Eastern Promises

J.L. Nelson

  • God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman
    Penguin, 1024 pp, £12.99, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 14 026980 2

On 15 July 1099, a Christian army perhaps 14,000 strong captured Jerusalem after a five-week siege and three years’ campaigning. A contemporary witness reported slaughter on such a scale that ‘crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses.’ Christopher Tyerman quotes this twice, in full and slightly abbreviated forms, noting that the chronicler was inspired by Revelation 14.20: ‘And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even to the horse bridles.’ Another contemporary witness whom Tyerman cites recalled the area of the Temple Mount ‘“streaming with blood” that reached to the killers’ ankles’. The height of the bloody torrent was disputed by contemporaries: modern historians debate the number of victims. ‘Certainly fewer than the 70,000 trumpeted in early 13th-century Arabic chronicles,’ Tyerman believes, cautiously settling for ‘some thousands’. The victims were, without any doubt, Muslims and Jews. The slaughter provoked ‘retrospective shock and outrage among Muslim intellectuals’, yet ‘immediate contemporary Muslim reactions appeared muted when contrasted to later polemics.’ Horror has to be put in context: ‘when it suited, Muslim victors could behave as bestially as any Christian’ (Tyerman cites several examples), while ‘massacres as well as atrocity stories were – and are – an inescapable part of war.’ Such sober reflections notwithstanding, Tyerman, a few lines later, calls the capture of Jerusalem ‘remarkable . . . a crowning achievement’, which of course it was, from a medieval western European viewpoint.

That is the viewpoint that Tyerman firmly and frankly espouses, and defends at the beginning of his book. ‘A history of the crusades could be very different in structure if composed from the viewpoint of medieval Syrian, Egyptian or Andalusian Muslims, or European or Near Eastern Jews, or Balts, Livs or Prussians. However, the essential contours of the subject would, if observed dispassionately, look much the same, because this study is intended as a history, not a polemic . . . Readers will decide whether the view is worth the journey.’ History, then, is history. But the very choosing of a viewpoint both reflects the observer, however dispassionate, and affects what’s observed. The view, magnificently expansive and revelatory, is very much worth the journey, though one might have some sympathy with the apocryphal Irishman who, when asked the road to Dublin, replied: ‘If I wanted to get to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here.’

Roads and routes loom large in the history of holy war as practised by western Europeans between the late 11th and 13th centuries and imaginatively cherished long after. Those practitioners called themselves Franci, whether or not they were French-speaking or subjects of the French king, and so those they encountered in the east called them by that name, transliterated into Greek or Arabic. Westerners relished the name’s ambiguity: in their contemporary parlance Franci had come to mean French, and Francia, France, but Franci also denoted the Franks of the age of Charlemagne (768-814), and those Franci were alive and well in elite social memory, song and story, despite the division of Charlemagne’s empire into states approximating to France, Germany and Italy. The Franci who marched to Jerusalem on what later came to be called the First Crusade in 1096-99 believed themselves to be following their ancestors along the 3500km road Charlemagne and his men were said to have taken from Aachen to Jerusalem. The old Frankish journey was a myth with strong millennial overtones; yet without that imagined combination of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, holy war and the fulfilment of the Last Days, the new ‘Jerusalem journey’, as it was commonly termed, could not have occurred as and when it did. Nor would the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152-90) and a vast German army (Tyerman thinks contemporary figures of 85,000 to 150,000 exaggerate, but is too good a historian to risk guessing by how much) have marched on the Third Crusade in what they believed were the footsteps of the Franks.

Recovering the Holy Land, holding it, and attempting to recover it once again after it was lost at the battle of Hattin in 1187, involved the Franci in long and very difficult journeys, either overland through the Balkans, Greece and Anatolia, or across the Mediterranean, or a combination of both. Conquering Egypt was often thought of as the best way of getting to Jerusalem, and made some strategic sense, given the weakness of most Egyptian regimes in the period. Louis IX of France (1226-70), who built the Ste Chapelle in his palace to house the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross (relics made available by the sack of Constantinople by the Franci on the Fourth Crusade in 1204), exhausted huge resources on an Egyptian campaign which failed, and died in Tunis in another attempt at a similar strategy. Effective holy war in the Holy Land stopped, as do many histories of the crusades, in 1291, with the fall of Acre, the last crusader citadel, to the forces of the sultan of Egypt.

Unsurprisingly, by the 19th century, when the French imaginaire was dominated by a Near East which included North Africa, and when the term croisade had long been at home in the French language (the English and German equivalents did not appear until the 18th century), the French saw the crusades as historically theirs, and French scholars dominated the historiography. It was they who numbered the crusades (St Louis’s were numbers seven and eight). The 20th century internationalised the subject. Germans, Americans, Britons came in on it, and some of them expanded its geographical and chronological limits to include everywhere that medieval Christians waged holy war, from Spain to Prussia. At the same time, though, the focus on the Holy Land, and on Jerusalem, was reinforced. While 20th-century political and economic interests gave new priority to the Near East, young men like T.E. Lawrence and R. Allen Brown, whose university history had included the crusades by happenstance, fought in crusader territory and then went on to write the crusades into medieval history. The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire brought the creation of new states with new academic centres where the crusades could be rethought ‘on site’, as they began to be by Steven Runciman at the University of Istanbul in 1942-45, and, post-1948, by a growing cohort of Israeli scholars in circumstances that gave new and contested meanings to the Holy Land and Jerusalem.

Now Christopher Tyerman offers ‘a new history’. He has the scholarly credentials, having written extensively and illuminatingly on the subject for nearly three decades. He never sentimentalises the crusades. Yet the man who observed not long ago that ‘Europe in the Middle Ages could be a very nasty place to live: the crusades made it marginally nastier,’ here adopts a tone that is both more measured and more sympathetic to the crusaders, whose sacrifices and sufferings have evidently come to impress him profoundly. In one important respect his take on the subject is new, in the sense of being at odds with a strong historiographical trend. Tyerman explicitly distances himself from ‘the religious’ and their ‘fond myth that piety excludes greed, coercion, conformity and lack of reflection, that it is freestanding’. ‘The religious’ is code for historians who, like many working on medieval religious themes, are driven in part by Roman Catholic commitment.

Striking here, if not exactly new, is the panoramic vista. Tyerman takes geography seriously. He makes landscapes come alive and notes the implications for warfare of climate and terrain. He also avoids a legalistic definition of the crusade in which only expeditions to the Holy Land count, and this means not only that his spatial coverage reaches to Spain and the Baltic, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans, but that chronologically he moves well beyond the 13th century into the early modern period.

He strives, too, for a large social view. Though the sources depressingly often prescribe a focus on chivalric elites, Tyerman makes room, when possible, for ‘the poor, the old, the landless, the rootless and the young’; for the pueri (‘less juvenile than the name implied’) and girls of the so-called Children’s Crusade of 1212; and, briefly, for the ‘alert and critical public opinion’ evidenced in the so-called Shepherds’ Crusade of 1251. His eye is caught by ‘home communities’, notably those of later medieval England. English guildsmen bonded in sponsorship of Jerusalem pilgrimages. Something of an English speciality were liturgical supplications for the souls of the dead in which divine aid was sought on behalf of the Holy Land. Later medieval crusading occasionally involved more direct participation, as when 80 citizens of Ghent are recorded as taking the cross together in March 1464, choosing their own commander and setting out for Venice; ‘they were back by Christmas,’ Tyerman comments cheerfully, without saying where they had got to. When revulsion against papal fiscality in the form of indulgences meant that ‘that part of the game was up’ (the reference here is to Spain), popular piety kept other parts in play, and Tyerman is able to show how well the crusade idea could be adapted to broader religious trends. Again, the claim to newness, or at least historiographical up-to-dateness, is vindicated.

On some staples of crusade historiography, Tyerman’s analysis is refreshingly cool and pungent: crusaders’ military preparations, especially the organising and funding of transport fleets, and action once in the field, are critically reviewed, notably in the case of Louis IX’s crusades, when ‘meticulous preparation’ slipped all too easily into the counting of chickens before they were hatched; and the intricate politics of the East are dissected with relish in a text studded with sharp thumbnail sketches of the dramatis personae, including women rulers, from assorted ‘flighty’, ‘wilful’, ‘meddlesome’ or ‘graspingly selfish’ Frankish queens and princesses to the Sultana Shajar al-Durr of Cairo, ‘who as eagerly embraced the prospect of being a power broker as, according to legend and some fact, she did the bodies of some of the powerful’.

Tyerman takes churchmen and their agendas altogether more seriously, and shows the importance of crusading to their attempts ‘to establish a moral order in Europe run by a centralised church’. He fully appreciates the financial requirements of centralisation: the papacy constructed a formidable fiscal system, first, by offering indulgence (remission of sin) for a price and then offering indulgences to vicarious participants in the crusades (your voluntary payments enabled others to go), and second, by directly imposing crusade taxes on the clergy throughout Latin Christendom. Tyerman is impressed by the ways kings and emperors, doges and captains, evinced and exploited crusading commitment to secure the political and commercial interests of their respective states, and turned crusade taxation to their own ends. On the 13th century especially, a wealth of research is synthesised into a perspective on the dynamics of new power.

A new history should offer fresh contributions to such old debates as the debate surrounding the origins of the Crusades. Tyerman takes time to trace the story of evolving contacts between Byzantium, western Christendom and Islam from the seventh century onwards. The 11th century brought a dramatic change of tempo to the relations between eastern and western Christians, and between Christians and Muslims. Groups of Turkish Muslim warriors pushed westwards into Anatolia. They defeated the Byzantines in 1071, and a few years later reached the Aegean. In Baghdad they now dominated the caliphs, bringing the region ‘as much if not more mayhem and disruption than the crusaders were able to achieve’. Eastern Christians lived under Muslim rule rather less comfortably than before. Byzantium’s combination of weakness and wealth attracted ambitious westerners: free-booting Normans, already established in southern Italy, to fight as imperial hired troops in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, and Italian merchants to venture into new markets in the eastern Adriatic and the Aegean.

Meanwhile, the papacy gained in prestige and authority. The schism that divided the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054 paradoxically strengthened papal authority. Reform-minded popes were presented with an opportunity to link the ‘freedom of the Church’ with the ‘freedom’ of eastern Christians. And throughout the 11th century, the flow of pilgrimage to the Holy Land was rising, as were a whole variety of west-east contacts. Pope Gregory VII even contemplated, though nothing came of it, a great journey to the east in 1074 to help the eastern Christians. By the 1090s, Asia Minor and the Balkan areas of Byzantium were ‘crawling with French, Italians and Germans, and south Italian Normans’.

All this made the First Crusade possible. What actually triggered it, in Tyerman’s account, was the arrival of Byzantine envoys at a papal council in north-eastern Italy in March 1095, seeking more western troops. Emperor Alexius (1081-1118) had shrewdly spotted an opportunity to recover the Levant and restore the seventh-century empire with western support. Pope Urban II (1088-99), a Frenchman, responded by going to France and launching an appeal for troops at Clermont in November 1095. By the following summer, a large number of people, not all of them combatants, but most of them speakers of northern French or of Occitan, had assembled. Urban and his Latinate contemporaries used old words to talk about the ‘Jerusalem journey’ or ‘campaign’ (iter) or pilgrimage (peregrinatio). Tyerman recognises the antiquity of these ideas, but argues that the core of the pope’s message was elsewhere, and radical. To advocate holy war, with a penitential, and hence potentially redemptive, character, was to break with previous Christian thinking, in which warfare involved the sin of killing, and had to be atoned for. Henceforth, war to liberate Jerusalem by force was declared holy. The end, recovery of the Lord’s holy land, imagined as the avenging of a lord’s disinheritance, justified the means. With the Church’s approval, this new warfare, to be engaged in exclusively by lay persons, became lawful and meritorious.

How new is this element of the new history? All historians of crusade operate in the shadow of the German scholar Carl Erdmann, whose great book Die Entstehung des Kreuzzugsgedankens, or The Origin of the Idea of Crusade, was written in 1935 though not translated until 1977. Erdmann argued that pilgrimage was part of crusade’s context but not central to it, as holy war was. Tyerman adds something distinctive to Erdmann’s thesis: he sees in Urban’s summons a ‘radical’ vision, its appeal ‘part revivalism, part politics, part a search for release and personal renewal’. The men who signed up became quite literally signed with the cross, crucesignati, a word Tyerman uses often, and in preference to the anachronistic ‘crusaders’. Informed by social psychology, his reading of the evidence does full justice to the tremendous emotive power of the public ritual of signing up. ‘Part relic, part totem, part uniform, the cross was above all a sign of suffering and redemption.’ A window of opportunity opened when psychological preparedness met military capacity.

A second debate concerns the viability of the little states the crusaders created in the land they called Outremer, ‘beyond the sea’, roughly 800 km long, from Cilicia in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, and roughly 50 to 160 km wide. Tyerman observes that, even after three hundred years of Muslim rule, many, perhaps most, of the eastern Christians (Greek Orthodox, Syrians, Armenians) may have remained Christian, though many were now Arabic-speakers. Tyerman attributes a key role to these eastern Christian communities, who he surmises mostly lived quite happily as tax-payers under Latin Christian rule, as they had done under Muslim rule. Citing the Israeli archaeologist Ronnie Ellenblum, he suggests that in some areas, notably southern Samaria, Frankish lords successfully settled Frankish peasants alongside indigenous, Arabic-speaking Syrian Christians. On this evidence, Tyerman rejects the label ‘colonial’ for the Frankish settlements (‘they should be seen on their own terms and in their own time’), though he admits that Muslim slaves were a ‘large resource’.

Tyerman is less interested in asking if Hattin was a battle that could have been avoided than in stressing the ‘reinvention’ of crusading that it evoked in the West, militarily, administratively, financially and ideologically. Reinventing nevertheless meant redirecting, in ways that have raised much debate about the consequences of the crusades for the history of western Europe. The Fourth Crusade, diverted from Egypt (and the Holy Land) to Constantinople, ended in the sack of that city in 1204. ‘The victims, according to one account’ – by a westerner – ‘amounted to a couple of thousand.’ This account is preferred to the ‘lurid’ versions of ‘hysterical’ Greek eyewitnesses. Tyerman in judicial mode finds ‘an atrocity, but in the terms of the day not a war crime’. He does not deny that after 1204, the Byzantine Empire was permanently weakened and the Greek Orthodox were permanently divided from Latin Christians. Redirecting the crusades to focus on heretics, in the case of the Cathars in the Languedoc (Chapter 18 gives an excellent brief account), or alleged heretics in the case of the papacy’s Italian enemies, is easier to judge coolly. Tyerman admires the crusading Emperor Frederick II, excommunicated unjustly for justifiable delays, and regards papal efforts to prevent a church crusade tax being raised in imperial lands as unedifying. Crusades against Christians might be ‘intellectually and legally valid’ – legally indeed, since the pope said what was lawful here – but they ‘never sat as comfortably in the mentalities of the faithful as wars against infidels’, for the simple reason that Christians defined their own identity by ‘demonising “aliens”’. In the later Middle Ages, kings and princes, none more consistently than the French, ‘hijacked’ crusades for their own glory. These were negative reflections of the appeal of crusading in its heyday. Not even Tyerman’s ingenuity in the later chapters of this book (and they are among the most original and interesting) obscures the decline in crusading after 1291.

Jacques Le Goff said many years ago, and recently repeated, that crusading’s only contribution to western culture was the introduction of the apricot. It was an exaggeration but not an unreasonable one. Intellectual contacts between orient and occident did occur in Spain and Sicily, but, thanks to the crusades, on a small scale. The commercial exchanges that passed through the Levant predated Latin settlement in Outremer, and long outlasted it. ‘Inquisitive and acquisitive expansionism’, did, as Tyerman claims, derive some justification from crusading mentalities; but it was part of a much wider phenomenon. In the activities of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland, or the Germans in the Baltic, even in the writings of churchmen, secular and technological considerations loom large. If civilising mission is hard to find, what about plain mission? Anglo-Normans in Ireland could make no pretence of crusading, but they did claim to be reforming bad Christians. The Germans in the Baltic were crucesignati, but, as Tyerman recognises, at the same time unabashed colonialists.

There are serious difficulties in categorising the crusades as wars of religion, and Tyerman’s terminology is suitably ambiguous on this point. ‘Christians’ and ‘Muslims’ are absent from his illuminating pages on Constantinople’s role in the First Crusade, for instance, yet become increasingly insistent as the expedition nears its bloody climax at Jerusalem. Ethnic or dynastic rather than religious terms predominate in Tyerman’s narrative, as in the contemporary sources: Western historians and Near Eastern historians alike write of Saracens, Turks, Fatimids et al on the one hand, Franks on the other. Muslims saw the Franks as aggressors, while the Franks saw themselves as liberators, avengers and reconquerors. On neither side was there interest in, or even awareness of, religious specifics. Few Franks had any interest in converting Muslims (one of the few who did, St Francis, elicits an aptly paradoxical comment from Tyerman on ‘the naive grandeur of his vision’). The few western scholars who acquainted themselves with Islamic texts did so superficially, to rubbish them in the crudest terms. Yet where most modern historians have seen the crusades’ main outcome as a huge and lasting estrangement between Muslim and Christian worlds, Tyerman points out that ‘the politics of western Asia and the Near East [were] only marginally inconvenienced,’ and, in a brief conclusion deploring anachronism, he notes that ‘John Paul II even apologised to victims of the crusades.’

Amid the din of crusade historiography, Tyerman’s voice is distinctive and consistent. His natural take is detached, sometimes ironic, sometimes sympathetic. He intends his ‘Western European viewpoint’ not to ‘privilege the value or importance of the experience of Western Europeans over others involved’. But is it just because the viewpoint is Western European, or because the evidence for masculine elites is so overwhelmingly plentiful, that some people seem much easier to sympathise with than others, such as Muslims, Byzantines, women?

Tyerman is engagingly frank about his professional credo: the medieval world, so often represented as crude, backward, superstitious, violent, was neither so inferior to our own nor so utterly different from it that understanding is unattainable. Precisely because the crusades, having ‘entered the sphere of public history where the past is captured in abiding cultural myths of inheritance, self-image and identity’, have been so seriously misunderstood, it is now the historian’s job to look afresh. Would that Tyerman had given more space to those processes of myth-formation. He briefly alludes in his preface to persons unspecified ‘who regard the past as a mirror to the present’, and hold that the crusades ‘presage the conflicts of European imperialism, colonialism and Western cultural supremacism’. These persons, who allege the crusades’ ‘relevance’ in order to ‘lend spurious legitimacy to wholly unconnected current . . . problems’, are dismissed on a final page as ‘polemicists’.

But the question of relevance can’t be evaded, because such relevance can be real. When it comes to effective Frankish settlement in the countryside of Palestine, Tyerman rightly appreciates the significance of Ellenblum’s findings. Archaeologically respectable they are, but they cannot repose in some academic ivory tower, inert. To Tyerman there is a crucial and crystal-clear distinction between present and past: ‘Islam’s holy war, the lesser jihad, remains a modern phenomenon. The Christian crusade, except in the mouths of certain meretricious academics and unthinking politicians, does not.’ Yet the lesser jihad’s recurrent, and current, salience in Muslim history cannot be explained without some reference to the crusades, while the very fact that some Western academics and politicians will not stop talking about crusade in the here and now challenges a medieval historian to offer not flat denial but some understanding of why they do so. To use the past is not always to abuse it.