The Crusades: Today's Fictions vs. Yesterday's Facts

Some members have requested that I compose an essay on the Crusades.  I have been reluctant because of the size of such a subject, and for other reasons.

Today, since I had some time, and because a few good people have asked, I have written the following.

The History of the Crusades cannot possibly be addressed properly in an essay for a website.  The purpose here is to give quick summaries of what the Crusades were, and especially, in general, what they were not.  A secondary purpose is to intrigue the reader enough to find and read a basic history of the 1,000 years which we call the Middle Ages or the Medieval Era, running roughly from 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.  For Eastern Europe and the Afro-Asian remnants of the Roman Empire, one must look to the 1,000 years known as Byzantine History.

The Crusades were not a sudden invention of the pope to attack peace-loving Arab Moslems minding their own business.  The Arabs and Islam had been on the march since the 600’s, and their long-term goal was always the destruction of the Christian state of the Byzantine Empire.  Arab fleets and armies would be seen outside of Constantinople several times throughout the centuries, to be replaced later by the Turks.  If spreading Islam was only one of many goals of these invasions, it cannot be said that it was ever totally absent.  Similarly, recapturing the Holy Land for Christianity was only one of many goals for the Crusaders: for some, it was not the goal at all, and certainly it was not the goal of the Byzantines at the time!

One of the most striking features of Byzantine History is the nearly constant necessity of warfare plaguing that state, usually defensive in nature.  Surviving the initial onslaught of Germanic tribes who had brought down the West, the Byzantines were then to face throughout the centuries assorted hostile and migrating tribes of Vikings/Normans, Slavs, Arabs, and Turks, along with wars against Persians, Crusaders, and the Venetians.  (This list is not necessarily complete!)

The last Latin-speaking emperor based in Constantinople was Justinian, who tried to reconquer the West from the Germanic barbarians, and partially succeeded.  The problem was that the wars were so expensive and the manpower needs so great that he was in the long term causing problems for the Byzantine state.  Unable to pay its usual tribute (i.e. bribe) to the Persian king, the empire found its eastern provinces invaded by the Persians, with Armenia at the center. After a period of civil war, a Byzantine emperor named Heraclius, one of the greatest leaders in Medieval History, finally defeated the Persians, a process lasting roughly from the 570’s to the 620’s.  (Imagine Americans supporting and enduring and paying for an off-and-on war for 50 years!)

Unfortunately for both the Byzantines and the Persians, Arab tribes were just then organizing themselves to burst forth into the north.  Although their numbers were not particularly large, the Arabs were not exhausted from such warfare across generations, and were able to sweep into both Persian and Byzantine territory, as well as head across  the north African coast toward western Europe.  Many reasons are given for their success: the exhaustion of Byzantine resources and manpower, the high taxation of the Byzantine government (especially disliked in Syria and Egypt), etc.  But divisions inside of Christianity were also a major factor.

It is not commonly known, but Byzantine theologians considered Islam a heresy of Christianity: they saw the roots of Islam coming from the Christian sect of Arianism, and one modern historian (F. W. Buckler) saw Nestorianism, a Christian sect based in Baghdad, as being highly important for Islam.  Since the Arabs were a minority in the areas they had conquered, they were often content to keep what machinery of government had been left behind.  Christians were taxed for not converting: “Convert or be taxed” was probably more often heard than “Convert or die!”

The Arab advance is not stopped until the Byzantine victories of 674-678 at Constantinople.  After a truce of 30 years, the Byzantines attempted to retake what the Arabs had conquered, and lost more territory.  Another siege of Constantinople occurred in 717, and again the Arabs were pushed away, as they were pushed out of France in 732 by Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne.  This Arab expedition was not a full-fledged invasion of France by any means, but the defeat was enough for the Arabs to remain content with Spain.

Thus by the mid-700’s an uneasy status quo had evolved, with Arabs and Byzantines nibbling away at each, and dealing with their own internal conflicts, while in Spain the Reconquista began almost immediately in 718.  Christians and Jews were tolerated in Islamic lands, but were deliberately socially and politically persecuted for not converting, parallel with Catholics in England after the formation of the Church of England.  And to be fair, one must note that the Byzantines allowed mosques to be built, including right inside the city of Constantinople.

300 years later the Turks were on the march, conquering their fellow Moslems and leading a new charge against the Byzantines, who had – again – followed foreign policies in Armenia which let them open to attack in the long term.  In 1071, the Battle of Manzikert (or Mantzikert) left the Byzantines devastated and the Turks in charge of much of what is today Turkey.  They would go on to capture Jerusalem in 1077.  Within 20 years, Turks (the Patzinaks) were outside the walls of Constantinople, but were defeated.

Besieged in such ways, the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus, appealed to the pope for some military aid.  Pope Urban II, seeing an opportunity to tame the growing number of unemployed, landless knights, and to harness the energies of constantly feuding aristocrats (it was not called the “feudal system” for nothing) for something worthwhile, decided to answer the Byzantine appeal in his own way.  Alexius was expecting perhaps 5,000 mercenaries who would join the Byzantine army.

What he got instead was The First Crusade!

The Byzantines were shocked when the crowds of uncouth Westerners appeared, with the goal of liberating the Holy Land!  To be sure, the Byzantines had not controlled that area for hundreds of years, but still considered it their own problem, and not the concern of all of Christendom!    Also, one could find Christians living under Moslem rule, who preferred the infidels to the Byzantines, and especially to Western Christians, who were just one step out of barbarism.

The main point here is that religious fervor was not the motivating factor for the Byzantine Christians, and was not the main factor for many of the Western knights and their aristocratic leaders, most of whom were French.  Economic, political, social, and even cultural factors were involved, and that is especially true of the later three “official” crusades, all of which were failures.  The Fourth Crusade, for example, was a complete disaster…for the Byzantines!  Arabs and Turks had nothing to fear from that crusade, since the Venetians had plotted to turn the Westerners into a proxy army for themselves to dismember what was left of the Byzantine state.

The First Crusade, however, was an amazing success, in that Jerusalem and the Holy Land were in fact captured by a polyglot army from the western Mediterranean!  Also amazing is that relations between the infidels and the Crusaders were not always hostile!  Syrian Moslems in fact welcomed them because of threats from fellow Moslems: the Turks and the Egyptians.  The Islamic leader of Tripoli had supplied the Crusaders with provisions and guides.   So the Islamic world, then as now, was subdivided among competing interests.

Were these Christian soldiers immune to the temptations of warfare?  No, and the capture of Jerusalem is the best example of the worst of their behavior.  Enraged by Islamic soldiers desecrating crosses on the walls of Jerusalem during the siege, the Crusaders might in fact have been energized by such sacrilege finally to break through the walls.  Estimates vary, but somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 residents were slaughtered, men, women, and children.  The few Jews left were herded into a synagogue which was then ignited.  One might think that “noble knights” would not have indulged in such behavior. The sources show that a good number of the “pilgrims” accompanying the military men were in fact criminals of all kinds, including supposedly repentant murderers.  But there is no evidence that the knights did anything to stop the massacre, or that there was regret afterward.  To be sure, Moslems and Jews had conspired a hundred years earlier to massacre Jerusalem Christians, but it is unlikely that any Christian with a sword in his hand really wanted to avenge that atrocity. Archbishop William of Tyre, writing a history several generations later about the event, expressed horror at what the Crusaders had done in Jerusalem.

Crusaders went on to establish Western European style fiefdoms, some of which lasted longer than one might expect.  With such beachheads, the hope was that a Reconquista might be possible, but the other crusades failed for many reasons.

To conclude, one can see that the Crusades were a highly complex phenomenon involving assorted issues in the West: social problems (primogeniture, for example, whereby the oldest son inherits everything, was a tradition which caused the growing number of landless, warlike knights errant), political problems between the pope and the increasingly powerful aristocracy (an aristocracy still more pagan than Christian in its clinging to the warrior ethos of Germanic mythology), political and religious issues between the pope and the Byzantines, and as always economic factors.  Ignorant people who think that the Crusades were an unwarranted, out-of-the-blue attack on Islam, and therefore are to blame for our current troubles, are easily contradicted by someone who knows the facts.  Without the Byzantines constantly acting as a buffer against Islamic advances, without Charles Martel in 732 in France, without the Crusades, without the men under Don Juan at Lepanto in 1571, without the men under Nicholas of Salm at Vienna in 1529, and without the men under John Sobieski of Poland again at Vienna in 1683, all of them blunting the advance of Islamic armies, it is indisputable that our present lives would be quite different today, and not for the better: this is true even with accepting that spreading their religion was not the primary aim of the Arabic and Turkish armies.  For it is the Western Tradition of freedom for the average person, first practiced by the Greeks, Romans, and the early Celtic and Germanic tribes, and not always practiced perfectly, but always evolving to include as many people as possible, which would have disappeared under such an Oriental force as Islam.