“What is the function of orderly knighthood?” wrote the twelfth-century English philosopher John of Salisbury. “To protect the Church, to fight against treachery, to reverence the priesthood, to fend off injustice from the poor, to make peace in your own province, to shed blood for your brethren, and if needs must, to lay down your life.” This was a splendid ideal, often put into practice during the Middle Ages. It lingers still in the army-officer tradition of France and Germany, in the public-school tradition of England. To medieval men, knighthood was more than a career; it was a spiritual and emotional substructure for an entire way of life
The medieval art of war found its great exemplification in the crusades. The organization of an expeditionary force calls into question familiar logistics; the prosecution of a distant war demands new strategies and tactics; out of battles with strange foes in far lands emerge new weapons, new techniques of warfare. The crusaders learned much from the Byzantines’ well-drilled, professional infantry, from their advanced weaponry and engineering. The crusaders’ vast castles in the Levant were constructed according to traditional Byzantine principles of fortification.
The crusades were a great historical novelty; they were the first wars fought for an ideal. Naturally the ideal was promptly corrupted and falsified. But the fact remains that the crusades were conceived as a service to the Christian God, and the crusaders thought themselves, at least intermittently, the consecrated servants of holy purpose. The crusades were many things, but originally they were a beautiful, noble idea.
The idea of a crusade owes something to the Old Testament, something to the Muslim example of a jihad, or holy war. It owes something, too, to the inflammatory preaching of illuminate monks, and a great deal to the beginning of the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors; this combined the triumph of the faith with the acquisition of rich properties. But the chief stimulation of the idea came in news from the East.
By the end of the first millennium, the Near East had attained a kind of stability, with the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs holding each other at a standstill. The pilgrim route to Jerusalem was kept open and secure, and the Holy City, itself in Muslim hands, was operated as a sanctified tourist attraction for both Muslims and Christians. The comfortable balance was upset by the Seljuk Turks, who captured Jerusalem, defeated the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor in 1071, and harassed the Christian pilgrims. Hard pressed by the Turks, the Eastern emperor, Alexius Comnenus, at length appealed to the pope and to the West for military aid against the pagan foe. He asked for a mercenary army that would recapture his territories in Asia Minor and pay itself from the proceeds. He was not much interested in the Holy Land.
The pope who launched the crusade was Urban II, a French noble who had humbled himself to become a Cluniac monk and then had been exalted to the papal throne. He was a vessel of holy zeal, wise in men’s ways. Emperor Alexius’s appeal stirred in him a vision of a gigantic effort by Western Christendom to regain the Holy Sepulcher. The union of military resources under the pope’s control would end the wars of Europe’s princes, would bring peace in the West, and in the East, Christian unity in spiritual purpose; it might even link – under papal leadership – Eastern and Western churches, long painfully at odds. The times were propitious for the realization of such a dream. Faith was ardent and uncritical. Europe’s population was increasing, men were restless, looking for new lands, new outlets of energy. They seemed to be begging for a worthy use for their idle swords.
At the Council of Clermont in south central France in November 1095, Pope Urban, tall, handsome, bearded, made one of the most potent speeches in all history. He summoned the French people to wrest the Holy Sepulcher from the foul hands of the Turks. France, he said, was already overcrowded. It could barely support its sons, whereas Canaan was, in God’s own words, a land flowing with milk and honey. Hark to Jerusalem’s pitiful appeal! Frenchmen, cease your abject quarrels and turn your swords to God’s own service! Be sure that you will have a rich reward on earth and everlasting glory in heaven! The pope bowed his head, and the whole assembly resounded with acclaim: “Dieu le veult!” – “God wills it!” Snippets of red cloth were crossed and pinned on the breasts of the many who on the spot fervently vowed to “take the cross.” It was a spectacle to rejoice the heart of any revivalist. Astutely, Pope Urban had roused men’s emotional ardor for the faith, and as if unaware, had tickled their cupidity. All his hearers had been bred on Bible stories of the rich fields and flocks and blooming meadows of Canaan; they confused the actual city of Jerusalem with the Heavenly City, walled in pearl, lighted by God’s effulgence, with living water flowing down its silver streets. A poor crusader might find himself tempted by a fief of holy land; and if he should fall, he was assured, by papal promise, of a seat in heaven. The pope also offered every crusader an indulgence, or remission of many years in purgatory after death. Urban appealed, finally, to the strong sporting sense of the nobles. Here was a new war game against monstrous foes, giants and dragons; it was “a tournament of heaven and hell.” In short, says the historian Friedrich Heer, the crusades were promoted with all the devices of the propagandist – atrocity stories, oversimplification, lies, inflammatory speeches.
The pope was taken aback by the success of his proposal. No plans had been made for the prosecution of the crusade. Several important kings of Christendom happened to be excommunicated at the time. Urban placed the bishop of Le Puy in charge of the undertaking, and French nobles assumed military control. The church’s entire organization was set to the task of obtaining recruits, money, supplies, and transportation. In some regions, under the spell of compelling voices, enthusiasm was extreme. Reports the chronicler William of Malmesbury: “The Welshman left his hunting, the Scot his fellowship with vermin, the Dane his drinking party, the Norwegian his raw fish. Lands were deserted of their husbandmen, houses of their inhabitants; even whole cities migrated.” Proudly the dedicated wore their red crosses or exhibited scars in the form of the cross on their breasts.
The crusades began with grotesqueries, comic and horrible. A band of Germans followed a goose they held to be God-inspired. Peter the Hermit, a fanatic, filthy, barefoot French monk, short and swarthy, with a long, lean face that strangely resembled that of his own donkey, preached a private crusade – known as the Peasants’ Crusade – and promised his followers that God would guide them to the Holy City. In Germany, Walter the Penniless emulated Peter. Motley hordes of enthusiasts – having plucked Peter’s poor donkey totally hairless in their quest for souvenirs – marched through Germany and the Balkan lands, killing Jews by the thousands on their way, plundering and destroying. The Byzantine Emperor Alexius sent them with all haste into Asia Minor, where they supported themselves briefly by robbing Christian villagers. They were caught in two batches by the Turks, who gave the first group the choice of conversion to Islam or death and massacred the second group. Peter the Hermit, who was in Constantinople on business, was one of the few to escape the general doom.
The first proper crusade got under way in the autumn of 1096. Its armies followed several courses, by sea and land, to a rendezvous in Constantinople. The crusaders’ numbers are very uncertain; the total may have been as low as 30,000 or as high as 100,000. At any rate, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius was surprised by the multitude and was hard put to find food for them. He was also displeased by their character. He had asked for trained soldiers, but he received a vast and miscellaneous throng of undisciplined enthusiasts that included clergy, women, and children. Only the mounted knights made a good military show, and even they behaved with Frankish arrogance. One sat down comically on the emperor’s own throne. Alexius, swallowing his anger, offered money, food, and troops to escort the expedition across Asia Minor. In return, he asked an oath of allegiance for Byzantine territories the crusaders might recapture. This was given more than grudgingly. Mutual ill will and scorn were rife. Many high-hearted Franks vowed that the Byzantine allies were as much their enemies as were the Turks.
In the spring of 1097, Alexius hustled his troublesome guests out of the capital on their way through Asia Minor toward the Promised Land. It was a dreadful journey. The Asian uplands were dry and barren; the few local peasants fled before the invader, carrying with them their goats and sheep and tiny stocks of grain. Hunger and thirst assailed the marchers. Accustomed to the abundant water supply of their homelands, many had not even provided themselves with water canteens. Knights marched on foot, discarding armor; horses died of thirst, lack of forage, and disease; sheep, goats, and dogs were collected to pull the baggage train. A part of the army crossed the Anti-Taurus range in a flood of rain on a muddy path skirting precipices. Horses and pack animals, roped together, fell into the abyss. Continually the Turks attacked the column. Their bowmen, mounted on fast little horses, discharged a hail of arrows at a gallop and fled before a counterattack could be organized. Their devices were ambush, feigned retreat, and the annihilation of the enemy’s foraging parties. Such hit-and-run tactics, new to the Westerners, shocked their sense of military propriety.
The survivors came down to the Mediterranean at its northeastern corner and found some reinforcements that had come by ship. The fainthearts and the greedy revealed themselves. Stephen of Blois, brother-in-law of one English king and father of another, deserted; but when he got home, he was sent back, reportedly by his high-spirited wife. Peter the Hermit, who had joined up, fled for good. Baldwin of Boulogne managed to establish himself as ruler of the county of Edessa and was lost for a time to the great enterprise.
The main body camped before the enormous stronghold of Antioch, which barred all progress south toward Jerusalem. An epic eight-month-long siege ensued, enlivened by such bizarre interludes as the appearance of the Byzantine patriarch hanging from the battlements in a cage. Because of treachery within the walls, Antioch was finally taken in June 1098. The Christian army then moved cautiously toward Jerusalem. By any modern standards, it was a tiny force, numbering by then perhaps 12,000, including 1,200 or 1,300 cavalry. The invaders were shocked to find Canaan a stony, barren land. There is an old Eastern story that at the Creation the angels were transporting the entire world’s supply of stones in a sack, which burst as they flew over Palestine. No milk and honey flowed in the gray gullies, not even water. The blazing summer sun on the treeless plain came as a surprise. Men and horses suffered grievously from the lack of shade. The sun smote down on steel helmets, seeming to roast the soldiers’ dancing brains. Coats of mail blistered incautious fingers until the crusaders learned to cover them with a linen surcoat. Within the armor, complaining bodies longed to sweat, but in vain, for there was no water to produce sweat. The soldiers were afflicted with inaccessible itchings, with the abrasions of armor, with greedy flies and intimate insects.
By the best of luck or by divine direction, the Turks were at odds with the Arab caliphate in Baghdad, and the country was ill defended. The crusaders made their way south by valor and by threat and bribes to the Muslim garrisons. Finally on June 7, 1099, the army camped before the beetling walls of Jerusalem.
Eyewitness, Foucher de Chartres tells the story of the assault. “Engineers were ordered to build machines that could be moved up to the walls and, with God’s help, thus achieve the result of their hopes. . . . Once the engines were ready, that is the battering rams and the mining devices, they prepared for the assault. Among other contrivances, they fastened together a tower made of small pieces of wood, because large timber was lacking. At night, at a given order, they carried it piece by piece to the most favorable point of the city. And so, in the morning, after preparing the catapults and other contraptions, they very quickly set it up, fitted together, not far from the wall. Then a few daring soldiers at the sound of the trumpet mounted it, and from that position they immediately began to launch stones and arrows. In retaliation against them the Saracens proceeded to defend themselves similarly and with their slings hurled flaming brands soaked in oil and fat and fitted with small torches on the previously mentioned tower and the soldiers on it. Many therefore fighting in this manner on either side met ever-present death. . . . [The next day] the Franks entered the city at midday, on the day dedicated to Venus, with bugles blowing and all in an uproar and manfully attacking and crying ‘Help us, God!’ . . .”
Once the crusaders had taken control of the city, they began to massacre the inhabitants. “Some of our men,” wrote the twelfth-century chronicler Raymond of Agiles, “cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.
“Now that the city was taken it was worth all our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang the ninth chant to the Lord. It was the ninth day . . . The ninth sermon, the ninth chant was demanded by all. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity and the humiliation of paganism; our faith was renewed. The Lord made this day, and we rejoiced and exulted in it, for on this day the Lord revealed Himself to His people and blessed them.”
Soon after the capture, most of the army went home, having fulfilled their vows. Godfrey of Bouillon, who had been chosen ruler of Jerusalem, was left with only 1,000 or 2,000 infantrymen and a few hundred knights to control a hostile land populated by Arabs, Jews, heretical Christians, and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to the great historian of the crusades Stephen Runciman, the massacre at Jerusalem is unforgotten. “It was this bloodthirsty proof of Christian fanaticism that re-created the fanaticism of Islam.”