Post-classical history

Chapter Three



Contrary to frequent claims, Muslim technology lagged far behind that of the West. The knights shown here are armed with crossbows that were far more accurate and deadly than Muslim bows—Muslim arrows could seldom penetrate the chain-mail armor worn by these and most other crusaders, but very few Muslims had such armor.
© British Library / HIP / Art Resource, NY

IT HAS LONG BEEN the received wisdom that while Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, science and learning flourished in Islam. As the well-known Bernard Lewis put it in his recent study, Islam “had achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences of civilization…[intellectually] medieval Europe was a pupil and in a sense dependent on the Islamic world.”1 But then, Lewis pointed out, Europeans suddenly began to advance “by leaps and bounds, leaving the scientific and technological and eventually the cultural heritage of the Islamic world far behind them.”2 Hence, the question Lewis posed in the title of his book: What Went Wrong?

This chapter documents my answer to Lewis’s question: nothing went wrong. The belief that once upon a time Muslim culture was superior to that of Europe is at best an illusion.


To the extent that Arab elites acquired a sophisticated culture, they learned it from their subject peoples. As Bernard Lewis put it, without seeming to fully appreciate the implications, Arabs inherited “the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle east, of Greece, of Persia and of India.”3 That is, the sophisticated culture so often attributed to Muslims (more often referred to as “Arabic” culture) was actually the culture of the conquered people—the Judeo-Christian-Greek culture of Byzantium, the remarkable learning of heretical Christian groups such as the Copts and the Nestorians, extensive knowledge from Zoroastrian (Mazdean) Persia, and the great mathematical achievements of the Hindus (keep in mind the early and extensive Muslim conquests in India). This legacy of learning, including much that had originated with the ancient Greeks, was translated into Arabic, and portions of it were somewhat assimilated into Arab culture, but even after having been translated, this “learning” continued to be sustained primarily by the dhimmipopulations living under Arab regimes. For example, the “earliest scientific book in the language of Islam” was a “treatise on medicine by a Syrian Christian priest in Alexandria, translated into Arabic by a Persian Jewish physician.”4 As in this example, not only did most “Arab” science and learning originate with the dhimmis; they even did most of the translating into Arabic.5 But that did not transform this body of knowledge into Arab culture. Rather, as Marshall Hodgson noted, “those who pursued natural science tended to retain their older religious allegiances as dhimmis, even when doing their work in Arabic.”6 That being the case, as the dhimmis slowly assimilated, much of what was claimed to be the sophisticated Arab culture disappeared.

Although not a matter of intellectual culture, Muslim fleets provide an excellent example. The problems posed for their armies by the ability of Byzantium to attack them from the sea led the early Arab conquerors to acquire fleets of their own. Subsequently, these fleets sometimes gave good account of themselves in battles against Byzantine and Western navies, and this easily can be used as evidence of Islamic sophistication. But when we look more closely, we discover that these were not really “Muslim” fleets.

Being men of the desert, the Arabs knew nothing of shipbuilding, so they turned to their newly acquired and still-functioning shipyards of Egypt7 and the port cities of coastal Syria (including Tyre, Acre, and Beirut) and commissioned the construction of a substantial fleet. The Arabs also knew nothing of sailing or navigation, so they manned their Egyptian fleet with Coptic sailors8 and their Persian fleet with mercenaries having Byzantine naval backgrounds. A bit later, when in need of a fleet at Carthage, the Muslim “governor of Egypt sent 1,000 Coptic shipwrights…to construct a fleet of 100 warships.”9 While very little has been written about Muslim navies (itself suggestive that Muslim writers had little contact with them), 10 there is every reason to assume that Muslims never took over the construction or command of “their” fleets but that they continued to be designed, built, and sailed by dhimmis. Thus in 717, when the Arabs made their last effort against Constantinople by sea, a contributing factor in their defeat was “the defection to the Byzantine side of many of the Christian crews of Arab vessels.”11 Finally, when an enormous Muslim fleet was sunk by Europeans off the coast of Lepanto in 1571, “the leading captains of both fleets were European. The sultan himself preferred renegade Italian admirals.”12 Moreover, not only were the Arab ships copies of European designs; “[t]hey were built for the sultan by highly paid runaways,”13 by “shipwrights from Naples and Venice.”14

The highly acclaimed Arab architecture also turns out to have been mainly a dhimmi achievement, adapted from Persian and Byzantine origins. When Caliph Abd el-Malik had the great Dome of the Rock built in Jerusalem, and which became one of the great masterpieces attributed to Islamic art, he employed Byzantine architects and craftsmen, 15 which is why it so closely resembled the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.16 Similarly, in 762, when the caliph al-Mansimager founded Baghdad, he entrusted the design of the city to a Zoroastrian and a Jew.17 In fact, many famous Muslim mosques were originally built as Christian churches and converted by merely adding external minarets and redecorating the interiors. As an acknowledged authority on Islamic art and architecture put it, “the Dome of the Rock truly represents a work of what we understand today as Islamic art, that is, art not necessarily made by Muslims…but rather art made in societies where most people—or the most important people—were Muslims.”18

Similar examples abound in the intellectual areas that have inspired so much admiration for Arab learning. Thus, in his much-admired book written to acknowledge the “enormous” contributions of the Arabs to science and engineering, Donald R. Hill noted that very little could be traced to Arab origins and admitted that most of these contributions originated with conquered populations. For example, Avicenna, whom the Encyclopaedia Britannica ranks as “the most influential of all Muslim philosopher-scientists,” was a Persian. So were the famous scholars Omar Khayyám, al-Biruni, and Razi, all of whom are ranked with Avicenna. Another Persian, al-Khwarizmi, is credited as the father of algebra. Al-Uqlidisi, who introduced fractions, was a Syrian. Bakht-Ishimage’ and ibn Ishaq, leading figures in “Muslim” medical knowledge, were Nestorian Christians. Masha’allah ibn Atharimage, the famous astronomer and astrologer, was a Jew. This list could be extended for several pages. What may have misled so many historians is that most contributors to “Arabic science” were given Arabic names and their works were published in Arabic—that being the “official” language of the land.

Consider mathematics. The so-called Arabic numerals were entirely of Hindu origin. Moreover, even after the splendid Hindu numbering system based on the concept of zero was published in Arabic, it was adopted only by mathematicians while other Muslims continued to use their cumbersome traditional system. Many other contributions to mathematics also have been erroneously attributed to “Arabs.” For example, Thabit ibn Qurra, noted for his many contributions to geometry and to number theory, is usually identified as an “Arab mathematician,” but he was a member of the pagan Sabian sect. Of course, there were some fine Muslim mathematicians, perhaps because it is a subject so abstract as to insulate its practitioners from any possible religious criticism. The same might be said for astronomy, although here, too, most of the credit should go not to Arabs, but to Hindus and Persians. The “discovery” that the earth turns on its axis is often attributed to the Persian al-Biruni, but he acknowledged having learned of it from Brahmagupta and other Indian astronomers.19 Nor was al-Biruni certain about the matter, remarking in his Canon Masudicus that “it is the same whether you take it that the Earth is in motion or the sky. For, in both cases, it does not affect the Astronomical Science.”20 Another famous “Arab” astronomer was al-Battani, but like Thabit ibn Qurra, he, too, was a member of the pagan Sabian sect (who were star worshippers, which explains their particular interest in astronomy).

The many claims that the Arabs achieved far more sophisticated medicine than had previous cultures21 are as mistaken as those regarding “Arabic” numerals. “Muslim” or “Arab” medicine was in fact Nestorian Christian medicine; even the leading Muslim and Arab physicians were trained at the enormous Nestorian medical center at Nisibus in Syria. Not only medicine but the full range of advanced education was offered at Nisibus and at the other institutions of learning established by the Nestorians, including the one at Jundishapur in Persia, which the distinguished historian of science George Sarton (1884–1956) called “the greatest intellectual center of the time.”22 Hence, the Nestorians “soon acquired a reputation with the Arabs for being excellent accountants, architects, astrologers, bankers, doctors, merchants, philosophers, scientists, scribes and teachers. In fact, prior to the ninth century, nearly all the learned scholars in the [Islamic area] were Nestorian Christians.”23 It was primarily the Nestorian Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-‘Ibadi (known in Latin as Johannitius) who “collected, translated, revised, and supervised the translation of Greek manuscripts, especially those of Hippocrates, Galen, Plato, and Aristotle[,] into Syriac and Arabic.”24 Indeed, as late as the middle of the eleventh century, the Muslim writer Nasir-i Khrusau reported, “Truly, the scribes here in Syria, as is the case of Egypt, are all Christians…[and] it is most usual for the physicians…to be Christians.”25 In Palestine under Muslim rule, according to the monumental history by Moshe Gil, “the Christians had immense influence and positions of power, chiefly because of the gifted administrators among them who occupied government posts despite the ban in Muslim law against employing Christians [in such positions] or who were part of the intelligentsia of the period owing to the fact that they were outstanding scientists, mathematicians, physicians and so on.”26 The prominence of Christian officials was also acknowledged by Abd al-Jabbimager, who wrote in about 995 that “kings in Egypt, al-Shimagem, Iraq, Jazimagera, Fimageris, and in all their surroundings, rely on Christians in matters of officialdom, the central administration and the handling of funds.”27

Even many of the most partisan Muslim historians, including the famous English convert to Islam and translator of the Qur’an Mar-maduke Pickthall (1875–1936), 28 agree that the sophisticated Muslim culture originated with the conquered populations. But what has largely been ignored is that the decline of that culture and the inability of Muslims to keep up with the West occurred because Muslim or Arab culture was largely an illusion resting on a complex mix of dhimmi cultures, and as such, it was easily lost and always vulnerable to being repressed as heretical. Hence, when in the fourteenth century Muslims in the East stamped out nearly all religious nonconformity, Muslim backwardness came to the fore.


Underlying the belief that the Muslims were more learned and sophisticated than the Christian West is the presumption that a society not steeped in Greek philosophy and literature was a society in the dark! Thus for the past several centuries many European writers have stressed the Arab possession of the classical writers, assuming that by having access to the advanced “wisdom” of the ancients, Islam was the much superior culture. Although medieval European scholars were far more familiar with the “classics” than was claimed, the fact is that because of the persistence of Byzantine/Greek culture in most of the conquered Arab societies, the most-educated Arabs did have greater knowledge of the work of classical Greek authors such as Plato and Aristotle. What is less known is the rather negative impact that access to Greek scholarship had on Arab scholarship.

The works of Plato and Aristotle reached the Arabs via translations into Syrian late in the seventh century and then into Arabic by Syrians in, perhaps, the ninth century. However, rather than treat these works as attempts by Greek scholars to answer various questions, Muslim intellectuals quickly read them in the same way as they read the Qur’an—as settled truths to be understood without question or contradiction—and thus to the degree that Muslim thinkers analyzed these works, it was to reconcile apparent internal disagreements. Eventually the focus was on Aristotle. As the respected Muslim historian Caesar Farah explained, “[I]n Aristotle Muslim thinkers found the great guide; to them he became the ‘first teacher.’ Having accepted this a priori, Muslim philosophy as it evolved in subsequent centuries merely chose to continue in this vein and to enlarge on Aristotle rather than to innovate.”29 This eventually led the philosopher Averroës and his followers to impose the position that Aristotle’s physics was complete and infallible, and if actual observations were inconsistent with one of Aristotle’s teachings, those observations were either in error or an illusion.30

Attitudes such as these prevented Islam from taking up where the Greeks had left off in their pursuit of knowledge. In contrast, knowledge of Aristotle’s work prompted experimentation and discovery among the early Christian scholastics. Indeed, then as now, one’s reputation was enhanced by disagreeing with received knowledge, by innovation and correction, which motivated scholastics to find fault with the Greeks.31 And there were many faults to be found.


As noted, central to all claims concerning the superiority of Muslim culture has been their possession of translations of many books by classical authors. But books must be kept somewhere, and large collections of books can be identified as libraries—whether these are the collection of books belonging to individuals or are institutions devoted to acquiring and preserving books. There is sufficient evidence of the existence of both kinds of libraries in Islam, dating back to early days. Indeed, libraries confronted the conquering Muslim armies all across the Middle East and North Africa. Some of these libraries had survived from pagan times; others were created by Christians and Jews. Among the Copts in Egypt, “every monastery and probably every church once had its own library of manuscripts.”32 All across Byzantium, the Orthodox clergy sustained libraries. At their great centers of learning, the Nestorian Christians maintained huge collections of books. There seems to have been nothing very unusual about the story of a Nestorian monk who checked out a book from the monastery library every week and devoted most of his waking hours to pondering and memorizing it.33 Thus it was demonstrated to the early Muslims that if they “were to make use of the diversified knowledge to which they fell heir, they must have books, preferably in the Arabic language, and these books must be preserved in safety and rendered accessible to readers.”34

However, the notion that Muslims valued libraries is contrary to the controversial claim that they burned the huge library at Alexandria.35 The story is told that after the conquest of Alexandria, the Muslim commander inquired of the caliph ‘Umar back in Damascus as to what should be done with this immense library, said to contain hundreds of thousands of scrolls. ‘Umar is said to have replied, “[I]f what is written in them agrees with the Book of God [the Qur’an], they are not required: if it disagrees, they are not desired. Therefore destroy them.”36 Thus the general distributed the scrolls to the four thousand baths of the city to be used as fuel, and the burning took six months.

This story has provoked very angry responses from many admirers of Islam despite the fact that the leading Western historians (including Edward Gibbon) have rejected it, most being satisfied with the tradition that the library was burned by accident when Julius Caesar conquered Egypt. Nevertheless, Asma Afsaruddin angrily charged that the story reflects nothing more than Christian hatred of Muslims, 37 ignoring the fact that the story first appeared in the thirteenth century in an account written by a Muslim Egyptian historian! It was then repeated by other Muslim writers, including the famous Ibn Khaldimagen.38 That the charge that the caliph caused the great library to be burned was leveled by Muslims does not increase the likelihood that it is true; the first account was written about six hundred years after the alleged event. But that the story was believed by so many Muslim intellectuals suggests something far more interesting: that many Muslims, including heads of state, were hostile to books and learning!

This anti-intellectual attitude seems obvious if one reads Muslim political history rather than accounts of the glories of Muslim science. The former notes that when Mutawakkil became caliph in 847 he immediately “began to stifle independent research and scientific inquiry and increase the suppression of religious dissent by force.”39 So did his successors. Then with the collapse of the caliphate, it no longer was possible to apply any policies—whether “enlightened” or “repressive”—to a Muslim empire now shattered into a mosaic of emirates, subject to a series of internal invasions. From then on, some Muslim rulers were more tolerant than others of scholars, their books, and their learning, but most were not very tolerant. Indeed, Saladin, the famous twelfth-century Muslim hero so greatly admired by Western writers, closed the official library in Cairo and discarded the books.40 All of this would seem to indicate a prevailing tension between the sophisticated, so-called Muslim culture sustained by the dhimmis and the actual culture of the Muslim elites.


The claim that Muslims possessed a more advanced culture also rests on illusions about the cultural backwardness of Christendom—on the widespread but unfounded belief that subsequent to the fall of Rome, Europe regressed into the Dark Ages and thus lost the cultural heritage that still was thriving in Islam. Voltaire (1694–1778) claimed that after Rome fell, “barbarism, superstition, [and] ignorance covered the face of the world.”41 According to Rousseau (1712–1778), “Europe had relapsed into the barbarism of the earliest ages. The people of this part of the world…lived some centuries ago in a condition worse than ignorance.”42 Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) also pronounced this era as the “triumph of barbarism and religion.”43

Not surprisingly, this became the received wisdom on the matter. Thus, in his bestselling book The Discoverers (1983), Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin (1914–2004) included a chapter titled “The Prison of Christian Dogma,” in which he claimed that the “Dark Ages” began even before the fall of Rome. “Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and most of Europe. Then we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia, which afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300.” This occurred because “the leaders of orthodox Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge.”44 And in the words of the distinguished historian William Manchester (1922–2004), this was an era “of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness…The Dark Ages were stark in every dimension.”45

Some of these claims are malicious, and all are astonishingly ignorant. Granted, like the Muslim conquerors, the Germanic tribes that conquered Roman Europe had to acquire considerable culture before they measured up to their predecessors. But, in addition to having many Romans to instruct and guide them, they had the Church, which carefully sustained and advanced the culture inherited from Rome.46 What is even more significant is that the centuries labeled as the “Dark Ages” were “one of the great innovative eras of mankind,” as technology was developed and put into use “on a scale no civilization had previously known.”47 In fact, as will be seen, it was during the “Dark Ages” that Europe began the great technological leap forward that put it far ahead of the rest of the world.48 This has become so well known that rejection of the “Dark Ages” as an unfounded myth is now reported in the respected dictionaries and encyclopedias that only a few years previously had accepted and promulgated that same myth. Thus, while earlier editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had identified the five or six centuries after the fall of Rome as the “Dark Ages,” the fifteenth edition, published in 1981, dismissed that as an “unacceptable” term because it incorrectly claims this to have been “a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity.”

As has been evident, the claims concerning a more advanced and sophisticated Muslim culture are often based on “intellectualism.” But there is far more to culture than books or “book learning.” No one can learn how to farm, sail, or win battles by reading Plato or Aristotle. Technology, in the broadest sense of the word, is the stuff of real life that determines how well people live and whether they can protect themselves. And whatever Muslim intellectuals did or didn’t know about Aristotle’s science or Plato’s political philosophy in comparison with the knowledge of the learned Christian scholastics, Islamic technology lagged well behind that of Byzantium and Europe.


It is far more difficult than it ought to be to contrast Christendom and Islam in terms of important technology, because the subject is dominated by Muslim authors who are too much given to absurd claims. Thus one can “discover” that “Ibn Firnas of Islamic Spain invented, constructed, and tested a flying machine in the 800s.”49 European shipbuilders did not invent the rudder; Muslim shipbuilders did. (Which Muslim shipbuilders were these?) The Chinese did not invent the compass; Muslims did. And on and on.50


What we do know with absolute certainty is that following the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the rest of North Africa, and Spain, the wheel disappeared from this whole area!51 For centuries there were no carts or wagons. All goods were hand-carried or packed on camels, donkeys, or horses. This did not happen because the Arabs lacked knowledge of the wheel, but because they thought it of little use. In their judgment, wheels required streets and roads. Camels and pedestrians required neither. Moreover, given their disdain for the wheel, it is doubtful that Muslims knew how to construct a proper harness to hook draft animals to carts and wagons.

In contrast, sometime early in the “Dark Ages,” Europeans were the first to develop a collar and harness that would allow horses rather than oxen to pull heavy wagons—with a very substantial gain in speed. Properly harnessed, one horse could pull a wagon loaded with about two thousand pounds, 52 a burden that would require at least four pack camels and probably five.53 The pulling capacity of European horses was increased again when, in the eighth century, iron horseshoes were invented and came into widespread use by the next century. Horseshoes not only protected the horse’s hooves from wear and tear, especially on hard surfaces; they also allowed the horse to dig in on softer surfaces and gain better traction.54 In addition, tenth-century Europeans were the first to discover a harness that would allow large teams of horses or oxen to be lined up in a column of pairs, as opposed to hooking them up abreast. This permitted the use of large numbers of draft animals to pull a single load, 55 such as giant catapults or assault towers during a siege.

An objection that Arabs may have had to wagons is that those in use at the time of the Muslim conquests and before had a fixed front axel that made them difficult to turn. They also had no brakes and could be very dangerous on downward slopes.56 By no later than the ninth century Europeans had solved these problems, and their wagons had front axels that swiveled, as well as adequate brakes. This was a significant advantage when they undertook a major military campaign more than twenty-five hundred miles from home. Indeed, one contingent in the First Crusade is thought to have started out with at least two thousand wagons.57

Finally, despite having the swiftest riding horses in the world, the Muslims lacked the large draft horses used by Europeans. Hence, for them the advantage of using wagons as opposed to pack camels would have been somewhat less. Of course, both Muslims and Europeans were expert at breeding horses, so these differences were a matter of preference.


Big draft horses also played a substantial role in the agricultural revolution that transformed Europe during the “Dark Ages.” Food production per capita rose dramatically. Part of the reason was that horses could pull a plow twice as fast as could oxen; hence by switching to horses one farmer could plow twice as much land in the same amount of time. Of equal importance, the “Dark Ages” farmers’ big horses were pulling a far superior plow.

Until some time in the sixth century, the most advanced farmers all over the world used some variant of the scratch plow, which is nothing more than a set of digging sticks arranged in rows on a flat surface. The scratch plow does not turn over the soil but is simply dragged over the surface, leaving undisturbed soil between shallow furrows, a process that often requires cross-plowing.58 This was barely adequate for the thin, dry soils along the Mediterranean and was insufficient for the heavy, often damp, but extremely fertile soil of most of northern Europe. What was needed was a very heavy plow, with a large, sharp, heavy share (blade) that would turn over the soil and dig a deep furrow. To this was added a second share at an angle to cut off the slice of turf that was being turned over by the first share. Then was added a moldboard to completely turn over the sliced-off turf. Finally, wheels were added to the plow to facilitate moving it from one field to another and to make it possible to set the share to plow at different depths. Presto! Land that could not previously be farmed, or not farmed effectively, suddenly became very productive, and even on thinner soil the use of the heavy moldboard plow nearly doubled crop yields.59

During the eighth century came the next step in the agricultural revolution: the adoption of the three-field system, wherein farmland belonging to each village was divided into three plots60 and each farmer had his own strip in each of the three fields. One plot was planted in a winter crop such as wheat; the second, in a spring crop such as oats (an especially important crop once the horse became the primary draft animal), legumes (such as peas and beans), or vegetables; and the third plot was allowed to lie fallow (unplanted). The next year the plot that had been fallow was planted in the winter crop, the second in a spring crop, and the plot that had grown a spring crop the previous year was left fallow. Not only did using the fallow plot for grazing keep down the weeds, but the manure spread by the cattle had dramatic effects on the land’s fertility.

As a result, starting during the “Dark Ages” most Europeans began to eat far better than had the common people anywhere, ever. Indeed, medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by a poor diet, with the result that they were, on average, bigger, healthier, and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.

A far longer list of technological breakthroughs made by Europeans during the “Dark Ages” could be assembled, and I have done so elsewhere.61 Here it seems adequate and more appropriate to conclude the matter by a close comparison of military technology.

Military Might

Consider that in 732, supposedly during the depths of the “Dark Ages,” Charles Martel’s heavy cavalry possessed high-backed saddles equipped with stirrups that allowed them to put the full weight of a charging horse and heavily armored rider behind a long lance without the rider’s being thrown off by the impact. In contrast, the opposing Muslim cavalry rode bareback or on thin pads, and lacked stirrups, thereby being limited to swinging swords and axes, just as had all previous cavalries including those of the Romans and Persians.62 Muslim cavalry could avoid and flee the thundering charges by Western knights, but they could not stand up to them.

In addition, just as the Muslims lacked the big horses needed to pull plows and heavily loaded wagons, they lacked the big chargers needed by well-armored knights—a problem that also first became apparent at the Battle of Tours/Poitiers and never was overcome. In the era of the Crusades, the European knights rode horses weighing about twelve to thirteen hundred pounds, while the Muslim cavalry was mounted on horses weighing about seven to eight hundred pounds.63 This gave the crusaders a considerable advantage when it came to man-to-man fighting, for the man on the larger, taller horse was striking down at his opponent, and his horse could push the other horse around. It also was important because the average crusader cavalryman weighed far more than did his Muslim counterpart. For one thing, he was a larger man. But the major weight factor was the difference in armor.

Unlike modern times, in those days there was no “standard equipment” issued to the troops. Although some of the nobility provided some arms and armor for their troops, this was not typical: most combatants supplied their own equipment. Consequently, comparisons of the equipment of Christian and Muslim armies are far less exact than, for example, comparisons between the equipment of American and Japanese soldiers in World War II. That said, crusaders wore considerably more and better armor than did their Muslim opponents. However, do not suppose that the Europeans were decked out in the complete, jointed suits of plate armor that stand around in museums. These suits came later, and only some knights of the heavy cavalry ever wore them, as they were dangerously impractical. Knights in plate-armor suits had to be lifted onto their saddles by booms; if they fell off they could not rise to their feet to fight on. Rather than armor suits, even the heavy crusader cavalry wore chain-mail coats sufficiently thick to turn aside all but the most powerful sword and axe strokes, and helmets that covered their head, neck, and sometimes part of their face. So did the infantry, who made up by far the greater proportion of any medieval Western army.

Chain mail was constructed of tiny iron rings, each threaded with four others, and it was fashioned into a long “shirt split at the groin, with flaps hanging down from the thighs to about the knees. These could be tied around the leg like a cowboy’s chaps, or, more commonly, left to hang as a kind of split skirt.”64 Some crusaders also wore leggings made of chain mail, some of which also covered the foot.

Chain-mail armor was well known in the East but not widely employed. Metal scales attached to cloth or leather jackets were used instead—a variety of armor regarded as “outmoded in the West.”65 Having lighter and less armor contributed to the greater mobility of Muslim fighters, but it also made them far more vulnerable when forced to fight head-on. The chain-mail armor worn by the Franks was remarkably stout. For example, Muslim arrows could only partly penetrate it, “often without wounding the body. The image of the porcupine was sometimes used to describe the appearance of men…who had been under Turkish attack.”66 In his memoir of the First Crusade, Ralph of Caen summed it up correctly, noting that the Saracens “trusted in their numbers, we in our armour.”67

But no armor, not even a plate-armor suit, was very effective against the invention that made the crusaders so lethal in battle—the crossbow. Although it was widely used by the crusaders, remarkably little has been written about the crossbow because it was thought to be quite shameful, even sinful, to use it. In 1139 the Second Lateran Council prohibited its use (except against infidels) “under penalty of anathema, as a weapon hateful to God and to Christians,” and this ban was subsequently confirmed by Pope Innocent III.68 However, European armies ignored the Church and made widespread use of the crossbow until it was made obsolete by firearms. Thus, for example, the Knights Templar garrison at the castle of Saphet in northern Galilee in about 1260 consisted of fifty knights and three hundred crossbowmen.69

The “moral” objections to the crossbow had to do with social class, as this revolutionary weapon allowed untrained peasants to be lethal enemies of the trained soldiery. It took many years of training to become a knight, and the same was true for archers. Indeed, it took years for archers to build the arm strength needed to draw a longbow, let alone to perfect their accuracy. But just about anyone could become proficient with a crossbow in less than a week. Worse yet, even a beginner could be considerably more accurate than a highly skilled longbow archer at ranges up to sixty-five to seventy yards.70 This was because the crossbow was aimed like a rifle and fired by pulling a trigger that released the string and propelled a bolt (heavy arrow) that went in a straight line to wherever the weapon was pointed. Although longbows could be fired more rapidly and farther (by using a very high trajectory), they could not match the accuracy of the crossbow. The projectiles fired by crossbows were called bolts because they were much shorter and heavier than the arrows fired by regular bows. While this reduced the range of crossbows, it greatly increased their impact at shorter ranges. The fact that so little training was required meant that huge numbers of crossbowmen could be assembled quickly; the Genoese several times fielded as many as twenty thousand for a single battle.71

Against the crusader crossbows, the Muslims employed a short, composite bow of far less range and striking power than the crossbow. Muslim arrows were effective against lightly armored opponents such as other Muslims, but unless fired point-blank, they needed to hit a crusader in an unarmored spot. In contrast, a bolt from a crossbow, fired at a range of 150 yards or less, achieved remarkable penetration even of armor plate. As the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena (c. 1083–1153) reported in The Alexiad, her superb account of her father’s reign, the crossbow fires with “tremendous violence and force, so that the missiles wherever they strike do not rebound; in fact they transfix a shield, cut through heavy iron breastplate and resume their flight on the far side.”72

In the crusader armies, such as the one organized by Richard Lionheart, crossbows were served by three-man teams: one carried and braced up a huge shield, which they crouched behind in battle as protection from enemy arrows and missiles; one reloaded crossbows and passed them to the archer, who did the shooting. These teams could regularly fire eight times a minute, about the same as the rate of fire achieved by a single long bowman, but with far greater effect.73

Crossbow teams backing up well-armored, reliable infantry formations made a lethal combination: the enemy suffered severe losses inflicted by the crossbows while advancing for an attack and then had to confront intact infantry lines.74 This was especially a problem for Muslim armies, since they had the additional disadvantage of being primarily a light cavalry force, ill suited to attack determined infantry unless they very greatly outnumbered them. The severe beatings administered in the eighth century by the Franks, even without crossbows, might have prompted Muslim leaders to reconsider the composition of their forces. But in such affairs tradition is very difficult to overcome; the Arabs had always been light cavalry, and they had achieved a brilliant series of early conquests with their traditional methods. Any tendency for the Muslims to rethink their overwhelming dependence on cavalry, perhaps in response to having been driven from Europe, was thwarted in the eleventh century when the Seljuk Turks, newly converted to Islam, overran the Arab Middle East. The Turks were mounted nomads who held infantry in contempt. Hence, the Muslim reliance on light cavalry remained a serious tactical and technological deficit that played a major role during the Crusades. Again and again in the Holy Land, despite having overwhelming numerical superiority, Muslim cavalry failed against Christian infantry. Even Christian knights often dismounted to fight as infantry, and their formations always included large numbers of crossbow teams.75

Crossbows not only were lethal on the battlefield, but were very effective at picking defenders off the walls of fortresses and at repelling attacks against a fortress. They also played a very important role in naval warfare.

The most significant fact to consider when attempting to compare Christian and Muslim fleets is that the ships of the latter were copies of those of the former and were built and crewed by Christian renegades and mercenaries. From this it follows that the crews of Muslim ships were not imbued with the same level of commitment as were the Christian fleets. Thus, after Saladin had rebuilt a Muslim fleet in the 1180s, it was completely destroyed in 1187 while anchored off Tyre to prevent the city, which was under siege by Saladin’s forces, from being resupplied from the sea. Surprised by a crusader fleet, according to an Egyptian account, Saladin’s crews abandoned their ships without a fight.76

In addition, having been built by Christians and copied from Christian boats, the Muslim fleets were always somewhat out-of-date. Therefore, in addition to superior seamanship and commitment, the Christian fleets enjoyed a “lead both in size and in the technological capabilities of their ships.”77 One of these advantages was to pack the “castles” of each galley with crossbowmen, which permitted Christian fleets to inflict considerable casualties on an opposing galley from a distance—just as the English fleet later used its canons against the Spanish Armada and refused to close for hand-to-hand fighting. In addition, Christians developed very heavy crossbows mounted on the decks of their galleys and used them to launch large projectiles—sometimes canisters of Greek fire—against their opponents. Another technological advantage involved special galleys that made it possible for Christian fleets to transport a company of knights together with their big war horses and land them on a hostile beach, mounted and ready to fight.78


Even if we grant the claims that educated Arabs possessed superior knowledge of classical authors and produced some outstanding mathematicians and astronomers, the fact remains that they lagged far behind in terms of such vital technology as saddles, stirrups, horseshoes, wagons and carts, draft horses and harnesses, effective plows, crossbows, Greek fire, shipwrights, sailors, productive agriculture, effective armor, and well-trained infantry. Little wonder that crusaders could march more than twenty-five hundred miles, defeat an enemy that vastly outnumbered them, and continue to do so as long as Europe was prepared to support them.

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