How to Plan a Crusade: Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages 
by Christopher Tyerman.
Allen Lane, 400 pp., £25, September 2015, 978 1 84614 477 6
Show More
Show More

Here is​ a description of terrorism: ‘Observers were stunned by the insurgents’ violence. By the time they reached the city, they had already acquired a fearsome reputation, but never anything like this massacre … wars had always been conducted within mutually agreed limits; in horror it was reported that they did not spare the elderly, the women, or the sick.’ I have removed the proper names from this quotation, which could be describing the atrocities committed by Islamic State against Shia, moderate Sunni, Christians and Yazidis. In fact the terrorism is Christian, in Jerusalem in 1099, when Western Latin Crusaders travelled the length of the Mediterranean Sea and celebrated their triumphant capture of the Holy City by massacring its Muslims and Jews. There is a depressing repetitiveness to the history of ideologically inspired violence: the names and causes change, the atrocities don’t.

Christopher Tyerman exercises self-discipline in leaving to the last page of his text any explicit comparison between the Middle East in 1099 and in 2015. But on his very first page he introduces us to the Crusades as having their own, medieval Christian rationale: he wants us to avoid making the mistake of writing off these events as irrational, or dismissing their religious proclamations as a mere device for justifying or glamorising efforts at land grabs and plunder. His deeply researched study is dedicated to exploring the relationship between human reason and religious war in all its aspects – justification, propaganda, recruitment, finance, logistics – to show us how ‘reason made religious war possible.’ He guides us, for instance, through the evidence in documents that demonstrate the meticulous administration which lay behind the glamorous crusading enterprises of King Richard Coeur de Lion in the 1190s, leaving him at least king of Cyprus, if not of Jerusalem. The Pipe Rolls of the English Exchequer, in the National Archives at Kew, are great clumps of feet-long parchment, which I remember from my research student days as best read sitting on a high stool, pencil in hand, after they had been reverently slung over a tall specialist stand (do National Archives staff still permit researchers to do anything so alarmingly physical to these monster medieval documents?). In Richard I’s Pipe Roll accounts, we find lists of 140 Essex and Hertfordshire cheeses at 4s 6d each (the price suggests a daunting size); nails, horseshoes and military gubbins from the ironworks of the Forest of Dean; and dried beans from Cambridgeshire. As Tyerman remarks, ‘the quartermaster stood behind events, one of the great missing presences in Crusade narratives.’

Before feeding, clothing and equipping an army, the would-be Crusader commander needed to recruit it to a cause worth fighting for, and encourage it to go on fighting if (as often happened) wages ran out and every last local sheep had been plundered. This was the first age in which theologians started to come up with increasingly sophisticated ways of saying that God approved of just warfare; but the message from the study-cubicle also had to be turned into strong simple slogans for armies and the taxpayers funding them. Propaganda in the Crusades used the communications technology of the day. Public sermons, hymns, stained glass and identifying tattoos could excite and motivate, and the potentially crusading public was groomed as surely as impressionable modern teenagers absorbed in radical websites. We will be less bewildered by Islamic State and its success so far if we understand the Crusades.

Religion is good at making people self-righteously violent, a fact acknowledged early in the Book of Genesis, a sacred text revered by Jews and Christians and honoured by Muslims. Genesis describes the first recorded murder as following on directly from the first recorded act of worship: Cain and Abel both made sacrifices to God, but God preferred Abel’s sacrifice of meat to Cain’s of vegetables. In his anger at being snubbed, Cain killed his brother (interestingly diverting his rage from its proper object, the Deity). In modern terms, Cain was expressing his fury at the deepest of wounds to his self-esteem, made worse by the apparent irrationality and injustice of God’s rejection: why should meat have greater liturgical worth than vegetables? Injured self-esteem and a sense of injustice remain powerful sources of mayhem in human affairs, and their expression has generally been at its most extreme when cast in religious terms. The Crusades were not some unfortunate aberration in Christian history; they are a part of Christian identity that can’t be forgotten or explained away – and should hardly be, when some modern Christians are fond of ascribing an inherently violent character to Islam.

It’s true that those who have rejected traditional forms of religion, including Hitler and Stalin, have perpetrated atrocities as heinous as those committed in the name of a god or gods. Considering that secularism has such a short history – less than three centuries – the secular-minded have been catching up with religious violence rather assiduously. Sébastian-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, a writer who managed to preserve his sense of humour despite his close acquaintance with the Terror, wearily paraphrased the revolutionary slogan ‘fraternity or death’ as the proposition ‘Be my brother, or I’ll kill you.’ The general problem with coherent identities is that they have a dangerous tendency to produce tidy-mindedness, and the tidy-minded find it difficult to refrain from tidying up everyone around them.

A distinction between violence inspired by sacred or secular instincts is in any case anachronistic when dealing with the Crusades, that most thoroughly resourced missionary venture of the medieval Latin Church. ‘Religion’ is a concept imposed on human behaviour by one variant of Christianity, post-Reformation Protestantism. Most people in the history of the human race would be hard put to separate out a ‘religious’ element from the range of things they do to survive and build up a sense of themselves and the world around them. Protestants, more than most humans, have made religion a matter of beliefs derived from texts. They have nevertheless rarely been able to agree for long on what those beliefs should be, and their history is as full of violent corrections of error as is that of Roman Catholics. There has been Protestant-on-Protestant murderous violence: as recently as the 1880s, Wesleyan Methodists in Tonga killed one another over the issue of which Methodist Conference should exercise authority over them. Among the varieties of Christian identity, few emerge guiltless other than the Quakers and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have both made rather a fetish of not killing people. And the Protestant definition of religion has had other unfortunate effects. British Protestants administering India in the early 19th century effectively invented a religion called Hinduism, as they attempted to describe in their own cultural terms the glorious variety of religious literature and observance that they encountered in the subcontinent. They were so successful that this ‘religion’ is now capable of an intolerance worthy of comparison with that of Catholics or Protestants from Crusade to Reformation.

Another shift in understanding between 1099 and now is the question of how reason relates to religion. Present-day assumptions are pretty much those of the 18th-century European Enlightenment: we put reason and the natural on one side of a binary opposition, and associate those concepts with secularity; on the other side, we place a category of sacredness, in which are grouped revelation and the supernatural. In this Enlightenment conception, ‘rationality’ is likely to win hands down against ‘irrationality’. Christians have long recited a summary statement of faith, the Nicene Creed, which in its English version contains the sentence ‘On the third day, [Jesus] rose again, according to the Scriptures.’ That sounds on a modern reading like a clear statement of unmediated supernatural revelation: a story of a supernatural event, described in sacred books, the Gospels of the New Testament. That is not what the text means: it is making the claim that an event in first-century history happened ‘in accordance with’ much older sacred texts, the prophecies contained in Hebrew Scripture (what Christians now call the Old Testament). The Creed is describing an intricate connection between reason and revelation, reason clarifying and making plain revelatory statements. Another example of the same mixture, commonly used in medieval meditations on the birth of Christ, is provided by the Gospel story of the Magi, astronomers who brought gifts to the holy child. Their rational activities in unravelling a special meaning in the motions of the heavens led them to travel to Jerusalem, where exposition of the same Hebrew Scriptures enabled them to make full sense of what they had discovered and propelled them to find and behave appropriately towards the humbly born baby in the manger. Reason was fulfilled by scripture.

Thus natural and supernatural, far from being opposed secular and sacred categories, both partook of a religious character in the medieval Christian world. Discussion of human reason was always dependent on a claim derived from primeval history. Because of the unfortunate events in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, humankind’s capacity for rational understanding was fatally damaged, the damage extending to all their posterity: that, essentially, was the first humans’ punishment. Some Christians said that the capacity was totally lost and wrecked for ever; others disagreed, seeing the damage as only partial. This was a fruitful debate for medieval theologians, as well as a lively argument among Protestant Reformers in the 16th century. Both sides agreed that the deficit, however large in degree, needed to be made up by gifts of divine revelation. Hence the relationship or complementarity between reason, which was one sort of divine gift, and revelation, which was another. Modern Christians (if they have any sense) have removed the Fall in Eden story from the category of historical events like the Fall of Jerusalem in 1099, but they still rely on this distinction.

The problem that dogged the Crusades, and eventually led to their demise, was that they were based on fatally proven success stories: the Catholic reconquest of steadily larger portions of the Iberian peninsula from Islamic powers, and the outright reconquest of Sicily from Muslims. This latter achievement took place in the 1060s, the work of the restless Normans. In the same decade, another branch of the Norman aristocracy annexed England, one of the richest and best organised kingdoms in Western Christendom, and eventually spread their conquests widely through neighbouring lands in Scotland and Ireland. These acquisitions were to prove a lasting source of finance and manpower for the Crusades, but Sicily provided the template of what was supposed to happen on a Crusade: a Mediterranean victory, encouraged by strident and emphatic blessings from the papacy, followed by the turn of a whole society towards the establishment of Latin Christianity, unprecedented in the territory. By the end of the 11th century, both Muslim commentators and Pope Urban II in his encouragement of the First Crusade looked back on the Norman seizure of Sicily as a precedent for what was happening in the Holy Land. In 1099, it all seemed to go so well, as Jerusalem became the centre of yet another Latin kingdom, ruled by another new Norman dynasty, beginning with Baldwin of Boulogne: this was the first Christian polity in the Holy Land since the Byzantines had been chased out by Muslim armies in the 630s. Despite its spectacular arrival, the enterprise languished, and in 1291 its last foothold of territory on the Asian mainland once more fell into Islamic hands. The next (more or less) Christian army to enter Jerusalem was that of General Allenby in 1917, and the British presence in Palestine proved even more short-lived than the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In​ 1099 the site of the Jewish Temple was given over to Christian worship for the first time in its chequered history, after the blood of the Crusaders’ massacred victims had been sluiced away. The al-Aqsa Mosque became a church, the Dome of the Rock a cathedral. They were respectively mistaken by their Latin conquerors for King Solomon’s and King Herod’s Temples: architectural history was not one of the aspects of rational inquiry greatly developed in the medieval West (nor indeed was rational history generally; it might have occurred to someone that there existed well-known historical accounts of the obliteration of both buildings). Hence a peculiar architectural genre of circular churches to be found all over Crusader Europe: these were imitations of the Dome of the Rock (a.k.a. Herod’s Temple), creatively confused with another major circular place of Christian worship in Jerusalem – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, housing the tomb of the Saviour. Such Romanesque church buildings were usually associated with preceptories, local administrative centres built on landed estates devoted to financing a peculiar new variety of monastic order: celibate warriors who were dedicated not to solitary prayer and meditation but to fighting the enemies of Christ on the battlefield to defend the Holy Land. These were the Military Orders, principally Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller and Teutonic Knights. The circular churches were a clever piece of corporate branding: a constant reminder to northern Europeans as to why so much revenue from rents and produce was leaching across the Mediterranean, for the greater glory of God and the prosperity of the Knights. One of the most stately of them, the Temple Church in London, was successively owned by both Templars and Hospitallers before its present chaplaincy role in the English legal profession, and many Templar estates in this country can be traced through English place names: Temple Balsall, Temple Newsam, Temple Cloud.

The dividends of European-wide investment in the Military Orders looked increasingly dubious. The Crusaders didn’t realise that they had enjoyed an exceptional stroke of luck in attacking the eastern Mediterranean in 1099 when local powers were in a state of unusual disarray. Absorbed in their own conflicts, Islamic rulers were fatally unaware of the build-up of excitement and ideologically justified aggression in Western Europe, and found the First Crusade a bewildering and initially demoralising incursion (shades here of recent Middle Eastern events). Since God had so smiled on Latin Christians, they assumed that whatever setbacks they subsequently experienced, his benevolence would win through in the end. It was a couple of centuries before they conceded their mistake. Around 1300 it was clear that most men of power in Europe had seen the point, and Western resources were redeployed. This took different forms for the three chief Military Orders. The Templars were dissolved, in a move led by Philip IV of France with papal connivance, and enforced with systematic cold-blooded cruelty. It was a punishment for failure, and it was accompanied by a blackening of the Templars’ reputation through lurid charges of devil worship and sexual perversion. This propaganda technique has been much imitated since then, whenever Christians have wished to destroy a Christian movement of which they disapprove.

The Hospitallers were more fortunate, because they took the decision to retreat from the Mediterranean mainland to carry on their fight from a series of more easily defended island bases, thus making a case for their continued usefulness. In acknowledgment of their successes, they acquired a generous share of European estates confiscated from the Templars. Over the centuries, while actual announced Crusades achieved less and less, Hospitallers carried out a number of successful rearguard actions against successive Muslim powers; in the 16th century they decisively stood in the way of Ottoman sea power, and the ‘Knights of Malta’ won respect even from northern European Protestants who deplored their obstinate adherence to the papal Antichrist. Their survival despite Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts has involved yet another transformation, in which any suggestion of military action against Islam has been quietly relegated to the past, in favour of works of charity (and a considerable delight in medieval chivalric flummery).

A third order, the Teutonic Order, performed a more drastic relocation than the Hospitallers: out of the Mediterranean altogether and into northern Europe. They found entirely different non-Christians to fight in the Baltic, and weren’t disconcerted when the remaining non-Christians in Lithuania decided officially to convert to Catholicism in 1387. The Teutonic Knights went on fighting them in the interests of expanding German-speaking colonisation until given a drubbing in battle by the king of Poland-Lithuania in 1410. One can still visit their splendid fortress of Marienburg, now Malbork in Poland, though not Malbork’s counterpart in the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad, the former Königsberg, thanks to thorough demolition by the Red Army and postwar Soviet redevelopers. The Teutonic Order’s revival after Second World War traumas has followed the pattern of the Hospitallers.

The failure of the Crusades eventually taught Western Christianity a lesson about using armed violence in the service of the Prince of Peace, and there is every likelihood that eventually the perversion of Islam currently ruling in Mosul and Raqqah will in the same way become a rueful memory for Muslims. Accurate and well-told history like Tyerman’s is a great healer. When the gang of criminals, chancers and fanatics around Slobodan Milošević invented an easy-to-understand chauvinist myth of age-old cultural conflict in their bid to rule Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the first things they did was to destroy the libraries, museums and ancient monuments which told a different and more complicated story. First the Taliban and now Islamic State have opted for the same policy. The cultural mindset that perpetrates such barbarisms would never produce a book like Tyerman’s, still less see the point of its contents.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences