Post-classical history


In the Shadow of the Crusades

In one of Winston Churchill’s characteristically pithy observations he declared: “The further back you look, the farther forward you can see.” In the case of the crusades, one might add the (unfair and obvious) rider that the clarity of your foresight depends upon how closely you examine the past. What, on the surface, appears a simple clash between two faiths is, as we have seen, far more complex and contradictory.

In the early medieval period the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, Spain, and Sicily brought the two faiths into conflict but it was the launch of the First Crusade in 1095 that transformed the situation because it gave the entire Catholic West reasons to engage in, or to support, holy war. The imperative to free Jerusalem and the desire to secure unprecedented spiritual rewards meant that crusading emerged as an inspirational blend of penitential activity and religious warfare. The polyglot armies of the First Crusade demonstrated the near-universal appeal of Pope Urban’s idea and the capture of Jerusalem startled and exhilarated Christendom. From then on, crusading evolved quickly, both in theory and practice.

Prompted largely by the success of the First Crusade, kings—themselves becoming ever more powerful in the medieval West—began to take part. The launch of the First Crusade had required a partnership between the nobility and the Church, but once kings were involved their military and financial strength changed the dynamic and the papacy started to lose control over its creation. Papal legate Adhémar of Le Puy had exerted some influence over the First Crusade but in many subsequent campaigns the presence of royal power rendered most legates all but invisible. Church authority remained centered upon the preaching of the crusade, and the spellbinding rhetoric of Urban II, Bernard of Clairvaux, and James of Vitry echo down the ages and their efforts did much to convince thousands of men and women to set out for the Holy Land. They generated intense belief in the moral right of the crusaders’ actions, and evoked tremendous faith in the sign of the cross: “the last plank for a shipwrecked world,” as James of Vitry so eloquently claimed. The popular appeal of Jerusalem, Christ’s own city and the place of mankind’s salvation, should never be underestimated and, as we saw during the Third Crusade, the army’s desire to march to the holy city compelled even King Richard to follow its wishes. Papal legislation produced much of the money to finance the crusades, but once underway, there was relatively little the curia could do to steer its prodigy in the manner it desired. The most glaring example of this was the Fourth Crusade’s diversion to Constantinople, but Pope Innocent’s deep disquiet at Simon de Montfort’s territorial acquisitions during the Albigensian Crusade and, most of all, the recovery of Jerusalem by the excommunicate Frederick II in 1229, amply demonstrate the Church’s problem. The secular powers had, quite naturally, their own agendas and while devotion to the crusading cause was manifest in their taking of the cross and setting out on campaign they could not always put other matters aside, no matter how worthy the cause. Thus long-standing Anglo–French rivalry caused Richard the Lion-heart and Philip to spar and bicker during the Third Crusade, and when the latter departed for home his behavior undoubtedly compromised Richard’s actions in the Levant. Similarly, tensions between the German and French armies were said to have hampered the march of the Second Crusade. Of course, the papacy and the lay powers usually shared the same ultimate aim—to recover the Holy Land—but the former felt morally better equipped to direct a holy war and believed that they were less likely to allow it to be distracted by matters displeasing to God.

Kings and nobles from the Baltic and Iberia asked for the extension of crusading privileges to their homelands, and the flexibility and willingness of the papacy to accommodate this proved vital in the wider attraction and longevity of the movement. Along with a wish to fight the enemies of God, it was the territorial ambitions of the Spanish and Baltic nobility, along with the commercial drive of the Italian mercantile cities, that gave the crusades an energy that faith alone could not provide. Similarly, the chivalric aspects of holy war did much to invigorate crusading across Europe and the Near East and, as the Feast of the Pheasant so vividly demonstrated, it remained an important theme well into the fifteenth century. While this variety gave crusading an extra vitality, it could also cause difficulties. People were unclear where their priorities should lie; in the mid-thirteenth century, for example, the St. Albans–based writer Matthew Paris—a strong critic of the papacy—observed: “the papalists . . . shamelessly harassed people who had taken the cross, urging them under the penalty of excommunication now to set out for the Holy Land, now for the Byzantine Empire, and now suggesting that they attack Frederick . . . and they extorted the necessary funds for an expedition on whatever pretext.”1 In other words, as far as Matthew Paris was concerned, the diversity of crusading had diluted its impact and opened the way to corruption and vice.

In contrast to Christianity’s evolution of holy war and crusading theory, Islam was already equipped with such an ideology through the presence of jihad in the Koran and Hadith. Unfortunately for the Muslims the First Crusade arrived in the Levant at a time when jihad was in abeyance and the political authority of the Seljuk Turks had just fractured; few, therefore, were motivated to fight the latest invaders of the Near East, as the Damascene preacher al-Sulami discovered. The vital mutual interest in holy war on the part of the clerical and the ruling classes only emerged under Nur ad-Din and Saladin. Such a simple picture, however, is complicated by the dynastic conflict between these two men and it was only the former’s death in 1174 that prevented civil war. In other words, wholly secular actions are visible even in those held up as heroes of the jihad. The idea waned under Saladin’s successors and it was not until the Mamluk Baibars seized power in 1260 that holy war returned to the top of the agenda, leading to the expulsion of the Christians from Acre in 1291. Likewise, after another period of relatively low profile, the ghazi zeal of the early Ottomans brought jihad back to the fore once more.

For all the high-profile focus on Christian (by which we really mean just Catholic) and Muslim conflict, it is worth remembering that a significant proportion of holy war—on both sides—was directed against people of their own faith, or rival groups therein. Crusades were sent to defeat the Cathars of southern France (a rather radical form of Christianity, admittedly) and the Hussites of Bohemia; and although the Fourth Crusade was not originally aimed at the Orthodox Greeks of Constantinople, the papal legate offered its participants spiritual rewards in April 1204. The sack of Constantinople remains an immensely sensitive issue even now. When Pope John Paul II visited Athens in May 2001 the city’s Orthodox archbishop made his anger abundantly clear: “Understandably a large part of the Church of Greece opposes your presence here . . . [we] demand . . . a formal condemnation of injustices committed against them by the Christian West. . . . The Orthodox Greek people sense more intensely in its religious consciousness and national memory the traumatic experiences that remain as open wounds on its vigorous body, as is known by all, by the destructive mania of the Crusaders and the period of Latin rule.”2 Crusades were also called against the political enemies of the papacy such as Frederick II and, at the time of Bishop Despenser’s crusade (1390), the French. In the Islamic world the fundamental divide between Sunni and Shi’a was an obvious fault line and leaders of the former made much of their efforts to wage jihad against the so-called heresy of their opponents in the centuries before, and during, the crusades. This desire to purge lands of religious enemies was a prominent aspect of the spiritual case put forward by Nur ad-Din and Saladin in their efforts to unify the Near East. It follows, therefore, that the Sunni–Shi’a split explains why Saladin is no role model for modern Shi’ite regimes because he was the man who destroyed their caliphate in Cairo in 1169–71.

Notwithstanding the powerful rhetoric of holy war there was not a constant state of conflict between Christianity and Islam in the Near East and Iberia. We have seen numerous truces and diplomatic engagements—although in some cases these were impelled by reason of expediency and practicality, rather than mutual regard. There was a further complication in the Levant with the need to distinguish between most crusaders—western knights who came to the Holy Land, desperate to slay the infidel—and the Frankish settlers—those who were born and lived in the Levant. The priority of a group of men, inspired by preachers, who had traveled thousands of miles at great cost and risk, and were intent upon great deeds—but who would then go home—was different to those who existed in the Middle East day after day. Usama ibn Munqidh’s encounter with a bullying western crusader during his prayers in the al-Aqsa Mosque vividly demonstrated this and, as we saw earlier, the contrast between this newcomer’s aggression and the restraint shown by the indigenous Templar knight was marked. The Frankish settlers had to bear in mind longer-term strategies and without the permanent presence of large western armies (the Military Orders notwithstanding), peace was sometimes preferable. This inherent tension between crusaders and settlers was a fundamental fault line in the practice of crusading because without a single overarching authority to direct or pull together the Christians, even the greater benefit of the Holy Land could be subsumed under the contrasting interests of either settlers or crusaders. In consequence, there was often considerable mutual mistrust between the Franks and the crusaders, as the aftermath of the failed Second Crusade exposed.

In contrast to this expectation of mutual antipathy we have seen situations where the protaganists seek treaties across religious lines; the deal between Damascus and Jerusalem to resist Zengi of Aleppo and Mosul was but one example of a Christian–Muslim alliance against a common opponent. Usama described part of this particular process taking place during a hunting party, which also reminds us of the shared cultural values of two heavily equestrian societies. Count Raymond of Tripoli’s arrangement with Saladin in 1186–87 was perhaps the most nakedly self-serving of all cross-religious treaties, especially given the fevered atmosphere of holy war at the time. The most dramatic feat of diplomacy by a crusader was Frederick II’s recovery of Jerusalem. This was accomplished in part because of his political and military strength, in part on account of rivalries within the contemporary Muslim world, but also because of his skills as a linguist and a diplomat, along with his preparedness to engage wholeheartedly with the etiquette and culture of his opponents. His approach was not unique and again, in contrast to the familiar bellicose images of Richard and Saladin, we have seen that both were accomplished diplomats and, in fact, Frederick’s settlement was quite similar to ideas discussed by these men thirty years earlier.

Crusading imagery and metaphor have survived, and indeed blossomed over the centuries. They have emerged in common, if diverse, use across many aspects of the cultural and political life of the West; the blend of historical resonances and a feeling of moral right are a heady mixture. The combination of epic confrontation, the clash of faiths, the sense of defending one’s own culture, a unified cause, and above all, the sense of moral right, have helped to keep the idea alive. Added to that, the deeds and desires of compelling characters, such as those covered here, also explain why the subject retains such an allure in popular culture; for example, the Knights Templar were prominent in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code(2002), while the fall of Jerusalem was the centerpiece of Ridley Scott’s major 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven (although the film had a very secular idea at its heart with chivalry, rather than faith, being held up as the true belief). In the contemporary Muslim world Saladin is now starring as a children’s cartoon character, displaying his appeal in a less polemical form than usual.

As we have seen, some sensed the troubles the crusading legacy might cause, and General Allenby’s determination to disconnect the medieval from the modern in Jerusalem in 1917 stands as a stark contrast to General Gouraud’s triumphal behavior in Damascus three years later (“Saladin, we have returned!”). Encouraged by such expression of superiority and, in the face of widespread western conquests of Islamic lands during the nineteenth century, many Muslims recalled both the traumas of the medieval age and also their ultimate success in defeating the crusaders. By tapping into their own history and folklore, as well as using the modern western constructs provided by men such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, they found a very potent set of images. The cumulative effect of the use of “crusade” by leaders as ideologically diverse as Sultan Abdulhamid II, Nasser of Egypt, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden, has given it a wholly abhorrent meaning to the Islamic world and one that reflects western imperialist aggression, rather than Christian zeal.

What took place across so many theaters of war and involved so many millions of people has embedded itself into the consciousness of the Christian West and the Muslim Near East. Given the intrinsic nature of jihad to Islam it will never disappear, yet crusading has ended. The failure of the Christians to hold on to the Holy Land, the conversion of the pagans of the Baltic, the successful reconquest of Iberia, rising distaste for the sale of indulgences, plus a growing sense of national identity and the Reformation, brought about its demise. What has survived is an immensely rich body of terminology, sentiment, and imagery. Crusading was, in many ways, initially conceived and justified as a defensive idea, but its later successors, such as colonialism, were unashamedly aggressive and share few elements of the same DNA. For centuries we have actually seen just shadows of the crusades, not true shapes. While many of these phantoms can guide us and—as Churchill implied—offer us warnings, the medieval and modern contexts are wholly different and for that reason such shadows need to be treated with real care—from all sides—to avoid disaster.

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