Q: One of the striking aspects of your accounts is how fractious and fragmented the Crusaders were. They come from different places, they’re following different people, and they have somewhat different motives. The divisions reminded me of the various jihadi groups vying to be top dog today. Do we remember the Crusades as more unified than they actually were? Do these divisions tell us anything about the situation today among the other would-be holy warriors?
A: Particularly with the First Crusade, we do tend to remember it as a more unified movement than it was. We assume that when the pope preached his voice rang out with greater authority than it did, and that it would have been better remembered and better understood than in fact I think it was. We don’t have any record of what the pope said at Clermont except for one sentence [about penance]. All the other stuff is people making it up later.
A goodly number of Crusaders from the north had actually fought wars against the popes. They’re not necessarily on the papal side. A lot of people, particularly from the north were inspired by Peter the Hermit, not by the pope — a very different message. When the Crusaders marched through Byzantium, there was extreme mistrust between a lot of the armies, particularly the ones that got there first, and the Greeks whom they were allegedly on Crusade in part to defend. There was this sense that [the Byzantines] aren’t real Christians, that there’s just something wrong about them. There was no leader of the Crusade once it started marching. There was a council of leaders.
That probably parallels a lot of what’s going on with ISIS and al-Qaeda and the way these groups tend to metastasize. It also points out how powerful and uniting the notion of religious warfare can be — that you can have these different groups suddenly coalescing around this idea and against all odds succeeding. The most mind-boggling aspect of the First Crusade is that it succeeded. There’s no reason that this should have worked, that these armies should have survived and gotten to Jerusalem. They somehow did. They held together. This ethos of holy war, which is a fairly terrifying one, can be powerful and effective at holding groups together.
Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.
September 11, 2016
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