Military history


Conquest and Reconquest

THE FIRST CRUSADE WAS BORN OUT OF FEAR. URBAN II BELIEVED THAT the Holy Land was in danger, and Christendom responded to his call. Although later Crusades to the East were to a greater degree a product of political ambitions and territorial aggrandizement, the visceral element never disappeared. The fears grew, through contact with the East and increasing Western preoccupations with Islam. While Muslims saw a source of defilement in Frankish Christians, so too Christians now blamed the existence of Islam for the rising tide of corruption in the Christian world.1 Churchmen complained that the people of the Latin kingdoms were acquiring the lewd ways of the East, wearing un-Christian clothing and disporting themselves with Muslim women. If James of Vitry is to be believed

Among the Poulains [children of the Crusaders born in the Holy Land] there is hardly one in a thousand who takes his marriage seriously. They do not regard fornication to be a deadly sin. From childhood they are pampered and wholly given to carnal pleasures, whereas they are not accustomed to hear God’s word, which they lightly disregard … And the city [Acre] is full of brothels, and as the rent of prostitutes is higher, not only laymen, but even clergymen, nay even monks, rent their houses all over the city to public harlots.2

Nowhere were these ideas of pollution more graphically presented than in Avignon in the spring of 1335. In February, a middle-aged priest called Opicinus de Canistris had suddenly fallen ill. He lay in bed until the end of March, when he suddenly recovered, having, as he said, seen a vision of the world. His illness had left his mind confused and his right arm paralyzed. His official career as a papal secretary in the pontifical palace was ended. Nonetheless, he learned to use his left arm, and began writing and drawing at breakneck speed. Over the next few months he filled more than fifty-two large parchments. At that point he disappears from history—the date of his death is uncertain—and his work vanished into the papal archives, where it lay undiscovered for almost 600 years.

Opicinus had become obsessed with his own sin and desire, and during his illness he began to see the shapes of three huge figures concealed in the outline of the Mediterranean. One was male, another female, and the third was a bearded and monstrous devil. He drew his grotesque figures over the contours of the coastline, believing that God had carved out the land for a purpose and his message was unmistakable. So Opicinus presented the Mediterranean as a Sea of Sin. Over the northern (European) and southern (African) shorelines he inked in the heads of twin figures, one male and one female, and gave them faces, clothes, arms, and legs. The lower extremities fitted the topography less exactly. Italy made a convenient right leg and boot for the Europe figure; but the left leg ended clumsily in the heart of Greece. However, the apex, where the two heads almost touched, was his focal point. Opicinus made it plain that this was no chance proximity. They were deep in carnal conversation.3

Over the African shore he drew a female figure in Moorish dress, who, with her arm pointing toward his midriff, whispered suggestively into Europe’s ear, “Come, let us copulate.”4 The Latin word he used, commiscemini, has the sense of illicit mixing; and Opicinus declared of the Straits of Gibraltar: “Between Spain and Mauritania is the vulva Oceani from which the Mediterranean Sea proceeds.”5 The evil that obsessed him was the sexual conjunction of a seducing Muslim woman and a pure Europe turned from the path of virtue. This was truly the devil’s work. At the other end of the Mediterranean, he saw the head of the evil one, a dark shape that occupied the eastern Mediterranean, with its face covering the Levant and the lands occupied by Islam, and a full beard fringing the Balkans.

Opicinus became preoccupied with these deeper meanings in the landscape. He came to see every event of his own troubled life as depicted on the maps before him. Progressively, he became the Europe Man, struggling with temptation. When he was constipated, he understood his discomfort as an emblem of the political troubles afflicting Lombardy. Examining the patterns of hair on his body, he realized that they “signified” the location of the vineyards throughout Europe.6 His preoccupation with lust and the devil grew ever stronger. Africa Woman became “the symbol of sin, hypocrisy and the like,” while Europe Man represented “purity, salvation or piety.”7 He played with the conjunction of the northern and southern shores: sometimes Africa was a virile male and Europe the frail virgin. But in most of his sketches, Africa wore the clothes of a Muslim woman: Africa Woman was, of course, an infidel. The Christian world was contaminated by its contiguity with Africa and the Levant. This was the meaning of Africa Woman and the shadowy figure of the devil. These were the lands occupied by “Islam.” Jerusalem itself lay under the body of the devil, while Spain was being seduced.

Opicinus expressed (in an extreme fashion) a common association of the Muslim East with danger and corruption. The experience of the Levant over the two centuries of Christian occupation confirmed the beliefs that had stimulated the crusading impetus in the first place. The first Crusaders had dedicated themselves to the salvation of the holy places, which they believed were in danger of destruction. This sense of threat increased once they arrived in the East and this anxiety grew through the whole period of Western presence. They were few and the infidels were many: “Where we have a count the enemy has forty kings; where we have a knight they have a duke … where we have a castle they have a kingdom.”8 This sense of oppression, of a tiny Western Christian minority drowning in a sea of infidels, was both real and fictive. A century before Opicinus de Canistris, the chronicler Roger of Wendover observed in a letter written from the city of Acre in 1221, “We and the other peoples on our side of the water are oppressed by so many and great expenses in carrying on [this Crusade], that we shall be unable to meet our necessary expenses in carrying on … unless by the divine mercy we shortly receive assistance from our fellow Christians.”9 Yet a presence in the East was essential to further the triumph of Christ: for this reason an anonymous poet hailed the Crusade of King Louis IX of France in the mid–thirteenth century as the means to “baptise the sultan of the Turks, and thereby free the world.”10

In Palestine as in Spain, Islam and Christianity were in contest for the same terrain. Yet there was a subtle difference. Al-Andalus lay on the outer perimeter of Islam, and did not have the special significance for Muslims of the “far distant place of worship” in Jerusalem, whither the Prophet Mohammed came miraculously by night and was thence taken up into heaven.11 Christian Spaniards claimed Spain as their own holy land by prior right, in which the Moors were temporary intruders. By contrast in Palestine, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all claimed full rights to a territory revered by all three communities. Moreover, in each case, the process of losing and later redeeming this land became a dominant religious and literary motif. The loss of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem—Al Quds—from 1099 to 1187 generated an intense preoccupation with the infidel Christian enemy.

The encounter between Western Christendom and Islam after 1099 created a malign heritage for both communities. Each battle, siege, despoliation, or defilement fueled opposing narratives. Thus the conquest of the Christian County of Edessa in 1144 by Imd al-Din Zengi, the Turkish ruler of Mosul, seemed a divine intervention to the chronicler Ibn al-Athir:

When Almighty God saw the princes of the Islamic lands and … how unable they were to support the [true] religion and their inability to defend those who believe in the One God and He saw their subjugation by their enemy and the severity of their despotism … He then wished to set over the Franks someone who could requite the evil of their deeds and send to the devils of the crosses [Western Christians] stones from Him to destroy and annihilate them.12

For the Christian bishop William of Tyre, the city was lost through Christian failures—the petty squabbles among Christian princes and a negligence in Christendom for the sacred patrimony in the East:

Thus while the Prince of Antioch, overcome by foolish hatred, delayed rendering the help he owed to his brothers and while the count awaited help from abroad, the ancient city of Edessa, devoted to Christianity since the time of the Apostles and delivered from the superstitions of the infidels through the words and preaching of the Apostle Thaddeus, passed into an undeserved servitude.13

The loss of Edessa roused the West to launch the Second Crusade, led by the emperor Conrad III and King Louis VII of France. Steven Runciman charted the rise and ignominious fall of the enterprise:

No medieval enterprise started with more splendid hopes. Planned by the Pope, preached and inspired by the golden eloquence of St Bernard, and led by the two chief potentates of Western Europe it had promised so much for the glory and salvation of Christendom … in fact the Crusade was brought to nothing by its leaders, with their truculence, their ignorance, and their ineffectual folly.14

No subsequent Crusade met the high expectations created by the first “pilgrimage.” During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a succession of failed ventures caused a number of writers to ask whether these journeys were indeed God’s will. Would he have allowed them to fail so ignominiously if they were? Many ingenious solutions were found to this conundrum. Failure stemmed from the moral imperfections of the Crusaders themselves and of the wicked society that had produced them. They were unworthy to recover the holy city. Others explained the Muslim infidels’ victories as the instrument by which Christ chastened his sinful people and called them to reform. But gradually a more comprehensive explanation emerged, which seemed to fit all the circumstances and also corralled Islam within Christian doctrine.

For many scholars the success of Islam could only be rationally explained if the Prophet Mohammed and his followers represented the Antichrist, whose appearance foreshadowed the final triumph of Christ in his second coming. Saint Paul had given this ancient idea a succinct Christian definition: “That day [the second coming] shall not come except there is a falling away first and that man of sin be revealed, the sin of perdition. Who exalteth himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped.”15 For many Christians, the self-evident man of sin was the Prophet Mohammed. Yoking Muslims with the Antichrist made them implacably hostile to Christians, but it also assured their ultimate defeat. It is risky to be too definite in matters of perception. A single event, text, or image should not be read outside its original context, and we can never be sure that the few written documents are not chance (and thus misleading) survivals from the distant past. But from the late medieval period onward, there was a shift in the image that the communities, Christian and Muslim, had of each other. Both were hostile and suspicious, but while the Western image of the East seemed to be in a constant state of flux and mutation, the Islamic attitude stabilized. The closest we can get to popular attitudes were the tales of folk heroes who vanquished their opponents, sometimes Christian Crusaders, sometimes Byzantines. In addition to traditional folk heroes like Abu Zayd and Rustam, there were new and historical heroes like the ruler of Egypt, the Mamluk (Turkish) sultan Baybars, who finally expelled the Franks from their last foothold in the land where the sun rises, the al-mashreq.16

The tradition of these tales is entertaining fantasy, which is what the people wanted. Narratives that were full of drama, excitement, and colorful characters were the stock-in-trade of professional traveling storytellers. So the Sirat al-Zahir Baybars is a long succession of wildly improbable adventures. The sultan defended the poor and righted wrongs. He was transported magically to England and had many thrilling encounters there. Nonetheless his experience of Christians was typified by the “treachery” of “Juwan”—John—who eventually received his just deserts at the sultan’s hands. In another folk epic, the Dhat al-Himma, even the bravest of the Franks was described as “a very wicked and guileful man.”17 These were all stock villains, just as Baybars was a one-dimensional hero figure. But like the Western characterization of the men (and women) of the East, these were images of the infidel readily recognizable to Muslims, who already knew that Western Christians were essentially wicked. They had heard that the Franks were dangerous, treacherous, and vicious, both physically and spiritually corrupt. Ultimately, not much survived of the admiration for the Crusaders’ courage which had appeared in the writings of Usāmah ibn Munqidh.

THE CONFRONTATION IN THE LEVANT ADMINISTERED A DEEP SHOCK to both Western Christendom and the world of Mediterranean Islam, imprinting deeply upon both cultures. Every conquest engendered a desire for reconquest. To understand how and why this effect persisted over many centuries lies within the domain of social psychology, and then the difficulty is finding methods of interpretation that are not simply anachronistic or inappropriate. Kimball Young, one of the early pioneers of the discipline, set out the essence of the problem: “Propaganda may be open and its purpose avowed, or it may conceal its intention. It always has a setting within a social-cultural framework, without which neither its psychological nor its cultural features can be understood.”18 The fear and hatred that grew out of the confrontation between Islam and Christendom were a conditioned, or “Pavlovian” response.19 The reinforcement sustaining that response was sometimes a personal experience, but more often it stemmed from a firm conviction acquired by other means. Most of those who believed that the infidels—“Saracens,” “Agarenes,” “Ishmaelites,” “Turks”—were savage and barbarous had never met a Saracen or a Turk in their lives. Yet this understanding was as real to them as if they had. They knew it from their neighbors, from listening and reading, from visual images, much as we do today. This infusion of new knowledge was vital to maintaining hostility.

Pavlov’s message was that unless these experiences and beliefs were sustained and regularly reinforced, then the conditioned response would dwindle. This drip feed of new information and ideas, the reiteration of old themes, meant that the far-distant conflict in the Levant conditioned the subsequent relationship between Christendom and Islam. It became the symbolic reference point for future recollections. As Alphonse Dupront put it, “When we say the word ‘crusade,’ something thrills and disturbs us. This ‘something’ is the utmost power of myth that is alive and real.”20The word “Crusade” in Western society has now largely lost its specific denotation—war in a good cause—but it still carries a powerful charge. By contrast “Crusade” carries a stronger meaning for many Muslims, while “holy war”—jihad—still evokes a frisson of fear among Christians. These words have become metonyms of the enemy, reinforcing memories of their essential cruelty and savagery.21

We can trace the means by which these fears and hatred were constructed. Emmanuel Sivan began his seminal work on the Muslim “counter-Crusade” by pointing to distinct but parallel elements in the creation of this ideology: existing attitudes, which were in place before the pressure of events and of propaganda, and created attitudes formed (or exploited) as a result of events or propaganda.22 These functioned as reinforcement for the existing attitudes. But these twin elements were just as powerful in creating first the ideology and, later, myths of “Crusade” in Western culture. The Crusaders who marched to the Holy Land had firm (if ill-founded) ideas about their enemy, while the Muslims they encountered had almost no specific notions about the Franks, except that they were grotesquely unappealing infidels. However, during their confrontation in the East, Muslims and Western Christians developed much more complex and roughly symmetrical views of each other. The degree to which each group produced reverse or mirror images is remarkable. Christians regarded Muslims as inherently cruel and violent; Muslims felt the same about the Westerners. Christians developed wild imaginings about the sexual proclivities of Muslims. Muslims regarded the Franks, as Usāmah made clear, as little better than animals in terms of sexual propriety.

Equally, each could initially appreciate heroic and noble qualities in the other. The sultan Saladin was portrayed in many Western accounts, despite the loss of Jerusalem to his armies in 1187, as more just and honorable than many Christian rulers. Likewise, Muslims had no difficulty in recognizing the military skill and bravery of their opponents at the same time that they described them as “accursed.” Nor did negative attitudes prevent many forms of political and economic connection between enemies even in times of war and rancorous propaganda.23 However, while the Muslims might produce the occasional Saladin and Baybars, and were formidable opponents on the battlefield, their visible power appeared inferior to Westerners’.24 No Saracen fortress, for example, could match the raw defensive power of the Crusader castles such as Krak des Chevaliers, Beaufort, or the sea castle at Sidon.25 It was the rise to dominance of the Ottoman Turks from the mid–fourteenth century, in both Anatolia and Balkan Europe, that altered that equation. Saladin had been a noble individual, but represented a contemptible people. The Grand Signior, the sultan of the Turks, the “Great Cham,” represented an infidel state and culture whose power was to be feared and could not be denied.

THE SULTAN OF THE OTTOMAN TURKS MADE HIMSELF THE STANDARD-bearer of Islam. The Ottoman Turks were nomads who, brought as mercenaries into Anatolia by the Seljuqs, survived their downfall. By 1280 they had established a small Ottoman center, named after their chief, Osman, in western Anatolia. His son, Sultan Orhan, established their capital at Bursa on the slopes of Mount Olympus in Mysia (Mount Uludağ) in 1326, where Osman’s title is inscribed as “The mujahid [he who fights for Islam], Sultan of the ghazis, ghazi son of a ghazi [warrior son of a warrior].”26 Orhan’s palace was built in the city’s citadel on a long mountain spur, a fortress which he enlarged and extended until it was “nearly impregnable.”27 In 1350 the Byzantine emperor, John Cantacuzenus, recruited Orhan’s Ottoman warriors in his campaign against the king of Serbia, Stephen Dushan. Three years later Orhan’s son Suleiman crossed the Hellespont to take possession of the fortresses promised as the price of their support. Within a few years, from their base at Gallipoli, the Ottomans had advanced to cut the road from Constantinople to the fortress town of Adrianople, the capital of Thrace.

Suleiman was thrown from his horse while hunting and died of his injuries. It was his son Murad who succeeded his grandfather Orhan as sultan around 1361. In fifteen months his ghazis had brought terror to the land. Adrianople surrendered rather than risk the fate of Chorlu, where the Turks had slaughtered everyone within the walls, only saving the commander for a formal execution. Soon the Turkish domain in Europe extended from the Bosphorus to the foothills of the Balkan mountains. The Byzantine emperor in Constantinople accepted the Ottoman power, but other Christians were not so quiescent. The Serbs, with some Hungarians in alliance, crossed the river Maritza, only to be “caught as wild beasts in their lair,” and driven back into the river “as flames driven before the wind,” in the words of an Ottoman chronicler.28 In 1366, the Ottomans crossed the river Maritza and pushed north until by 1369 they had taken the mountain passes and the land before Sofia. Then Murad turned west into Macedonia. In three years the Turks had reached the river Vardar at the town of Skopje, and their European dominions at that point extended from the Thracian plain to the Dinaric Alps. The sultan also extended his territories in Anatolia, but the bulk of his domain lay north of the Hellespont, so he shifted his capital from Bursa to Adrianople. By 1386 most of the main, Christian cities of the southern Balkans, including Sofia, Monastir, and Nish, were in his hands. Only Belgrade on the Danube and Constantinople remained beyond his power. In 1388, Murad launched his armies against the Kingdom of Serbia to complete his conquest of the Balkan lands.

On June 20, 1389, on the plain of Kosovo Polje, the “field of the crows” where the corvines feasted on the bodies of the dead, Murad, with his Asian and European armies, and backed by all his Christian tributaries, defeated Lazar, the leader of the Serbs. At this moment of triumph, the sultan was killed on the battlefield and immediately succeeded by his son Bayezid, who was commanding the Turkish right flank. In the aftermath of the battle, the surviving Serb princes submitted to Turkish power. After Kosovo, the Ottomans turned their attention to the one remaining obstacle to their domination of the southern Balkans. In 1391, they laid siege to Constantinople itself, but once again the great walls protected the city. A contingent of 600 men-at-arms and 1,600 archers led by Boucicault, the marshal of France, arrived in 1398, breaking the Ottoman blockade and stiffening the Byzantines’ resistance. Yet even this reinforcement could not remove the Turkish threat, so a year later Boucicault withdrew and the siege was lifted in exchange for concessions that effectively made the Byzantine emperor a vassal of the sultan.

Western Christendom had finally recognized the power of its new enemy. Over roughly fifty years (1396–1448), four Crusades were mounted with the intention not of recapturing Jerusalem, but of attacking the Ottoman infidels in the Balkans. After 1389, the Muslim enemy was not in Asia but on the banks of the Danube, with Tartar horsemen raiding into Hungary and the borderlands of Austria. Six years after Kosovo, Crusaders responded to the urgent appeal of Pope Boniface IX and a Christian army marched east. They were crushed on September 26, 1396, by the well-organized Ottoman troops of Sultan Bayezid Ilderim (“the Thunderbolt”) before the town of Nicopolis on cliffs above the river Danube. On the morning after the battle the sultan sat and watched as the surviving Crusaders were led naked before him, their hands tied behind them. He offered them the choice of conversion to Islam or, if they refused, immediate decapitation. Few would renounce their faith, and the growing piles of heads were arranged in tall cairns before the sultan, and the corpses dragged away. By the end of a long day, more than 3,000 Crusaders had been butchered, and some accounts said as many as 10,0. A single knight was freed and sent to Paris to recount the sultan’s vengeance to the king of France. The carnage was in part a response to the Crusaders’ massacre of their Turkish prisoners before the battle, but this formal and ceremonial slaughter was an innovation, and different from the massacres that were commonplace after the capture of cities or in the immediate aftermath of a battle. The mass killings by Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099 had stemmed from an enraged bloodlust after battle. Bayezid by contrast intended a calculated and memorable act of cruelty, which ran counter to the normal customs of war: many of those killed were of noble birth, for whom a ransom would have been paid.29

But the sultan’s aim was achieved. The news of Nicopolis and its aftermath quickly became known throughout Europe and it proved very difficult to rouse any interest in the West for a new Crusade.30 Only in Hungary was the appeal of the Crusade still potent, and eventually Bayezid’s son Murad II confronted a resurgent Hungarian power. The Hungarians and their allies were led by the “white knight of Wallachia,” János Hunyadi, whose silvered armor became famous throughout the Balkans. The Hungarians knew him as “Török-verö” (scourge of the Turks). He was appointed governor of Transylvania in 1441, and regained much of the land lost to the Turks along the Danube. In 1443, the long-anticipated Crusade was launched: Vladislav, king of both Poland and Hungary, launched a new Crusade, and advancing south of the Danube recaptured both Sofia and Nish. After a serious defeat at Kostunitza, Murad sanctioned a ten-year truce.

But in the following year, the Hungarian king broke the terms of the truce and led a new Crusade down the Danube. Murad, at the time defending his territory in Asia, quickly gathered the Ottoman armies from there and Europe. He marched north toward the Crusaders. At the city of Varna, on the shores of the Black Sea, the sultan unexpectedly won another victory on the scale of Nicopolis. King Vladislav and many of his best troops died in the battle. The king’s head was cut from his body, preserved in a barrel of honey, and dispatched to Bursa, where it was spiked on a lance and paraded in triumph through the streets.31 Meanwhile, Hunyadi, who had commanded one wing of the Crusader force, escaped from the debacle and fled north beyond the Danube. He slowly gathered a new army and again marched south to attack the Ottomans. On October 16, 1448, on the fateful plain of Kosovo, Hunyadi and his army of Hungarians, Wallachians, Czechs, and Germans met the Ottomans on the same ground where Lazar had fallen more than half a century before. The battle lasted three days, and Hunyadi’s army succumbed to Ottoman discipline and tenacity.32

There was a new intensity to these wars in the Balkans. Hitherto, the Mongols had been unique in their relentless cruelty, but now it seemed that both Christians and Muslims vied with each other for the scale and ingenuity of their atrocities. The ruler (voivod) of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” perfected the technique of mass death, skewering his enemies on a long spit or spear—the longer the stake, the higher in rank the victim.33 In 1461, Murad II’s son the young Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, was horrified when he saw the 20,000 rotting corpses hanging on sharpened stakes outside the walls of Vlad’s capital of Tirgoviste, although he himself had had no hesitation in condemning criminals to death by impalement in his own domains. Earlier centuries had seen many isolated examples of deliberate savagery, but from the fifteenth century barbarity reached new levels. The public death by flaying of the Venetian senator Bragadino just before the battle of Lepanto, which I described in chapter 1, was paralleled in Western Christian society by the elaborate ceremonial of the auto-da-fé in Spain, and an increasingly spectacular theater of cruelty in public executions north of the Pyrenees.34

The greatest atrocity, however, in Christian eyes was the capture and ravishment of Constantinople by Mehmed’s armies on May 28, 1453. The defeat at Varna had greatly diminished Hungarian enthusiasm for a Crusade in the East, and there was no coherent opposition from the West to the young sultan’s investment of the city. In stark contrast to the earlier Muslim sieges of Constantinople over the centuries, the army that assembled in the early spring of 1453 relied not so much on weight of numbers (although it was very large) but upon military professionalism and advanced techniques of war. First, the Turks had armed their twin fortresses on each side of the Bosphorus with powerful guns designed to prevent any relieving force gaining access to Constantinople. Second, at a new cannon factory in Adrianople, huge siege artillery pieces that could destroy the ancient triple walls protecting the Byzantine capital were designed and built. But the imbalance between Muslim power and Christian weakness was apparent in the muster rolls: fewer than 7,000 men defended Constantinople’s fourteen miles of walls, confronting the 80,000 Ottomans gathered outside.

Early in the morning of May 28, after fifty-three days of desperate resistance, the Ottoman janissaries broke through the walls into the city. By custom they were entitled to three days of looting in any city they had taken by storm. At first they killed everyone they found alive. From the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols high above the Golden Horn, a torrent of blood ran down the hill toward the harbor. The soldiers broke into the churches, ripping out the precious objects, raping or killing anyone who caught their fancy. In the afternoon the sultan made his formal entry, and went directly to the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia. There he ordered an end to the pillage and destruction and directed that the great church should become the chief mosque of the city. Ducas, in his Historia Turco-Byzantina, records the day:

He [Mehmed] summoned one of his vile priests who ascended the pulpit to call out his foul prayer. The son of iniquity, the forerunner of Antichrist, ascending the holy altar, offered the prayer. Alas, the calamity! Alack, the horrendous deed! Woe is me! What has befallen us? Oh! Oh! What have we witnessed? An infidel Turk, standing on the holy altar in whose foundation the relics of Apostles and Martyrs have been deposited! Shudder, O sun! Where is the Lamb of God, and where is the Son and Logos of the Father Who is sacrificed thereon, and eaten, and never consumed?

Truly we have been reckoned as frauds! Our worship has been reckoned as nothing by the nations. Because of our sins the temple [Hagia Sophia] which was rebuilt in the name of the Wisdom of the Logos of God, and is called the Temple of the Holy Trinity, and Great Church and New Sion, today has become an altar of barbarians, and has been named and has become the House of Muhammad. Just is Thy judgement, O Lord.35

The same sense of violation fills the letter written by the Byzantine scholar, and later cardinal, Bessarion to the doge of Venice two months after the fall of the city.

Sacked by the most inhuman barbarians and the most savage enemies of the Christian faith, by the fiercest of wild beasts. The public treasure has been consumed, private wealth has been destroyed, the temples have been stripped of gold, silver, jewels, the relics of the saints, and other most precious ornaments. Men have been butchered like cattle, women abducted, virgins ravished, and children snatched from the arms of their parents.36

However, the abominations of the Turks had a precursor. The capture of Constantinople by the Western Crusaders in 1204 had been described in very similar terms. Nicetas Choniates wrote of those days, two and a half centuries before:

Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden under foot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about.

No one was without a share in the grief. In the alleys, in the streets, in the temples, complaints, weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity, the separation of those most closely united.37

In Orthodox Christian eyes there was perhaps little to choose between Catholic or Muslim rapine. But there was nonetheless a subtle distinction in the language used to describe the perpetrators of these bestial horrors. The Muslims were implicitly evil: “son of iniquity,” “the fiercest of wild beasts,” “inhuman barbarians,” “the infidel.” Much was also made in Ducas’s account of the sodomitical perversion of the Ottomans. Mehmed, drunk at a banquet after the fall of the city, demanded that Lukas Notaras, one of the surviving Byzantine officials, should send him his handsome younger son. Notaras replied: “It is not our custom to hand over my own child to be despoiled by him. It would be far better for me if the executioner were sent to take my head.” When the executioners came, he bolstered his sons’ courage with an appeal to their Christian and patriotic zeal.38This was not just the martyrdom of Notaras and his family, but of the great Christian city.39

These themes of destruction and martyrdom and of the rampant bestiality of the Ottomans were built upon earlier perceptions of Islam. For many Western Christians the capture of Constantinople and the slaughter that accompanied it became a catastrophe on a par with the loss of Jerusalem in 1187. Conversely, for Muslims the final capture of the city seemed both an emblem and a guarantee of the ultimate triumph of Islam. Where “Jerusalem” had been a dominating trope of the Middle Ages, the loss of Constantinople, the last outpost of Christendom in the East, with all its holy sites, became both a political and religious motif for the following four centuries, in both western and eastern Europe. With the capture of the “New Jerusalem,” the Ottomans became the cynosure for the Christian world. But any element of admiration was equaled by a sense of terror, and both were firmly rooted in reality. Constantinople under Ottoman rule—or Istanbul, to give it its Turkish name—was infinitely grander in its splendid new buildings, in its vast wealth, in a greatly enlarged population, and above all in military and political power far superior to its decayed Byzantine predecessor. Equally, under the Ottomans it seemed to contain all the qualities of lust, perversion, sinful luxury, and cruelty against which Christian scholars had inveighed for centuries.40 These Turks, in Christian eyes, now epitomized the infidel, logically enough perhaps because it was the Turks whom they had been fighting since the First Crusade.

What is a Turk? a celebrated Austrian preacher asked rhetorically late in the seventeenth century. His answer was: “He is a replica of the Antichrist … he is an insatiable tiger … he is a vengeful beast; he is a thief of crowns without conscience, he is a murderous falcon … he is oriental dragon poison; he is an unchained hellhound; he is an Epicurean piece of excrement; he is a tyrannic monster. He is God’s whip.”41

THE CRUSADING DISCOURSE HAS MUTATED THROUGHOUT ITS LONG history. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century it took a variety of new forms.42 I have suggested how the Spanish cruzada against the Moors extended during the sixteenth century into a string of conquests in North Africa and in the new territories of the Americas. Now we should cast our net wider. From the eighteenth century, the missionary “crusade” became a Protestant venture, acquiring a new life in the British colonial conquests of India and Africa during the nineteenth century (and beyond). Many enthusiastic Christian evangelists found it natural to use the vocabulary of the “crusade,” which for them exemplified a spiritual war against evil. Hymnals and religious songbooks, such as Hymns Ancient and Modern (first published in 1861), were best sellers by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and many people knew the words and tunes of the most popular hymns by heart.43 These hymns exhorted the faithful to “Fight the good fight / With all thy might” (John S. B. Monsell, 1863), or to see themselves as soldiers in God’s cause. The most successful of these calls to action was “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to War / With the Cross of Jesus, going on before” (1865), written by the Reverend Sabine Baring Gould because he “wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to another, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable; so I sat up at night, resolved that I would write something myself. ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ was the result.”44

Gradually, the common meaning of “crusade” in the English language became a metaphor for a sustained and powerful action in a good cause.45 But the older sense of the cross and holy war was still a potent symbol. Nor was the specific enmity to Muslims completely lost. I remember singing at school a hymn by J. E. Neale, which had been popular since first published a century before. Neale had reworked a text by Andrew of Crete.

Christian, dost thou see them

On the holy ground?

How the troops of Midian

Prowl and prowl around?

Christian, up and smite them,

Counting gain but loss;

Smite them by the merit

Of the holy cross.

I wondered idly at the time who the “troops of Midian” might be. It was only much later that I discovered that the hymn’s author would have known “Midianites” as a synonym for Arabs or “Saracens.”46 And plainly, the “holy ground” for Andrew of Crete was Jerusalem and the Christian sites of the Levant—in Neale’s day under the rule of the Ottomans.

However, Neale’s usage was atypical, and he later produced a more anodyne version. The “troops of Midian” were transmuted into “the powers of darkness.” Perhaps he considered this more appropriate to the mission fields? Likewise, “infidel,” which had still been in use in the early nineteenth century, fell out of favor with hymn writers.47 “Heathen lands” and “pagan darkness” replaced the wastelands of the infidel. Perhaps “infidel” was too precisely associated with Mediterranean Islam? However, in 1911, Robert Mitchell returned directly to the language of “crusade” in its original bellicose sense:

Hark to the call of the New Crusade,

Christ over all will King be made;

Out to the world let the challenge ring:

Make Christ King!

His refrain elaborated the theme:

Hail to the King of kings! Triumphant Redeemer!

On march the soldiers of the New Crusade.

This is the battle cry: Christ made the King!

And to our Sov’reign we allegiance bring;

Prince, Guide and Counsellor He shall be.

Carry the standard to victory!

Hail to the call of the New Crusade:

Make Christ King!

Strong is the foe of the New Crusade,

Sin in its armour is well arrayed;

Into the fight we our best must fling:

Make Christ King!

There were hundreds of missionaries to the Holy Land at the time that Mitchell wrote, but the big battalions of evangelism directed their attention elsewhere.48 Nevertheless, the essential terminology of “crusade” and conquest remained a constant presence in Christian discourse and activity.49

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century evangelicals crusaded, as they believed, for a spiritual victory, not for territorial conquest. But the word does not allow so facile a separation. This ambiguity between a holy war in a spiritual sense and a victory over the temporal forces of darkness had a long pedigree. Two seventeenth-century near contemporaries, John Bunyan and Thomas Fuller, both wrote books entitled The Holy War. Bunyan’s allegorical intentions were clear from this title: The Holy War Made by Shaddai upon Diabolus for the Regaining of the Metropolis of the World or The Losing and Taking Again of the Town of Mansoul. It was published in 1682. Thomas Fuller’s The Historie of the Holy Warre was equally popular. First published in 1639, and reprinted four times between 1640 and 1651, it was rarely out of print. Fuller’s work was a historical account—the first full description of the medieval Crusades in English. Bunyan’s elaborate allegory also drew on images of the infidel. He used a perception of the alien common in his day: his villain was King Diabolus, whom he described as “king of the blacks, and a most raving prince.” He had “a Luciferian heart,” as “insatiable, and enlarged as hell itself.” These were descriptions frequently applied to the Turks.

Unlike Bunyan, who was the son of a tinker, Fuller had a more settled and comfortable position in society. He was a clergyman of the Church of England, a moderate Royalist, and chaplain to General Sir Ralph Hopton during the Civil War. Although his Holy Warre was first published before fighting broke out in 1642, his description of the Crusaders struggling with the armies of the infidel seemed to have a particular resonance for both sides in the increasingly bitter internecine war. Both the Royalist and Parliamentary causes saw the infidels, and enemies of the true faith, in their opponents. Allegory, history, and current events were thus inextricably bound together.

Popular histories of the Crusades also appeared in other European languages. But it was the turn of the twentieth century before Muslims came to write their own histories of the Crusades in the Levant. By then, Christian missionaries believed they had converted the concepts and vocabulary of “crusade” into a spiritual war on sin and evil. But now Muslims rediscovered the harsh consequences of the events of the eleventh century: the desecration and despoliation of their holy places. For them, the Crusades became a contemporary event, not something mellowed by the passage of 800 years. The Arabic word for Crusade and Crusaders—al-salibiyyun (“the people of the cross”)—was used in a translation of a French military history in 1865. The earliest full-scale text written in Arabic (and from Arabic sources), entitled The Splendid Story of the Crusading Wars, was published in Cairo by Sayyid Ali al-Hariri in 1899.50 The word for the Christian cross had existed in Arabic in earlier times, but it was not until the twentieth century that it acquired this new and hateful connotation.51 From that point onward, new meanings proliferated. The neologism al-salibiyyun came to mean protocolonialists, exploitative agents of Western imperialism, enemies of Arab nationhood and of Islam.52 New political meanings of the West merged with the older tropes of contamination and despoliation formed from the Muslim experience of the Crusades centuries before.

IT WAS NOT ONLY MUSLIMS WHO WERE REEVALUATING THE ERA OF the Crusades. France began a new “crusade of conquest” early in the nineteenth century. By the 1820s the French Bourbon monarchy had returned to power after the final defeat of the Napoleonic empire in 1815. Louis XVIII became preoccupied with North Africa, inheriting a tradition where his distant ancestors’ glory was associated with the East. An immensely popular Histoire des Croisades by Joseph-François Michaud had appeared in the latter years of the Napoleonic empire, and the author had been rewarded with the Légion d’Honneur for his efforts. But the restored Bourbons, especially Louis’s successor from 1824, Charles X, concurred with Michaud’s view that “what is the most positive of the results of the first crusade is the glory of our fathers, this glory which is a real achievement for a nation.”53 The Crusades rapidly became the first example of France’s national grandeur. Michaud’s work was constantly reprinted and led to an ambitious collection of original sources in five languages—Recueil des historiens des croisades—which began in 1824; further volumes appeared at regular intervals thereafter under the auspices of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. When King Charles X came to the Chamber of Deputies formally to announce intervention in Algeria, he justified it as “for the benefit of Christianity.”54 His ministers had calculated more cynically that success in North Africa might divert attention from the rising political crisis at home. It did not, and the Bourbon monarchy fell from power.

However, if Louis-Philippe, the victor of the 1830 Revolution, did not share his predecessor’s exalted Catholicism, he was nonetheless addicted to national glory. He saw a direct connection between the heroic France of the First Crusade and the triumphs of the new crusade and conquest in Algeria of the 1830s, in which his sons played an active part. The essence of this new crusade was later painted by Horace Vernet, a particular favorite of the new king, in The First Mass in Kabylia, which depicts a field service. The troops kneel respectfully as the celebrant holds up the host for them to see; symbolically the body and blood of Christ subdue the lowering mountains which form the background, while a group of Arabs sit sullenly in the foreground. In 1837, as the conquest advanced, Louis-Philippe began to remodel the great palace of Versailles to create a national history museum celebrating the many centuries of French military triumph. Vernet’s work would feature prominently among the vast canvases that covered the walls.

The first rooms of the king’s museum depicted the Crusades, with a mock-Gothic style of decoration and a long list of the French Crusaders, the first heroes for France. Then came the other great figures of French military history, culminating in Napoleon’s supreme achievement. But the story of glory continued after the emperor. The final galleries, the Salle de Constantine and the Salle de la Smalah, honored the new crusade in Algeria. The official guidebook to the museum left no doubt as to what was the message the visitor was intended to receive:

We there find again, after an interval of five hundred years, the French nation fertilising with its blood the burning plains studded with the tents of Islam. These are the heirs of Charles Martel, Godfrey de Bouillon, Robert Guiscard and Philip Augustus, resuming the unfinished labours of their ancestors. Missionaries and warriors, they every day extend the boundaries of Christendom.55

Soon a steady stream of colonists began to settle in the nascent French Proconsulate of Algeria, providing a Christianizing presence in a terrain formerly “infidel.” A diocese was created in Algiers in 1838, which became an archdiocese in 1866, with two subsidiary bishoprics at Constantine and Oran. Two years later a new missionary order called the White Fathers was founded with the aim of carrying the Christian message into Kabylia and south into the desert. Dressed in a white robe, or gandoura, with a mantle, they looked more like Algerian Arabs than Frenchmen. Under the direct authority of the Congregation of Propaganda in Rome, in their ardor, discipline, asceticism, and energy the White Fathers resembled the Jesuits in their exultant heyday centuries before.56

This preoccupation with North Africa survived Louis-Philippe, continued through the rule of Napoleon III, and on into the Third Republic that followed him. By the end of the nineteenth century, writers could look back at a constant extension of French conquest: in Algeria, in a French Protectorate of Tunisia, and in the French (and Spanish) partition of Morocco in the 1890s. The theme of the crusade remained popular. Michaud’s History had became a school textbook in 1844, with eighteen editions published by the end of the century, and in 1877 a new luxury edition appeared, which was illustrated with a set of magnificent engravings by Gustave Doré representing Christian power and dominance. This rhetoric and image of crusade in the first half of the nineteenth century was usually a mask for grubbier enterprises, but it is wrong to regard it with complete cynicism. French Algeria may have been a colony created first by accident, and then as a device to counter the unpopularity of successive governments in Paris. But many of the migrants to Algeria and even of the soldiers who fought there, and certainly the missionaries laboring in the deserts, often believed that they were following a higher calling. Nowhere else in the Islamic lands had there been such a reprise of the medieval Latin Kingdom. Once again a Christian community had been implanted among the infidels. All patriotic citizens of France should rejoice that their nation, which had won Jerusalem in the First Crusade, had now brought Christian power back to the southern shore of the Mediterranean. This had been the great mission of St. Louis, the nation’s patron saint, which was finally fulfilled some seven centuries after his death.

Nor did France ever intend to leave. Algeria became an integral part of metropolitan France, and its existence an exemplar of France’s civilization and cultural destiny. That “civilizing mission” was taught in every school in France and in the schools of the empire beyond the seas, and this unifying ideology gradually replaced the sectarian vocabulary of crusade, except in high Catholic circles. But support for French Algeria transcended the gulf between clericals and anticlericals. Many believed with an absolute conviction in France’s mission in North Africa and were prepared to use any means to sustain it. Other colonial territories, such as Indochina, could be abandoned or bargained away in the 1950s. Ironically, it was Algeria, the first fruit of the civilizing mission, a land reconquered by crusade, that ultimately destroyed the Fourth Republic and ushered in the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. The recriminations over the abandonment of l’Algérie française continue to this day.

If any one individual embodied the renaissance of the French spirit of crusade it was Charles de Foucauld. Born in 1858, orphaned in 1864, he later became an army officer. It was a natural career, for the names of his ancestors who had fought in the Crusades were inscribed on the walls of Louis-Philippe’s museum at Versailles. But he was a hopeless soldier, until he discovered a love of the desert and a zest for exploration. In 1887 his pioneering study, La reconnaissance au Maroc (“The Discovery of Morocco”), was published. Then two years later, still a hero in Paris, he entered a Trappist monastery and openly proclaimed his yearning for martyrdom. In 1901 he traveled as a missionary into the Sahara. Fifteen years later he was murdered, or as some claimed, martyred. This career, lurching from one extreme to another, echoes that of the young Englishman T. E. Lawrence. However, there was a direction to Foucauld’s erratic path. Like his ancestors, he was driven by many forces, but strongest was a true spiritual crusading zeal, lacking in Lawrence. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, the ideal of the crusade had become an antiquarian interest, or the subject of rousing tales for boys, such as the novelist G. A. Henty’s successful For the Temple: A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem (1904).57

THE VOCABULARY AND IDEOLOGY OF “CRUSADE” SOMETIMES CAME just as easily to Christians engaged in war against Muslims as the terminology of jihad came to Muslims resisting them. In neither case were theory and practice very close. No pope ever authorized France’s “crusade” in North Africa in the 1830s and many of the jihads called against the Europeans in the same region were technically dubious in the eyes of the Ottoman religious authorities in Constantinople. By that point both Christian and Muslim holy wars looked back to their earlier origins but had moved beyond them. The language of holy war had become a means of mobilization, unconstrained by the limits of law. Talking of either “crusade” or jihad sounded a powerful chord, an irresistible call to arms. It was a deep conditioned memory of fanatical zeal and heroism given new life each time its language and ideology were revived. By the modern era, it was no longer a matter of what either word meant in precise legalistic terms, but rather the response that each of them called forth.

The encounters between Christendom and “Islam” in Spain and in the Levant were very different. In the Levant, Western Christendom intervened in an area that already had a long Christian tradition and a large Christian population, albeit one largely indistinguishable, to Western eyes, from the Muslims. In Spain, it was the position of “Islam” that changed, from victor to vanquished. The Moriscos became a feared and despised remnant in a Christian state that ultimately found their presence intolerable. The confrontation between French glory and Muslim resistance in North Africa was a synthetic crusade. In the Balkans, the third area where “Islam” met Christendom, the situation was different again. Only on one level—in the encounter between two religious faiths—was the position strictly comparable. Everything else—languages, history, and ethnicities—was different. But if there are few direct connections, there are at least suggestive parallels. In the Balkans, many local Christians in Albania and Bosnia converted to Islam, just as Christians had done in Spain in the first centuries after the Muslim conquest. In the Levant, after the mass conversions that followed the Muslim conquest, the local Christians preserved their own culture and faith largely intact. Orthodox Christians suffered more under the Latin Crusaders than they did under Islam.

All of these regions were detached from Europe. (If the Pyrenees do not now seem a daunting barrier, they did in earlier times.)58 The Levant was unquestionably part of the East, “belonging” to Europe only in a metaphysical sense. But the Balkans were Europe’s wild frontier, on the perimeter but nonetheless integral.59 By the sixteenth century the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans seemed a cancerous intrusion within the natural bounds of Christendom. The geographer Abraham Ortelius reflected a widely held view when he wrote, “For Christians, see Europeans,” in the 1587 edition of his Thesaurus geographicus.60 The reemphasis of the idea of Christendom (even though irretrievably divided by the Protestant Reformation) was generated by the threat from Islam. The constant fear of Ottoman incursions across an open frontier made the Turks’ possession of these formerly Christian lands a real menace.

From the last quarter of the sixteenth century, even if there was no war between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, almost every year Tartar bands slipped across the border from Hungary and raided as far west as Steyr in western Austria. Like the conflict in the Mediterranean, which was punctuated by great battles such as Lepanto, this new enmity was never ending. The struggle with Islam in the Balkans, within the body of Europe, became more virulent than any earlier encounters. All the weight of anti-Islamic propaganda, such as the fiery orations of the seventeenth-century Austrian divine Abraham à Sancta Clara, of the hundreds of books and pamphlets directed against the Turks, constituted a sustained attack unlike any which had been deployed before. Thus, the Balkans became the mise en scène for the final act of Europe’s encounter with “Islam,” a last “crusade.” Unfortunately, the long-run consequences of that antagonism have outlived the Ottomans.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!