By Conor Robison - Writer and Historian for Historical Conquest
The Crusades are a hot topic, capable of arousing fury and contentious debate among academics and laymen alike. The Marxists will lay before you the case that these expeditions of Europeans armies to the levant were but medieval imperialist ventures designed to carve out Christian enclaves amidst the might of Islam. The Marxist historian Neil Faulkner described the so-called Crusader States that emerged as nothing more than “colonial settlements based on military power” who “remained aggressive and predatory neighbors, with continuing robbery and annexations.”
Was this the intention of Pope Urban’s call to arms in November 1095, a land grab in the eastern Mediterranean centered on the base ambition of greed for land, power, and wealth? Modern textbooks echo these sentiments of a colonizing scheme, portraying the Crusaders as religious fanatics “who had little more than religious zeal” and whose military ineptitude was exemplified by their utter lack of appreciation for the lay of the land through which they marched, the infighting which plagued their leadership, and their negligence towards a workable system of supply. “The ideal of a sacred mission to conquer or convert Muslim peoples” goes the conclusion in a History of Western Civilization, a popular textbook taught widely in schools. “entered Europeans’ consciousness and became a continuing goal.” But how could this be when the purpose of the advance to Jerusalem to begin with had nothing at all to do with the conversion of Muslims to Christianity - and never did, nor ever would.
Far from an attempt to convert Muslims, the Frankish lords made alliances with local leaders; at the beginning of 1099 while passing through the territory of Tripoli, the Franks stayed as a guest of Jalal al-Malik, ruler of the city, with whom they formed an alliance. al-Malik ruled his city independent of any greater power. He, like many small Muslim rulers was caught amidst a power struggle between the Fatimid Shiites to the South, and the Sunni Seljuk Turks of the north. This antagonism between the two spilled into open war even as the Franks were marching down the coast. Recovering in Antioch in the late summer of 1098, the Franks had no idea that at that very moment a Fatimid army led by the Vizier Al Afdal was ascending from Egypt to besiege Jerusalem. The twelfth century Syrian historian Al-Qalanisi described what happened next: “When they refused his demand [to surrender], he [Al Afdal] opened an attack on the town, and having...effected a breach in the wall, he captured it and received the surrender of the Sanctuary of David from Sukman [ the Seljuk governor of the city].”
The geopolitical rivalries pervading the Islamic world did not cease with the arrival of the Franks in the East; rather, as in the case of the Fatimids, advantage was taken of their presence to pursue local strategic agendas against fellow Muslim powers. Capitalizing upon Seljuk distraction in the north against the Franks around Antioch, the Fatimids smoothly rushed to seize Jerusalem from underneath them. The Holy City, lost by the Fatimids twenty years before, was once again under their control, but not for long. Few understand that by the time the Franks at last arrived before Jerusalem in June 1099 they were subjecting Jerusalem to its second siege in under a year albeit this time at the hands of a Christian rathern than a Muslim enemy. Indeed, from the East, not the West, the call that launched the First Crusade was uttered.
The Roman Empire of Constantinople was strategic exhausted after years of civil war and invasions. Emperor Alexios I to dispatch letters and diplomats to western Christendom begging for military assistance. Mercenaries from Europe had long fought for Roman Emperors and in this regard Alexios’s thinking was not unusual. However, what he got was something wholly unexpected from his original intent of a few thousand warriors with which to augment his own forces.
Urban’s response came swiftly as summed up by Historian John France: the Pope sought to send “an expedition to Jerusalem which would aid the Byzantine [Roman] Emperor and liberate the churches of the East from the yoke of Islam. He presented the task as a pilgrimage.” A war then, but one entirely defensive minded. A Holy venture, yes, but not one of conquest. The reason for this is simple, the Pope’s intent was to gather forces who’d nominally act under or at least in tandem with the forces of Alexius in an effort to regain Roman lands lost in Anatolia to the Seljuks in the thirty years before Clermont. Baldric of Dol in his reconstruction of the Pope’s speech years later, recorded the Pope’s defensive mindset, for those embarking on the pilgrimage were “...hurrying swifty to defend the eastern Church.” Liberation was the watchword of the day, a campaign to regain what was lost, formulated as a holy journey. Sanctae peregrinationis to use Robert the Monk’s latin - a “holy pilgrimage.”
A pilgrim was a holy traveler bound by sacred vow to fulfill their journey to the end. In the instance of Urban’s proclamation for warriors to head eastward in defense of their Christian brethren, a plenary indulgence was granted to those who took up the cross. Throughout the eleventh century Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land had gone armed and in numbers due to the political turmoil then plaguing the Muslim world. Brigands haunted the pilgrim roads, but a large mass, armed and prepared could fend these attacks off. Indeed, of the several massed pilgrimages to Jerusalem undertaken from western Europe in the decades before the First Crusade, perhaps the most enlightening is that of 1064-65.
Several German bishops led a group over six thousand strong, armed, but peaceful having embarked on a sacred journey. Attacked along the war, the Germans gave a good account of themselves before being rescued by the Fatimid Governor of Ramla, who brought the Christains into his own city where they rest for two weeks before finally entering Jerusalem That the Germans were helped by a Muslim govoner can be chalked up to the willigness of the Fatimids to safeguard the pilgrim roads fro people of all faith. When they lost Jerusalem a decade later to the Seljuk Turks it was an altogether different story. Seljuk atrocities were well known and widespread; it was against them Urban directed his warriors to march as they held the Holy City in their grasp. But as so often happens in war, the situation on the ground changes rapidly, and by the time the weary Franks came before Jerusalem in the summer of 1099 it was a city once more under Fatimid control. But after all they had suffered, the Franks would not be denied Jerusalem.
Suffering was a constant companion to the warriors and civilians who embarked for the Holy land in 1096. The Anonymous writer of the Gesta Francorum, the earliest known account written by a survivor mere months after Jerusalem was reclaimed, has the Pope stress, in a reconstructed version of the Clermont speech, the agonies to come along the route:
Then the Apostolic Lord [Urban] says “Brothers, you must suffer many things for the name of Christ, namely misery, poverty, nakedness, persecution, want, illness, hunger, thirst and other such ills, just as the Lord said to his disciples: “You must suffer much for my name.”
Undoubtedly, the Gesta author was reconstructing from memory his understanding of the Pope’s speech, and infusing it with the realities of what the soldiers and civilians on the ground later experienced. Supply lines were difficult to establish; aid from the Eastern Romans, with whom the Crusaders were in a tenuous alliance, sustained them while they marched through Anatolia, and even into Syria. During the siege of Antioch, forage provided limited sustenance, and supplies via the sea from the port of St. Simeon helped to alleviate the issue only just as it was closed during the winter months. When Antioch was finally taken by subterfuge after eight bitter months the city was sacked. This and the subsequent butchery that befell Jerusalem when it fell a year later has cast the First Crusade and its warriors as bloodthirsty barbarians.
If a city forced the besieger to take it by storm it was left to the mercies of the conquerors which were few to begin with. The Crusaders were not inherently evil in their sacks, for the fall of a hostile city to the sword was commonplace amongst the armies of the time, not merely those from western Europe. What is more, inflated numbers of people killed, derived from the likes of Ibn-Al Athir writing a history of the First Crusade over eight decades after the events he describes is wholly biased against the Franks, and owes much to the spirit of his own age when Jihad had been declared in an attempt to reconquer Jerusalem. But the Franks themselves speak in graphic detail of the fighting. Memorably, the Gesta author recounts the moments immediately after the walls of Jerusalem were breached with unflinching exactness:
But as soon as he [Laethold, first man on the ladder] ascends, all of the city’s defenders fled from the walls and through the city, our men followed them, killing and slaying them right up to the Temple of Solomon, where there was so great a slaughter that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.
There is no cover up, no attempts at hiding or whitewashing what was done when the city of Jerusalem fell to what remained of the Crusader hosts on July 15, 1099. It was the culmination of years of hardship; of starvation and bloody battle, death on an unimaginable scale, andhorros unnumbered. It was perceived as an expedition to aid the beleaguered eastern Romans from the attacks of the Seljuq Turks and the liberations of lands that had once been Christian, but morphed into a campaign of liberating cities down the eastern Mediterranean coast as the Franks met with success after success on the battlefield.
Here’s the thing, in order to understand the events surrounding the European expedition that retook Jerusalem in 1099, we have to take into account the enormous political, social, military, and religious, complexities of the time. The Muslim world was hardly unified; at one another’s throats the Seljuk Turks and Fatimid Egyptians were at war with one another by the time the Franks arrived in Syria. Jerusalem was besieged by the Fatimids only eleven months before it fell to the Franks. The Franks, platry in number after having lost thousands from exhaustion, exposure, starvation, and death in battle in Anatolia and Syria were not to be denied what was in their eyes the validation of all they had suffered: Jerusalem. Taken after a month long siege the city was brutally sacked, not uncommon for its time, beginning almost two centuries of Christian rule of a thin strip of land in the heart of the Islamic world.
Having achieved their objective of Jerusalem, most of the pilgrims returned home to Europe, leaving a handful behind to preside over a populace overwhelmingly Muslim, and to a lesser degree Orthodox Christian. Attempts to convert the Muslims to Christianity didn't happen; had they did why is there no evidence of a significant rebellion within the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, or the other small Frankish kingdoms that emerged in the First Crusade’s wake? Why didn’t the Muslims overthrow their Frankish rulers if the harsh hand of subjugation was forced upon them? It wasn’t; the populations of the Crusaders States were largely Muslim who lived devoid of harrassement from their Frankish overlords. Indeed, cultures began to blend, knowledge of Arabic was essential as an everyday language, especially for trade. The Franks did not force their culture upon the people of Syria and Palestine, and though certain actions like the Al-Aqsa Mosque being used by the Knights Templar as a headquarters, for example, rankled this was not a colonizing endeavour.
These historical complexities must be taken into account, for too often the Crusades are diluted in an effort to simplify them. This lead to their historical context being ignored, and once you ignore something’s context it then becomes a pretext for whatever you want it to say. Urban and the warriors he sent, and the thousands of civilians who went regardless of the fact they they were not the Pontiff’s targeted audience, saw their journey as a pilgrimage, a holy journey into a hostile warzone to liberate the holiest city of them all. They did not call themselves ‘Crusaders,’ their Muslims enemies only ever called them Franks, of Infidels, and the fact that they succeeded at all is a military miracle. We cannot understand the suffering endured along the way, but the conviction to continue on was iron, but it culminated at last after over two years, several thousand miles, and thousands of lives of man and beast lost along the way, in the brutal sack of Jerusalem. It was a war, after all, but a war of unending complexities, and its well past time that these complexities were embraced and understood.
1. Neil Faulkner. “Crusade and Jihad in the Medieval Middle East.” International Socialism 109 (2006). Marxists.org. (Accessed January 12, 2019) https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/faulkner/2006/xx/crusade.html#n9.
2. McKay, John P. et al. A History of Western Society Volume One: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment. Tenth Edition. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010), 258.
3. McKay. et al. A History of Western Society, 266.
4. France, John. Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994),
5. The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and Translated from the Chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalanisi. Translated by H. A. R. Gibb (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002), 45.
6. Somerville, Robert. Pope Urban II’s Council of Piacenza March 1-7, 1095. (Oxford: Oxford University,2011), 11, 16, 25. For background on the Roman’s military position throughout the 1070s and 1080s see Michael Attaleiates, The History, 531. Anna Komnena, The Alexiad, 9-13. See also, Haldon, John. The Byzantine Wars. (Stroud: The History Press, 2008), 181-186.
7. France, John. Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 4.
8. The Historia Ierosolimitana of Baldric of Bourgueil. Edited by Steven J. Biddlecombe. (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2014), 9. “...et ad defendendam Orientalem Ecclesiam velocius concurrite.”
9. The Historia Iherosolimitana of Robert the Monk. Edited by D. Kempf and M. G. Bull. (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2013), 7. “Quicumpue ergo hujus sanctae peregrinationis animum habuerit...signum Dominicae Crucis in fonte sua sive in pectore praeferat” or “Whoever, therefore, shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage...shall wear the sign of the cross of the Lord on his forehead or on his breast.”
10. France. Victory in the East, 87.
11. Burt Westermeier. “Mass Pilgrimage and the Christological Context of the First Crusade.” Michigan Journal of History 10. (2013): 189 - 213. France. Victory in the East, 87.
12. Annalist of Nieder-Altaich, "The Great German Pilgrimage of 1064-65," trans. James Brundage, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, 9 -13.
13. Gesta Francorum I:I. thelatinlibrary.org. (Accessed January 12, 2020,) https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/gestafrancorum/gestafrancorum1.shtml. Ait namque domnus apostolicus 'Fratres, uos oportet multa pati pro nomine Christi, uidelicet miserias, paupertates, nuditates, persecutiones, egestates, infirmitates, fames, sites et alia huiusmodi, sicuti Dominus ait suis discipulis: "Oportet uos pati multa pro nomine meo"
14. France. Victory in the East, 355.
15. Gesta Francorum 10: 39. (Accessed January 12, 2020) http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/gestafrancorum/gestafrancorum10.shtml.
Mox uero ut ascendit, omnes defensores ciuitatis fungerunt per muros et per ciuitatem, nostrique subsecuti persequebantur eos occidendo et detruncando usque ad Templum Salomonis. Ibique talis occisio fuit, ut nostri in sanguine illorum pedes usque ad cauillas mitterent.