story of the Crusades of later days have been vividly told by Richard of Devizes, Villehardouin and the Sire de Joinville, many of whose telling descriptions have been quoted in the pages of this book.
It was but natural that the gallant adventures of the Crusaders should form the theme of many of the epics and chansons of Chivalry. Charlemagne, Roland and Bevis of Hampton may never have seen the Holy Land, but they became the heroes of Crusading exploits nevertheless; while Richard Lion-Heart and Godfrey of Boulogne, actual leaders in the Holy War, became the central figures of more or less impossible legendary adventures.
Through all this stream of literature ran that quickening, inspiring spirit of hope-perhaps the greatest gift of the Crusades to a world which, in the years between the Empire of Charlemagne and the Renaissance, might easily have fallen into a deadened condition of indifference and disruption.
This is scarcely the place to speak of the great unifying effect upon Europe, nor of the influence of the movement upon the feudal conditions of the time; but we have seen enough to know that the Western World was decidedly the better, spiritually, mentally and , physically, for that gigantic failure which we know as the Crusades.