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High Middle Ages (1000-1200)

The Crusades: 1095-1204

England from Saxon Kingdom to Norman Conquest: 925-1135

Byzantium, 1081-1261: Decay, Defeats, Latin Betrayal, and Survival


By 1094, Pope Urban II (1088-1099) received an appeal from Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus for military assistance against the Turks in Anatolia. Urban had done much to restore Papal prestige after Gregory VII and the Investiture Controversy. While engaged in a papal tour of French dioceses, he stopped at Clermont on 27 November 1095, and Preached the First Crusade. The Muslim victories against the Byzantines and their constriction of pilgrimage to Jerusalem were said to be a disgrace to Christianity. Instead of pursuing strife among themselves, western nobles and knights should turn their efforts outward to the enemies of Christianity and the oppressors of the Holy Land. Thus, the Pope called for an armed pilgrimage, and those dying in the blessed campaigns of liberation would receive a heavenly reward.

Urban had been targeting mostly French nobles, and had wanted a well-disciplined body of knights under control of a Papal legate. Others were immediately attracted, mostly through itinerant preachers. Contrary to the Pope's wishes, the Peasants' Crusade began first, in the spring of 1096. It was lead by the most popular itinerant preacher, Peter the Hermit. Passing through France into Germany, its impoverished adherents survived by gifts and plunder. Met in Germany by more adherents and a few knights, it proceeded to plunder and destroy Jewish communities, in worms and Metz in particular. Upon reaching Hungary, the King Coloman would not tolerate their depredations, and routed a large segment of the force. When it arrived in tattered shape in Constantinople, the appalled Emperor ferried them across to Anatolia. The Turks soon annihilated them.

The knightly component of the Crusades was organized by the late summer of 1096. Henry IV of Germany and Philip I of France were excommunicated at the time, so the greatest kings of the West were not part of the Crusade. Urban appointed Adhemar, Bishop of Le Puy, as Papal legate and leader of the Crusader armies. The brothers of the kings of France and England--the 'second sons'--were prominent as Crusade leaders. These included Robert, duke of Normandy, and Hugh of Vermandois. The Flemmings and northwestern Franks were led by Baldwin of Flanders and his brother Godfrey of Bouillon, the Duke of Lower Lorraine. Raymond de St. Gilles led the southern French knights, while Bohemond, son of Robert Guiscard, gave up battling in Italy to join the Crusade.

They then left for Constantinople in several waves. Godfrey led his troops--as well as their bloated baggage train containing mendicants, pilgrims, merchants, and even prostitutes--along the Danube, through Hungary, into Bulgaria to Constantinople, barely avoiding serious entanglements with indigenous populations and warriors along the way. The Count of Toulouse fared much worse by taking a route through Italy, Venice, and along the Adriatic coast. On the way to Durazzo, the difficult terrain and war-like inhabitants caused his forces several losses as well as starvation. The Normans and northern French went through Italy, then crossed to Durazzo. When the whole host was arrived in Constantinople, Alexius did his best to get rid of them quickly. He quartered them outside of the city, supplying them with provisions and transportation to Asia Minor. He then told them to proceed along the southern coast of the peninsula, but they preferred to go right through its center. When they captured Nicaea in May 1097, the Emperor occupied it himself, claiming the surrounding areas for Byzantium.

At this point the Western army consisted, at the most, of 3,000 knights and 12,000 foot-soldiers. It split into two columns that were mostly autonomous. The northern force was under Robert of Normandy and Bohemond, while the southern group was commanded by Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond of Toulouse. They soon learned why the Greeks had told them to avoid the interior--the Greek-Turkish combat, as well as Turcoman raiding, had denuded the countryside of provisions, and retreating Turks burned all else. Soon famine and drought was eating away that the armies. On July 1 at Dorylaeum in Western Anatolia, Turks and Crusaders met in battle. Bohemond's forces were initially bested by the light cavalry of the Turks. Much more agile than the knights and infantry, they were able to wear them down with arrow-fire for almost the entire day; by the afternoon, Turkish raiders were plundering Bohemond's base camp. Suddenly Godfrey's mounted knights appeared at the tops of the surrounding ridge, and the Turks were defeated by the two converging crusader columns. The victory at Dorylaeum cheered the crusaders and caused the Turks to avoid further contests at all costs, choosing instead to harass the columns as they moved east. When they reached Edessa in eastern Anatolia, Baldwin decided to break from the Crusade and establish his fief there. The rest of the host continued on to Antioch, where they settled down to a seven-month siege, and a mutual war of attrition with the Turks. Though the Christians defeated the two Seljuk releif armies, they were without siege engines or catapults, and were able to do little to undermine the city's defenses. Ultimately, though, Bohemond convinced one the of the Muslim tower guars to surrender it to him, and then proposed to his fellow knights that the first one to definitively establish a foothold in the city would have it as his own possession. Bohemond of course was the winner, and a few days after he assumed the title of prince, another Turkish relief force arrived under the amir Kitboga. The erstwhile besiegers were now under siege themselves. Under tremendous physical privation the crusaders barely survived, until the supposed discovery of a holy relic--the lance that had pierced the side of Christ during the Crucifixion--encouraged the Crusader host. On 28 June 1098, they burst out of the city and defeated the Turks.

Bohemond remained behind, and the crusaders continued the saga. They reached Jerusalem in June 1099. After a month-long siege they broke through, massacring the majority of the inhabitants--Muslim, Christian, and Jewish.

The Crusaders now found that they needed to appoint a leader to administer their new conquest. Since Raymond of Toulouse and Bohemond were rivals, neither could become the ruler of Jerusalem. Thus, the nobles settled on Godfrey. Avoiding the title 'king', he did homage to the city's Catholic patriarch as 'defender of the Holy Sepulcher'. His brother Baldwin kept Edessa, just as Bohemond was left Antioch. Raymond became the count of Tripoli. A year later, Godfrey died, so Baldwin succeeded to the rule of Jerusalem (1100-1118). With the help of Italian naval squadrons from Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, he captured the Muslim coastal towns of Palestine, then continued to divide the area into fiefs, keeping Jerusalem, Tyre, and Acre as royal domain.

The Muslim reaction took more than a generation to emerge, and this was the high point of the crusading states. From the 1140s, though, it was uninterruptedly downhill. The Seljukid ruler of Mosul, Zengi, ultimately undertook the duty of Jihad to expel the infidel from Muslim lands. In 1144, he recaptured Edessa, shocking the West and the Pope into calling for the Second Crusade. Bernard of Clairvaux was tireless in his preaching, and convinced Conrad III of Germany as well as Louis VII of France to lead armies east. Louis was not able to attract many French counts to his host, though, and Conrad was at that time feuding with German princes. Also, Roger II of Sicily was at that time in a power struggle with the Byzantine Emperor Michael, who was an ally of Conrad. This doomed the Crusade form the start. Just outside Nicaea, Conrad's army was nearly annihilated, forcing the king to set out for Palestine by boat with the remains of his forces. Louis marched through Asia Minor, but lost much of his forces and most of his supplies when attacked by Turks at the passes of Laodicia. He then sailed for Antioch, leaving his infantry behind, which was soon massacred by Muslim forces. When they met in Jerusalem the two kings decided to lay siege to the Seljukid stronghold at Damascus. When Conrad and Louis began to quarrel, though, Conrad returned to Germany and the Crusade fizzled, having accomplished nothing.

Within two decades, the West's greatest crusader-period nemesis emerged as a powerful Muslim leader. Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, known as Saladin, was a Kurdish warlord of the Damascus ruling household. Sent to wrest Egypt from the Shi'i Fatimids in 1169, he had been able to take Syria for himself as well by 1174. By the 1180s, both Egypt and Syria were his, and he took Jihad, or counter-Crusade, very seriously. In 1187, he decided to attack the Kingdom of Jerusalem directly, beginning with a siege of Tiberius. Jerusalem's king, Guy de Lusignon, then depleted all the garrisons of the realm in order to muster forces to meet Salah al-Din in battle. Refusing to await his enemy in well- watered and -provisioned terrain, Guy marched forward into the desert east of Tiberius, finally halting at Hattin. They were exhausted and starving, and the Ayyubid forces on the hills above them harassed them all night. The next day the battle proper began, and Salah al-Din was soon victorious. Only Raymond of Tripoli escaped, the rest of the army destroyed. The Latin kingdom was destroyed as a military challenge, and Ayyubid forces took all of Palestine and Syria's interior, including Jerusalem. Only a small coastal littoral remained to the Christians. A Third Crusade was promptly preached in 1188.

Though the kings of France, England, and Germany all took the cross, only Frederick I could set out by 1189. He was a formidable adversary for the Turks and Ayyubids. Employing infantry with long-range bows to hold off the mounted Muslim archers, he also understood how to best deploy cavalry to charge lesser- armed opponents. Throughout his progress across Anatolia, he was able to fight off Turkish advances, and was able to storm Konya, the central Anatolian capital of the Seljuks of Rum. Shortly thereafter, however, Frederick drowned in the Calycadnus River. At this point Richard the Lionheart and Philip II Augustus arrived in the East. Arguing with each other incessantly, they were able to see to the capture of the port of Acre, after which Philip returned to France. Richard was a worthy opponent to Salah al-Din. The latter was not able to recover Acre, while the former marched within sight of Jerusalem, but was not strong enough to take it by force. Negotiating a truce with the Sultan, Richard ensured that Christian pilgrims would be allowed free access to Jerusalem, and that the port of Jaffa and other coastal towns were returned to Latin nobles.


A military expedition to a destination thousands of miles from home was at first glance an undertaking beyond the capacity of medieval states, or alliances of states. When we consider that it was to be led not by kings of unitary polities, but by feudal nobles under the overall command of the Papacy, the adventure seems even more unlikely to have succeeded. But it did, and much of this had to do with what people thought they were doing when they left France, Italy, or even Germany from 1095 onwards. First let us consider the Papal attitude. What did Pope Urban II believe he was calling for art Clermont in 1095?

For Pope Urban, the Crusade was a natural outgrowth of church reform and previous papal policy. A Cluniac Prior and secretary to Gregory VII, for him moral purification of Christendom went hand in hand with broadening the horizons of the Church's concerns and worldly involvement. Ironically, no exact transcription exists of his speech at Clermont. A few important questions present themselves: 1) What kind of army did he want, and who was to lead it? 2) What was the nature of the campaign to be? 3) Was Jerusalem mentioned as a target? 4) What was the benefit to those involved? 5) Was his idea novel? Regarding the first question it is perfectly clear that in his mind, the Pope was to be the commander-in-chief of the Crusading Movement, with a papal legate the in-theater commander. While recognizing the martial expertise of the knights, he did not want a secular cast to be thrown over the venture. This partly explains his unpreparedness to lift the ban of excommunication on European monarchs who might 'hijack' the Crusade.

The second question gets us into speculative territory, as we must rely on reports of the Clermont sermon written some time later. It seems clear that he was calling for a war of liberation. This is on multiple levels. In line with the 'Peace of God' and 'Truce of God' initiatives meant to reduce feudal warfare in Europe, it could be said that one aspect of the liberation was to rescue Europe from the martial excesses of warriors by directing it outwards. In more concrete terms, it is related that he spoke explicitly of liberation of captive Christians and eastern churches, most likely intending Byzantium. Of course, by going to Byzantium's aid, the Crusade could go a great distance to healing the rift between the Catholic Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople going back to 1054, thus liberating the Christendom as a whole from dissent. This aspect of liberation brings us to our third question, regarding Jerusalem. When Alexius Comnenus had sent word to Urban for help, the Byzantine Emperor definitely did not have Jerusalem in mind, and there are those historians who have claimed that Jerusalem was not Urban's target either. Instead, according to this approach, Jerusalem became the goal only in the masses minds, including noble leaders as well as peasants and other aspirants. Thus, the Crusade was 'hijacked' from the beginning. Other writers do think that Jerusalem was Urban's stated goal. Jerusalem became increasingly important to eleventh-century Christians, lay and clerical alike. As well, it is possible that the political friction between Fatimids and Seljuks--along the seam of Syria and Palestine--may have made pilgrimage more difficult for Europeans. Furthermore, in charters written by people making over their goods to heirs just before departing on Crusade--and these were documents usually witnessed by clerics--Jerusalem was explicitly mentioned. The issue still remains open, but the pilgrimage aspect of the Crusades sheds some light on the matter. Urban definitely did perceive the venture as a pilgrimage of sorts, and procedures associated with a pilgrimage attended departure on Crusade--Church protection or disposition of properties left behind, the taking of avow and the wearing of the Cross, as well as the undertaking of pilgrimage-specific devotional exercises while on the trip. Thus, a pilgrimage with the ultimate goal being Jerusalem is quite plausible. In brief, then, it is likely that Urban and his cardinals envisioned an armed pilgrimage of able-bodied males to liberate Christian peoples and places, culminating with Jerusalem. Through this, Christendom as a whole would be liberated. As regards the benefit to those involved Urban is understood to have mentioned indulgence. This is a technical concept whereby the penance performed by the sinner would outweigh the punishment that would be meted out in the afterlife, and thus acquire great merit in God's eyes. In essence, the idea was that the Crusade would constitute such an arduous, dangerous undertaking that it would merit an indulgence.

What was new in all of this? Actually very little. Gregory VII, as well as Urban himself, had referred to the ongoing Reconquista as a war of liberation, and had often used terms smacking of holiness and Christian duty when referring to it. That Urban preferred Spanish knights to remain behind fighting the nearer infidel indicates that he saw the Spanish wars as analogous to a Crusade. That war could be holy was a theological idea also going back to Gregory, when his theological advisers had found in St. Augustine the notion that certain types of combat were commanded by God. Of course, the whole idea of getting knights out of Europe for domestic peace's sake was part of the reforming Church's program in terms of the 'Peace of God'. And again, liberation had always been part of the reforming plank--liberation of Christians and Christian locales abroad is not so different from liberation of Spain, or the liberation of the Church as a whole from secular rule--the aspiration from Leo IX onwards. In the same vein, the very idea that the Church could lead a military campaign is in line with the pretensions of Papal power in the temporal world, a worldly activism to improve the religion's lot. What distinguishes Urban, then, is his synthesis of ideas, and his papacy's ability to make good on them.

So much for the Papacy's take. How did the secular participants perceive it? First, it is most likely the case that on the formal level, as well as on the emotive level for several, they had similar motives as the Church's in terms of liberating Christians and Christian places. The religious frame of mind took pilgrimage and the ability to earn indulgences very seriously. At the same time, there were likely other more temporal motives. Several of the crusader leaders--not to mention the lesser knights--were 'second sons', those male members of feudal society usually left out of primogeniture-based inheritances, or given a very small portion. Going on Crusade could at the least increase the esteem in which these warriors were held back home, and at the most, they could perhaps attain their own material base--witness the creation of secular Crusader kingdoms and counties, complete with fiefs and feudal political structures. This is an important point. Rather than military administration, or even clerical administration perhaps quite appropriate to the Holy Land, the Crusader polities were reproductions of the feudal states in Europe--France, to be exact. This transplantation of a western European political system to the Middle East is one of the most intriguing aspects of crusader politics. It indicates the more worldly interests quite well. In short, on the popular level, religious motivation mixed quite thoroughly and indistinguishably with secular, mundane desires, such that while plundering merrily away in Constantinople, crusader leaders could portray and perceive their actions as religiously legitimate, even if it was a further hijacking of the Crusades.

Thus, the Crusades capture so much of the High middle Ages political, religious, and social trends. Two questions persist. How were the Crusaders able to defeat forces so much better adapted to Middle Eastern fighting, and who were the real winners of the Crusades? The first question relates to the internal political situation in the Islamic world. The Fatimids in Egypt were the confirmed enemies of the Seljuks in Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent, for political as well as religious reasons. Thus, as long as the crusading armies were passing through Seljuk lands, the Fatimids, who controlled Jerusalem at the time, were unconcerned and unwilling to take the necessary measures, even as Western armies passed through Syria. Likewise, the Seljuks were no longer concerned once the feudal host had left their domains. Thus, the political semi-vacuum of Palestine worked to Crusaders' fortune, and once they were in Fatimid lands, the Egyptian rulers a) still did not feel threatened in Cairo, and b) did not see the crusader warriors as effective militarily. It is, then no coincidence that the tide turned against the Crusades at that very juncture when Muslim leaders began to create a more unified western Islamic polity by conquering fellow Islamic statelets, from Zengi onwards. Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi was the first to restore political unity to the entire Syria-Palestine-Egypt region, and was also the Muslim leader to eject crusaders from Jerusalem. Finally, as regards the military success of the Crusades, while the Seljuks were more effective at cavalry hit-and-run, and much more mobile than the Christians, whenever the crusaders could get Muslim opponents into set battles, their heavier armor and weapons always won the day.

So, who were the real winners? The crusaders' states were ultimately totally destroyed, by the 1290s. By that time, Islamic lands were subject to Mongol invasions. But, where were the Italian maritime states? Throughout the Crusades, they used their unique role to grow commercially and politically. By the 1230s, they had bases, extraterritorial enclaves, throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean, which just increased their political power as it increased the indispensability to material- and manpower-short crusader leaders. In retrospect, cities like Venice--it survived to the eighteenth century--were the real winners of the Crusades.

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