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The Crusades have been a topic of intense scholarly investigation for the last forty years. Some of the best historians in the world have focused their efforts on learning how the Crusade movement, unique in human history, could have developed and flourished in medieval Europe. In thousands of journal articles and scholarly monographs Christianity’s holy wars have been probed, analyzed, and debated. Much still remains to be done, but the fruits of all of this research cannot be denied. We now know much more than ever before about the Crusades.

Unfortunately, little of this has reached a general audience—leaving the field to novelists, journalists, or anyone else with a desire to sell books. And make no mistake: The Crusades have always been of interest to readers, and since the attacks of September 11, histories of the Crusades have been in very high demand. For instance, Karen Armstrong—an ex-nun who reissues her book Holy War whenever trouble is brewing in the Middle East—wasted no time adding a new introduction and getting the book back into bookstores within months of the attacks. Innumerable other popular books were quickly cobbled together, mostly cribbed from Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades—a beautifully written book, but one that is now more than fifty years old and thus does not take account of more recent scholarship. Runciman delivers the expected story: The Crusades were a series of brutal wars of intolerance in which the cynical, voracious, superstitious, and gullible waged insensible war against a peaceful, sophisticated Muslim world, crushing the opulent Byzantine Empire in the bargain.

The First Crusade:
A New History

By Thomas Asbridge
Oxford University Press
408 pp. $35.

To purchase this book, click here.

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople

By Johnathan Phillips
374 pp. $25.95.

To purchase this book, click here.

Fighting for Christendom:
Holy War and the Crusades

By Christopher Tyerman
Oxford University Press
247 pp. $24.29.

To purchase this book, click here.

Frustrated with the ways in which the Crusades have been used and distorted, a few historians are now attempting to close the yawning gap between the academy and general readers. Among the new crop of histories are Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade: A New History, Jonathan Phillips’ The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, and Christopher Tyerman’s Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades. All three of these writers are distinguished historians. All three seek to bring the fruits of decades of scholarship to a popular audience. And all three are keenly aware that in the process they are smashing many cherished myths.

Take, for example, what might be called the Myth of the Greedy Younger Son. This myth holds that an increase in population, the development of feudal primogeniture, and a series of bad harvests created a situation in medieval Europe where thousands of well-trained and land-hungry warriors were milling about with nothing to do. Rather than have them make trouble at home, Pope Urban II convinced them to carve out territories for themselves in the faraway Muslim world. This myth more closely resembles the world of nineteenth-century colonialism than it does the Middle Ages. New research has definitively shown that Crusaders were predominantly the first sons of Europe: wealthy, privileged, and pious. Crusading was extremely expensive and more than a few noble families risked bankruptcy in order to take part. They did so for medieval, not modern, reasons. Crusading for them was an act of love and charity by which, like the Good Samaritan, they were aiding their neighbors in distress. Muslim warriors had conquered eastern Christians, taken their lands, and in some cases killed or enslaved them. The Crusader believed it was his duty to right that wrong.

The Greedy Younger Son is not the only myth historians have discarded. It may surprise some to learn that the Crusades were almost never profitable, since booty was so scarce. Or that the Christian settlers in the so-called Crusader Kingdom were not themselves Crusaders. Or that the Crusades met all the criteria of a just war, especially in their defensive nature. Or that the Crusades had nothing at all to do with colonialism. Or that the Crusades were in no way wars of conversion. Or that the Crusades were not related to Muslim jihad (except insofar as they were a defense against it). Or that the Muslim world knew nothing at all about the Crusades before the nineteenth century.

If your image of Western civilization relies on a depiction of the Crusades as an insane and bloodthirsty attack on a peaceful and sophisticated Muslim world, then you are not going to like what recent historians have to say. This is apparent in some of the responses to these new works. In a New Yorker review of the books by Asbridge and Phillips, the journalist Joan Acocella seemed a little miffed by what she found coming out of the academy. How can two professional historians talk of piety, devotion, and selflessness as Crusader motivations? “Does this mean that Asbridge and Phillips think the Crusades were OK?” she asks incredulously. No, it means they think it is their job as historians to uncover the truth. Acocella speaks approvingly of the much older works by Runciman and John Julius Norwich, who is no historian. The entry of scholars into popular Crusade history does not seem to be welcomed in all quarters.

As the title suggests, Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade: A New History begins at the beginning. The First Crusade was called in 1095 by Pope Urban II in response to an urgent plea for assistance from the Byzantine Empire, the last Christian state in the East. Things had been going badly for Christians for several centuries, ever since the explosion of Muslim warriors out of Arabia in the seventh century. Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa—the core of the Christian world—had been conquered by Muslim jihad warriors and subjected to Islamic rule and law. When Turkish jihad warriors invaded and conquered Asia Minor, they reduced Christendom to a tiny corner of the world.

Urban took the plight of Eastern Christians and the continued subjugation of the Holy Land to the knights of Europe; he asked them to take up the cross and turn back these conquests as an act of penance. Thousands responded. The First Crusade, which was, in typical medieval fashion, governed by a committee of barons, marched thousands of miles across eastern Europe, crossed the Bosporus at Constantinople, and then pushed on to Nicaea, which served as the capital of the Turkish sultanate. After restoring Nicaea to the Byzantine emperor, the Crusaders crossed Anatolia and against all odds restored to Christian control the city of Antioch, one of the ancient patriarchates of Christianity. The Crusaders also acquired nearby Edessa and then continued south along the coast until they finally turned inland and caught their first glimpse of the holy city of Jerusalem. After prayers, penances, and many hardships, they captured it in July 1099.

The modern historian can only marvel at the First Crusade. I know of no other instance in human history in which so many soldiers marched thousands of miles from their home and endured numerous hardships deep in enemy territory for no good strategic or economic reasons. Their reasons had much more to do with the next world than with this one. It is equally amazing that a loosely organized enterprise like this with no clear understanding of the local terrain or sure means of provisioning could so often snatch victory from the jaws of apparent defeat. As Asbridge notes, “Modern historical analysis can offer a rationalization of their accomplishments, but for contemporaries living in the medieval age one thing alone explained the spectacular triumph of the First Crusade—God’s omnipotent will.”

Asbridge’s history works well on many levels. He tells his story vividly, but he does not shy away from details that may muddy his otherwise clear picture. When a scholarly debate exists on a point, he brings it up forthrightly and describes it succinctly. Throughout his narrative he liberally sprinkles footnotes that direct interested readers to the best scholarship available. With knowledge of medieval siege weapons, armor, and basic army conditions, Asbridge argues that the internal command of the First Crusade was not as fractious as historians have generally believed. What really adds depth and color to this history, though, is Asbridge’s familiarity with the region and the careful attention with which he describes it. Readers see the landscapes and fortifications through the eyes of someone who has studied them closely.

Among the most contentious issues in scholarly circles are those that touch on the origin of the Crusades. In the 1930s Carl Erdmann argued that the Crusades came out of a larger ecclesiastical reform movement in Europe that sought to reign in and control warriors. Urban II, Erdmann argued, used the Byzantine plea for aid as a means to harness Europe’s military energy for Church purposes, and also as a means to convince the Byzantine Christians to accept papal primacy. It was, he claimed, popular sentiment that eventually expanded the mission to include Jerusalem.

Response to the “Erdmann Thesis” has been varied, with some historians accepting it in a modified form and others rejecting it. Asbridge cannot avoid presenting his own judgment, and it is here I have difficulties with his approach. Asbridge’s Urban II, much like Erdmann’s, is a schemer whose primary motivation is to exert his own power. There was, Asbridge contends, no compelling external reason for the First Crusade. One would think the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world might engender some bad feeling, but Asbridge insists, “All around the Mediterranean basin, Christian faith and society survived and even thrived under the watchful but tolerant eye of Islam. Eastern Christendom may have been subject to Islamic rule, but it was not on the brink of annihilation, nor prey to any form of systematic abuse.”

What of the recent Muslim conquest of Asia Minor? Asbridge does not consider it worth mentioning. And what of the Byzantine plea for assistance? Asbridge concedes that it “may have stimulated, at least in part,” the pope’s call for a Crusade, but since he ignores the reason for the urgent request, he quickly drops the request itself. Having discounted or ignored all external reasons for the First Crusade, Asbridge is free to conclude that Urban’s call was “primarily proactive rather than reactive, and the Crusade was designed, first and foremost, to meet the needs of the papacy.” Caught in a struggle with the German emperors over investiture, the pope must have conceived the Crusade plan as “an attempt to consolidate papal empowerment and expand Romesphere of influence.”

This argument would be stronger if the pope had sought to raise an army to attack his German enemies rather than sending his supporters thousands of miles from home. Asbridge goes beyond Erdmann in claiming there had been a full schism between Rome and Constantinople since 1054. Yet no other historian accepts this. The enthusiastic response of the Western knights is just one of many pieces of evidence which suggest that, despite some friction, Christians did not recognize a schism even as late as 1095. Asbridge, holding to his claim about the schism, argues that the pope had to convince the knights in his sermon at Clermont that the Byzantines were not schismatics hated for two generations but really “blood brothers.” Urban’s reports of Muslim atrocities, Asbridge contends, “had little or no basis in fact, but they did serve Urban’s purpose.” The pope instituted a “denigration and dehumanization of Islam” to convince the Christian warriors that the Crusade was no “shameful war of equals between God’s children” but a righteous thing.

Asbridge’s assessment of Urban credits the pope with far more foresight and rhetorical authority than he had. It also ignores the real danger that Islamic expansionism posed to the survival of Christendom. Nevertheless, when Asbridge gets beyond his discussion of Urban’s motivations, The First Crusade provides a first-rate description of the course and consequences of that initial moment in the Crusades. It is a story not to be missed.

It was in the eighteenth century that historians began to number the Crusades and, for good or ill, the convention stuck. There was a Second Crusade, led by two kings and preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. It failed dramatically—which is perhaps why it has never received much attention. The Third Crusade, on the other hand, has always attracted interest, for it pitted Richard the Lionheart against Saladin in a fight to the finish for Jerusalem itself. The Fourth Crusade is a different story altogether. Ranking as one of the oddest expeditions in medieval history, the Fourth Crusade has been a favorite topic among scholars and popular authors alike. How can one not stare in wonder at a Crusade that was organized to rescue Jerusalem and ended up devastating Constantinople, the greatest Christian city in the world?

The Fourth Crusade was the brainchild of an energetic young pope, Innocent III (1198–1216). Innocent was determined to launch a new Crusade to reconquer Jerusalem, which had been in Muslim hands since 1187. After some initial delays, recruitment for the Crusade picked up in earnest in France, crystallizing around a few powerful barons. In order to avoid trouble with the Byzantine Christians, who were by now no longer so happy to have Crusade armies marching across their fields and meadows, they decided to sail to the Holy Land. But there was a problem: The barons had no boats. To remedy this they gave blank parchments (the medieval equivalent of blank checks) to six agents and sent them out to contract a fleet.

In 1201 the six went to Venice where boats were, of course, plentiful. The Venetians, led by their aged and blind Doge Enrico Dandolo, agreed to join the Crusade themselves with a fleet of war galleys. In addition they agreed to provide transportation and provisions for all of the French Crusaders and their horses for one year. Since much of the fleet would have to be constructed, the Venetians naturally needed to know how many Crusaders it would transport—a question for which the agents did not have a good answer. Taking a guess, the agents ordered transportation and provisions for 33,500 men and 4,500 horses. The pope confirmed the contract and all was in readiness for the Crusade.

A year passed and the Venetian people fulfilled their end of the contract to the letter. A vast fleet and tons of provisions stood ready. Yet the Crusaders were not so conscientious. It must be remembered that a Crusade was an amalgamation of many different military groups, who were not bound by the oaths sworn by powerful barons. If those groups could find cheaper or more convenient transportation in other ports, there was nothing to stop them from taking advantage of it.

This was bad news for the main body of the Crusade. With so many leaving from other ports, only about 12,000 showed up in Venice. That meant the Crusaders could not pay for the fleet, while the Venetians, who had poured enormous resources into the project, could not renounce payment. A stalemate ensued that lasted throughout the summer of 1202. Finally, the Venetians agreed to loan the money to the Crusaders in return for their assistance in subduing Zara, a rebellious city on the Dalmatian coast. The Crusaders agreed. But Zara was not only a Catholic town; its nominal ruler, the king of Hungary, had taken the Crusader’s vow and therefore his lands were under the protection of the Church. With the only alternative being the dissolution of the Crusade, the Crusaders attacked and conquered Zara—whereupon the whole Fourth Crusade was excommunicated.

In time the French Crusaders received papal absolution for their part in the business at Zara, but the Venetians did not. Nevertheless, in spring 1203 the Crusade was again ready to sail—or almost ready. There was the problem that only a few months remained on their lease of the vessels. There was also the problem that they had eaten all of their provisions.

At this point a young Byzantine prince stepped into the unfolding drama. Young Alexius Angelus was the son of Emperor Isaac II Angelus, who had been blinded and deposed by his brother, the current Emperor Alexius III Angelus. The young man claimed, plausibly enough, that his uncle was a usurper and that the people of Constantinople longed to be free of his tyranny. If the Crusaders would champion the young man’s righteous cause by bringing him to the imperial city, the Byzantine people would respond by overthrowing the tyrant and restoring to the young Alexius Angelus his rightful throne. In return for this act of charity, the young man promised oceans of riches, thousands of troops to join the Crusade, and the subjugation of the Byzantine Church to the pope in Rome. With much dissent in the ranks, the Crusade leaders accepted the deal.

When the Crusaders arrived at Constantinople they were surprised to discover that they were not hailed as liberators. Greeks wanted no Westerners telling them who to have as their emperor. After a brief attack on the city, though, Emperor Alexius III fled. So the young man was finally crowned as Alexius IV. But he could only come up with half of what he owed the Crusaders, and his unpopularity among his subjects made him fear for his life. So the Crusaders agreed to remain at Constantinople over the winter in order to give the new emperor time to consolidate his power and come up with the remainder of their reward. But Alexius IV did not survive the winter. A palace coup toppled him, putting on the throne the anti-Latin candidate, Alexius V Mourtzouphlus. Faced with this treachery and betrayal, the Crusaders decided to attack Constantinople once again. In April 1204 they entered the city, captured it, and put it to the sack. Later Baldwin of Flanders was elected the first emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Thus ended the Fourth Crusade, having never reached Jerusalem.

Popular accounts of the Fourth Crusade have traditionally painted it in the darkest, most anti-Western colors. Those who think little of the papacy or the Catholic Church can blame Pope Innocent III. While it is true that the pope had thrice forbidden the Crusaders to sail to Constantinople, demanded that they do no harm to Christians, and bitterly rebuked them for the sack of the city, one could dismiss these protestations as merely “for the record.” Deep in his heart, it has been argued, Innocent wanted the Crusade to conquer Constantinople. Many have also blamed the Venetians. Venice, you see, was a city of merchants. Surely, no flame of piety, idealism, or self-sacrifice could burn in the cold hearts of its citizens. Doge Enrico Dandolo, it is said, feigned devotion to the Cross, but in truth he sought a way to harness the holy enterprise for his own profane goals. Although Venice did an enormous amount of very lucrative business in Constantinople, many authors have insisted that bringing a war to Venice’s closest trading partner did, in fact, make good business sense.

During the last thirty years historians have learned much more about this complex Crusade. We now know that there was no secret villain scheming to divert the Crusade. Instead, there were many actors and accidents that led the enterprise step by step to a conclusion that no one wanted or could have foreseen. That story has been told in scholarly monographs, but until the publication of Jonathan Phillips’s The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, it hadn’t appeared in an accessible, popular style.

Having devoted much of my professional career to the study of the Fourth Crusade, I am a tough critic when it comes to this subject. I have never read a popular treatment of this Crusade that is not riddled with errors of fact and laughable assumptions. That is, until now. Phillips’ book is a story well told, and the story is all the better for being true. Phillips has no need for made-up villains or half-baked conspiracies in order to craft a compelling and exciting read.

Based on the best research and a thorough reading of the primary texts, Phillips uses the Fourth Crusade as a gateway to the Middle Ages. It is a teaching tool, a way of introducing the general public to a world very different from our own. He cleverly engages his readers’ interest and imagination by finding apt modern analogies. Consider this description of medieval sea travel: “Three-decked versions of the round ship were approximately 110 feet long and 32 feet wide. In comparison, a modern airplane such as an Airbus A320 is 120 feet long and its fuselage is about 16 feet wide. It carries up to 150 passengers and eight crew on flights of (usually) no more than four-and-a-half hours’ duration. By the end of such a flight, most passengers are cramped and fidgety. As we look over a medieval ship, perhaps the equivalent of a jet as the main mode of transport, and consider that journeys lasted many weeks, such figures are sobering.”

Rather than discussing one of the Crusades, Christopher Tyerman uses his recent book to treat the entire Crusading movement. His approach in Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades is not chronological but conceptual. He means for this book to be a “brief introduction” to the “history and historiography of the Crusades and what could be called their post-history.”

Given the lack of footnotes or comprehensive bibliography, Tyerman clearly intends Fighting for Christendom for a popular audience. Yet, unlike Asbridge and Phillips, he makes no attempt to introduce his reader to the medieval world; nor, for that matter, does he provide them with much information about the Crusades themselves. In a book of almost 250 pages, Tyerman devotes only thirty-two to the events of all the Crusades. The descriptions are so schematic that they would be useful only as a refresher for those already familiar with the campaigns. Those seeking an accessible general introduction to the Crusades will not find it here.

Like most Crusade historians, Tyerman is frustrated by the image of the Crusades in the popular media. “Most of what passes in public as knowledge of the Crusades is either misleading or false,” he writes. “The Crusades were not solely wars against Islam in Palestine. They were not chiefly conducted by land-hungry younger sons, nor were they part of some early attempt to impose Western economic hegemony on the world. More fundamentally, they did not represent an aberration from Christian teaching.”

All of this is quite true. Yet Tyerman’s frustration can sometimes lead to splenetic rants. When decrying pseudo-histories of the Knights Templar, Tyerman writes, “The Templars occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of Alternative History of the ‘what they have tried to conceal from us’ genre, championed by obsessive swivel-eyed anoraks and conspiracy theorists allied to cool money sharks bent on the commercial exploitation of public credulity.”

This passage neatly sums up the book’s attitude to both the medieval and modern worlds. In Tyerman’s view, both are made up of cynical deceivers and guileless fools. Referring to the 2001 book Warriors of God, a popular and very poor history of the Crusades by James Reston, Jr., Tyerman sneers, “A recent best-selling book on Saladin and Richard I, apparently the bed-time reading of American presidents, in its psycho babble, inaccuracy, and dramatization reads like a screenplay.”

Although Tyerman provides a good explanation of the development of the Christian concept of just war and holy war, he clearly sees that development as a warping of a pacifistic faith. He twice refers to Christian holy war as an “oxymoron.” The “so-called Church Fathers” helped to bring this distortion about, thus preparing the way for someone like Pope Urban II. Like Asbridge, Tyerman sees only cynical secular motives in Urban’s call for the First Crusade. The pope “seized on the opportunity to promote papal authority in temporal affairs. From its inception, crusading represented a practical expression of papal ideology, leadership, and power.”

Did the Muslim threat have anything to do with the Crusades? Not at all: “Crusading exemplifies the exploitation of the fear of what sociologists call ‘the other,’ alien peoples or concepts ranged against which social groups can find or be given cohesion: Communism and Capitalism; Democracy and Fascism; Christians and non-Christians; Whites and Non-Whites; Them and Us.” Thus, in Tyerman’s view, the Crusades were the result of a papal desire to build worldly power through fear-mongering.

Given the frequency with which Tyerman refers to medieval anti-Jewish pogroms, one might well conclude that the purpose of the Crusades was to annihilate Jews. Indeed, he uses these massacres as evidence of the brutal nature of the Crusades and the success of the Church in whipping up hatred for “the other.” Nowhere does he mention that these attacks on Jews were isolated incidents in direct violation of Church law and condemned by churchmen and secular leaders alike. Anti-Jewish attacks were seen as a perversion of crusading, and people like St. Bernard of Clairvaux worked hard to keep them from happening at all.

Tyerman’s Fighting for Christendom is a difficult book to read. Aside from its general tone of condescending superiority, there is also an over-reliance on the language of easy indignation: the frequent use of such words as “shocking,” “appalling,” “brutally,” “butchery,” “vicious,” “barbarism,” and “atrocities” undermines the sobriety of the author’s arguments. Nevertheless, parts of the book are genuinely praiseworthy. Tyerman offers one of the best short explanations of Islamic jihad and its relationship to Crusade, and his description of the place of Crusade within Christian society gives an excellent overview of the current scholarly consensus. He points out that the Crusades were not an economic boon for Europe and that Italians, far from being traitors of the crusading ideal, were among its most enthusiastic devotees.

His account of the scholarly controversy regarding the colonial nature of the Latin East is also quite good, as is his overall description of that unique society. He rightly points out that while a distorted memory of the Crusades may engender animosities in the Middle East and breast-beating in the West, those memories have little to do with the facts. In his characteristic tone he writes that “the re-entry of the Crusades into the politics of the Near East is baleful and intellectually bogus.” As a counterpoise to Edward Said, Tyerman refers to a troubling “Occidentalism” in the Middle East that “assumes an inherent conflict of power and victimization that elevates a wholly unhistorical link between modern colonialism and medieval crusading.” He wisely concludes, “The Crusades can only be understood on their own terms, in their own time.” It is a conclusion that both Phillips and Asbridge would surely endorse.

As historians of the Crusades begin to present their research to the general reader, the common caricature of these events is finally beginning to dissolve. Unlike most older popular histories on the subject, these new books are fastidious about the facts, and they are less inclined to patronize the past or flatter the modern reader’s prejudices. While their arguments about what motivated the Crusades are sometimes question able, they are never anachronistic—and that alone constitutes an important improvement.

Thomas F. Madden is Chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University. His recent books include The New Concise History of the Crusades (2005), Crusades: The Illustrated History (2004), and Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice (2003).

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