As most undergraduates find, at one point in the course of their studies, the prospect of a lecture starting at 9 a.m. can feel unfair and almost cruel. I remember wearily climbing the stairs of the History Faculty in Cambridge in 1992, having to shake myself awake to take a seat to listen to the first lecture of the term on the paper I had chosen, called ‘Byzantium and its neighbours, 800–1200’. Five minutes later, I was suddenly alert and transfixed, as though I had just been given a triple espresso. I was hearing about the ruthless Pecheneg steppe nomads and how they would do anything in return for pepper, scarlet silk and strips of Middle Eastern leather; I was wondering about why pagan Bulgar leaders would choose to become Christians in the ninth century; I was hearing about New Rome – the imperial city of Constantinople.
The excitement of that first lecture triggered a voracious appetite about the Byzantine Empire and its neighbours. It was a matter of course that I should want to carry on to do postgraduate research, and the only difficulty was choosing a topic. It was the reign of the emperor Alexios I Komnenos that caught my eye, with its wonderfully rich sources and many unanswered questions. It soon became clear, however, that in order to gain any real insight into the Byzantine Empire in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, I had to understand the literature of this period, and the Alexiad in particular; then the Greek and Latin sources of southern Italy; then the world of the steppe nomads; then the archaeology and material culture of Constantinople, the Balkans and Asia Minor; then the history of the Crusades, the medieval papacy, the establishment of Latin colonies in the Holy Land … What had started, innocently enough, with an early morning lecture became a passion; occasionally overwhelming, sometimes frustrating, always exciting.
There are many who deserve thanks for their support and help over the years. The provost and fellows of Worcester College have provided a wonderful and sympathetic home since 1997, outstanding in their generosity and modest in the demands they have made. I owe thanks to Princeton University for awarding me a Stanley J. Seeger Visiting Fellowship, which allowed me a chance to open new avenues of research. The fellows of Harvard are also owed a debt of gratitude for making me a summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, where some of the ideas here took shape many moons ago. The staff of the Bodleian Library, above all the Lower Reading Room, and of the History Faculty Library have been wonderfully patient and good-humoured. The same is true of my many colleagues in Oxford where I have had the great privilege to work alongside some of the finest scholars in the field of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies.
I owe thanks to many of my colleagues in Oxford, but particularly to Mark Whittow, Catherine Holmes, Cyril and Marlia Mango, Elizabeth and Michael Jeffreys, Marc Lauxtermann and James Howard-Johnston who have been generous in sharing their views of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. I am particularly grateful to Jonathan Shepard, who gave that first lecture in Cambridge, for steering me towards Byzantium and for proving an important influence since. Many others, from my undergraduate and graduate students to colleagues with whom I have discussed Constantinople, Alexios and the Crusades late into the night at conferences, are also owed my gratitude. If I have failed to take their good advice, and that of others, I can only apologise.
Catherine Clarke has been wonderful, encouraging me to tell the story of the First Crusade afresh. This book would not have been written without her guidance and the help of her fantastic team at Felicity Bryan. Will Sulkin at The Bodley Head and Joyce Seltzer at Harvard University Press have been generous and supportive throughout. I owe thanks to Jörg Hensgen for asking difficult questions and making this book better than it would otherwise have been. Chloe Campbell has been a guardian angel, her patience and advice consistent and invaluable. Many thanks to Anthony Hippisley, and also to Martin Lubikowski for his maps. I could not be more grateful to my parents, who have inspired me since I was a boy.
My greatest debt is to my wife Jessica, who heard about nomads, Byzantium and the eastern Mediterranean on the same day that I did, as I told her excitedly about the new world I had encountered that morning. She listened patiently as I told her I had found my dream subject, and encouraged me to pursue it over the first of many cappuccinos in Clowns; this book is dedicated to her.