"By the beginning of the Middle Ages much of Europe was Christian. However, the land where Jesus lived and was crucified (the Holy Land) was controlled by Muslims - people who followed the teaching of the prophet Muhammed.
"Until 1095, the Muslims allowed Christians to visit the Holy Land and thousands of pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem to see where Jesus died and was buried. But in 1095, the Holy Land was captured by Muslims from Turkey. They would not allow Christian pilgrims to visit and killed many of those who ignored their instructions." (Nigel Kelly, The Medieval Realms)
Between the 11th and the 13th centuries Christian knights from Europe travelled to Palestine to wage a "holy war" against these Muslim forces. These military campaigns were called the Crusadesand the goal was to put the whole area under the control of Christian rulers.
Jerusalem, a town in Palestine, was considered to be at the centre of the world, because that is where Jesus was crucified. The medieval Mappa Mundi, which is on display at Hereford Cathedral, has Jerusalem at its centre for this reason.
People joined the crusades for a variety of reasons. Some wanted adventure and riches, some sought glory, and others went for religious reasons. The Pope, the head of the church, had promised anyone who went to fight "the infidel" (non-Christians) forgiveness for their sins. As a result of this many knights from England left their homes, often for many years, to join a crusade. Many crusaders were recruited at religious mass rallies where, in the heat of the moment and carried away by their emotions, they signed up. Even after the luckless crusader sobered up, he was forced to carry out his pledge because a broken vow was punished with excommunication, a severe punishment involving expulsion from the Christian religion.
The emergence of cities aided this crusading effort further as the rise of trade and a money economy freed many peasants from the land and drove them to the new centres seeking a new life. Many of these men - and even women - became the hangers-on in various crusades.
Kings, too, sometimes fought in the crusades. King Richard (the Lionheart, who ruled from 1189 to 1199), for example, spent the first three years of his reign away from England on crusade. Bartholomew Mortimer and Roger de Lacy from Herefordshire were among the knights who accompanied him (John Duncumb, Collections Towards the History and Antiquities of the County of Hereford, Vol. I, Part 1, 1812 (1996 edition), Merton Priory Press, p. 74). They had gone to the Holy Land to defeat Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and leader of the Muslim forces. Other knights from Herefordshire who went to fight in the crusades included William de Valance, who held Goodrich Castle.
Priests were not allowed to fight, but some men wanted to be both men of God and knights. Hence the Crusades provided new opportunities for men who wanted to combine a religious vocation with the life of the warrior.
Here is what two contemporary sources say about Saladin:
"... he earned a disgraceful income from running brothels. He also devoted much of his time to taverns and gaming. When he became ruler he took over surrounding countries either by force or trickery ..." (Written by an English monk in the early 13th century)
"He also made sure that his men were fed and cared for properly when they were ill. So pure was his character that he would not allow a bad word to be said about anyone, preferring to hear only about their good points." (Written by a Muslim historian who lived at Saladin's court)
Are these descriptions of the same man? Which description is true? Are they exaggerated or biased? It is difficult to decide which one is closer to the truth. It would also be helpful to know why each of these descriptions was written in the first place.
Whatever the truth about the character of Saladin, in the end he could not be defeated and the crusaders returned home without having achieved the conquest of the Holy Land.
[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2002-3]