How did the Crusaders ever make it to the Holy Land?

The Crusades are arguably known for their brutality and violence during the middle ages, however this violence is usually pictured during the horrendous battles and sieges. Whereas, the Crusaders actually faced many of their difficulties whilst travelling to Jerusalem, whether they travelling to the Holy Land by foot or by ship. These issues included controlling a large army, as well as finding supplies to feed the armies of thousands. The difficulty regarding food and water for the Crusaders then lead to pestilence, all of which weakened the Christian army and made them vulnerable to Muslim attacks on the journey. There were also which arose from travelling to the Holy Land by boat, which had largely been done in the Third Crusade. These include the difficulty with the weather, as well as the Muslim ambushes which had the potential to kill hundreds of soldiers, as well as the loss of supplies, including treasure.

The difficulty which the Crusaders faced during their journey to the Holy Land, if taken by foot, were the large armies. This created issues in multiple different areas, for example, there was a difficulty when it came to controlling these large armies. This was particularly the case for Peter the Hermit, who was controlling a large army of 21-28,00 people, many of whom were unruly and had very little military training, or discipline. The different groups of people who had gathered in support of Peter the Hermit spoke several different languages, thus making communication between the group increasingly difficult, causing issues between the Crusaders themselves.

Riots frequently broke out between the Crusaders and the inhabitants of the towns which they were travelling through. This can be seen when the army travelled through Hungary, where reports of a full-scale battle broke out between the People’s Crusaders and the inhabitants of the town. According to sources, 4,000 people were killed in the battle and vital supplies were lost, all down to the sale of a pair of shoes, although these figures can be seen as questionable. Reports state that this was against the intentions of Peter the Hermit. This demonstrates that although the leaders of the crusade, in this case Peter the Hermit, had good intentions, controlling the vast armies was a difficult task, and could have resulting in the loss of control and unnecessary blood-shed.  This was particularly the case at the arrival at Constantinople. Although Emperor Alexius treated Peter the Hermit well, the Crusaders who had been granted access to the city plundered the villas, and every stole the lead from the roofs of the churches. This then led to further issues when the Prince’s Crusade arrived in Constantinople, as the inhabitants were still cautious after the People’s Crusade.

The issue of the large armies also made the gathering of supplies difficult. This was particularly  difficult when it came to gathering food and water. The armies were so large that it was unlikely that any one place would be able to provide enough supplies. The large and unruly armies had also made the local towns-folk and governors weary of them, and so they were usually reluctant to assist. During this long voyage, many of the pack animals which were being used died, making travelling difficult, however those which survived were often used as food. The 2,000-3,000-mile-long journey meant that food was often scarce, especially when the towns that the Franks passed through were unwilling to assist. However food was also short due to attacks by the Muslims, as can be seen at the siege of Antioch, where the besieging Crusaders were trapped and therefore did not have access to food or water. This starvation lead the Crusaders to undertake dangerous missions to forage, and ate anything they found, resorting to thistles and vines, or even the skins of horses, camels, asses and oxen. In the most extreme cases, Fulcher of Chartres had recorded that the madness that had come from starvation lead the Crusaders to eat the raw flesh from the Saracens which had been killed in battle.

Lack of water was also an issue which the Crusaders had to face. There have been reports, such as those from The Gesta Francorum which stated that some Crusaders bled their animals in order to drink, whilst some drank their own urine. In some cases the Crusaders dipped their handkerchiefs into sewage and wrung it straight into their mouths in order to rehydrate.

This practice was unsanitary, and demonstrates the levels of desperation which the Crusaders had felt during their travels to the Holy Land. However, the desperate measures which had been taken in order to stay alive created far more issues for the Crusaders, and they often led to pestilence. The terrible winters and weather which the Crusaders experiences meant that their tents had rotted away, exposing them further to the elements, and therefore adding to the different diseases and ailments. This was also seen in the Third Crusade in the winter of 1190. There were reports that the soldiers limbs had swollen and their teeth had fallen out, and many of the Crusaders succumbed to an agonizing death. In both of these crusades, the death and fear which had been caused by the pestilence and poverty meant that morale had dropped amongst the Crusaders, leading many of them to return home before ever reaching Jerusalem. This meant that the crusading army was weaker, and were more susceptible to attacks and ambushes from opposing armies.

The Turkish ambushes on the Christian armies were a significant difficulty for the Crusaders, and this issue was again present in both the First and Third Crusades. Whilst the Franks military tactics were efficient, they were not nearly as effective as the Muslims. Throughout their journey on foot, the Crusaders were unprepared for the force of the Turkish armies, whose military tactics were far superior for the climate and terrain than those of the Christians. It was the Turkish horse archers which caused the Crusaders so much difficulty. Although the Franks also fought on horseback to a certain extent, historians believe that the Turks were far quicker and more flexible than the Christians, and were also able to keep their distance from the Crusaders due to their weapons. The primary weapons used by the Turks were arrows, which would often be fired together, resembling a ‘shower of arrows’, making it very difficult for the Crusaders to escape unharmed. Jonathan Philips has commented that the arrows would have pierced through the Franks chain mail, suggesting that even the heavy western armor would not have been enough to protect them. These ambushes would have made a significant impact on the death toll of the Crusaders, as well as that of the animals which they were travelling with. Not only would this have affected the strength of the travelling army, but the morale of the soldiers also.

Whilst travelling by foot, the Crusaders faced many difficulties which would have effect the morale as well as death rate on the journey. However, the Crusades have shown that there were further difficulties when travelling to the Holy Land by ship, despite the fact that a sea voyage was a far more attractive option.

Weather was an issue which affected the Crusaders in both the First and Third Crusades. Although the majority of armies generally walked to Jerusalem in the First Crusade, a rare few used ships in order to travel to certain destinations. One leader of the Princes Crusade, Hugh of Vermandois, travelled to Dyrrhachium by ship, however he and his army travelled through bad weather and were shipwrecked. Although they survived, they had to be rescued by the Greeks, meaning that they sacrificed pride as well as time. During the Third Crusade, weather often slowed down ships considerably, whilst also preventing the armies from moving further, which again made their journeys longer, as well as making them vulnerable to enemy attacks. There was a frequent danger of losing ships to storms or ambushes.

A letter written from an eye-witness has exposed the danger of travelling by ship to the Holy Land, revealing that they were often the target of Muslim attack. Ships were easy targets to the Muslims, and the sinking of ships was often detrimental. The sinking of one ship could sometimes result in the death of hundreds of men, whilst also risking the loss of money and treasure as well as the loss or spoiling of valuable resources.

Overall, the main issue which the Crusaders faced was the problems which came with a large army. The large armies were frequently uncontrollable, which lead to riots and battles, killing both crusaders and civilians. This also meant that the governments which had been relied on to assist these large armies were usually fearful of the unruly masses, and were therefore unwilling to provide any assistance. The large armies also meant that supplies were difficult to gain, as rarely would there be enough food and water to nourish such a vast number of people. The malnourishment was the frequently followed by pestilence, which further killed many of the Crusaders and their animals, as well as initiating numerous amounts of desertion. This further weakened the Frankish army and therefore made them vulnerable and susceptible to Muslim attacks whilst they were journeying to the Holy Land. However, although travelling by foot faced many difficulties, research into the Third Crusade has also demonstrated a certain amount of issues which would have been faced on the journey to Jerusalem. These were issues with the weather, which would have slowed down travel significantly, whilst also having the potential to sink numerous ships, therefore losing hundreds of soldiers, as well as much needed money and equipment. This was also the danger when considering Muslim attacks, which would have been devastating for the Frankish army.

Further Reading

Albert of Aachen: Peter the Hermit, The First Crusade; The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Material, ed. E. Peters (Philadelphia, 1971).

Krey, A, C., The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants (New Jersey, 1921).

Phillips, J., Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (London, 2010), Kindle Edition.

Riley-Smith, L., Riley-Smith, J., The Crusades, Idea and Reality 1095-1274 (London, 1981).

Rose, S., Medieval Naval Warfare 1000-1500 (Oxon, 2003).

The End of the “Crusade of the People”: The Gesta Version, The First Crusade; The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Material, ed. E. Peters (Philadelphia, 1971).


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