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The Crusades & Western Civilization: Guizot’s Eighth Lecture

“They greatly diminished the number of petty fiefs, petty domains, and petty proprietors; they concentrated property and power in a smaller number of hands.”

Editor’s Note

In his eighth lecture, Guizot pivots from surveying the origins of modern Europe to investigating the mechanisms by which westerners constructed their civilization. The Central and Late Middle Ages were the periods during which the vestiges of identifiably Roman civilization dissolved into a new soup of feudal, Christian, and burgher-urban political and cultural paradigms. During the Early medieval period, these elements took shape and solidified into institutions with institutionalized power. Beginning in earnest with the Crusades, the diversity of European life exploded onto new horizons of exploration, invention, and education. By the sixteenth century, Europeans possessed all the necessary power and knowledge to begin projecting their will into far corners of the planet. Crusaders united medieval and modern Europe by introducing westerners to a far wider world than they were used to seeing in their home village. Aristocrats gained a new sense of their own potential for wealth and power; monarchs exploited the opportunity for conquest and national aggrandizement of authority; the Church recovered from its recent schism with Eastern Orthodoxy by reviving its ancient transnational position of moral leadership; the towns and their merchant-burghers soon found themselves important hubs in an increasingly complex global economic network; and commoners rose in unprecedented numbers to seize their own futures and shape the world to their own making. Furthermore, Islamic civilization introduced Europeans to Aristotle and a host of ancient writers lost in the West for over half a millennium. Science, medicine, philosophy, technology, and culture flowed like un-sluiced water across Europe, transforming the cultural and political landscape. Within a few short generations, Europe lifted itself out of Dark Age slumbers to once again rejoin the world of great civilizations.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

The History of Civilization in Europe (Excerpts)

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1896.



…The history of European civilization, then, may be thrown into three great periods: first, a period which I shall call that of origin, or formation; during which the different elements of society disengage themselves from chaos, assume an existence, and show themselves in their native forms, with the principles by which they are animated; this period lasted almost to the twelfth century. The second period is a period of experiments, attempts, groping; the different elements of society approach and enter into combination, feeling each other, as it were, but without producing anything general, regular, or durable; this state of things, to say the truth, did not terminate till the sixteenth century. Then comes the third period, or the period of development, in which human society in Europe takes a definite form, follows a determinate direction, proceeds rapidly and with a general movement, towards a clear and precise object; this is the period which began in the sixteenth century, and is now pursuing its course…

The first great event which presents itself to our view, and which opened, so to speak, the period we are speaking of, was the crusades. They began at the end of the eleventh century, and lasted during the twelfth and thirteenth. It was indeed a great event; for, since its occurrence, it has never ceased to occupy the attention of philosophical historians, who have shown themselves aware of its influence in changing the conditions of nations, and of the necessity of its study in order to comprehend the general course of facts.

The first character of the crusades is their universality; all Europe concurred in them; they were the first European event. Before the crusades, Europe had never been moved by the same sentiment, or acted in a common cause; till then, in fact, Europe did not exist. The crusades made manifest the existence of Christian Europe. The French formed the main body of the first army of crusaders; but there were also Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and English. But look at the second and third crusades, and we find all the nations of Christendom engaged in them. The world had never before witnessed a similar combination.

But this is not all. In the same manner as the crusades were a European event, so, in each separate nation, they were a national event. In every nation, all classes of society were animated with the same impression, yielded to the same idea, and abandoned themselves to the same impulse. Kings, nobles, priests, burghers, country people, all took the same interest and the same share in the crusades. The moral unity of nations was thus made manifest; a fact as new as the unity of Europe.

When such events take place in what may be called the youth of nations; in periods when they act spontaneously, freely, without premeditation or political design, we recognize what history calls heroic events, the heroic ages of nations. The crusades were the heroic event of modern Europe; a movement at the same time individual and general; national, and yet not under political direction.

That this was really their primitive character is proved by every fact, and every document. Who were the first crusaders? Bands of people who set out under the conduct of Peter the Hermit, without preparations, guides, or leaders, followed rather than led by a few obscure knights, traversed Germany and the Greek empire, and were dispersed, or perished, in Asia Minor.

The higher class, the feudal nobility, next put themselves in motion for the crusade. Under the command of Godfrey of Bouillon, the nobles and their men departed full of ardor. When they had traversed Asia Minor, the leaders of the crusaders were seized with a fit of lukewarmness and fatigue. They became indifferent about continuing their course; they were inclined rather to look to their own interest, to make conquests and possess them. The mass of the army, however, rose up, and insisted on marching to Jerusalem, the deliverance of the holy city being the object of the crusade. It was not to gain principalities for Raymond of Toulouse, or for Bohemond, or any other leader, that the crusaders had taken arms. The popular, national, European impulse overcame all the intentions of individuals; and the leaders had not sufficient ascendancy over the masses to make them yield to their personal interests.

The sovereigns, who had been strangers to the first crusade, were now drawn into the general movement as the people had been. The great crusades of the twelfth century were commanded by kings.

I now go at once to the end of the thirteenth century. A great deal was still said in Europe about crusades, and they were even preached with ardor. The popes excited the sovereigns and the people; councils were held to recommend the conquest of the holy land; but no expeditions of any importance were now undertaken for this purpose, and it was regarded with general indifference. Something had entered into the spirit of European society which put an end to the crusades. Some private expeditions still took place; some nobles and some bands of troops still continued to depart for Jerusalem; but the general movement was evidently arrested. Neither the necessity, however, nor the facility of continuing it, seemed to have ceased. The Moslems triumphed more and more in Asia. The Christian kingdom founded at Jerusalem had fallen into their hands. It still appeared necessary to regain it; and the means of success were greater than at the commencement of the crusades. A great number of Christians were established and still powerful in Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine. The proper means of transport, and of carrying on the war, were better known. Still, nothing could revive the spirit of the crusades. It is evident that the two great forces of society—the sovereigns on the one hand, and the people on the other—no longer desired their continuance.

It has been often said that Europe was weary of these constant inroads upon Asia. We must come to an understanding as to the meaning of the word weariness, frequently used on such occasions. It is exceedingly inexact. It is not true that generations of mankind can be weary of what has not been done by themselves; that they can be wearied by the fatigues of their fathers. Weariness is personal; it cannot be transmitted like an inheritance. The people of the thirteenth century were not weary of the crusades of the twelfth; they were influenced by a different cause. A great change had taken place in opinions, sentiments, and social relations. There were no longer the same wants, or the same desires: the people no longer believed, or wished to believe, in the same things. It is by these moral or political changes, and not by weariness, that the differences in the conduct of successive generations can be explained. The pretended weariness ascribed to them is a metaphor wholly destitute of truth.

Two great causes, the one moral, the other social, impelled Europe into the crusades. The moral cause, as you are aware, was the impulse of religious feeling and belief. From the end of the seventh century, Christianity maintained a constant struggle against Mohammedanism. It had overcome Mohammedanism in Europe, after having been threatened with great danger from it; and had succeeded in confining it to Spain. Even from thence the expulsion of Mohammedanism was constantly attempted. The crusades have been represented as a sort of accident, an unforeseen event, sprung from the recitals of pilgrims returned from Jerusalem, and the preaching of Peter the Hermit. They were nothing of the kind. The crusades were the continuation, the height of the great struggle which had subsisted for four centuries between Christianity and Mohammedanism. The theatre of this contest had hitherto been in Europe; it was now transported into Asia. If I had attached any value to those comparisons, those parallels, into which historical facts are sometimes made willing or unwillingly to enter, I might show you Christianity running exactly the same course, and undergoing the same destiny in Asia, as Mohammedanism in Europe. Mohammedanism established itself in Spain, where it conquered, founded a kingdom and various principalities. The Christians did the same thing in Asia. They were there in regard to the Mohammedans, in the same situation as the Mohammedans in Spain with regard to the Christians. The kingdom of Jerusalem corresponds with the kingdom of Granada: but these similitudes, after all, are of little importance. The great fact was the struggle between the two religious and social systems: the crusades were its principal crisis. This is their historical character; the chain which connects them with the general course of events.

Another cause, the social state of Europe in the eleventh century, equally contributed to the breaking out of the crusades. I have been careful to explain why, from the fifth to the eleventh century, there was no such thing as generality in Europe; I have endeavored to show how every thing had assumed a local character; how states, existing institutions, and opinions, were confined within very narrow bounds: it was then that the feudal system prevailed. After the lapse of some time, such a narrow horizon was no longer sufficient; human thought and activity aspired to pass beyond the narrow sphere in which they were confined. The people no longer led their former wandering life, but had not lost the taste for its movement and its adventures; they threw themselves into the crusades as into a new state of existence, in which they were more at large, and enjoyed more variety; which reminded them of the freedom of former barbarism, while it opened boundless prospects for the future.

These were, in my opinion, the two determining causes of the crusades in the twelfth century. At the end of the thirteenth, neither of these causes continued to exist. Mankind and society were so greatly changed, that neither the moral nor the social incitements which had impelled Europe upon Asia were felt any longer…The crusades were vast pilgrimages, the undertaking of which would count for the future salvation of the crusaders…

The principal effect, then, of the crusades was a great step towards the emancipation of the mind, a great progress towards enlarged and liberal ideas. Though begun under the name and influence of religious belief, the crusades deprived religious ideas, I shall not say of their legitimate share of influence, but of their exclusive and despotic possession of the human mind. This result, though undoubtedly unforeseen, arose from various causes. The first was evidently the novelty, extent, and variety of the scene which displayed itself to the crusaders; what generally happens to travellers happened to them. It is mere common-place to say, that travelling gives freedom to the mind; that the habit of observing different nations, different manners, and different opinions, enlarges the ideas, and disengages the judgment from old prejudices. The same thing happened to those nations of travellers who have been called the crusaders; their minds were opened and raised by having seen a multitude of different things, by having become acquainted with other manners than their own. They found themselves also placed in connection with two states of civilization, not only different from their own, but more advanced—the Greek state of society on the one hand, and the Mussulman on the other. There is no doubt that the society of the Greeks, though enervated, perverted, and decaying, gave the crusaders the impression of something more advanced, polished, and enlightened than their own. The society of the Mussulmans presented them a scene of the same kind. It is curious to observe in the chronicles the impression made by the crusaders on the Mussulmans, who regarded them at first as the most brutal, ferocious, and stupid barbarians they had ever seen. The crusaders, on their part, were struck with the riches and elegance of manners which they observed among the Mussulmans. These first impressions were succeeded by frequent relations between the Mussulmans and Christians. These became more extensive and important than is commonly believed. Not only had the Christians of the East habitual relations with the Mussulmans, but the people of the East and the West became acquainted with, visited, and mingled with each other. It is but lately that one of those learned men who do honor to France in the eyes of Europe, M. Abel Rémusat, has discovered the relations which subsisted between the Mongol emperors and the Christian kings. Mongol ambassadors were sent to the kings of the Franks, and to St. Louis among others, in order to persuade them to enter into alliance, and to resume the crusades for the common interest of the Mongols and the Christians against the Turks. And not only were diplomatic and official relations thus established between the sovereigns, but there was much and various intercourse between the nations of the East and West…

When we consider the state of the general mind at the termination of the crusades, especially in regard to ecclesiastical matters, we cannot fail to be struck with a singular fact: religious notions underwent no change, and were not replaced by contrary or even different opinions. Thought, notwithstanding, had become more free; religious creeds were not the only subject on which the human mind exercised its faculties; without abandoning them, it began occasionally to wander from them, and to take other directions. Thus, at the end of the thirteenth century, the moral cause which had led to the crusades, or which, at least, had been their most energetic principle, had disappeared; the moral state of Europe had undergone an essential modification.

The social state of society had undergone an analogous change. Many inquiries have been made as to the influence of the crusades in this respect; it has been shown in what manner they had reduced a great number of feudal proprietors to the necessity of selling their fiefs to the kings, or to sell their privileges to the communities, in order to raise money for the crusades. It has been shown that, in consequence of their absence, many of the nobles lost a great portion of their power. Without entering into the details of this question, we may collect into a few general facts the influence of the crusades on the social state of Europe.

They greatly diminished the number of petty fiefs, petty domains, and petty proprietors; they concentrated property and power in a smaller number of hands. It is from the time of the crusades that we may observe the formation and growth of great fiefs—the existence of feudal power on a large scale.

I have often regretted that there was not a map of France divided into fiefs, as we have a map of France divided into departments, arrondissements, cantons and communes, in which all the fiefs were marked, with their boundaries, relations with each other, and successive changes. If we could have compared, by the help of such maps, the state of France before and after the crusades, we should have seen how many small fiefs had disappeared, and to what extent the greater ones had increased. This was one of the most important results of the crusades.

Even in those cases where small proprietors preserved their fiefs, they did not live upon them in such an isolated state as formerly. The possessors of great fiefs became so many centers around which the smaller ones were gathered, and near which they came to live. During the crusades, small proprietors found it necessary to place themselves in the train of some rich and powerful chief, from whom they received assistance and support. They lived with him, shared his fortune, and passed through the same adventures that he did. When the crusaders returned home, this social spirit, this habit of living in intercourse with superiors continued to subsist, and had its influence on the manners of the age. As we see that the great fiefs were increased after the crusades, so we see, also, that the proprietors of these fiefs held, within their castles, a much more considerable court than before, and were surrounded by a greater number of gentlemen, who preserved their little domains, but no longer kept within them.

The extension of the great fiefs, and the creation of a number of central points in society, in place of the general dispersion which previously existed, were the two principal effects of the crusades, considered with respect to their influence upon feudalism.

As to the inhabitants of the towns, a result of the same nature may easily be perceived. The crusades created great civic communities. Petty commerce and petty industry were not sufficient to give rise to communities such as the great cities of Italy and Flanders. It was commerce on a great scale—maritime commerce, and, especially, the commerce of the East and West, which gave them birth; now it was the crusades which gave to maritime commerce the greatest impulse it had yet received.

On the whole, when we survey the state of society at the end of the crusades, we find that the movement tending to dissolution and dispersion, the movement of universal localization (if I may be allowed such an expression), had ceased, and had been succeeded by a movement in the contrary direction, a movement of centralization. All things tended to mutual approximation; small things were absorbed in great ones, or gathered round them. Such was the direction then taken by the progress of society.

You now understand why, at the end of the thirteenth and in the fourteenth century, neither nations nor sovereigns wished to have any more crusades. They neither needed nor desired them; they had been thrown into them by the impulses of religious spirit, and the exclusive dominion of religious ideas; but this dominion had now lost its energy. They had also sought in the crusades a new way of life, of a less confined and more varied description; but they began to find this in Europe itself, in the progress of the social relations. It was at this time that kings began to see the road to political aggrandizement. Why go to Asia in search of kingdoms, when there were kingdoms to conquer at their very doors? Philip Augustus embarked in the crusade very unwillingly; and what could be more natural? His desire was to make himself King of France. It was the same thing with the people. The road to wealth was open to them; and they gave up adventures for industry. Adventures were replaced, for sovereigns, by political projects; for the people, by industry on a large scale. One class only of society still had a taste for adventure; that portion of the feudal nobility, who, not being in a condition to think of political aggrandizement, and not being disposed to industry, retained their former situation and manners. This class, accordingly, continued to embark in crusades, and endeavored to renew them.

Such, in my opinion, are the real effects of the crusades; on the one hand the extension of ideas and the emancipation of thought; on the other, a general enlargement of the social sphere, and the opening of a wider field for every sort of activity: they produced, at the same time, more individual freedom and more political unity. They tended to the independence of man and the centralization of society. Many inquiries have been made respecting the means of civilization which were directly imported from the East. It has been said that the largest part of the great discoveries which, in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, contributed to the progress of European civilization—such as the compass, printing, and gunpowder—were known in the East, and that the crusaders brought them into Europe. This is true to a certain extent; though some of these assertions may be disputed. But what cannot be disputed is this influence, this general effect of the crusades upon the human mind on the one hand, and the state of society on the other. They drew society out of a very narrow road, to throw it into new and infinitely broader paths; they began that transformation of the various elements of European society into governments and nations, which is the characteristic of modern civilization. The same period witnessed the development of one of those institutions which has most powerfully contributed to this great result—monarchy; the history of which, from the birth of the modern states of Europe to the thirteenth century, will form the subject of our next lecture.

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