During the eleventh and twelfth centuries Latin Christendom – the area that employed the Latin rite and looked to Rome for ecclesiastical and spiritual leadership – had grown phenomenally. Around 900 it had comprised little more than the Carolingian empire (present-day France, Germany and northern Italy) and the British Isles, and had been under frequent attack by non-Christian peoples from the surrounding territories, Vikings, Muslims and Hungarians. But by 1100 this defensive phase had given way to one of pronounced expansion. The slow reduction of Muslim territory in Spain was now under way. From the former Carolingian dominions, Norman knights had wrested Sicily from the Muslims, while monks and secular clerics carried the Christian faith into the territories of their Scandinavian, Slavic and Hungarian neighbours. Instrumental in the success of Latin Christians’ campaigns of conquest were the heavily-armed and mailed horseman – the knight (miles) – and the crossbow (arbalista); physically symbolic of their newly-implanted domination was the castle. The twelfth century was also an era of economic growth. Internal colonization of waste land was matched by external, as knights and settlers, both burghers and agriculturists, pushed forward into new lands beyond the frontiers of Christian rule, transporting with them to regions as far afield as the Iberian peninsula and the Baltic the legal and tenurial institutions to which they were accustomed at home. Enterprising Western merchants, notably those of Venice, Genoa and Pisa, devised new techniques of credit and investment to support commercial ventures that took them to the furthest shores of the Mediterranean.

The most spectacular instance of Latin expansion was the movement now known as the First Crusade, by which a motley force of ‘Franks’ – knights from France, the western borderlands of Germany, and Norman-ruled southern Italy – wrested from Muslim hands in 1098–9 a narrow strip of the Syrian–Palestinian coastline, including the Holy City of Jerusalem, and established a small and vulnerable network of Latin states. These newly-founded polities – the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch, and the counties of Edessa and Tripoli – became an integral part of the Latin world, and their fate a matter of vital concern to Christians throughout Western Europe. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the assertion of Western dominance over the Mediterranean sea-lanes by Venetians, Pisans and Genoese – and to a lesser extent by the men of other ports like Marseilles and Barcelona – served to underpin the survival of these distant Latin outposts in Syria and Palestine.

What gave some structural unity to the extensive tract that comprised Latin Christendom was above all the Latin Church, presided over by the pope. Between the Gregorian Reform of the late eleventh century and the pontificate of Innocent III (1198–1216), the prestige and influence of the papacy grew enormously. Widespread and mounting support within the ranks of the laity combined with the allegiance of the clergy, the labours of three generations of canon lawyers, and increasingly frequent recourse to letters, legates and councils, to turn papal authority into a reality that impinged alike on the ambitions of kings and on the lives of ordinary Christians. Already in the first half of the twelfth century the papal Curia was on the way to becoming the supreme juridical body in Latin Christendom. It was the nascent Reformed Papacy that had reaped the credit for the stupendous triumph of the First Crusade, launched by Pope Urban II in 1095; just over a hundred years later (1199) Innocent III registered his authority over the Church by introducing, in support of the crusade, universal taxation of ecclesiastical revenues.

An especial boost to the power of the papacy and the cohesion of Latin Christendom was the rise, around the beginning of the twelfth century, of international religious orders which looked to Rome for guidance and direction. The Cistercian monks, founded in 1098, and the Premonstratensian canons, who emerged in c.1115, were active in the settlement and exploitation of new lands in Eastern Europe; from their ranks, too, came many of the bishops who presided over the newly-founded dioceses. The military orders, of whom the earliest to emerge were the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers of St John, were warrior monks, whose primary duty was the protection and care of Christians and the defence of Christian territory. They were intimately associated with the crusading movement, and their headquarters were in the Holy Land; but gifts and bequests furnished them with property and income in virtually every part of the Latin world. The later twelfth century witnessed the appearance of other military orders, notably the Teutonic Knights (1198), who in 1226 were granted a foothold in Poland in return for defending the country against the heathen Prussians. In the early thirteenth century the mendicant orders, or friars, were founded by St Francis (d. 1226) and St Dominic (d. 1221), with the support of Innocent III. The Franciscans and Dominicans, whose members were dedicated to poverty and preaching, were well placed to spread the Gospel not merely within Latin Christendom but beyond its frontiers; in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, St Francis in person attempted to expound the Christian message to the Egyptian Sultan. Friars are also found at a relatively early date acting as agents of the papacy, and from 1234 were employed as crusade preachers. It was no accident that in 1245 the first papal emissaries to the pagan Mongols would be chosen from their ranks.

Enemies and coreligionists

Confronting expansionist Latin Christendom were two types of opponent. In northern Europe the pagan territories into which Western knights and peasants advanced belonged to polytheists – Slavs (‘Wends’) or Baltic races like the Prussians, Livonians and Estonians. The rhetoric and (such as it was) the machinery of crusade were extended to these theatres during the twelfth century. The Baltic Crusade began in earnest in 1199; and from the late 1230s the German Drang nach Osten in the Baltic was spearheaded by the Teutonic Knights. In these regions the enemy was characterized by looser forms of political organization and by a lower level of economic and technological development. By the early thirteenth century the balance was shifting, as native princes copied the methods and borrowed the weaponry of their Latin opponents. Frequently they secured their future by accepting baptism for themselves and their subjects and ranging themselves alongside their erstwhile opponents in the work of crusade and evangelism. Their admission to the family of Latin Christian rulers was accompanied by the adoption of Latin as the language of faith and government. Their policies came to mirror those practised in Christian states of longer standing, like Hungary, whose kings were enhancing their military power and potential revenues by encouraging the immigration of substantial numbers of French knights and clerics and French and German artisans.

In the south, in the Mediterranean region, Latin Christians faced an adversary of an altogether different calibre. This was the world of Islam, a faith still more uncompromising in its monotheism than was Christianity. The days of government by a universal Caliphate were long past, and its former territories, stretching from Morocco to northern India, were divided among a plethora of rulers of different dynasties and races – Arabs, Berbers, Persians, Kurds and Turks. Some of these states attained a considerable size, like the empire of the Seljük Turks, which embraced Persia, Iraq and Anatolia (Rūm) for a few decades prior to its disintegration in the early twelfth century; the branch of the dynasty that ruled Anatolia was still an important power in the early thirteenth. The fiction of a single Islamic polity was maintained. The majority of Muslim princes acknowledged the ʿAbbasid Caliph at Baghdad as the source of their authority, seeking from him diplomas that granted them the status of his lieutenants and naming him, in return, on the coinage and in the public Friday prayers. The long-established exception to this, of course, was the Shīʿa. But in fact there had been no major Shīʿī polity since 1171. Even the leaders of the Ismāʿīlī Shīʿīs who held out in the mountainous regions of northern Persia and of Syria, the so-called Assassins, abandoned their religious claims early in the thirteenth century, adopted ‘Orthodox’ (Sunnī) Islam and entered into friendly relations with the ʿAbbasids (although this was widely taken to be an example of the Ismāʿīlī practice of taqiyya, ‘dissimulation’).5 On the other hand, a significant cleavage loomed early in the thirteenth century, with the growth of tension between the caliph and the powerful rulers of Khwārazm (the Khwārazmshāhs), who had overthrown the last Seljük Sultan of Persia in 1194; and in c.1216 the quarrel peaked when the Khwārazmshāh ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad proclaimed the deposition of the ʿAbbasids, setting up a rival caliph and mounting an abortive expedition against Baghdad.

Yet for all this the Islamic world (Dār al-Islām), unlike the northern European pagans, was still characterized by a unity which more or less paralleled that of Latin Christendom. It possessed a cultural cohesion which was reinforced by the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing together Muslims from territories as diverse as Morocco, Anatolia and present-day Afghanistan. It also boasted a higher standard of economic development. No city in Western Europe could as yet compete with Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo or Baghdad in wealth; even places like Acre and Tyre, in Latin-held Palestine, which were worth considerable sums to their rulers on account of the great volume of trade that passed through them, were not comparable. Access to such wealth enabled the Muslims to inflict major reverses on the Latin cause in the Near East, as demonstrated in the overthrow of the county of Edessa in 1144 or in the decisive defeat of the Frankish army at Hattin in 1187 by Saladin (Salāh al-Dīn Yūsuf), which was followed by the loss of Jerusalem. Although the Third Crusade had secured a new lease of life for the beleaguered Latin states of Jerusalem, Antioch and Tripoli by 1192, its achievements did not include the recovery of the Holy City; and relations with Saladin’s dynasty, the Ayyubids of Egypt and Syria, were henceforward marked by a series of truces. The most notorious of these truces was that made in 1229 – in the course of a crusade which apparently did not strike a single blow against the Muslims – between the Emperor Frederick II and the Egyptian Sultan al-Kāmil. By the terms of this agreement, the city of Jerusalem (for a mere fifteen years, as it transpired) largely passed back into Frankish hands.

There was one further point of contrast between the Muslims and the pagans of northern Europe. The Muslims, who possessed their own revealed religion and sacred scriptures, proved far more impervious to Christian missionary endeavours than did the Latins’ weaker opponents in the Baltic. Muslim slaves in Latin Syria and Palestine, prisoners of war with little hope of repatriation to their own communities, might seek baptism; not so Muslim princes. From time to time rumours would spread of the imminent conversion of some Muslim ruler, perhaps one born of a Christian mother. The outcome was always disappointing, as in 1234, when the Seljük Sultan of Rūm corresponded on the subject with the Pope in the hope of Latin military assistance against his Ayyubid neighbours, or in 1239–40, when the alleged willingness of the Ayyubid prince of Hamā to embrace the rival faith occasioned great excitement in the ranks of a crusading army but proved to be merely a ploy directed against his kinsmen. Yet the Catholic hierarchy did not abandon the hope that baptism might turn enemies into allies.

To the Muslims, successive attacks by European crusaders and the stubborn resistance of the Latin settlements on the Syro-Palestinian coast represented little more than a localized malaise alongside reverses on Islam’s eastern frontier from the third decade of the twelfth century to the middle of the thirteenth. During the 1120s, a semi-nomadic people of (probably) Mongolian stock, the Khitan, in flight from northern China, established an empire in Central Asia. The new power, known as the Qara-(‘Black’) Khitan, asserted its paramountcy over several Muslim princes, and when in 1141 the Great Seljük Sultan Sanjar moved to the aid of his coreligionists he suffered a crushing defeat in Transoxiana. This was the first occasion on which a significant proportion of the Dār al-Islām (that is, discounting Sicily and parts of Spain) had passed back under the dominion of the infidel. In time the Qara-Khitan would come to seem like the harbinger of much more formidable eastern conquerors, the Mongols, who subjugated Islamic Central Asia, Persia, Iraq and Anatolia in a series of invasions from the 1220s onwards.

For Latin Christians, on the other hand, the Muslims, prior to the 1240s, were the most dangerous enemy that they had to face. Admittedly, relations between Frankish knights and Muslim lords in Syria were on occasions cordial. Muslim warriors like the Turks might command a grudging admiration; stories circulated that endowed Saladin with the characteristics of a Frankish knight. Following his crusade, the Emperor Frederick maintained friendly relations with Cairo right down to his death, addressing to the scholars at the Sultan’s court questions on mathematics and scientific subjects. But generally speaking there was little understanding of the faith of Islam – indeed its nature was greatly distorted – and no real awareness of sectarian differences among Muslims before the thirteenth century. What mattered above all was that pagans were wrong and Christians were right, as the ‘Song of Roland’ put it, and in the last analysis the most appropriate medium of dialogue was the sword. Islam’s territories might be wealthier than the lands of Christendom; its culture, steeped in the learning of Classical Antiquity, might seem superior. Yet there could be no doubt of the debased nature of the Muslims, who insulted Christ by polluting the Holy Places and persecuting His people. There was a growing conviction, moreover, that the final demise of Islam – and with it the Last Things – were close at hand. This is often associated with the labyrinthine Biblical exegesis of the Calabrian hermit Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202), which may have had no impact on wider currents of thought until the second half of the thirteenth century. But even Pope Innocent III, who did not view Joachim’s speculations with favour, appears to have endorsed the belief that Islam would collapse within a matter of decades, a conviction shared also within eastern Christian churches. And when Gregory IX issued the first bull authorizing the missionary friars to preach to pagan nations in 1235, he chose to begin with the evocative phrase Cum hora undecima (‘Since the eleventh hour …’).

During the eleventh century the very term Christianitas, which had originally denoted the Christian faith, was acquiring a new territorial significance, as ‘Christendom’ came to mean the lands occupied by Christians and the society they comprised. But its content increasingly hinged on the use of the Latin rite and the recognition of the primacy of Rome; there was less and less room for variant (or, as they would have been seen, deviant) practices, and in the peripheral regions of the Catholic world immigrant clerics refashioned indigenous Christian usage to bring it into line with the metropolitan tradition. With Christians outside Latin territory who belonged to traditions altogether different from their own, the relations of Western Christians were somewhat diverse. Those with the Greek Orthodox hierarchy were the most problematic of all. Despite the so-called ‘schism’ of 1054, the Greeks and the Latins, as distinct from the separated churches of the east, still constituted, juridically speaking, a single entity. It is therefore more accurate to speak of Latin and Greek ‘forms’ and ‘usages’ than of different churches; but, as within Western Europe, the Latin hierarchy was increasingly disposed to be impatient of such variation. Moreover, crusading activities in the Near East had served to embitter relations between Greek and Latin. In Antioch, a formerly Byzantine city that should have been restored to the emperor in 1098, the Greek patriarch was replaced by a Westerner: thereafter a succession of Greek patriarchs promulgated their claims in exile at Constantinople. On the Latin side, resentment and jealousy of the magnificence of Constantinople and suspicion of a multi-faceted imperial foreign policy combined with differences in language, creed, liturgy and practice to nurture the view of the Greeks as ‘false’ Christians, decadent, treacherous and less than wholehearted in their devotion to the war on Christ’s behalf.

As the power of the Byzantine empire atrophied from the late twelfth century onwards, Western rulers began to encroach upon its territories. In 1191, during the Third Crusade, Richard I of England wrested Cyprus from a rebel Greek governor. The island became a Latin possession, and remained so until its conquest by the Ottomans in 1571; from 1197 its Frankish ruler wore a crown which had been conferred on him by the Western Emperor. In 1204 the Fourth Crusade, diverted from its official goal, went on to sack Constantinople itself, and most of Byzantine Greece in turn passed into the hands of Latin lords and knights. Those territories not appropriated by Venice, which had played a prominent role in the crusade, recognized the nominal suzerainty of a Latin emperor at Constantinople; the region became known to the Latins as ‘Romania’. Only a rump of the once great Byzantine polity – the despotate of Epirus in the west and the empires of Nicaea and Trebizond in Anatolia – held out under Greek rulers. In time it became apparent that Nicaea was more than a match for the feeble Latin empire, though the Nicaean Emperor did not recover Constantinople until 1261. Well before that, the popes had begun to negotiate with the Nicaean government for the recognition of papal primacy.

In time, the Latins likewise encroached upon other lands that belonged to the Greek Orthodox world. In 1217 the ruler of Serbia accepted the Latin rite and Roman primacy in return for coronation by a papal legate. Just prior to the Fourth Crusade, the Vlach ruler of Bulgaria, a kingdom which had received its Christianity from Constantinople some centuries earlier, had made the same exchange. But he subsequently repudiated the union and allied with Nicaea, so that from 1238 the papacy tried to induce the Hungarian king Béla IV to lead a crusade against him. It is hard to gauge the impact of the fall of Byzantium upon the Orthodox Rus′; the account of the Fourth Crusade in the Novgorod Chronicle is remarkably free of polemic. But during the early thirteenth century Western expansionism was bringing the Rus′ into conflict with the Latins on their own account. To the south, the Hungarian kingdom intervened in the disputes among rival candidates for the principality of Galicia (Halych); in the Baltic, aggression by Swedes, Danes and Germans provoked the opposition of the rulers of Novgorod. Competition for fisheries, furs, the products of the forest, and the tribute of Finnish tribes exacerbated a growing consciousness of the same differences in rite and practice that we noticed in Latin–Byzantine relations. Russian strongpoints were seized, like Iur′ev, which under German occupation became Dorpat (1224). Rus′ resistance to the Western advance in territories of mutual interest would in time provoke the wrath of Pope Gregory IX and the authorization of a crusade against them in 1237. Even prior to this the papacy had manifested a concern to bring the Rus′ into the Catholic fold. When they were suddenly attacked and defeated by a new power in the southern steppes in 1223, Pope Honorius III appears to have hoped that the reverse would dispose them to welcome closer links with Rome.

The Greek Orthodox, of course, were only one Christian group among many in the eastern Mediterranean. Latin-ruled Syria and Palestine contained not only an Orthodox population but also large numbers of Jacobite (Monophysite) Christians. Although the situation of these eastern Christians was clearly preferable to that of the Muslim majority of the subject population, they were still in some sense second-class citizens. The Franks’ occupation of Jerusalem had also brought them into closer contact than hitherto with Christians of other churches who made the pilgrimage to the Holy City, such as the Egyptian Copts and the Ethiopians. More importantly, it had introduced them to the far-flung world of Nestorian Christianity, which was centred on Iraq and had put down roots in Central Asia, present-day Mongolia and China in the eighth century; though the West did not really become aware of the Nestorian world and its geographical extent until the time of the Fifth Crusade (1218–21).

Down to the early thirteenth century, however, the Latin hierarchy was generally content to leave to eastern Christians the task of converting their pagan neighbours. And there were breakthroughs in relations with these separated churches. The Maronite Christians of the Lebanon entered into union with Rome in 1182, and in 1198 the prince of Lesser Armenia (Cilicia), a region that had close relations with Frankish Antioch, accepted a crown from the pope and brought his people, theoretically at least, into the Roman obedience. Some Christian groups, like the Georgians and Armenians, had not been subject to Muslim government, and here a shared tradition of warfare undoubtedly helped to foster respect on the part of the Latins. Mutual esteem increased, perhaps, with distance. It was natural that the Syrian Franks should entertain harmonious relations with the remote kingdom of Georgia, which during the twelfth century was engaged in its own conspicuously successful struggle with Muslim powers in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and that popes discussed with successive Georgian monarchs their participation in the war in Syria. In 1220 Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, who was with the army of the Fifth Crusade in the Nile delta, pinned greater hope on Georgian intervention than on reinforcements from the West. To judge at least from their historical writing, the Monophysites of the Coptic Church in Egypt felt no marked affinity with the Franks who tried to conquer their country and liberate them from Muslim rule, either in the Fifth Crusade (1218–21) or in the Seventh (1249–50), headed by Louis IX of France (St Louis). But as regards other eastern Christians the prospects seemed more promising. In 1237 Philip, Dominican prior of the Holy Land, reported enthusiastically to Pope Gregory IX that the Jacobite patriarch and the head of the Nestorian communities, the catholicus, were ready to repudiate past errors and acknowledge papal primacy. Both prelates had in fact made only personal professions of faith; there was no question of entering corporately into union with Rome. For Philip, however, only the Greeks now remained obstinately outside the Catholic fold.


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