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Saturday, December 14, 2013

A potted history of the efffect of the Crusades on Western culture.

The crusades were a period of history that set the scene for the Renaissance that followed.  Without the crusades the West would have stayed in the dark, unaware of the great philosophers, and without the benefit of chimneys, glass windows or coffee in their homes.  In this post I aim to provide a perspective on the influence of the crusades.

Crusaders embarked on their quests with zeal and a belief that the societies of Europe based on Roman Catholicism were the most advanced in the world.  What they discovered was that there was much to admire about Eastern ways - including daily bathing, sewers, universal education, advanced astronomy, and tolerance for religious beliefs. Most crusaders arrived with a proselytizing zeal but after a time became converted to the Eastern way of life, bathing, reclining while they ate, wearing loose silk clothing, reading books and eating spicy foods.

Those that returned usually brought these habits home with them, or adopted Eastern technology and habits in their homes.

The works of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Euclid and many others were smuggled back to the west and became treasured, hidden possessions. The ideas in these books eventually leaked out and advanced our Western knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy.  Arabic Numerals replaced the cumbersome Roman Numeral system and Eastern systems of calculation like the Abacus found new homes in the markets of the West. Paper replaced vellum and books became easier to produce, which then drove demand from the average person, spreading ideas faster and leading eventually to the invention of the printing press and the Renaissance.

Paper making had spread from China to Baghdad by the 8th century and by 1220, Italian paper makers had mastered the technique which was commonplace in Germany by 1400. Woodcut printing on paper made treasured handmade fabric books a thing of the past - allowing the average person access to a paper, printed, bound book.  This spread ideas and allowed more people access to self-education, a thing vehemently opposed by Mother Church.  But the cat had been let out of the bag and nothing was going to put it back in, not even the Inquisition, but that is another story.

The city state of Venice, with its key position on the Adriatic coast of the Italian peninsula profited greatly from the demand for Eastern goods: spices, silks, books, paper, and later gun-powder.  After seizing Constantinople in the infamous Fourth Crusade, Venice established itself as the dominant sea power in Europe, controlling both sea and land trade routes.  Venice profited from this position even long after its preeminence as a sea power had waned.  Venice was to hold its position as the cultural, artistic and epicurean avante garde for centuries.  Today the effects of the crusades can be seen in the glass works of Murano, the architecture and statuary of the Basilica of San Marco, and the plethora of exotic foods and books available in Venetian shops, not to mention the very famous Carnivale di Venezia.

Battle strategy was affected by contact with the light horse cavalry of military leaders like Nur al-Din and Saladin, with their lightning fast strike ability on smaller, more maneuverable mounts.  Heavy armor was useless in desert battle, and could be deadly, eventually leading to lighter armor styles and a preference for chain mail, and close quarter fighting.  The advanced siege techniques of Saladin were brought home to the West, giving returned knights the advantage, and breeding a whole new generation of soldiers for hire.

In my next post, I'll provide a timeline of the first four crusades to provide some context for readers.

For further research, I recommend the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium.

Happy Research,

Elisabetta L Faenza

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