European Gain in the Crusades

After the death of Charlemagne, Europe suffered from disunity and violence, constant disputes between feudal lords. Vikings roamed throughout Europe attacking and pillaging the homes of already impoverished peasants, driving many to flee southeast (Treece 48). The lives of peasants were hard; they were dominated by the private laws of feudal lords who looked out for their own needs before those of their subjects (Treece 51). Plague and famine were constant sources of animosity, as well. So, when Pope Urban II called for a Holy War to liberate the Holy lands in defense of Constantinople, the peasants took up arms in hope of escaping their static fates in Europe (Treece 51). Many never even considered the Pope's promise of absolution (Treece 51). Noblemen's sons took up their swords in defense of the Holy Land as well – with the intention to secure land for themselves (Treece 51). The Crusades were not successful in their original, official purpose, but they served another. Although they were meant to reclaim the Holy Land, the Crusades served more to increase the overall knowledge and, most importantly, wealth of the European states.

The Arabic world had made many advances in the realm of learning which Europeans had never dreamt of until they encountered them in the Crusades. According to Aziz S. Atiya, author of Crusade, Commerce, and Culture, Arabic scholars acquired much knowledge from the ancient Greek world (Atiya 219). By the 800s, they had translated many of the great classical works from Greek into Latin, and they were forming philosophical schools (Atiya). European students began to mimic the learning environments and ideas of these schools. Atiya states, "The school of Toledo in the twelfth century, sponsored by Archbishop Raymond of that city, was reminiscent of Caliph al Ma'mun's ninth century Academy (House of Wisdom) at Bagdad" (Atiya 219). In the thirteenth century, Alfonso X the Wise "gave his royal patronage to learned men" regardless of their religions and encouraged translations of Arabic philosophy into Western languages (Atiya 219).

The translations of the ancient Greek texts spurred some of the advances made by Arabic scholars (Atiya 222). Due to the location of the Holy Lands, the knowledge of the ancient Greeks in the Mediterranean was supplemented by the flow of knowledge from further East (Atiya 222). Atiya says, "by the end of the tenth century, the Arabs had become familiar with Brahmagupta's Hindu arithmetic and algebra as well as with the use of zero and the decimal system, which revolutionized the world of mathematics." (Atiya 222). They also "laid the foundations of analytical geometry and of plane and spherical trigonometry, so little known to Greek mathematicians" (Atiya 222). The Middle East was also advanced in geography, which first appeared there during the tenth century, even though "Western Arab geographers and travelers" didn't begin "to emerge on the scene" until a century later (Atiya 230). The Crusades are also responsible for the spread of the use of paper to Europe (Atiya 238). The Islamic world was introduced to paper in the eighth century, and by the end of that century, they had established the first paper factory (Atiya 238). Atiya states, "In Europe, however, the use of paper was not general until the Crusaders returned from the East in the later Middle Ages with the exact techniques of its manufacture" (Atiya 238).

European medicine during the Middle Ages left much to be desired. The practices of the Middle Eastern Islamic scholars were extremely advanced in comparison. They translated the ancient Greek medical works (Atiya 232). They also established "hospitals where medical men made clinical observations while treating their patients" (Atiya 232). Atiya suggests there may have been thirty-four hospitals in the Middle East by the middle of the ninth century (Atiya 232). Their medical practices were far less superstitious than those of the European doctors. While Europeans were blaming cats or unclean air for the spread of plagues, "Arab physicians warned against the spread of the plague through contact with infected clothing and food utensils" (Atiya 234). They were also able to diagnose and treat various illnesses, such as stomach cancer, poisoning, and eye diseases, and they performed surgery with anesthetic (Atiya 234). They were also responsible for the earliest recorded C-section" (Atiya 234).

The Islamic world also traded art and luxury goods with the Europeans. Europe had been at a stand-still in regards to learning, and it was only natural that this stand-still would spill over into the arts and crafts, as well. Therefore, most of the art received by Europeans came from the Middle East. Among the exports were "jewelry, gold and silver work.., ceramics with and without metallic luster, colored glazes, fine pottery, all sorts of vases, glasswork, rock crystal, embosses leather craft," and "embroidered and woven monochrome and polychrome textiles" (Atiya 238). Textile exports from the Middle East were in high demand and "flourished throughout the Middle Ages" (Atiya 239). Europeans were fascinated by eastern fabrics. Leather, too, was mostly unknown to Europe until the Crusades. Atiya says, "The art of leather work and fine embossed leather binding, long known in the East, made its first appearance in the West during the fourteenth century on a very limited scale, and spread more widely in the fifteenth century" (Atiya 239). Europeans began mimicking eastern "copper work with gold and silver inlay and enamel, wood carving, and numerous other artistic achievements" (Atiya 239).

Italian merchants were the first to profit from trade with the Middle East. They had been nervous about the First Crusade and the possibility of halted trade in the Islamic world, but after Europeans began to make settlements in the Holy Land, the Italians, in hope of new markets, began to support the movement (Treece 305). In fact, most trade between the Middle East and Europe depended upon the Italian merchants, who had no religious reservations about trading with Muslims (Treece 307). These European settlements depended on outside sources for food and profited off of customs duties on luxury trade goods that passed through (Treece 306-7). According to Henry Treece, author of The Crusades, "the volume of this trade varied from crusade to crusade" and did not increase until after the First Crusade, which had disturbed the original trade routes (Treece 307). Trade was so lucrative during the Crusades that "by 1250…along the 400 miles of North African coast there were twenty-seven ports into which almost any European merchant could run his cargoes without in any way being impeded by the current crusading wars" (Treece 310).

According to Treece, "The only problem which disturbed the men of Genoa and Venice was what they could bring from impoverished Europe to barter for the luxury goods of the East; and the answer was, at first, slaves" (Treece 308). The merchants would originally sell captured Hungarian and Slavic peasants, but when those areas became Christian, they had to find a new source of slaves (Treece 308). They started selling Turkish or Tartar slaves in Egypt (Treece 308). Saracen slaves were traded as well, and were "commonplace in the thirteenth century markets of Southern France and Italy, and were to remain so until the Renaissance, and even later" (Treece 309).

Slaves were not the only commodity the Italian merchants could offer the Middle East. The Middle East had exhausted many of its resources in fighting the Europeans, so naturally, the Italian merchants could profit from selling such resources as wood and metal to them (Treece 308). In this trade, Spanish merchants also took part, "though such merchandise was prohibited by law" (Treece 308). According to Treece, the traders argued "that if they did not supply the Saracen in such materials, then the Danes, Saxons, or Flemings would step in and steal their contracts…" (Treece 308). He explains the absurdity of the trading situation by saying, "while half of Europe seethed with fury at Saracen military victories… the other half continued to run vast quantities of war-materials into the Turkish ports" (Treece 309). King James I of Aragon actually guaranteed protection for traders sending wood to Egypt, which had used its supply for military purposes (Treece 309). European traders, by the time of Frederick II, "were always allowed to travel through Egypt to the East Indies, often in the company and under the protection of their Moslem fellow-traders" (Treece 309). The Middle Eastern merchants, too, aided their enemies with the trade of military supplies. At one point, "finding that the crusaders were badly in need of supplies of plumes for their helmets, they began ostrich-farms in Egypt to meet the growing European demand" (Treece 310).

It is no coincidence that Italy, rich from trade with the Middle East, began the Renaissance in Europe. Treece describes the phenomena of progress nearing the last of the Crusades:

"In the middle of the fourteenth century, Mediterranean sea-trade reached its climax – after which the slower northerners of the European seaboard began to compete ever more strongly with the clever and experienced bargainers of Italy and Southern France. Before the Crusades began, the northern peoples had traded largely along the Rhine and so into Central Europe, or across to England or the Baltic; but after the crusaders had opened up new trading horizons, there was hardly any limit to the routes which became available to courageous merchants" (Treece 310).

The Italian merchants were at the forefront of trade during the Crusades and therefore profited the most. The wealth acquired from trade with the Middle East as well as the soldiers pillaging the Holy Lands helped advance the European nations. Europe was rich with the flow of new ideas and trade, as well as the establishment of new learning centers, and the entire continent prospered enough to pull itself from the poverty and mental darkness of the previous years.


Atiya, Aziz S. Crusade, Commerce and Culture. Gloucester, Mass.: Indiana University

Press, 1962.

Treece, Henry. The Crusades. New York: Random House, 1963.