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Part IV - 'The Middle Ages: Lesson No. 21 - Crusaders and Cistercians

I. The Crusades

A. Causes. The Crusades - military expeditions to re-conquer Palestine from the Moslems - were an inevitable outgrowth and typical manifestation of the climate and conditions which prevailed in the Middle Ages. They sprang from a time of great, if misguided, religious zeal. This strong religious zeal found expression in monasticism, asceticism, and a sense of "other-worldliness" and self-sacrifice. Roman Catholicism also placed much emphasis upon reverence of relics, pilgrimages to sacred shrines, and the spiritual benefits which could be thereby obtained. Certainly there were other motives which prompted some Crusaders to "take the cross" - love of adventure, desire for territorial advancement, hope of plunder, religious hatred - but it cannot be doubted that true religious fervor was the primary catalyst which stimulated the Crusades, and that without it they would never have been mounted.

The immediate causes of the Crusades were two. (1) Though the Moslems had allowed pilgrimages to Jerusalem since its capture in 638, the Seljuk Turks, also Moslems, conquered Palestine in 1076 and put a stop to pilgrimages. This aroused a great furor in Europe. (2) Alexius I, the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, appealed to Pope Urban II for aid against the Moslems who were pressing heavily upon his domain. Thus, at the Council of Clermont in 1095 Urban II eloquently called for a liberation of Palestine from Moslem hands. Great promises were offered to those who participated in the struggle. Urban himself offered plenary indulgence to those who took part. Others went further and promised eternal life itself to the participants, and not only to them but also to their parents and to all those who contributed in any way to the efforts of the Crusaders. Earthly advantages accruing to Crusaders were exemption from debt and freedom from taxation and payment of interest.

B. Number and kinds of Crusades. There were seven major crusades between 1095 and 1270, as well as minor expeditions between these two dates. All of them, with the exception of the First Crusade (1095-99), were largely failures. Members of the First Crusade eventually fought their way to Jerusalem and on July 15, 1099 captured the city amid a ruthless massacre of its inhabitants. There they set up a kingdom and held the city until it was recaptured by the Moslems in 1187. The excommunicated leader of the Sixth Crusade (1228-29), Emperor Frederick II, regained it by treaty but it was permanently lost to the Moslems in 1244.

C. Scriptural errors. From the viewpoint of their objectives, then, the Crusades were ultimately a great failure. Their greatest failures, however, occurred on the moral and spiritual side.

(1) They were wrongly motivated by a desire to rescue from infidelic hands things and places which were thought to have a sacred value. Moreover, it was thought that by revering these things and pilgrimaging to such places that special spiritual benefits could be obtained. The New Testament teaches no such things. As a matter of fact, it teaches the very opposite. Inordinate veneration and pursuit of physical objects is idolatry (Eph. 5:5; I Cor. 10:14; I Jn. 5:2). Never were relics, images, or holy places involved in the devotion of early Christians. They were devoted to Christ, not to things, and were never promised any special rewards for pilgrimages or the veneration of relics. Christ Himself dismissed the idea of holy places when He said men would worship the Father in spirit and truth, not in Jerusalem (Jn. 4:1924).

(2) They were wrong in their very character because they were attended with terrible cruelty. Members of the First Crusade massacred Jews in the Rhineland and provoked bloody reprisals in Hungary. When Jerusalem was finally captured, they ruthlessly slaughtered the inhabitants. By the moral standards of the New Testament the Crusades were a despicable disgrace (Matt. 5:7,43-48; Jas. 2:13).

(3) They were wrong per se, for the New Testament teaches with the utmost clarity that the weapons used, and the wars waged, in the interests of Christ's kingdom - are not to be of a physical nature (Jn. 18:36; II Cor. 10:3,4; Eph. 6:10-18).

II. The Cistercians

The religious zeal of the early second millennium was not entirely spent upon the Crusades. Not long after the beginning of the First Crusade another monastic order was begun in Citeaux, France in 1098. It was begun by a Benedictine monk, Robert, who sought greater monastic discipline. Consequently, from the very beginning the Cistercians stressed greater asceticism, isolation from the world, the rule of silence, contemplation, and "apostolic poverty." Great emphasis was also placed upon agricultural labor and relatively little upon teaching or preaching. (At one point Cistercian monks were even forbidden to preach or baptize.) The dwellings, clothes, houses of worship, and diets were of the plainest sort. The eating of flesh was forbidden (I Tim. 4:1-5), except in cases of severe sickness. The Cistercians slept in their regular attire on beds of straw.

Bernard (1090-1153) was the most vigorous proponent of Cistercian monasticism and was also the most influential religious figure of his time. Ironically, he exerted much of his influence by preaching and writing. Other preachers took Cistercian principles to more radical extremes. Arnold of Brescia (?-1155) taught that one could not be a true disciple of Christ unless he literally abandoned all property and worldly power. In the early Twelfth Century Peter of Bruys combined strict asceticism with a repudiation of infant baptism, the Lord's Supper, church ceremonies and buildings, prayers for the dead, and the cross (the last since it was the instrument of Christ's suffering). Such extremes were reactions to the wealthy and worldly aspects of medieval clergy.

III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) There were seven major Crusades and other minor ones.

(2) (T or F) The gospel of Christ knows nothing of sacred images, relics, and places.

(3) (T or F) Worldly medieval clergy led to extremes in monasticism.

(4) (T or F) One must be literally poor to be a true disciple of Christ (cf. Lk. 14:33; 18:22).

(5) What were some causes of the Crusades?


(6) What kinds of inducements were offered to recruit Crusaders?


(7) What was Scripturally wrong with the Crusades?


(8) What were the chief characteristics of Cistercian monasticism?



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