Post-classical history


Christianity versus Islam; crusade against jihad. Blood and dust; withering, shimmering heat; the ring and scrape of metal on metal: some of the sights, sounds, and sensations we imagine to represent the age of the crusades, an epic clash between two of the world’s great religions and a struggle in which men and women fought and died for their faith. Yet this familiar tale does not tell the complete story. This book, which is aimed squarely at the general reader or those looking for an overview of the subject, will, of course, explore this conflict of ideas, belief, and culture. But it will also show the myriad contradictions and the diversity of holy war: friendships and alliances between Christians and Muslims; triumphs of diplomacy rather than the sword; the launch of crusades against Christians, and calls for jihads against Muslims. Taken as a whole, this rich, multifaceted relationship has the capacity to produce a more evocative and insightful account than the usual tales of Christian–Muslim bloodshed alone.

More than nine hundred years ago, Pope Urban II triggered the First Crusade—one of history’s great turning points. On November 27, 1095, he urged the knights of France to regain Jerusalem from Muslim hands in return for a spiritual reward. In doing so, Urban unleashed religious warfare on an unprecedented scale and propelled these two great faiths into a conflict of unimagined intensity, the repercussions of which are still felt today. Four years after this speech, the crusaders slaughtered their way into Jerusalem and took possession of the holy city. The conquerors set up the Crusader States in the Near East, but in 1187 Saladin led the armies of the jihad, the Muslim holy war, to victory and drove the Christians back to the eastern Mediterranean coast; just over a hundred years later, the Mamluks of Egypt completed his work and finally ejected the crusaders from the mainland. In the meantime, however, the idea of crusading, that is, fighting to liberate Christian lands and Christian peoples for a spiritual reward, had—in tandem with myriad other influences—experienced a dramatic geographical and ideological expansion, and this, as we shall see, enabled it to survive in a variety of forms for centuries to come.

Large sections of this book are character-driven. Like many readers, I suspect, the irresistible allure of one of history’s great double acts, Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, drew me into the subject as a student and from this developed an interest in the motives and the ideologies of the protagonists. Evidence from contemporary writings, such as chronicles, songs, sermons, travel diaries, letters, financial accounts, and peace treaties, along with visual material from art, architecture, and archaeology, provides a profusion of voices and images that enables us to reconstruct the age of the crusades. Although there is a narrative thread here, this is not a detailed, chronological history of the subject: that is one purview of the academic textbook.

I have chosen to bring to life a variety of figures and events outside of those well known to a general audience. It remains essential to describe the unexpected victory of the First Crusade; the titanic tussle between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin; the breathtaking naïveté of the Children’s Crusade, and the brutal and crafty suppression of the Knights Templar, but the lives of others can illuminate the age of the crusades just as well: soon after the First Crusade, for example, a fiery jihad preacher, Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami, exhorted the citizens of Damascus to holy war but his message was decades ahead of mainstream opinion and his early audiences numbered only a handful; Queen Melisende of Jerusalem was an intimidating and astute politician who dominated the kingdom of Jerusalem during the mid-twelfth century—yet the idea of a woman ruling the most war-torn area of Christendom seems inherently counterintuitive. Frederick II of Germany was an Arabic-speaking Holy Roman Emperor who retook Jerusalem in 1229 without striking a blow, but at the same time he was under a ban of excommunication from the pope; during the late fourteenth century, Henry Bolingbroke (many years before he became the paranoid and brutal King Henry IV of England) behaved as a pilgrim and holy warrior, intent upon creating a chivalric reputation for himself in northern Europe and the Holy Land.

The motives of crusaders have long intrigued historians, and, self-evidently, faith lies at the heart of holy war. From a modern-day western perspective, extreme religious fervor is often synonymous with the fanaticism of minorities, but in the Europe of the central Middle Ages crusading was regarded as virtuous and positive. It was a society saturated with religious belief in which faith provided the template and the boundaries for almost every aspect of behavior and where recognition of divine will and fear of the afterlife were universal. The fight against the enemies of God offered people a way to evade the torments of hell and this is one reason why crusading became a fundamental feature of medieval life. Everyone from emperors, kings and queens, bishops, dukes, and knights, down to peasants and prostitutes, took part in crusades; they were, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries at least, a totally mainstream activity, accepted and endorsed by an entire culture and not, as later became the case, simply the preserve of the noble elite.

But religion was not the sole driving force for crusaders. Part of the fascination with the crusading age, and one theme in this book, is to see how other ideas, such as the lure of land and money, a sense of honor and family tradition, a desire for adventure, and the obligation of service, all sat alongside—and sometimes smothered—religion. Given the impossibility of ascribing precise motives to any individual from this distance in time we have to weigh the available evidence and point to trends and probabilities. The actions of most crusaders were shaped by multiple, overlapping reasons, and behavior that may seem contradictory to us was not always viewed as such. When, therefore, crusaders from the mercantile powerhouse of Genoa defeated Muslims and, at the same time, secured a profit for their city, they interpreted their success as a sign of divine approval. In other words, in these circumstances, they comfortably assimilated a close link between money and holy war. Likewise, there was a complex relationship between chivalry and crusading. By the mid-thirteenth century the knightly code had become the quintessential basis of noble life and the pursuance of fame and heroic deeds was—if performed in God’s name—the pinnacle of chivalric achievement rather than, as it can appear to us, purely an exercise in ego-building. Economic motives and military excess could, in some cases, dominate or distract crusading expeditions and, on occasion, this provoked intense criticism. The question of motivation shimmers and shifts across time and space, and trying to trace it is part of the challenge and the excitement of this subject.

I have tried to offer comparable insight into the motives of the Islamic world. To some extent, linguistic restrictions hamper this but an increasing amount of material has been translated from Arabic and the sources and characters that I have chosen to highlight the Muslim perspective are especially rich. Similar themes concerning changes in motive over time, or identifying a complex interplay of motives—most obviously seen in the case of Saladin—will be explored.

The chronological and geographical scope of this book reflects a modern academic consensus on the duration and the extent of crusading.1 In the decades after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 crusading diversified to encompass expeditions in Iberia, the Baltic, North Africa, as well as campaigns against enemies of the Church within Europe, such as the Cathars of southern France, along with political opponents of the papacy, including Emperor Frederick II of Germany. This conceptual flexibility helped to extend the appeal of crusading both geographically and intellectually; it also enabled the idea to remain “live” and relevant for centuries after the end of Christian control over the Holy Land in 1291. Eventually, of course, crusading did decline, and into the seventeenth century it was widely regarded as a distant and barbaric concept of little value. This came to change during the nineteenth century, a situation prompted by the emergence of European overseas empires, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean. Thus, in sharp contrast to the decline and dismissal of crusading during the Age of Enlightenment, the relentless ambition of imperialism and colonialism, coupled with the cultural phenomena of Romanticism and Orientalism, overlapped and combined to produce a dramatic revival in imagery and ideas descended from crusading. How far this derivation was accurate is something further to ponder. The momentum and diversity of the “crusading” theme carried on into World War I, especially with the British involvement in Palestine; and then, with a more sinister aspect, into the alliance between General Francisco Franco and the Catholic Church in Spain during the Civil War and beyond. As a historian of the twelfth century, I have found tracing the centuries-long legacy of crusading to be a hugely exciting and enjoyable experience, and my debt to scholars of later periods such as Norman Housley, Eric Christiansen, Adam Knobler, Elizabeth Siberry, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and Eitan Bar-Yosef is considerable. My synthesis has also tried to pull in work beyond these studies—hence, for example, the discussions of nineteenth-century Italy and General Franco.

The sheer flexibility of crusading imagery in the language and culture of the West is remarkable. At one end of the spectrum lie, for example, the comic-fiction heroes Batman and Robin, “those relentless crusaders for law and order;” or the legendary time-traveling television character Dr. Who, described by one of its actors as “an intergalactic crusader.”2 “Crusades”—or an appeal for a good cause—have been launched for entirely worthy, secular reasons: former U.S. president Bill Clinton made a widely reported call for a crusade to reverse the epidemic of obesity in 2005 and 2006; crusades for fair play in sport or to end hospital waiting lists are also familiar to us. In some quarters, however, metaphor can creep dangerously close to reality and politicians have learned to be wary of the word. In early 2007, during his last months as prime minister, Tony Blair was asked on the BBC Radio 4 Today program if he saw himself as “a crusader” for social reform. Deftly, but determinedly, Blair avoided taking the bait and simply stated that he was concerned to improve social justice; given the issue of his own spirituality and Britain’s controversial involvement in Iraq it was vital for him to sidestep any notion of accepting the label “crusader,” whatever the context.

The closest—and most uncomfortable—overlap between crusading metaphor and reality was in September 2001 as President George W. Bush spoke of the continued efforts to find the associates of those responsible for the horrific attacks of 9/11: “This crusade . . . this war on terror is going to take a while.” As I listened to his comments two thoughts came to mind: first, a feeling of real anxiety at the backlash an American president’s use of the word “crusade” was likely to produce; secondly, I started to wonder why, exactly, had he used it in the first instance. What images was he trying to conjure up? After all, other than the First Crusade’s capture of Jerusalem in 1099, the vast majority of crusading expeditions, to the Holy Land at least, had failed—often pretty ignominiously. Why, then, over nine hundred years after it was first conceived did an idea from late-eleventh-century Europe resonate so powerfully across the modern world? Trying to answer these questions was one prompt for me to begin this book.

I wrote a short piece for the Independent newspaper that outlined a perception in the Islamic world that linked medieval crusades—Christians invading Muslim lands and killing their inhabitants—with modern western involvement in places such as Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq, where this contemporary activity was portrayed as a continuation of the crusader wars of the past.3 Whether such a direct connection is at all accurate has become almost irrelevant—it is accepted as a truism, albeit one that rests on a fascinating trail of evidence derived from European sources and also sustained in, and generated by, the Islamic world itself. Historians such as Emmanuel Sivan and Carole Hillenbrand have considered this issue with real insight and my debt to their efforts is evident below, although an emphasis on the neglected legacy of folklore and a brief consideration of the writings of individuals such as President Gamal Abdel Nasser and President Carter are paths of my own making.4

Drawing together the extraordinarily diverse legacy of crusading in the Christian West, and then tracking the ebb and flow of jihad in the Muslim world, brings one back to the war of words and deeds between President Bush and Osama bin Laden, an exchange from the modern age, yet one with the deepest and most twisted of roots.


It is convenient to brand Pope Urban II’s call for the First Crusade in November 1095 as the starting point of the conflict that echoes down to us today. In many respects, however, this is wrong because the two faiths had already been in opposition for centuries and, while it is easy to see crusade and jihad as two sides of the same coin, separate strands of holy war had grown into being long before Urban’s speech at Clermont.

As we shall see below, Christian thinkers used Roman theories of a “just war” as a basis for their own concept of holy war, and this would be refined further to formulate the crusade. Yet Christianity was not the only belief system to have ideas of holy warfare, and in the early seventh century another faith emerged with its own brand of religious conflict: Islam. The Prophet Muhammad’s teachings spread at bewildering speed and within years of his death in 632 his adherents had seized the Arabian Peninsula and Jerusalem. From the very beginning this new religion enshrined a duty of holy war on its followers and also fused (theoretically, at least) religious and political authority in the office of the caliphate, Muhammad’s successors as the spiritual head of Islam. By 711 Muslim forces had swept through North Africa and cascaded across the Strait of Gibraltar into Christian Spain. Only twenty-one years later their progress was halted by a defeat at Tours in central France and they retired southward to consolidate their rule over the Iberian Peninsula. The thought of central and southern France under Islamic rule is quite an eye-opener to a modern audience, although militarily it was, seemingly, a step too far for the invaders. One reason why Islam expanded so rapidly was that “Peoples of the Book,” that is, Christians and Jews, were, in recognition of the shared heritage of their faiths (Christ, for example, is a prophet in Islam and is a prominent figure in the Koran), treated with tolerance and not compelled to convert. Thus, as long as these subject peoples, known as dhimmi, paid appropriate the tax, they could continue to practice their religion, and this, in turn, meant less resentment, more assimilation, and often, eventually, conversion.

In 832 the Muslims seized Sicily from the Byzantines (who were Orthodox Christians) and in 846 they even raided Rome itself; in broad terms, however, the ninth and the tenth centuries can be described as a period of consolidation, rather than expansion. In the years just before the crusades, the Seljuk Turks emerged as the main power in the Muslim world. These nomadic tribesmen from central Asia had embraced and energized Sunni Islam in the late tenth century. At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 they crushed the Byzantine army and then swept through Asia Minor to bring themselves within range of Constantinople. This threat prompted appeals to the Catholic West for help and eventually provided one of the triggers for the First Crusade.5

The Europe that spawned the First Crusade was chiefly characterized by endemic violence and, in obvious contradiction, profound religious belief. After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century the region was plagued by a lack of central authority. Counts, castellans, and knights competed with one another for power at a local or regional level, and in a landscape wearied by frequent failures of the harvest, armed knights ravaged neighborhoods, stole cattle and property, and even attacked churches and monasteries. With royal power in France, for example, best described as vestigial (the king wielded almost no practical authority thirty miles outside Paris), the scope for social disorder and personal advance was immense. The vast majority of this fragmented, localized society lived in the countryside. Urban centers were small and underdeveloped (Paris and London had perhaps thirty thousand inhabitants); long-distance travel was difficult because roads were narrow and often impassable in winter, although the river networks offered some help to traders. Religion was the solitary idea to bind this patchwork society together and in the latter half of the eleventh century a dynamic group of clerics seized control of the Catholic Church and began to drive forward an agenda of Christian renewal. Prior to this, the papacy had been a divided, introspective institution, but the reformers’ energy generated a sharp increase in papal authority. For the first time in centuries the successor of Saint Peter began to shape the religious and political behavior of the Catholic West; notable among his concerns were the sin-drenched knightly classes.

In practical terms, the Catholic Church required allies to protect and advance its position; unlike the position in the Islamic world, Church and State were separate entities. While the secular powers directed European warfare the language and symbolism of holy war had been evident in struggles against the pagan Vikings, for example; or in papal support for William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066. But these were not yet crusades: that is, papally authorized holy wars across, or outside, the boundaries of Christendom. Nonetheless, the Church started to try to steer the noble classes, and a series of initiatives known as the Peace of God and the Truce of God were designed to curtail attacks on the more vulnerable sections of society. The papacy began to work more closely with lay powers and in 1053 Pope Leo IX gave limited spiritual rewards to warriors who helped him defend his lands in Italy. Around the same time territories on the edge of Christian Europe became more aggressive and outward-looking and started to pick away at the frontiers of Islam. In the 1060s the Normans of southern Italy attacked Sicily (with papal endorsement); in 1074 Pope Gregory VII tried (unsuccessfully) to organize an army to face the Muslims of the eastern Mediterranean, and in 1089 Pope Urban II offered spiritual rewards to knights who fought the Spanish Muslims at Tarragona. This growing cooperation between the papacy and the secular powers was a vital prerequisite for crusading. Although the First Crusade did not represent the starting point of conflict between Christians and Muslims, papal initiation of warfare on this scale was new, and the offer of spiritual rewards to the participants represented a further advance. The crusade was forged in this crucible of knightly violence, territorial expansion, growing papal power, and the need for salvation. Christian warfare with Islam had acquired a new intellectual and theological basis; and this, combined with an unprecedented popular appeal, gave the conflict an incalculably sharper edge and provided a rationale that would last for centuries.

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