Taking the Cross

My last post provided some theological and historical background to the crusades of the early medieval period, concerning the rise of

Islam and the theological debates of the time concerning the concept of a just war (there were also a few other reasons, such as the Byzantine Empire appealing for help after a long and tiring series of wars against the Turks and a general bout of religious mania that collectively gripped the Catholic world at the time, but these kinds of things are boring and can be summarised in an overlong clause-laden sentence.). Today is going to cover history in a more conventional manner: specifically, the early history of the crusades themselves.

The triggering act of the First Crusade was the Council of Clermont in July 1095, when Pope Urban II (in response to the Byzantine Emperor Alexios the First’s call for aid) made an impassioned speech to a large crowd of French nobles and clergymen. After beginning with the predictable rabble rousing stuff, detailing the atrocities performed by the Muslims on Christian pilgrims and other such bits of religious fervour, Urban moved on to propose a new type of ‘armed pilgrimage’ aiming to take back the Holy Land (although he didn’t specifically mention Jerusalem) from the Saracen infidels. And, like any good salesman, he ended with a special offer to nail down the deal; remission of sins (ie direct route to heaven) for all crusaders who either died in the attempt or successfully completed the crusade’s objective.

Whilst he had hoped for a big response, Urban never quite anticipated the sheer scale of what his crusade would become. Whilst he had anticipated (and got) a good number of knights and nobles making up his crusading army (mostly from France where he toured, but also from the Holy Roman Empire and Italy where local priests were encouraged to preach), what was not expected was the popular response. Thousands upon thousands of common people across Europe pledged to ‘take the cross’, armed with little more than religious fervour and a near-total lack of fighting ability, despite Urban’s attempts to make some of them (such as the women) stay home. Indeed, some 20,000 such pilgrims led by a successful Crusading preacher named Peter the Hermit were so wrapped up in zealotry that they set off for the Holy Land six months before anyone else (the disorganised mob were ambushed halfway through Turkey and only 3,000 escaped with their lives).

When the official crusade of some 30,000 relatively organised men finally kicked off in August 1096 and, despite nearly precipitating war with the Byzantines they had gone to help with regards to sourcing supplies, was reasonably successful. They took back Nicaea, a city a little way to the south east of Constantinople, for the Byzantines, defeated a large Turkish army in the Battle of Dorylaeum, before laying siege to the large, historic Muslim city of Antioch (close to the border between modern-day Turkey and Syria). The siege lasted for nearly a year and the crusading army had to deal with an Islamic relief army shortly after capturing it, but the area was eventually subdued (read; the entire Muslim population were slaughtered) and the first European Prince of Antioch put in power. The remaining troops then marched to Jerusalem, dealing with plague, cannibalism and more enemies than you could shake a stick at on the way, but managed to force their way into the city, massacred the local Muslims and Jews who had fought against them in one of the most horrific acts of genocide in human history (the persecution of the Jews in Europe following Urban’s Christian, anti-semitic rabble rousing has been referred to as ‘the first Holocaust’), sacked every non-Christian building they could find and installed Godfrey of Bouillon as the first King of Jerusalem. Thus he became head of the most powerful and significant of the four ‘crusader states’ that the First Crusade founded in this region of the world. There was the landlocked County of Edessa in modern-day south-east Turkey, the Principality of Antioch in western Syria (on the mediterranean coast), the somewhat confusingly named County of Tripoli that covers modern-day Lebanon and is nowhere near Libya, and the largest and greatest of the lot: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, stretching from the County of Tripoli to the Sinai desert, taking in the Lebanese city of Tyre to the north, the walled city of Acre further south, and of course the city of Jerusalem itself.

That should have been that, and a new Christian land should probably have entered the world; but we must remember that most of those on the crusade had plenty of responsibility and property waiting at home for them. This meant the entire army pretty much dissipated in a few years, leaving Godfrey (who died a year later) and a small group of a few hundred knights to their fate in Jerusalem. Thanks to infighting amongst the Muslims however, there was initially no organised attempt to conquer the new Christian states, so the crusaders were able to survive and prosper. Indeed, even when some of them finally united (after a fashion) under Imad ad-Din Zengi, efforts to recapture the Holy Land were slow. Aleppo fell in 1128, but it wasn’t until 1144 that he caused the European world to sit up and take notice, when he conquered the County of Edessa (by far the weakest of the crusader states both militarily and financially). This prompted a second crusade, ordered by Pope Eugenius III, that completely failed to take it back; French and German troops were harassed by Muslim forces throughout their march through Turkey, arriving in Jerusalem with only enough men to launch a failed siege of Damascus (although one does have to wonder why they bothered, given that Damascus is miles away from Edessa). This failure, on it’s own, still wasn’t a massive issue, with the Kingdom of Jerusalem still together prosperous. Indeed, other aspects of the crusade were a resounding success: perhaps emboldened by the success of the first crusade, the powers that be decided that the second one would attempt to push back the Moors in Spain, and the men who arrived to do that job managed to make significant territorial gains in both Cataluña and Portugal. However, by the 1180s there was real trouble brewing in the Middle East. The great Muslim leader Salah al-Din, best known by his western name Saladin, had united much of the Muslim world behind him, using his not inconsiderable military nous to great effect. As well as building a sultanate so large and powerful that it spanned Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, he brought the full might of the Islamic world to bear on the crusader states. The Principality of Antioch and County of Tripoli were both reduced to slivers of their former selves, and in September of 1187 Jerusalem was overrun and the Kingdom of Jerusalem destroyed, prompting Pope Gregory VIII to prompt a third crusade. And we will pick up the story of that next time (which will be the last one of these, promise).

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A History of Justified Violence

The Crusades rank among the most controversial wars in the history of mankind, and they go up against some pretty stiff competitors (WWI, the Boer War, and every time the English have fought their Celtic neighbours to name but a few). Spanning two hundred years, the historical view of the Crusades has changed slowly at the time; at the time they were thought a holy mission from God, at a later date a noble but ultimately flawed idea, and now many historians take the view that crusaders were little more than a bunch of murdering rapists plundering their way across the holy land. In fact, throughout history only one thing has been agreed on; that they were an abject failure.

The story of how the crusades came to be is a rather twisted one. During the early years of the second millennia AD, Christianity and Islam were spoiling for a fight that has, in some respects, yet to end. Christianity had a head start and had taken firm root in Europe, but over the last few centuries Islam had been founded and spread across the world like wildfire. Zealots, often with a Qur’an in one hand and a sword in the other had spread the word of Allah and Muhammed across the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and pretty much all of Spain & Portugal south of Barcelona. Indeed, they probably would have gone further (given their immense technological, financial and military clout), had Islam as a religion not descended into infighting with the creation of the Sunni and Shia denominations and the collapse of the unified caliphate. Nevertheless, many Islamic empires were vast and incredibly powerful, and a serious force to be reckoned with.

The rise of Islam was an interesting phenomenon, unique to the world at the time, because of the way it is backed by the principle of jihad. Nowadays, the word tends to be taken to mean ‘holy war’, which is misleading- jihad refers to a Muslim’s attempts to struggle (‘struggle’ being the literal meaning of the word) against non-Muslims, both in a spiritual and worldly capacity. This can be taken to refer to a literal physical struggle against the enemies of Islam, and it was under this guidance that Muslim armies swept across the world under the banner of their religion. This was a strange concept to Christian nations, for whilst they had certainly fought before they had never done so for religious reasons. The Bible’s main messages are, after all, of peace and love for thy neighbour, and the Ten Commandments even state explicitly that ‘You shall not kill’. War was many things, but Christian was not, up until this point, among them.

However, the success of the Islamic approach, demonstrating just how powerful war and faith could be when they went hand-in-hand, lead the Church to reconsider, and added fuel to the fire of an already heated debate regarding whether the use of violence was ever justifiable to a Christian. There was already enough material to provoke argument; particularly in the Old Testament, God is frequently seen dispensing his wrath upon sinners (including one apparent count of genocide and a systematic cleansing of pretty much the entire world, among other things) in direct contravention of his son’s teachings. Then there were the questions of how one was otherwise meant to fight back against an invading force; ‘turn the other cheek’ is all very well, but loses its attractiveness when one is faced with someone attempting to kill you. Other schools of thought held that sin could be justified if it prevented a greater evil from occurring; but others stuck to the old view, claiming that violence could never be justified and only begat, or was begotten by, other violent acts.

It should also be remembered that the medieval Church was a distinctly political entity, and knew perfectly well that to attempt to tell, say, the vastly powerful Holy Roman Empire that it couldn’t declare war was just asking for trouble. Indeed, in later years the HRE even set up its own puppet papacy of ‘antipopes’, allowing them to excommunicate whoever they wanted and thus claim their wars were righteous.

However, the real trump card for the ‘just war camp’ was Jerusalem. The city of Jesus’ Crucifixion, the capital of Israel under the rule of King David (it is worth remembering that Mary’s spouse Joseph was of the House of David, hence why he returned to Bethlehem, the city of David when the Roman census was called), thought by many to be the place of Christ’s hidden tomb, it was the holiest city in the Christian (and Jewish) world, as even the Vatican would admit. However, it was also where, according to Islamic scripture, Muhammed undertook ‘the Night Journey’, in which he travelled to Jerusalem on a winged mule, and met with several prophets before ascending to speak directly with God (apparently the main source of discussion was an argument between God and the prophet Musa concerning how many prayers per day were required, with poor Muhammed acting as a messenger between the two. I would stress, however, that I am not especially knowledgeable with regards to Muslim scripture; if anyone wants to correct me on this, feel free to do so in the comments). This made it one of the holiest cities in the Muslim world, and Islamic forces had captured it (and the rest of Palestine to boot) in 636. The city had changed hands several times since then, but it had remained Muslim. For a long time this hadn’t been too much of a problem, but come the 11th century the Muslim rulers started acting against the Christian population. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed, the Byzantine Empire (which, although Orthodox, was still technically on Catholic Europe’s side) was getting worn down by near-constant war against its Muslim neighbours, and Christian pilgrims started being harassed on their way to Jerusalem.

It was this that really tipped the Catholic Church’s ‘just war’ debate over the edge, and the Church eventually adopted the stance that war could be justified in the eyes of God if it was pursued in His name (a concept similar in nature to the jihad principle of justified warfare in fighting against the enemies of one’s religion). This was a decision made with one thing in mind; to win back the Holy Land from the Saracen infidels (Saracen being the coverall name given by Catholics to the Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem). To do that, the church needed an army. To get an army, they called a crusade…