Question: You write that, “There was no rational explanation or single event that triggered this sudden desire to possess Jerusalem. Various Muslim factions had held it for over four hundred years.” So how and why did what later became known as the First Crusade get started?
Answer: From a Western perspective, there was a growing interest in the Holy Land. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem had increased throughout the 11th century. There was more of a focused interest on the historical life of Christ, and as a result on historical Jerusalem, than there had been earlier in the Middle Ages.
From the Eastern perspective, starting in the mid-11th century there was an incursion of, as we like to say in the historical game, “barbarians from the East,” in this case the Seljuk Turks. Their advent — their takeover of Baghdad, their embrace of Sunni Islam — destabilized the region in a way that hadn’t happened in about 150 years.
Mixed into this was the emperor of Byzantium, Alexius Comnenus, who clearly felt endangered on all fronts, [including] from the Turks. He decided that the best way to deal with that was to write to the West and to request mercenaries to help him. He framed his request in semi-religious terms, but what he was really after were hardened professional mercenaries.
Meanwhile, in the West, pilgrims were coming back with horror stories of what they’d encountered in Jerusalem. There was a sense that the city of Christ was in danger and was being polluted by these barbarians whom they barely understood. When the request for mercenaries came from the emperor, which was subsequently given a stamp of approval by the pope, it transformed into a massive military movement fought in the name of holy war.
Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.
October 9, 2016
September 11, 2016
Published on 8 Sep 2016
Professor Sean Gabb, lecturer, political activist and the author of nine historical novels about early years of the Byzantium Empire.
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.
July 30, 2016
Q: What were the long-term effects of the First Crusade?
A: The most immediate long-term effect was that French states were established in the Middle East. People usually think of the Crusades as failures because they did [ultimately] fail, but in fact there were French-speaking states, Christian Catholic states created in the Middle East that lasted for about 200 years. We tend to forget that the West included the Middle East for this stretch of medieval history. If you live in the Middle East it’s more obvious because there are Crusader monuments and medieval-style architectural details everywhere. The entry to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, for example, could be the entry to any ornate 12th-century church in Europe, the styling is so close.
Another impact of it, which I’m beginning to think has been more enduring than is often recognized, is that on the Islamic side, the notion of jihad was dying out [before the Crusade]. Holy war was something that had happened in the past, and there had been this steady state reached in the Middle East. I’m not sure that the Turks saw what they were doing when they were engaging the Byzantines as engaging in jihad. After the First Crusade, within 10 years of it, you get Islamic voices like Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami, in the last document in my source reader, saying we need to revive jihad. He says: The Franks have been waging jihad against us; now we have to get the jihad going back up again.
It also seems to me that the new model of jihad borrowed from what the Crusaders brought. You get the idea of martyrdom — the idea that if you died you would go straight to heaven. You get mythical holy figures appearing in battles that Muslims were fighting against Christians. You get a more poisonous relationship between religion and warfare than existed before.
Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.
October 28, 2015
Published on 19 Sep 2015
Time to look back on the First Crusade and talk about errors and stories that didn’t make the final cut! The religious nature of the First Crusade meant that many of the primary sources for it (certainly on the Christian side) had a vested interest in reinforcing the idea that the crusaders had the blessing of God. Untangling the truth from their stories reminds us that there is no such thing as “the real story” when it comes to history: our modern perspective cannot help but shape the way we see these events also, and even to the extent that we try to set aside our bias, the conflicting accounts mean we still have to conjecture about what’s most correct. This episode also features answers to questions posed by our supporters on Patreon!
October 22, 2015
Published on 12 Sep 2015
The Crusaders now held Antioch, but not securely. The Turks still control the citadel atop the mountain and had a massive army coming to reinforce them. The situation grew worse when Stephen of Blois deserted from the Crusades, and told the Byzantine reinforcements not to bother: he believed Antioch would fall immediately. Now entirely on their own, the Crusaders held the wall in constant vigil until a mystic named Peter Bartholomew claimed to have received a vision from Saint Andrew. Guided by his vision, he discovered metal which he claimed to be the holy lance of Longinus – nevermind that the church already had the holy lance in its possession. Though the Crusade leaders had doubts, the soldiers were inspired so they launched an assault on the Turkish armies. Surprisingly, they won the day: the Turks did not fully support their leader, Kerbogha, and many took the Crusade counter-attack as an excuse to abandon the siege. Bohemond now kept Antioch, while Raymond of Toulouse – after the disastrous Siege of Maarat led the soldiers to commit acts of cannibalism – took the remains of the army south to Jerusalem. His attempt to capture a small city called Arqa along the way almost fractured the crusade army again, and did lead to the death of Peter Bartholomew. They arrived in Jerusalem to find the local wells poisoned, giving them no choice but to attack the city head-on. After days of intense fighting, they won their way inside the walls and began a massive slaughter of the people who still lived inside Jerusalem – the Christian population had been expelled, leaving only Muslims and Jews still in the city. And thus, with Antioch and Jerusalem both in crusader hands, the First Crusade came to an end.
October 15, 2015
Published on 5 Sep 2015
After their victory at the Battle of Dorylaeum, the Crusaders have an open path to Antioch and beyond that, Jerusalem. After the Sultan of Rum, Kilij Arslan, ordered the wells destroyed along their path, the Crusaders struggled through the desert and eventually decided to split their forces. Tancred and Baldwin set off towards Tarsus and Tancred tricked the Turkish garrison into surrendering to him, but Baldwin claimed the city for himself and broke his oath to the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenos. Tensions between the two lead to another confrontation in the next city, after which Baldwin abandoned the Crusade entirely and conned his way into becoming the Count of Edessa. Tancred meanwhile returned to the main force of Crusaders, who were besieging Antioch. When a force led by Bohemond and Robert of Flanders met Antioch’s Turkish reinforcements on a foraging mission, they attacked them and scared them away. Then Bohemond tricked the Byzantine general into leaving as well, and threatened to leave himself unless the Crusaders let him keep Antioch. They had no choice but to agree to keep their forces together. With this assurance, Bohemond engineered the capture of Antioch: he bribed a Turkish commander to let them through the gates. The Crusaders massacred the people of Antioch when the city fell, but they had no time to rest after their victory: a huge Turkish army was already bearing down on them.
October 9, 2015
Paul Lewandowski on the quite distinctive wine of Cyprus and its place in history:
Cyprus was not just the home of Richard [the Lionheart]’s first victory; it was also the site of his marriage. His fiancé, Berengaria of Navarre, was the daughter of Sancho VI of Navarre. The marriage was a politically beneficial one. Some scholars believe that Richard and Berengaria were actually romantic lovers, since they had met many years prior, and Richard married Berengaria despite his betrothal to the Countess of Vexin. Regardless of the reason for the marriage however, Richard threw a party worthy of a king. Richard, who was unfamiliar with Cyprus, had the local wine variety served at his nuptials. Upon tasting the wine, legend has it the king proclaimed that it was, “The wine of kings and the king of wines.”
Wine in the middle ages was generally awful. The logistical difficulty of preserving wine meant that additives must be used to preserve the wine. This could include marble dust, lye-ash, or pitch. Of course, this made wine awful by today’s standards. To make it slightly palatable, the wine would sometimes be cut with honey, dried fruit, or even salt water. Wine in the middle ages was valuable not only because it could render the drinker intoxicated, but because it was also a source of potable water. Wine only began to improve when it became a commodity, a tradable good that competed with beer and tea. For someone used to a saltwater-and-pitch concoction, an authentic, Cypriot dessert wine must have tasted truly amazing. It comes as little surprise that after the crusader’s time in Cyprus, the island and its wine were deemed valuable.
Richard would go on to sell the island to the Knights Templar not long after departing for the Middle East. In 1192, the Templar Order resold the island to another nobleman. However, the Templars were so smitten with the local wine, they retained a feudal estate where wine could be produced. They named their estate La Grande Commanderie, which roughly translates to “the main command post.” The region soon became known as Commandaria. Wine production increased as the Knights Templar sought to fund their operations through the export of wine. The Templars also provided the wine to pilgrims journeying toward Jerusalem. Soon the wine assumed the name of the region, and Commandaria became famous throughout Europe. Its popularity remained high for centuries, as late as the 1870s, when the region was producing 230,000 liters of wine annually for export to Austria alone.
Commandaria is made from two strains of native Cypriot grapes: Xynisteri, a white grape, and Mavro, a red. Both are dried partially in the sun before fermentation and pressing. This concentrates the sugars, giving the wine its sweet character. Following fermentation, the wine is aged a minimum of two years in oak barrels, but high-end Commandaria is often aged longer. The result is a sweet dessert wine with honey, fruit, and toffee flavors. It is often fortified, but even unfortified Commandaria can exceed 15% alcohol by volume.
Commandaria is the world’s oldest continually cultivated wine. Descriptions of the wine and its unique manufacture appear in accounts as early as 800 BC. Some scholars claim the wine is over 3,000 years old. Its long history makes it the stuff of legend. It is supposedly the winner of the first recorded wine tasting in history, held in France in 1224. The Ottoman Sultan Selim II is said to have invaded Cyprus just to get the wine. Still another legend is that the grapes from Cyprus were exported to Portugal and were used in some of the earliest port wines. Before assuming the name Commandaria, it was known as “Mana” because it was considered a divine gift.
October 8, 2015
Published on 29 Aug 2015
Having sworn their oaths to Emperor Alexius Comnenus, the Crusaders finally sailed across the Bosphorus River to Turkey. When they disembarked, however, there were no Turkish armies waiting for them. Unopposed, they marched to Nicaea, the capitol of the Sultanate of Rum, and laid siege to it. At last word reached the sultan, Kilij Arslan, who rode back to save his city (and his family) only to realize that this army of crusaders was much larger and better organized than the People’s Crusade which had come before. They had not yet realized, however, that the city of Nicaea was being secretly resupplied by ships arriving by night from Lake Askania. Once they did, the Byzantines transported their own ships overland to blockade the lake and launch a coordinated assault with the crusaders to force the city to surrender. The crusaders marched towards Jerusalem, but along the way, the Turks launched a surprise assault on Bohemond’s army. He ordered his knights to form a shield wall around the priests and civilians traveling with them, and they held for hours under a burning sun until reinforcements from the other crusading armies arrived. They rallied, defeated the Turks, and resumed their march.
October 1, 2015
Published on 22 Aug 2015
Although it finds Peter the Hermit’s group from the People’s Crusade in shambles, the summer of 1096 finally sees the “official” forces of the First Crusade set out for Jerusalem. This was not one army, however, but five separate armies led by men with very different motivations and sympathies – many of them surprisingly hostile towards the Pope or the Byzantine Empire. Hugh of Vermandois, brother of the King of France, led one army despite his brother having been excommunicated by Pope Urban II. Godfrey de Bouillon from the German territory had actually helped kick the Pope out of Rome and install the anti-Pope. Bohemond of Taranto brought an army whose experience primarily came from fighting the Romans twelve years prior. Raymond of Toulouse led the largest army and believed himself the main leader of the Crusade, despite the fact that he traveled with the Pope’s appointed leader, Bishop Adhemar. Only Robert of Flanders could be said to be on good terms with both the Pope and the Eastern Roman Empire. When the five armies arrived in Constantinople, Emperor Alexius Comnenus approached them all privately with bribes and threats to get them to swear an oath that any land they conquered on Crusade would be returned to him. They all took it (except Bohemond’s nephew, Tancred) and so the emperor sent them across the Bosphorus to attack the Turks at last.
September 24, 2015
Published on 15 Aug 2015
Emicho of Leiningen and Walters sans Avoir certainly made a mark, but the largest group in the People’s Crusade was led by Peter the Hermit. To gain passage through Hungary, they swore an oath not to destroy anything, but the lack of real leadership for their group became clear when they very quickly started a market brawl, stormed the local citadel, then fled to Belgrade and immediately repeated their aggression by turning on the Byzantine troops sent to keep them in line. At the city of Niŝ, the Byzantine troops pinned them down and slaughtered a quarter of the entire crusading “army.” The remainder fled to Constantinople and secured passage into Turkey, but the group fractured from within and became two separate factions, with Peter leading one and a man named Reinald leading the other. Both factions competed for bragging rights, committing horrible atrocities to outdo each other. One group actually managed to siege a castle, but it had no water supply, so they were easily starved out by the Turks. The Turks, however, spread a rumor that this group had actually gone on to capture the capitol city, and the remaining crusaders set out to join what they thought would be a loot extravaganza. Instead, they ran into a Turkish ambush that left only 3,000 of their 20,000 soldiers alive. Now led by Geoffrey Burel, they retreated to Constantinople.
September 17, 2015
Published on 8 Aug 2015
In 1095CE, Pope Urban gathered the leaders of the Christian community at the Council of Clermont. Urged on by Emperor Alexius Comnenos of Constantinople, he called for a crusade to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims who occupied Jerusalem. Muslims had occupied the Holy Land for over 400 years, but the timing was politically right for the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor. Pope Urban wanted to re-unite Christendom after the anti-Pope kicked him out of Rome, while Alexius Comnenus wanted to retake the territory he had recently lost in Anatolia from the Seljuq Turks. As incentive, the Pope offered crusaders a plenary indulgence: complete forgiveness for past sins in the eyes of God and the church. It worked too well. While the official armies of the Crusade prepared, a charismatic leader named Peter the Hermit began preaching directly to the people, claiming Jesus had sent him to lead them on Crusade. Walter sans Avoir joined him in France, and a man named Count Emicho of Leiningen emulated him in Germany. Both peasant groups met with and created disaster: Walter Sans Avoir’s group pillaged Belgrade while Count Emicho’s group turned on the local Jewish population as an excuse to slaughter them. Thus the First Crusade began with a disastrous People’s Crusade.
February 23, 2015
Q: Why did people join the First Crusade?
A: The most common answer in Crusade scholarship — and you can tell I’m not going to accept it — is that the goal was penance and the opportunity to have sins forgiven. That’s not quite enough for me, because whenever we’re able to get as close as we can to knowing medieval warriors it looks like they’re not nearly as concerned with sin and penance and forgiveness as we would expect them to be. The king of France at the time of the Crusade was actually excommunicated because he was in a bigamist marriage. The pope excommunicated him, and he didn’t seem to care.
What I tried to emphasize in my book was that there was a real sense of prophetic mission among a lot of people who answered this call for Crusade. You can’t have a normal war for Jerusalem. That seems to me as true today as it would have been in the 11th century. Jerusalem, from the medieval Christian perspective, was both a city on earth and a city of heaven, and these two places were linked. The idea that the Jerusalem on earth was being dominated by an unbelieving, infidel — in their terminology “pagan” — group was unacceptable. The rhetoric that was associated with the people holding Jerusalem is pretty shocking: Christian men are being circumcised in baptismal fonts, and the blood is being collected! They’re yanking people’s innards out by their belly buttons! This is not normal talk. Hatreds and passions were stirred up. The heart of it, and why it was so successful, was that the call to Jerusalem was felt so strongly.
February 14, 2015
At Strategy Page, Austin Bay talks about the unexpected modern-day relevance of distant historical events:
President Barack Obama didn’t intend to make the Battle of Yarmuk (636 A.D.) a 2015 news item.
However, his bizarrely incomplete sketch of the Crusades, delivered last week at a national prayer breakfast, did just that.
The president’s media defenders contend he intended to make a justifiable point: Throughout history, people have corrupted religious faith to self-serving, murderous ends.
That, however, is an oft-repeated truth — something everyone already knows.
But our president, while repeating something we already know, equated medieval Christian crusaders with 21st-century Islamic State terrorists. See, man? They both committed atrocities.
Obama started solid, dubbing the Islamic State “a vicious death cult.” Yes, sir. IS burns alive Jordanian Muslim pilots. But “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition,” Obama said, his solemn, deploring tone reminiscent of a preacher instructing benighted fools in the pews, “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Obama then added that Christianity was used to justify slavery and segregation. While verifiably true, if you indict cross-burning Southern bigots, Mr. President, why neglect to mention that the 18th- and 19th-century worldwide anti-slavery movement was driven by Gospel-guided Christian abolitionists?
Christian abolitionists condemned slavery as evil and waged relentless political war on the slave trade. This inspired activism had policy effects and poetic drama (for example, the hymn “Amazing Grace”). Royal Navy anti-slaving patrols had global punch. The Jack Tars couldn’t shut down every Persian Gulf Islamic slave market, but they certainly deterred slavers operating in the Atlantic.
If only for the sake of fairness, Obama should have mentioned this Christian-led liberation instead of going knee-jerk and playing his worn-out leftist academic multiculturalist racism guilt-trip card.
I briefly considered putting up a poll for the readers that went something like this:
- Who was President of the United States at the time of the First Crusade? (Washington, Madison, Lincoln, FDR)
- Which American forces participated in the First Crusade? (US Army, US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Air Force)
Trick question, as everyone knows it must have been George W. Bush, right? Right?
Trick question, as the USAF wasn’t a separate service until after World War II.