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.

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