The First Crusade

CHRISTIANITY WAS FOUNDED on a pacifist ideal, and strong voices within the Church continued to be raised against the use of violence in any circumstances. But the use of force against a deadly enemy and in the service of Christ had already been justified in the fifth century by no less a figure than St Augustine of Hippo, who in The City of God described the necessity of repelling the pagan barbarian invasion of Italy, writing that ‘it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging wars’.1Similarly Christians saw Urban’s call to rescue the Christians of the East from Turkish violence and oppression as an entirely just war.

When Urban finished his speech at Clermont, Adhemar, the bishop of Le Puy, immediately knelt before the papal throne and begged permission to join the expedition. This apparently spontaneous gesture was probably prearranged, as Urban had stayed at Le Puy in August. Urban then commanded all those marching to the rescue of the East to obey Adhemar as his representative on the expedition and its spiritual leader. Urban also directed those who took the vow to sew cloth crosses on their shoulders as a symbol of their decision to follow Christ, who had said, ‘If any man wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’2

Taking the cross was Urban’s innovation; never before had laymen adopted a distinctive emblem for their clothing, and the symbolism made a deep impression. By means of these crosses Urban broadcast the cause, for as one person sewed the cross on his clothes, so it was seen by others, and the idea caught fire. The effect was described in the Gesta Francorum, that is The Deeds of the Franks, written in 1100–01 by an unknown soldier in the service of Bohemond, one of the leaders of the crusade:

        And when this speech had already begun to be noised abroad, little by little, through all the regions and countries of Gaul, the Franks, upon hearing such reports, forthwith caused crosses to be sewed on their right shoulders, saying that they followed with one accord the footsteps of Christ, by which they had been redeemed from the hand of hell.3

But only much later did this piece of red cloth in the form of a cross, crux in Latin, give a name to the great venture to the East. The term ‘crusade’ is a late one; it came into use only in the thirteenth century, after the Holy Land was lost and the crusades were over. The people we now call crusaders were known by various names, such as knights of Christ, and they saw themselves as taking a pilgrimage, except that pilgrims were normally forbidden to carry arms. The word ‘pilgrim’ originally meant a stranger or a traveller, and for Christians life itself was seen as a pilgrimage in an estranged world far from their homeland in heaven. This ‘taking of the cross’ eventually gave the name crusade to these journeys – croisade in French, crociata in Italian, Kreuzzug in German, andcruzada in Spanish and Portuguese. But although the word ‘crusade’ would not come into use until after the crusades were over, the cross when worn as a symbol had a powerful effect. ‘The cross was the first army insignia that was common to a whole army and gave external expression to its unity; it was the first step in the direction of a uniform.’4

The first great secular lord to join the expedition was Count Raymond of Toulouse, who led the knights of Provence, and others soon joined. Robert, the duke of Normandy, who was the son of William the Conqueror, led the knights of northern France; Bohemond, prince of Taranto, led the Norman knights of southern Italy, among them his nephew Tancred; and Godfrey of Bouillon led the knights of Lorraine. Subject in theory to Adhemar, who represented the pope, these barons became the secular leaders of the campaign, and together with their followers, family and friends, they brought to the expedition many of the most enterprising, experienced and formidable fighting men of Europe.

The way was long, but not as long as it had been for the Turks on their migration from Central Asia to the Middle East. Not only did France and the rest of Europe lie closer to Palestine, but Europe shared a cultural and religious background with the inhabitants of the Middle East, the majority of whom were still Christians, and for centuries a steady stream of Western pilgrims had kept the relationship alive. The Turks were aliens; the crusaders were not.5

Although Pope Urban had asked his bishops to preach the crusade, the most effective preaching was done by humble evangelicals who inflamed the poor of France and Germany with their version of the pope’s message. A populist wave of enthusiasm for going to the rescue of the East had been building independently, fed by reports from returning pilgrims and by itinerant preachers. In fact, part of Urban’s thinking in rousing the Church to a crusade would have been the desire to channel popular energy along constructive lines. Outstanding among these populist preachers was Peter the Hermit. He went about barefoot, and his clothes were filthy, but he had the power to move men. As Guibert de Nogent, who knew him personally, wrote, ‘Whatever he said or did, it seemed like something half-divine.’6

While Adhemar and the princely armies of knights were still preparing for their expedition, Peter’s preachings had roused fifteen thousand French men and women, who left their homes to follow him into Germany, where the numbers continued to swell. Many among this multitude of peasants, artisans and other ordinary people took the cross in the belief that the apocalypse was at hand. The atmosphere was heightened by the very real fear of Turkish aggression, fuelled by the stories of returning pilgrims and of terrified refugees whose lands and towns had suffered devastation and whose people had been killed or sold into slavery. European Jews had become the victims of these fears already at the time of al-Hakim’s outrages, and over fifty years later, in 1063, Pope Alexander II found it necessary to condemn the identification of Jews with Muslims, declaring that war was permissible against the latter, who were attacking Christians everywhere, but that Jews were loyal subjects and must be protected.7 But now Christians turned on Jews again.

The worst violence came when Peter’s crusade appeared along the Rhine, one of Europe’s major trade routes, where Jews had lived for centuries in large numbers, their economic usefulness recognised by the encouragement and protection they had always received from the bishops in the cathedral towns. During May and June 1096 Jewish quarters were attacked, synagogues were sacked, houses were looted and entire communities were massacred. The bishops and the burghers did what they could to protect the Jews but were often overwhelmed. At Worms, for example, the bishop sheltered Jews in his castle, but he could not resist the combined force of Peter’s mob and his own poorer townsfolk, who demanded their death or conversion; and when the bishop offered to baptise the Jews to save their lives, the entire Jewish community chose suicide instead. During that May and June as many as eight thousand Jews were massacred or took their own lives as the crusading rabble marched through Germany.

Far removed from the spirit and the intentions of Clermont, tributaries of this popular crusade passed across Europe, through France, Germany and Hungary, but only the chaotic stream led by Peter the Hermit and known in history as the People’s Crusade got as far as Asia Minor, where in October 1096 it was annihilated by the Seljuks, although Peter, who had hung behind in Constantinople, lived to preach another day.

The official crusading army led by Adhemar and the great secular lords had no part in these massacres. Assembling their forces in the West, in France especially, they made their preparations. Setting off in groups after the summer harvest, the army arrived at Constantinople between October 1096 and April 1097. But of the forty thousand crusaders who approached the city, no more than four thousand five hundred were nobles or knights. Travelling in their wake was yet another mass of poor and humble people, artisans and peasants, not unlike the rabble that had caused so much death and devastation the previous year along the Rhine. This untrained and undisciplined horde, which included women and other non-combatants, filled the leaders of the crusade with anxiety, as they did Alexius, the Byzantine emperor, because they were unpredictable and needed to be fed. But as the crusade was also a pilgrimage, there was little that could be done to prevent them joining in the march, and now their numbers were increased by Greeks and Armenians, refugees from the Muslim occupation of their lands.

Alexius ferried the crusaders across the Bosphorus, and in May they had laid siege to Nicaea, the Seljuk capital. Making clear what he saw as their purpose in Asia Minor, the emperor had the crusader leaders swear an oath that ‘whatever cities, countries or forts he might in future subdue, which had in the first place belonged to the Roman [Byzantine] Empire, he would hand over to the officer appointed by the emperor for this very purpose’;8 and when Nicaea fell, in June 1097, Alexius took care that his imperial forces and not the crusaders received the surrender.

From Nicaea the First Crusade marched southwards to Dorylaeum (present-day Eskisehir). The crusaders had taken the precaution of dividing their forces in two, Bohemond and several other nobles leading the first group, while Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond of Toulouse followed with the second group a day behind. This tactic proved itself when the Seljuks under the command of Kilij Arslan, the sultan of Rum, attacked the advance force, thinking it was the entire army. Bohemond was able to hold out until Raymond and Godfrey arrived, catching the Turks unaware. Faced with the full force of the crusader army, the Turks fled the field of battle in a panic. The crusaders had won a great victory, and as they advanced towards Philomelion (Aksehir) and on to Iconium (Konya), it seemed that all Asia Minor lay open before them.

But it was not an easy march, for Kilij Arslan opposed the crusaders with a ruthless campaign of destruction that took no account of the lives or welfare of the native Christian population, destroying their crops and poisoning their wells to deny succour to the relieving army. Fulcher describes the terrible conditions the crusaders endured as they advanced eastwards through the punishing summer heat:

        Then, indeed, we continued our journey quietly, one day suffering such extreme thirst that many men and women died from its torments. [. . .] In these regions we very often were in need of bread and other foods. For we found Romania [Asia Minor], a land which is good and very rich in all products, thoroughly devastated and ravished by the Turks. Still, you would often see this multitude of people well refreshed by whatever little vegetation we found at intervals on this journey throughout barren regions.

Fulcher then goes on to describe the remarkable variety of the crusader army, composed of peoples from the farthest reaches of Europe, from the Mediterranean and from the beleaguered East, all marching as one against the alien oppressor.

        But who ever heard such a mixture of languages in one army? There were Franks, Flemish, Frisians, Gauls, Allobroges, Lotharingians, Alemanni, Bavarians, Normans, Angles, Scots, Aquitanians, Italians, Dacians, Apulians, Iberians, Bretons, Greeks and Armenians. If a Breton or Teuton questioned me, I would not know how to answer either. But though we spoke diverse languages, we were, however, brothers in the love of God and seemed to be nearest kin. For if one lost any of his possessions, whoever found it kept it carefully a long time, until, by enquiry, he found the loser and returned it to him. This was indeed the proper way for those who were making this holy pilgrimage in a right spirit.9

The crusade was beginning to redefine itself through its own remarkable successes. For many the conviction grew that they were under divine protection; in the eyes of contemporary chroniclers, the crusade became ‘a military monastery on the move’.10Whatever the strategic objectives originally envisioned by Urban, the crusaders were after all pilgrims, for whom Jerusalem was now their goal.

After traversing Asia Minor the crusaders turned southwards into Syria, marching along the eastern flanks of the Amanus mountains. By autumn they stood before the walls of Antioch, founded by one of Alexander’s generals and later famous as the place where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The population of the city was almost entirely Greek and Armenian but was garrisoned by the Turks; throughout the bitter winter months and well into 1098 the crusaders laid siege to Antioch, which finally fell in June, when Bohemond and his men, after bribing one of the guards, clambered over the walls and opened the gates of the city to the crusaders.

Meanwhile Baldwin of Boulogne, who had taken a different route, found himself warmly welcomed by Armenians who had settled in Cilicia, and was urged to continue eastwards to the Armenian city of Edessa, which had been reduced to vassalage under the Turks. Entering the city among cheering throngs of people, Baldwin established himself as ruler of the county of Edessa, the first crusader state founded in the East.

But the taking of Antioch and Edessa marked the parting of the ways between the crusaders and the Byzantines. Under their oath to Alexius the crusaders were obliged to hand over to Alexius any cities and lands that had previously been under Byzantine rule. But the Armenians, who had a long history of theological and territorial disputes with the Byzantines, preferred to remain under Frankish rule. As for Antioch, after it was captured by Bohemond it was invested in turn by Kerbogha, the Turkish atabeg, or governor, of Mosul; but when the crusaders sent to Constantinople asking for help against the siege, Alexius ignored them, convinced that theirs was a lost cause. Relying on their own force of spirit, the crusaders emerged from the city, threw themselves against the Turks and sent them fleeing in panic. From that moment the crusaders repudiated their oaths to Alexius, whom they branded a faithless coward, and Bohemond made Antioch a principality of his own, the second state established by the crusaders in the East.

The knights and the nobility may have thought that they were leading the crusade, but the poor who marched in their wake regarded themselves as the elite, a people chosen by God. Most of the common people who had joined the first wave of the crusade perished on the long journey across Europe or were cut to ribbons by the Seljuks no sooner than they had crossed the Bosphorus. Many of those who survived and had joined the second wave of the crusade, the one led by Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy, and the great French, Norman and Provençal lords, were known as Tafurs.

A modern historian has described the Tafurs as ‘a hard-core of poor men organised under their own leaders, whose name may be derived from the big light wooden shield which many of them carried, the talevart or talevas. These desperadoes seem to have been pre-eminently North French and Fleming in origin and to have represented a quasi-autonomous force within the army.’11 Stories describe them as barefoot, wearing sackcloth, being covered in sores and filth, and living on roots and grass and sometimes the roasted corpses of their enemies. Wherever they went, they left a trail of devastation. Too poor to afford swords, they fought with clubs, knives, shovels, hatchets, catapults and pointed sticks. Although the Tafurs made a virtue of their poverty, they looted cities captured by the crusaders; they also raped Muslim women and committed massacres. Their ferocity was legendary; the leaders of the crusade were unable to control them and never went among them without being armed.

After Antioch, as the crusaders advanced deeper into Syria, the Tafurs were said to have resorted to cannibalism at the siege of Ma’arra, according to Raymond of Aguilers, although other chroniclers of the crusade make no mention of the incident and modern scholars have their doubts. ‘It is tempting to deduce that they were accused of this crime because they were poor warriors, even peasants, despised and feared by the more noble warriors who regarded them of being capable of any depravity. In other words, the accusation reflects fear and distrust between classes, rather than what actually happened.’12 Certainly the Muslims were terrified of the Tafurs, but that may have been the point. The Tafurs may have invented the story of cannibalism themselves to so terrify their enemies that they would fear to fight them and instead would flee.

The pilgrim army marched along the coast as far as Jaffa, which they reached on 3 June. Taking the inland road that wound into the Judaean Hills, they were welcomed as liberators at Bethlehem, which they entered on the 6th, the whole town turning out in celebration with relics and crosses from the Church of the Nativity and to kiss the crusaders’ hands. That night the crusaders were amazed to see a lunar eclipse, which they took as a sign from God that the crescent of Islam was on the wane. Early the next morning, on 7 June 1099, after journeying nearly three years and over 2,000 miles, the pilgrims climbed the hill which they named Montjoie and gained their first sight of Jerusalem. Many of them wept. It seemed a miracle that they had survived. They had fought and beaten the Seljuks and had restored Asia Minor to the Byzantine Empire, and they had liberated Antioch and Edessa from Muslim rule. But they had suffered greatly along the line of march; many had fallen in battle, and many more had succumbed to starvation and disease, among them the papal legate Adhemar, bishop of Puy, who died during an epidemic, probably typhoid, at the siege of Antioch. Yet now, as in a vision, the earthly Jerusalem rose before them; for many it was the key to the heavenly city.

The Fatimids had lost Jerusalem to the Seljuks in 1073, but in July 1098 they had recovered it once more. Marching up from Cairo, the Fatimid vizier al-Afdal had laid siege to the city, ‘bombarding it from forty catapults during forty days’, according to the Arab chronicler Ibn Khaldun. The vizier then returned to Cairo, leaving a large garrison of well-trained Arab and Sudanese troops in Jerusalem.13 With the destruction done to the city and the killing and menacing of its population by Atsiz and then al-Afdal, it is a wonder it had any inhabitants at all.

Nevertheless Jerusalem was one of the great fortresses of the medieval world, and despite everything its population is estimated to have been between twenty and thirty thousand.14 The Fatimid governor prepared for the arrival of the crusaders by augmenting his forces with four hundred elite cavalrymen from Egypt and by strengthening the city walls. After extorting all the money and goods in the possession of the Christian inhabitants, he expelled them from the city, fearing that, as at Edessa, Antioch, Bethlehem and elsewhere, they would welcome the approaching army as liberators; then, after bringing the Muslim inhabitants of the outlying villages within the walls, he poisoned all the surrounding wells, secure that within Jerusalem’s formidable defences he could rely on its numerous underground cisterns for good water. He knew that the crusaders were hundreds of miles from any relief from Antioch, and in their haste they had not even attempted to take the port of Jaffa. Moreover, as both he and the crusader leaders knew, an army was mustering in Egypt. Isolated and unsupplied in the face of a gathering enemy, the crusaders’ complete destruction seemed just a matter of time.

By now the crusaders had only about 1,200 knights and 15,000 able-bodied men; their force was insufficient to surround the city effectively; but they had an unshakeable conviction that under divine protection their moment of victory had come. On 13 June they launched a general attack with great fervour and overran the outer defences, but they had too few ladders to scale the walls in several places simultaneously, and after a long morning of desperate fighting they withdrew. They needed siege engines and more ladders, but the crusaders lacked the bolts and ropes and mangonels, and the area around Jerusalem had few trees. But then they had a stroke of luck: the Fatimids had left Jaffa unprotected, and six ships had sailed into the port – two from Genoa, four from England – carrying arms and food supplies and all the equipment necessary for building siege machines.

On the night of 13–14 July the attack resumed, simultaneously from north and south. The fighting continued throughout the day and on into the following night as, against terrific resistance, the crusaders managed to move their machines closer to the walls. Around noon on 15 July Godfrey of Bouillon forced his way onto the northern battlements, and soon Tancred and his men surged deep into the city’s streets towards the Temple Mount surmounted by the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque, where the Muslims were retreating, intending it as their last redoubt. To the south the Fatimid governor paid Raymond of Toulouse an immense treasure in return for sparing his life and that of his bodyguard; they were escorted out of the walls and rode to safety at Ascalon. Those on the Temple Mount surrendered to Tancred, who accepted and gave them his banner for protection, but the next morning the Tafurs killed a great number, which outraged Tancred when he found out, and they set alight the synagogue, burning many Jews who had taken refuge within in reprisal for their having been allies of the Fatimids.

In a letter sent by the crusade leaders to the pope in September, just two months after the city was taken, they wrote: ‘If you wish to know what was done unto the enemies found there, rest assured that in Solomon’s portico and in his Temple [as the crusaders believed the Aqsa mosque to be] our men rode in the Saracens’ blood up to the knees of the horses.’15 In an age when victory was seen as a sign of divine favour and defeat as a punishment for sins, exaggeration served the purposes of both papal authority and of the crusade itself. The chroniclers followed suit, for example Raymond of Aguilers, Robert the Monk and Fulcher of Chartres, all of whom strongly favoured the reformist programme of Gregory VII and Urban II. The greater the victory, the more it justified the pope’s ability to raise armies and fight wars, an authority opposed by the papacy’s great adversary in the Investiture Controversy, the Holy Roman emperor and his allies.

And so Raymond of Aguilers, who was attached to Raymond of Toulouse and entered Jerusalem with the crusaders, does not hesitate to embellish the victory with exaggerated gore as in these often quoted lines:

        Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.16

Where the crusade leaders had written of blood up to their horses’ knees, here Raymond of Aguilers goes one better and mentions the bridle reins, thereby raising the level of the blood by at least a foot. But Raymond was something of a credulous apocalyptic and described all sorts of visions and miracles, and his accounts of slaughter at Jerusalem had more to do with his notions of the Last Days than with what actually happened.

Robert the Monk, who was not there, envisages waves of blood that drive dead bodies across the floor, while dismembered arms and hands float on this sea of blood until they haphazardly join up with some corpse. And Fulcher of Chartres, who had been with Baldwin at Edessa and came to Jerusalem only in December to celebrate Christmas, makes up for not being an eyewitness to the siege by making himself a nose-witness to the aftermath, remarking that such were the numbers of dead still lying both inside and outside the city walls that he had to hold his nose against the stench – a patent nonsense, as a body left unburied in July would have been reduced by rats, dogs, birds, flies and beetles to a fleshless and odourless skeleton within a month – that is, if any bones would have been left at all.17

By the standards of the time, and adhered to by Christians and Muslims alike, if a city resisted conquest the lives of its inhabitants were forfeit when it fell. But despite exaggerated reports that Jerusalem’s entire population was put to the sword – 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, even over 60,000 killed, depending on the source – this is not what happened. The killing was never as massive or as indiscriminate as certain medieval historians have alleged, or as many modern historians have chosen to accept. Exaggeration was due to misinformation, or to a desire to praise the crusaders, or to assert the power of the papacy, or to captivate an audience; exaggeration was also due to ideology, the belief that tales of massive and indiscriminate bloodshed conferred a kind of purification on its perpetrators and the city. Yet no less a figure than Steven Runciman has written that ‘the Crusaders rushed through the streets and into the houses slaying everyone that they saw, man, woman, and child’, and that ‘the only survivors’ were the few hundred troops of the garrison who surrendered to Raymond of Toulouse; yet he contradicts himself by noting that the city was cleared of corpses after the siege by the surviving inhabitants.18 Which raises the question of Runciman’s motives and bias in distorting history, and the motives and bias of those who repeat the distortions to this day.19

The anonymous Gesta Francorum mentions that prisoners, men and women, were taken at the Aqsa mosque, which the crusaders, referring to King Solomon, called the Templum Solomonis. The Gesta also says that it was the surviving inhabitants who cleared the corpses. Moreover, letters sent to the Jewish community in Cairo and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean by Jews of Jerusalem at the time tell of Jewish survivors, Jews held for ransom, and captive Jews sold in such numbers that they depressed the price of slaves. Quite apart from the Fatimid governor and his forces who were set free, Muslim captives are known to have survived, many later turning up in Damascus. None of which means that there was not a massacre when Jerusalem was captured. But one should also listen to Ibn al-Arabi, that young Islamic scholar from Seville who had lived in Jerusalem until only three years before the arrival of the crusade and knew it well. In 1099 he was in Egypt, mostly in Alexandria, where he followed events in Jerusalem with an intimate knowledge of the setting and its people. Certainly there was a massacre, for al-Arabi writes of 3,000 men and women, ‘including God-fearing and learned worshippers’, being killed on Friday morning 16 July in the Aqsa mosque, and he also mentions several women who were killed near the Dome of the Rock.20 Against this informed account we have the rhetoric of Fulcher of Chartres, who says ten thousand were killed at the mosque, or Matthew of Edessa who puts the figure at sixty-five thousand. But as one eminent historian of the crusades has written, ‘stories of the streets of Jerusalem coursing with knee-high rivers of blood were never meant to be taken seriously. Medieval people knew such a thing to be an impossibility. Modern people, unfortunately, often do not.’21

On one point all the chroniclers agree. When the killing was over, the knights went ‘rejoicing and weeping’22 to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to give thanks to God at the site of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

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