Europe on the Eve of the Crusades


    The once luxuriant civilization of Rome had been swept away by the Northern invaders as completely as a freshet despoils the fields when it not only destroys standing vegetation, but carries with the debris the soil itself. The most primitive arts, those associated with agriculture, were forgotten, and the rudiments of modern industries were not thought of. Much of the once cultivated land had, as has elsewhere been noted, reverted to native forest and marsh, and in places was still being purchased by strangers on titles secured by occupancy and first improvement, as now in the new territories of America. But even nature's pity for man was outraged; the bounty she gave from half-tilled acres was despoiled by men themselves, as hungry children snatch the morsels of charity from one another's hands. What was hoarded for personal possession became the spoil of petty robbers, and what was left by the neighborhood marauder was destroyed in the incessant baronial strife. To these devouring forces must be added the desolating wars between the papal and imperial powers, the conquest and reconquest of Spain by Moors and Christians, and the despoiling of Saxon England by the Normans. Throughout Europe, fields, cottages, castles, oftentimes churches, were stripped by the vandalism which had seemingly become a racial disposition. To this ordinary impoverished condition was added the especial misery, about 1195, of several years' failure of crops. Famine stalked through France and middle Europe; villages were depopulated. Cruel as they were, men grew weary of raiding one another's possessions when there was nothing to bring back but wounds. Even hatred palled when unsupported by envy and cupidity.

­    The crusades gave promise of opening a new world to greed. The stories that were told of Eastern riches grew, as repeated from tongue to tongue, until fable seemed poor in comparison with what was believed to be fact. All the wealth of antiquity was presumed to be still stored in treasure-vaults, which the magic key of the cross would unlock. The impoverished baron might exchange his half-ruined castle for some splendid estate beyond the iEgean, and the vulgar crowd, if they did not find Jerusalem paved with gold like the heavenly city, would assuredly tread the veins of rich mines or rest among the flowers of an earthly paradise. The Mohammedan's expectation of a sensual heaven after death was matched by the Christian's anticipation of what awaited him while still in life.

­    They who were uninfluenced by this prospect may have seized the more warrantable hope of opening profitable traffic with the Orient. The maritime cities of Italy had for a long time harvested great gains in the eastern Mediterranean, in spite of the Moslem interruptions of commerce. Would not a tide of wealth pour westward if only the swords of the Christians could hew down its barriers ?

    The church piously, but none the less shrewdly, stimulated the sense of economy or greed by securing exemption from taxation to all who should enlist, and putting a corresponding burden of excise upon those who remained at home, whose estates were assessed to pay the expenses of the absent. The householder who found it difficult to save his possessions while keeping personal guard over them was assured that m all his family and effects would be under the watchful protection of the church, with anathemas already forged against any who should molest them. If one were without means he might borrow to the limit of his zeal, with exemption from interest. It was understood that the Jews were still under necessity of paying back the thirty pieces of silver with which they had bought the Christians' Lord, the interest on which, compounded through the centuries, was now equal in amount to all there might be in the vaults of this accursed race.

    When we remember the wars of modern times which have originated in the cupidity of men, we are not surprised that the same disposition, inflamed by the sense of dire need at home and the vision of untold treasures outre mer % with heavenly rewards beyond the sky, should have led to the same result in an age that knew almost nothing of the arts of peace.