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Church History In Plain Language: Crusades

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The Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame was built between 1163-1235. Between 1170-1270 more than 500 Gothic Churches were built in France. The reason for the high ceilings and slender columns in the churches was to make it seem as if you were being stretched or flying towards heaven. Some cathedrals were as tall as 30-40 stories, though they eventually fell down.

Over time the pope gained complete control of Europe. Nothing happened in the church, let alone the world, without the pope having a very overpowering say. The papacy’s main weapon was spiritual penalties such as excommunication or interdict. Excommunication is where you are set apart from the church and don’t receive any Christian rights. Interdict is where the pope excommunicates an entire country. Pope Innocent III used or threatened interdict about 85 times to princes who wouldn’t listen to him.

Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade. Urban promised crusaders forgiveness for their past sins. The crusaders raped and plundered just about everyone in the way, even fellow Christians. They would saw open bodies looking for gold. They would even cook and eat them! There were seven major crusades. The first one was the most successful. The second crusade achieved nothing. The papacy used the church’s lack of money at this time to start the act of penance, where you pay for forgiveness. People were very reluctant about the third crusade because of the defeat they suffered last time. This is the most famous Crusade because of the three kings who led it: Richard the Lion Heart, Frederick Barbossa of Germany, and Philip Augustus of France. Frederick was drowned in Asia Minor. Philip and Richard didn’t get along, so Philip went home. Richard and Saladin (the leader of the Muslims at the time) made a three-year truce and free access to the Holy Land for pilgrimages. In 1198 when Innocent III became Pope, he pushed for another crusade. In 1202 the Crusaders sacked Zara on the Adriatic Coast for the Venetians. They then pushed the Crusaders to attack Constantinople, they did and Constantinople fell in 1204. The Crusaders set up the Latin Empire of Constantinople, it lasted until 1261. The city fell to the Turks in 1453. The Crusades were finished by 1291. The Crusades failed miserably to achieve their goal if it was to win back the Holy Land, keep Islam in check, and heal the split between Western and Eastern churches. The only thing it did succeed in doing was bringing glory to the papacy.

Gothic architecture was supposed to depict the spiritual tension of Heaven and Earth. Schools in cathedrals gave birth to universities. The point of these universities was to have intellectual crusades. Universities were not how we imagine them today, they tended to be in a shed or rented room where the students sat on the floor. Abelard was a man who gave away all his earthly possessions to the family to pursue knowledge. He traveled Europe finding the greatest minds and usually had debates with them. He said, “The first key to wisdom is assiduous and frequent questioning…. For by doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we arrive at the truth.” He inspired “scholasticism”, which is where you take painstaking steps to find the truth by questioning, examining, and arranging details into a system of logic. Canon Law is the law issued by the church dictating every move of the church and its followers, including marriage, details on excommunication, and how often you have to confess (once a year). Greek, amongst others, writings were becoming more available and they were causing doubt amongst scholars. Mostly at the University of Paris. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) was sent to Paris from Italy to quiet the din. He achieved this by reading the works, refuting some and confirming others.

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There was a large movement where people would give up all of their earthly possessions and wander the earth in poverty and in search of God. Francis of Assisi began this movement when he left his father’s house to dress in coarse brown robes and serve the poor and disabled. This lifestyle was very popular because people recognized the corruption and greed of the papacy. Many of these people, especially the ones who preached apostolic poverty, were declared heretics. Heresy, in the twelfth century, was defined as a baptized person denying any revealed truth of the Christian Faith. Some of these “truths” were the unity of the church and the divine appointment of the pope, to doubt these would make you a heretic. To get rid of heretics the church decided to torture and then kill them. People such as Joan of Arc were burned. One of the first people who spoke against the papacy was Arnold of Brescia. He urged the church to return all their land to the state and take on the poverty of the early church. He was banned from Italy and joined scholars under Abelard. He went back to Rome and joined a rebellion against the papacy. He became the leader of a secular government. This only lasted 10 years, when Pope Hadrian IV and Emperor Frederick Barbossa took Rome back.

Arnold was burned and his ashes thrown into the Tiber. Not long after, a new voice arose who also preached poverty, with the name of Peter Waldo. He began to teach poverty to people after he was inspired by a story about a young Roman who left home to the Holy Land and followed a life of poverty. When he came back, no one recognized him, so his family allowed him to stay in the courtyard and eat scraps. Only when he was dying did he reveal who he was and by then it was too late for his family to claim him. He preached that everyone, not just monks, should follow a life of poverty. Waldo ended up excommunicated after a priest told him to stop. He made an appeal to the pope, but he said he could only preach with a bishop’s permission. He ignored this and continued preaching as he was before. Because of this, the pope decided to officially excommunicate him from the entire church. The most challenging opponents for the Catholic Church were the Cathari, which means “the pure ones”. They believed that the universe is a battle scene between good and evil and that all matter, including the human body, was created by the evil.

They said that the God of the Old Testament had imprisoned the human soul in its earthly body. To escape the power of the human body a good Cathar would have to avoid marriage and all that comes with it, eating meat, and having earthly possessions. To the Cathar, Christ was not human, but a life-giving spirit that taught the way. These people were such heretics, it made Arnold and Waldo look like perfect churchgoers. The popes tried converting them, but it was very ineffective. At least until a Spaniard named Dominic Guzman realized that the reason the Cathari weren’t converting was that the popes were sending out priests and bishops that were attempting to use dignity and pomp to convert them. Cathari believed this to be a sign of false religion. Dominic believed that the way to convert them would be to go among them as a beggar. It took a while for the church to accept his way of reaching them, but eventually, it was approved. Innocent III ended up calling for a crusade against the Christian heretics. The Northern French were just waiting for the opportunity to take over Southern France, which were two different countries at the time. It’s not often you get to murder people without the expectation of damnation. Even Innocent was surprised at how viciously the Northerners attacked.

The crusade was an apparent success. By 1215 the Cathari was destroyed and the Northern French had claimed the South. Heresy or housing a heretic resulted in immediate excommunication. The heretics would have their property confiscated and be excommunicated. Anyone who wouldn’t help would have the same fate, but those who helped had their sins forgiven. In 1220 the pope took over the punishing of heretics from the bishops and heretics ended up with zero rights. The “trials” of the heretics were secret and the accused had to prove his innocence himself. In 1252 Pope Innocent III instigated torture as a means of getting information and confessions out of the accused, not just proven, heretics. He could not shed the prisoner’s blood, but if the accused was found guilty, he was turned over to the city authorities to be burned at the stake. Catharism was completely destroyed before the end of the thirteenth century. In about 1209 a new preacher of apostolic poverty rose, his name was Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). He came back from a war a completely changed man, at one point he had dreamed of greatness, but God used capture and imprisonment to change his heart. He threw himself into poverty, begging from the rich and then giving it all to the poor.

Eventually, he had a great following and he started sending them out into the world to preach the joys of poverty. Francis brought his little band of followers to Pope Innocent III and asked for permission to preach, and he got it. Francis called his group the “Friars Minor” (the lesser brothers). He joined a crusade to Egypt in 1219 where he tried to convert the Muslim sultan of Egypt. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful. When he got back to Italy he saw that there were many problems with his brothers that he could not fix, so he asked the Pope for an advisor then eventually passing over the leadership to Peter de Cataneo. In 1223 Pope Honorius III passed a law that begging had to be a part of the Franciscan order. Francis died in Assisi in full humility and song in 1226.

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Church History In Plain Language: Crusades. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 28, 2023, from
“Church History In Plain Language: Crusades.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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Church History In Plain Language: Crusades [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Sept 28]. Available from:
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