The First Crusade: A New History, The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam
Thomas Asbridge
Oxford University Press ($35)

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
Jonathan Phillips
Viking Press ($25.95)

by Summer Block

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By any standard, the First Crusade was an almost miraculous military success. Hounded by disease and starvation, debilitated by thirst and weakness, without adequate horses or weapons, and woefully outnumbered and on foreign soil, the crusaders managed one astounding victory after another, finally conquering Jerusalem with fewer than 15,000 men. In stark contrast, the Fourth Crusade was a shameful failure: burdened with debt and rife with internal divisions, the crusaders never even made it to Jerusalem, instead laying waste to the city of Constantinople and ruthlessly slaughtering its Christian inhabitants. Yet the very ideals that led the crusaders to victory in the eleventh century would lead to astonishing acts of brutality and cowardice in the thirteenth.

The First Crusade devotes much of its more than 300 pages to the idea of holy warfare as developed in the period leading up to the official beginning of the Crusade in 1095. By the time Pope Urban II embarked on his preaching tour of France, stirring up enthusiasm for the liberation of Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers, Western Europe was eager to answer the call. The military leader Bohemond responded to news of the crusade with typical fervor—“calling for his most lavishly wrought cloak to be brought forth, he had this treasured garment cut to pieces in front of an astonished assembly” and made into a series of small fabric crosses, one of which he displayed on his sleeve, prompting his rapt audience to take up the rest and imitate him. All over Europe, peasants and knights alike were inflamed by the rhetoric of clerics and popular preachers like Peter the Hermit and leapt to take up arms and head east. An unruly group of peasants and some knights dubbed “The People’s Crusade” were so enthused, they set out ahead of schedule and nearly threw the crusade off course with their lawless rampaging.

Several modern historians have tried to explain away the First Crusade as a greedy move to seize booty and property, a calculating political move on the part of Pope Urban II to consolidate the power of the papacy, or even as a way to rid war-plagued Europe of a class of roving and dissolute knights. There is more than a little truth to all these things—but as Thomas Asbridge makes plain, deeply held religious belief cannot be discarded as a genuine motivation for many. As he explains, “Medieval minds were plagued by one overwhelming anxiety: the danger of sin.” Sin was not an abstract concept or a cleric’s scold but a real and terrifying affliction. Priests and monks could hope to escape this stifling burden by lives of asceticism, but what hope did a knight have? His very profession was violence, whether on the battlefield or in tournaments—his only choice was to abandon his family, his livelihood, and his duties to his lord to become cloistered, or else wallow daily in pollution and worry desperately over the punishments that awaited him in the next life—demons, tortures, and eternal exile from grace. In The Fourth Crusade, Jonathan Phillips will emphasize that “Religion saturated the medieval period in a way that is hard for us to comprehend.”

The crusades offered an exhilarating possibility—violence done in the name of the Lord would allow a knight to offer his services in pursuit of salvation, achieving both worldly prominence and spiritual assurance. No wonder thousands upon thousands looked at the crusade as a truly God-sent opportunity.

Furthermore, a wise knight would certainly think twice before joining up in order to make a fortune or secure new lands in the east. Asbridge estimates that the average knight would spend about five times his annual income on the trip, and much of what he found in the Holy City would be spent on the return journey, if he were lucky enough to have one. For most, the prospect was truly terrifying—leaving family and friends behind to risk life and property in a dangerous and unpredictable foreign land. Phillips dwells on the emotional cost of the journey, parting from beloved children and spouses, leaving unprotected women and children to defend their homes in a lawless time. Only heartfelt belief in the promise of spiritual redemption would motivate many to make the trek. To those fears, the Fourth Crusade added the dangers of a naval approach; for most crusaders, the prospect of a sea voyage was nearly as foreign and as startling as space travel today.

One question a contemporary might have offered to Pope Urban II was, why now? Muslims had held Jerusalem since 638, almost four hundred years earlier. But following the Investiture Controversy of 1075 (in which Pope Gregory VII, Urban’s predecessor, began a program to reform the weak and corrupt Church), the papacy entered a period of expansion, everywhere testing the limits of its worldly authority. Following in Gregory’s footsteps, Urban envisioned the Roman pope as the most powerful figure in the Christian world, the mouthpiece of God, with armies and kings at his command. Retaking Jerusalem (in the medieval mind, the “navel of the world,” the spiritual and geographic center of the universe) would forever cement the Latin Church as the ultimate arbiter of temporal and religious justice.

Rightly horrified by the callousness the crusaders showed toward their Muslim enemies, many modern commentators have focused on the racist and anti-Islamic sentiments of the Franks (as the crusaders are collectively called). Urban and others stirred up public sentiment with graphic—and oftentimes, wholly false—stories of the atrocities committed by Muslims in Jerusalem, including supposedly slitting open the heels of the poor to search for secreted gold as payment for the exorbitant taxes Christians paid to enter their holy city as pilgrims. But as Asbridge points out, “there is little or no evidence to suggest that either side harbored any innate, empowering religious or racial hatred of the other.” Certainly conflicts did sometimes occur, namely under the rule of the “Mad Caliph Hakim” (who was disavowed by his own people for his destructive and blasphemous behavior) and in response to the Islamic conquest of Iberia (parts of modern-day Spain and Portugal). But regular truce and trade continued, and Christians and Muslims lived in détente for most of the history of the Islamic faith.

Cynics often point to the unchecked greed and violence of the Crusades as proof of the fundamentally hypocritical nature of the Roman Church, its advocacy of war and conquest in direct contradiction of Jesus’ many pacifist teachings. In fact, even in the chaotic medieval period, many of the faithful were well aware of the shaky foundations of a holy war. Urban (and Gregory before him) labored hard to provide a theological framework that could support the idea of crusade, marshalling biblical and historical evidence and citing the precedents set by church fathers like St. Augustine. “Between the age of St. Augustine and the council of Clermont,” Asbridge explains, “western Christendom gradually became acculturated to the concept of sanctified violence.” Gregory VII employed subtle rhetorical shifts to ease the faithful into the idea of religious warfare. “Centuries earlier, patristic theologians had described the internal, spiritual battle waged against sin by devoted Christians as the ‘warfare of Christ’,” rhetoric Gregory manipulated: “he proclaimed that all lay society had one overriding obligation: to defend the Latin Church as ‘soldiers of Christ’ through actual, physical warfare.”

Over time, this language found its way into sermons, coupled with tales of supposed Muslim atrocities and the suffering of Christians in faraway lands. It was for Urban to go the final step, offering crusaders remission of all sins and a guarantee of eternal life. “For the first time,” Asbridge concludes, “fighting in the name of God and the pope brought with it a spiritual reward that was at once readily conceivable and deeply compelling: a real chance to walk through the fires of battle and emerge unsullied by sin.”

Even Urban was likely surprised by the sheer number and diversity of respondents, including large numbers of women, children, the poor and elderly, as well as the aristocratic knights to whom Urban originally pitched his message. Crusaders came from all over western Christendom, speaking a garbled mix of German, Italian, English, and French (then separated into two distinct dialects). In the end, around 7,000 knights set off for the Holy Land, along with 35,000 infantry and as perhaps as many as 60,000 civilians.

Over the course of the next four years, this group would lay siege first to Antioch and then to Jerusalem itself, against tremendous odds and despite truly staggering rates of attrition. By the time the crusaders crossed modern-day Turkey, “perhaps half of those who had left Europe had been lost to battle, disease, and starvation.” Starvation during the siege of Antioch would drive the poor to eat animal hides, shoe leather, and “the seeds of grain found in manure,” according to chronicler Fulcher of Chartres. Cannibalism was not unheard of—an expediency that put terror in the hearts of the Muslims who heard of it. Yet as the crusade progressed, “the crusaders had been reduced to a battle-hardened core—their army was dominated by an increasingly elite infantry force of well-armed, ferocious knights” who fought on foot after their horses were lost. Each narrow victory encouraged those who remained to view themselves as protected by God.

But what of the Islamic response to this rhetoric? Like many western historians, Asbridge focuses primarily on the Christian mindset. Yet one might well ask, what caused the Muslims, far greater in number and on their home turf, to yield so readily to the crusading forces? The answer seems to be twofold: warring internal factions within Islam prevented the Muslims from acting as a unified force, while the poor military leadership of the general Kerbogha left his soldiers open to attack after attack. Paralyzed with indecision, Kerbogha and other leaders choose to simply delay any action at all, while the fervently inspired crusaders continued unabated. Decades later, it would be factionalism and poor leadership that let Constantinople fall prey to a small number of western invaders.

Despite its subtitle, The First Crusade offers little explicit comment on the state of Christian/Islamic affairs today. To say that the First Crusade laid the foundation for East/West relations in the years to come is too simplistic, especially considering that further trade and cooperation with Muslim nations would follow the attack on Jerusalem in short order—the cycles of cooperation, violence, and then cooperation again continued roughly from the birth of Islam through the modern era. But parallels are easy to draw, and Asbridge is wise to use a light touch rather than hammer home an obvious agenda. The reader will find plenty to stimulate discussion on the subjects of religious extremism, Islamic factionalism, or terrorism (the medieval military model in the both the East and West relied heavily on committing atrocious acts to strike fear into the heart of the adversary—it was common, for instance, to catapult the heads of captives into or out of besieged cities). Asbridge, who walked the path of the crusaders himself, has a dramatic sense of place and a quick, rhythmic approach to storytelling—he lets the facts speak for themselves rather than drawing too many conclusions.

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By the time of the Fourth Crusade, more than a century had passed. Jerusalem was again in Muslim hands, recaptured by the renowned general Saladin. Two intervening crusades met with disaster—the Second Crusade culminated in the failed siege of Damascus, abandoned after only four days; the Third ended in a truce that still left Jerusalem squarely in Muslim hands. Perhaps the novelty that helped galvanize the leaders of the First Crusade had simply worn off, but crusades were now a costly fact of medieval life. Pope Innocent III called for the Fourth Crusade in 1198 to retake Jerusalem, but it would be another four years before the ill-fated trip commenced.

Having decided to journey to the Holy Land by sea, the crusaders approached the wealthy merchants in Venice for assistance, for the Venetians enjoyed both an unrivaled expertise in maritime matters and apparently limitless resources. A contract was drawn up whereby the crusaders agreed to pay a set sum (85,000 marks, or twice the annual income of the kings of France or England) with the intention of summoning 33,500 participants who would each pay a portion to cover their expenses. When only 12,000 crusaders showed up in Venice in the summer of 1202, the Franks feared disaster.

Unable to cover their costs, the crusaders made their first fateful error—they agreed to conquer the Christian city of Zara, a longtime rival of Venice, in exchange for a temporary remission of their debts. Appalled at the idea of turning on fellow Christians, Innocent III absolutely forbade the attack on Zara and threatened those responsible for the pillage with excommunication. But to turn back meant foregoing the trip to Jerusalem, breaking their sacred vow as crusaders and pilgrims, and therefore also endangering their salvation. In a dreadful predicament, the bulk of the crusaders agreed to hand over Zara, while some fled or conveniently absented themselves from the scene.

From this point on, the Fourth Crusade became increasingly mired in politics and dirty dealing, pulled further and further from its original course to Jerusalem. When the deposed prince of Constantinople approached the crusaders with an offer of money, resources, and the religious fealty of the Greek Orthodox Church to the Latin pontiff in exchange for laying siege to the great city and reinstating him as the rightful ruler, the Franks decided it was their only chance to continue the mission. Since the Great Schism that separated eastern and western Christians in 1054, Constantinople had been the jewel of the Byzantine empire, a seat of piety and learning, filled with countless priceless works of devotional art. In July of 1203, the Franks camped outside the “the greatest metropolis in the Christian world,” a stunning urban wonderland with a population nearly seven times that of medieval Paris or Venice.

In the face of the opposition, the Byzantine emperor Alexius III appeared to be what we might today term “in denial,” almost pathologically unable to face the threat that approached. While the crusaders set up siege engines and camps, Alexius busied himself attending dinner parties and landscaping. He even left the corn harvest stacked up outside the city walls, a gift to the invading army. Trapped at last between the crusaders on one side and an angry mob of his own citizens on the other, he fled the city. A series of coups followed, each intrigue involving the Franks in further wickedness, culminating in the conquest of Constantinople in the spring of 1204.

The mayhem that was unleashed is almost too terrible to contemplate: infants, the elderly, and priests savagely murdered; young women and nuns raped and tortured. Almost more horrible to the deeply religious (some would say superstitious) Greek people, the Franks melted down venerated church objects for the precious metals and jewels, even stealing treasure from the graves of revered patriarchs. The stately church of Hagia Sophia was soon filled with animal dung, prostitutes, and drunken thieves using altars as tables and benches. Not even the fabled Muslim “savages” were accused of such acts as the Christians performed. All the while, the pope was powerless to act, his letters often arriving months after the fact and virtually ignored. Later Pope John Paul II would issue a formal apology in 2001, but many in the Eastern Orthodox churches still remember the sack of Constantinople with rancor. One can easily trace the path that leads from Urban II’s rallying cries—demonizing the infidel “other,” exhorting crusaders to press on against all odds—to the slaughter of Christian brethren in one of the most prominent seats of the Christian faith.

Both Asbridge and Phillips go into more fascinating depth than can be summarized here, including details of medieval siege warfare (though additional pictures would have proved helpful for some of the more arcane methods). Maps are helpful additions to Asbridge’s text; Phillips would have done well to include more diagrams to illustrate his careful narrative reconstruction of Constantinople in the thirteenth century. Both authors enliven the sometimes dry enumeration of battles and sieges with amusing glimpses into medieval life (a visit by the king of Nubia affords the awed crusaders their first view of a black man; Godfrey of Bouillon suffers injuries when “attacked by a savage bear”), though Asbridge maintains the livelier tone.

In the admirable attempt to be even-handed, both authors are so accommodating of multiple critical viewpoints that it’s hard at times to find their theses. Phillips and Asbridge do an excellent job of summarizing extremely complex motives and missions in clear, accessible language, but there is little new material presented. Asbridge in particular is a valuable guide to medieval history, psychology, and politics, but better suited to those with little background in the subject.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005