The Era of the Crusades

Course No. 390
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 390
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Explore a wide variety of misperceptions and long-debated questions about the Crusades.
  • numbers Learn how trade between Christendom and the Islamic and Byzantine worlds shifted the financial axis of the era.
  • numbers Discover what social and political circumstances led to the end of the Crusades.

Course Overview

The Crusades have been hailed as the driving force that brought Western Europe out of the Middle Ages—and condemned as the beginning of European imperialism in the Muslim Near East. But what really were the Crusades? What were the forces that led to one of history's most protracted and legendary periods of conflict? How did they affect the three great civilizations that participated in them? And, ultimately, why did they end and what did they accomplish?

A Crucial Chapter in the Story of Western Civilization

In The Era of the Crusades, Professor Kenneth W. Harl looks at the "big picture" of the Crusades as an ongoing period of conflict involving Western Christendom (we would now call it Western Europe), the Byzantine Empire, and the Muslim world. From this perspective, you will study the complex but absorbing causes of the Crusades, which include the many political, cultural, and economic changes in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

In addition, Professor Harl presents the Crusades in terms of the specific military campaigns—the eight "canonical" Crusades that took place from 1095–1291—proclaimed to retake Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim hands and return them to Christendom. You will consider the immediate circumstances—the leaders, purposes, key battles, and degrees of success or failure—surrounding these often-monumental expeditions (they could number as many as 100,000 soldiers and religious pilgrims).

This course is an opportunity to appreciate fully how Western Civilization changed in many profound ways during the Crusading era. You will understand how the Byzantine Empire collapsed; how Western Europe began its rise to global political, economic, and cultural power; and how the Middle East became a majority Muslim world.

You will also explore a wide variety of misperceptions and long-debated questions about the Crusades. Did the popes preach the Crusades as a way to increase their personal power and authority? Were the Crusader armies made up of zealous and brutal religious fanatics or of highly disciplined soldiers—heirs to a sophisticated Western European military tradition? Why did the members of the Fourth Crusade decide to sack Constantinople, turning the Crusades from Christian against "infidel" to Christian against Christian?

An Era of Adventure, Chivalry, and Legend

This three-part, 36-lecture course is as sweeping in scope as were the Crusades themselves. Professor Harl delves into fascinating aspects of history, all related to the Crusades, that make each lecture a new adventure. These include advances in shipbuilding that were spurred by the Crusades, the types of weapons and military tactics used in battle, and the legend of "Prester John," a mysterious eastern king with whom the popes hoped to form an alliance against the Muslims.

You will appreciate the opulence of the "Queen of Cities," the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, a city that conveyed a sense of awe-inspiring ceremony and splendor to the Crusaders and other visitors. Attending Mass in the city's cathedral, the Hagia Sophia (now a mosque), was said to be so stirring that a number of Russians converted to Christianity out of the simple conviction that God must dwell in such a magnificent church.

You will examine the organization and purpose of the Hospitallers and the Templars: the Knights of the Hospital and the Knights of the Temple. These "soldiers for Christ," a unique mixture of clergy and warrior, played an instrumental role in defending the Holy Land and in operating its banking system.

What makes the Crusades so attractive to study is that they are like a great novel. This is a time in history that is the source of many of our notions of adventure and chivalry and that is peopled with colorful and renowned figures. Those you will meet include:

  • Odo of Bayeux, a churchman who fought in the Crusades but still maintained his beliefs against shedding blood. Instead of a sword, he used a mace to simply hit his opponents in the head and give them a concussion.
  • Louis VII of France, the pious and monkish king who slept on a bare stone floor, worried constantly about his sins, and viewed the Second Crusade as a means to personal redemption.
  • Eleanor of Aquitane, one of the most brilliant and engaging women in history, whose adventuresome nature led her to join the Second Crusade, accompanied by a personal court that included maidens dressed as Amazons.
  • Saladin, the great Kurdish-Muslim conqueror whose victory at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 ended the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Through his gallantry and generosity toward his enemies, Saladin, a Muslim, ironically came to be seen as the epitome of Christian chivalry.
  • Richard the Lion-hearted, the son of Eleanor of Aquitane and heir to a family tradition of participation in Crusades. Considered "the perfect knight," handsome and with a fondness for gambling, jousting, and tournaments, Richard fought Saladin to a stalemate in a relationship of mutual respect and admiration.
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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Heirs of Rome
    This lecture defines the Crusades, examines popular perceptions, and looks at the civilizations involved: Western Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic world. x
  • 2
    Byzantine Orthodox Civilization
    In 1000, in law and politics, Constantinople was the New Rome. In letters, arts, and aesthetics, it was akin to classical Greece. In contrast to Western Europe, its nobility stressed proper comportment and education. x
  • 3
    Byzantine Zenith in the Macedonian Age
    The Byzantine Empire stood as the premiere Christian power under Basil II. The majestic image of imperial Constantinople long endured, influencing Crusader and Muslim perceptions until the fateful sack of 1204. x
  • 4
    The Failure of the Heirs of Basil II
    The collapse of Byzantine power opened Asia Minor to conquest by the Seljuk Turkomen. Alexius I and allies from Western Europe launched the First Crusade. x
  • 5
    Abbasid Baghdad and Fatimid Egypt
    The Abbasid caliphate fragmented in the 9th century. The Fatimids swept across North Africa, conquering the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. x
  • 6
    The Coming of the Seljuk Turks
    Tughril Bey and his Seljuk Turks entered Baghdad in 1055 and recognized the Abbasid caliphate. The Seljuk sultans ("guardians" to the caliph) raided Byzantium, with unexpected victory at Manzikert in 1071. x
  • 7
    The Recovery of Western Europe
    The Crusades are often depicted as a migration of peasants and unwanted sons of nobles. In fact, the Crusades were made possible by the economic recovery of Europe. x
  • 8
    Kings and Princes of Western Europe
    In 1095, none of the three great monarchs of Christendom assumed the cross. Instead, dukes and counts, who owed fealty for their lands in return for military service, set out as leaders of the First Crusade. x
  • 9
    Warfare in Western Europe
    On the eve of the First Crusade, heavily armed knights dominated the battlefield of Western Europe. x
  • 10
    The Papacy and Religious Reform
    Pope Gregory VII disputed the right of Emperor Henry IV to invest bishops, and the ensuing Investiture Controversy redefined the medieval church. x
  • 11
    Piety and Pilgrimage
    Since the 4th century, Christians yearned for the spiritual renewal gained from visiting the holy places. Pilgrimage, fused with Germanic warrior ethos and Christian ideals of holy war, resulted in Crusade. x
  • 12
    Christian Offensives in Spain and Sicily
    In the 11th century, border wars against Muslims in Spain, Sicily, and the Western Mediterranean were redefined as part of a wider conflict between Christendom and Islam. x
  • 13
    Alexius I and the First Crusade
    In 1092, Alexius I Comnenus appealed to the Western princes and Pope Urban II. Alexius struck a chord: Urban launched the First Crusade. x
  • 14
    From Clermont to Jerusalem
    On July 15, 1099, members of the First Crusade stormed into Jerusalem, slaughtering Muslim inhabitants. The princes saw victory as God's favor, and carved out principalities in defiance of oaths to Alexius I. x
  • 15
    Conquest and Defense of Outremer
    Baldwin I—crowned king of Jerusalem on the death of his brother, Godfrey of Bouillon in 1100—imposed his suzerainty on Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli. His successors inherited a splendidly run kingdom. x
  • 16
    Frankish Settlement of Outremer
    At King Fulk's death, perhaps 50,000 Western Europeans ruled three million residents of Outremer. While many natives disliked Frankish rule, they prospered. x
  • 17
    Comnenian Emperors and Crusader Princes
    Comnenian emperors John II and Manuel I mounted expeditions to assert imperial rights over Crusader Antioch. They thus were distracted from their more deadly foes, the Normans and Seljuk Turks. x
  • 18
    The Second Crusade
    After the fall of Edessa to Nur-ad-Din, King Louis VII of France and German King Conrad III led the Second Crusade. The Crusaders' defeat at Damascus left Nur-ad-Din free to unite Muslim Syria. x
  • 19
    The Empire at Bay
    Manuel I inherited an empire at bay. In 1176, he suffered a decisive defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Myriocephalon. The Franks of Outremer not only soon lost their best ally in Manuel, but henceforth could be reinforced only by sea. x
  • 20
    The Rise of Saladin
    In 1169, Saladin occupied Cairo. He secured Muslim Syria and northern Iraq and proclaimed a new holy war against "the Franks of the coast." x
  • 21
    Byzantine Recovery under the Comnenians
    In 1092, Alexius I restored imperial prosperity. Comnenian emperors funded expensive wars, diplomacy, and patronage. But the Crusaders envied imperial wealth. x
  • 22
    A Renaissance of Byzantine Letters and Arts
    Comnenian emperors revived imperial patronage of letters and arts. With the capture of Constantinople, Westerners initiated a cultural exchange that contributed to the Florentine Enlightenment. x
  • 23
    Trade and Currency in the Mediterranean
    By the mid-12th century, Venice, Genoa, Palermo, Marseilles, and Barcelona emerged as conduits of trade between Christendom and the Islamic and Byzantine worlds, shifting the financial axis from Constantinople. x
  • 24
    Cultural Exchange in Gothic Europe
    Chivalry and courtly manners were defined by Crusading. This spirit was imbued in the first great vernacular literary monuments of Gothic Europe—chansons de geste, Arthurian romances, and the cycle of the Ring. x
  • 25
    The Horns of Hattin
    King Guy de Lusignan suffered a crushing defeat at the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187. Saladin overran Outremer and entered Jerusalem in triumph. x
  • 26
    The Third Crusade
    After Hattin, the kings of Christendom embarked on the Third Crusade (1189–1192). Richard the Lion-hearted recaptured the ports of Outremer, but not Jerusalem. x
  • 27
    From Jerusalem to Constantinople
    Pope Innocent III called for the liberation of Jerusalem, but members of the Fourth Crusade (1198–1204) wanted to capture Constantinople in the name of faith. x
  • 28
    The Sack of Constantinople
    Did the Crusaders sack Constantinople out of ambition and jealousy? Western perceptions and misunderstandings certainly influenced their crucial decisions in 1202–1204. x
  • 29
    The World of Frankish Greece
    The Frankish dukes of Athens and Princes of Achaea offered token fealty to Constantinople. They promoted an opulent world of tournaments and troubadours. x
  • 30
    Splinter Empires and Orthodox Princes
    After the sack of Constantinople, Theodore I Lascaris organized a Byzantine government at Nicaea. Michael VIII Palaeologus sacrificed this state to recapture Constantinople in 1261. His son Andronicus II led Orthodox subjects hateful of Latin rule. x
  • 31
    Ayyubid Egypt and Seljuk Anatolia
    The Ayyubid sultans built a new political order in Egypt, Syria, Al-Jazirah, and Mecca and Medina. Simultaneously, the sultans of Konya integrated Anatolia into the Muslim world. These two states laid the foundations for the Ottoman Porte destined to end the Crusades. x
  • 32
    Crusader Cyprus and the Levant
    An impressive array of European nobility led the Fifth Crusade (1217–1221). The Sultan al-Kamil contained the Crusaders at Damietta, forcing their withdrawal. Afterward, the Lusignan kings turned to exploiting domains in Cyprus. x
  • 33
    Venice and Genoa
    In the 13th century, Venice and Genoa turned their Levantine and Byzantine ports into commercial empires. They preferred trade with Ayyubid and Mamluk Egypt and Syria, and opposed papal appeals for crusades after 1291. x
  • 34
    The Mongols and the Legend of Prester John
    In 1220, Jenghiz Khan was greeted as the heir of Prester John, a mighty Christian lord. But the Mongolian invasion of Eastern Europe terrified Christians. The Crusaders faced a resurgent Mamluk Egypt. x
  • 35
    The Royal Crusaders
    The Fifth Crusade (1217–1221), Sixth Crusade (1228–1229) under Frederick II, and Seventh Crusade (1246–1254) led by St. Louis IX, King of France, all failed. The Christian fortresses along the Levantine shore were doomed. x
  • 36
    The Passing of the Crusades
    The Mamluk sultans overthrew Ayyubid rule in 1250. The Mamluk general Baybars virtually eliminated Crusader rule in the Levant by capturing Antioch in 1268. The end came in 1291, when the Mamluks stormed Acre. x

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Your professor

Kenneth W. Harl

About Your Professor

Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Recognized as an outstanding lecturer, Professor Harl has received numerous teaching awards at Tulane, including the coveted Sheldon H. Hackney Award. He has...
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The Era of the Crusades is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 88.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointing This course really should be titled Western Medieval History. The crusades did not seem to be the main focus of this course at all. Of the 36 lectures, the first crusade was covered in lecture 13, the second in lecture 18, the third in lecture 26. Professor Hurl is filled with historic knowledge of everything that took place in the former Roman Empire after it fell. The crusades were just a small part of it.
Date published: 2020-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from European Colonialism 1.0 The Crusades were Latin Europe’s first expansionist effort since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire about six hundred fifty years earlier. As you probably know, the First Crusade was motivated by a desire to capture Jerusalem from the Muslims, and it worked, ending with the establishment of three (later four) principalities in the Near East. Unfortunately for the Latins, the Muslims (Turks in particular) reconquered them one by one despite Crusades 2 through 8, and the whole project ended with retreat of Christendom in the East. Fortunately for us, Kenneth Harl’s lectures make the era’s events and personalities come alive again in their original color, passion and humiliation. Harl makes several interesting contributions. First and most important, he makes clear that the Crusades were a clash of three civilizations rather than two—the Latin West, the Orthodox Christian Byzantines (a later Western name for the Greek-speaking Eastern Romans), and Islam. Second, he is a strong believer in contingency. Even when Saladin united Syria and Egypt in the late twelfth century, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was not necessarily doomed. It took incompetence to give Saladin a decisive victory over an exhausted and parched Christian army that King Guy of Lusignan had foolishly led through waterless scrublands. Third, he points out that crusading went on for as long as it did because it became a tradition among French families, with various sons feeling a need to live up to the deeds of their fathers or to atone for their failures. This applied to the Capetian royal dynasty as well, though none of the French kings got crusading right. Fourth, he also notes that Genoese and Venetian naval predominance began in this era as mercantile competition from Pisa, Amalfi, Marseilles and Barcelona dropped out. Harl also argues for a couple of surprising points. He rejects any connection between the Crusades and Gothic architecture; I had always believed the pointed arch was an import from the Near East. Furthermore, he denies that that the Albigensian Crusade in southern France had any legitimate target at all. There were no Cathars or heretics; the entire movement was an invention of its persecutors. Well, then you have to wonder what all the fuss was about. My favorite lectures were numbers 16 and 29. The one described the Latin states of Edessa, Antioch and Jerusalem, their geographic and demographic differences and the ways they adapted Western feudal institutions to the commercialized East. The other compares the sorry state of the Latin “Empire” of Constantinople with well-governed Frankish Greece, whose rulers intermarried with Greek Orthodox women, held money-fiefs, encouraged the production of luxury goods, minted silver currency, supported troubadours and staged tournaments. I have my own views. First, it’s obvious in hindsight that the apparent miracle of the First Crusade was almost impossible to reproduce; it came about only because of great combat leadership among the Normans and French, disunity among the Muslims, and Byzantine support. All three of these things were missing later. To a large extent, failed crusaders got what they deserved. Again and again, they rejected sound advice from people who knew better, like the disorganized and untrained peasants of the First Crusade and the kings of the Second Crusade, and then met the highly foreseeable disaster they were warned against. The leaders of the Fifth Crusade that captured Damietta and marched on Cairo received an amazing peace offer from the Sultan of Egypt that would have restored Jerusalem and paid tribute for his castles in Jordan. They rejected it, walked into a trap, and were forced to surrender. Second, I feel sorry for the long-gone Byzantines. If the Latins had put only half the effort they wasted on Jerusalem into recovering Anatolia from the Turks they could have saved the Byzantine Empire for the modern era. Instead of Muslim Turkey we would have a Christian Greek state stretching from the Aegean Sea to Armenia, perhaps still preserving the imperial monarchy of Constantine. Of course, such an objective would never have aroused the religious fervor and intense effort in the West that Jerusalem did. As it was, the Fourth Crusade broke apart what was left of the Empire, aiding the later Turkish advance into Europe. In addition to this course, I can strongly recommend Harl’s related courses on Asia Minor, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, and the Vikings. If you want a lot more detail on the Crusades and the Latin Kingdoms in the Near East, consider reading Stephen Runciman’s three-volume history from the 1950s.
Date published: 2019-08-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Incorrect Statements I agree with the many reviewers who criticize the lecturer for his rapid-fire manner of speech. It can be regarded as deriving from a neglect to organize facts into a succinct, summarized form that better conveys information to the listener. The lecturer also inserts pieces of information that are either incorrect or misleading, e.g. close to the beginning of Lecture 27, referring to Saladin and his Ayyubid successors, he states that Ayyub is Arabic for 'Jacob'. It is not.. 'Ayyub' is 'Job'; 'Jacob' is 'Yacoub'. Then, in the Glossary, 'dhimmi' is immediately followed by a bracketed phrase in quotation marks - ("people of the book") - implying that it is the translation of the term, which it is not. 'Ahl el kitab' is 'people of the book'. 'Dhimmi' denotes a free, non-Muslim subject in a Muslim country, and is derived from 'dhimma' which, in a socio-political context, means 'covenant of protection' i.e. of the rights of non-Muslims in a Muslim State, for which such citizens paid a special tax to ensure safeguarding of property, etc. In the history of the Muslim conquest of Spain, conversion to Islam was used as a means of avoiding the 'dhimmi' tax, while privately continuing to adhere to one's religious beliefs. I have followed multiple courses by this lecturer, and the same defects in presentation persist. He is very knowledgeable, but his enthusiastic spewing forth of such knowledge results in a lack of control and a disconcerting garbling of words. For an ardent student of the crusades, in order to understand events from the non-Western point of view, I highly recommend 'The Crusades Through Arab Eyes' by Amin Maalouf (1984), translated from French by Jon Rothschild.
Date published: 2019-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have to say this course not only gave great insight to the Crusades, but all of history at this time. I hoped to gain more knowledge about this era and this course didn't disappoint. Prof. Harl is an absolute fount of knowledge in this area. Very well done.
Date published: 2019-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thorough and thoroughly entertaining. Professor Harl knows his subjects and does an excellent job of presenting the material. This is the third lecture series of his that I have completed, and I just ordered another one. I watch these while rowing my Concept 2 rower and it is important that the presenter speak clearly and enunciate well. Professor Harl does both of those things well and always speaks as if he is lecturing to a room full of students. I learned a great deal about the Crusades, the era, the people, and the regions involved. I highly recommend the course.
Date published: 2019-02-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but Not Great I am a huge Great Courses fan. I've listened to well-over a hundred of them, many by Professor Harl. Unfortunately, this course does not quite live-up to what I've come to expect from Professor Harl and the Great Courses. That being said, it's still a very good course--just not as great as some others. This course does a very good job of covering the era of the crusades, as the title promises. However, the flow was a bit choppy, and I wish more detail had been given about the actual battles fought during the crusades. While this course does touch on some of the battles, it could have been given more emphasis to improve the course. This is still worth listening to, it's just not as great as some others.
Date published: 2019-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good approach to complicated pediod Good lectures in reasonable chunks of history. Maps help to understand
Date published: 2018-12-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Too much information for one course. Very interesting course. However, the presentation seemed to me to be somewhat disjointed with too much information for one course.
Date published: 2018-12-13
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