Orderly Knight-Crusader II

The crusaders set about strengthening their hold on the country, constructing those gigantic, practically impregnable castles that still fill us with awe. Little by little they acclimated themselves, learning Arabic, adopting the sensible Oriental dress – burnoose and turban – and such congenial local institutions as the harem. They married Armenian and other local Christian women. Their children were brought up by Arab nurses and tutors. In Jerusalem and the coastal cities nobles and merchants lived in fine houses, with carpets, damask hangings, carved inlaid tables, dinner services of gold and silver. Their ladies were veiled against the enemy sun; they painted their faces and walked with a mincing gait. Before long a social class developed of the native-born, the Old Settlers, at home in the East. They had their good friends among the native gentry and would hunt, joust, and feast with them. They took their religion easily, with a tolerant smile for the excessive devotions of other Christians newly arrived in the East. They set aside chapels in their churches for Muslim worship, and the Muslims reciprocated by installing Christian chapels in their mosques. After all, when one can see the Holy Places any day, one gets used to them.

To swell the ranks of the crusaders, mostly pious fighting men of gentle birth, newcomers kept arriving from Europe. A young gentleman, inspired for whatever motive to take the cross, had first to raise his passage money, often by mortgaging his land or by ceding some feudal rights. He heard a farewell sermon in his village church and kissed his friends and kinsmen good-by, very likely for ever. Since the road across Asia Minor had become increasingly unsafe, he rode to Marseilles or Genoa and took passage with a shipmaster. He was assigned a space fixed at two feet by five in the ‘tween decks; his head was to lie between the feet of another pilgrim. He bargained for some of his food with the cargador, or chief steward, but he was advised to carry provisions of his own – salt meat, cheese, biscuit, dried fruits, and syrup of roses to check diarrhea.

For the devout young warrior willing to accept celibacy, a career opened in the military orders, which were the kingdom’s main defenders against the Saracens. The Knights Hospitalers had already been established before the conquest as an order of volunteers caring for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem. They took monastic vows and followed the Benedictine Rule, adopting as their symbol the white Maltese cross. After the conquest, they became the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, owing obedience to the pope alone. Their hostel in Jerusalem could lodge 1,000 pilgrims. Because they policed the pilgrim routes, their interests became more and more military. In later centuries, they transferred the site of their operation and were known as the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights of Malta. Today their successors constitute a powerful Roman Catholic order of distinguished key men, and in England, a Protestant offshoot, which still maintains a hospital in Jerusalem.

The Knights Templars, the valiant red-cross knights, were established in 1118, with their headquarters in the Dome of the Rock, which the crusaders believed to be Solomon’s Temple. Their first duty was to protect the road to Jerusalem. Soon both Hospitalers and Templars were involved in almost every fray between the crusaders and the Saracens, acting as a kind of volunteer police. The rulers of the Christian states had no control over them; they had their own castles, made their own policy, even signed their own treaties. Often they were as much at odds with other Christians as with the Muslims. Some went over to Islam, and others were influenced by Muslim mystical practices. The order in France was all but destroyed in the fourteenth century by Philip IV, eager to confiscate the Templars’ wealth. Today the Freemasons have inherited their name and ancient mysteries.

Another fighting monastic order was the Teutonic Knights, whose membership was restricted to Germans of noble birth. They abandoned the Holy Land in 1291 and transferred their activities to the lands of the eastern Baltic. There they spread the Gospel largely by exterminating the heathen Slavs and by replacing them with God-fearing Germans.

The active period of Christian conquest ended in 1144 with the recapture by the Turks of the Christian county of Edessa. Thereafter, the Westerners were generally on the defensive. The news of the fall of Edessa shocked Europe. The great Saint Bernard of Clairvaux quickly promoted a new crusade – the second. At Easter in 1146, a host of pilgrims gathered at Vézelay to hear Bernard preach. Half the crowd took the crusader’s vow; as material for making crosses gave out, the saint offered up his own gown and cowl to be cut to provide more material.

Inspired by Bernard, the French King Louis VII decided to lead his army to the Holy Land, and Louis’s mettlesome queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, determined to go along. Bernard went to Germany to recruit King Conrad III for the expedition. On their way to Constantinople, both the French and the German expeditions found themselves as welcome as a plague of locusts. The cities along the route closed their gates and would supply food only by letting it down from the walls in baskets, after cash payment. Therefore the crusaders – especially the Germans – burned and pillaged defenseless farms and villages, and even attacked a monastery. In Constantinople, the Germans were received more than coolly by the emperor, who had come to the conclusion that the crusades were a mere trick of Western imperialism.

Somehow the crusaders made their way across Asia Minor, suffering heavy losses on the way. Although the armies and their monarchs were bitterly hostile to each other, they united to attack Damascus; but the attack was unsuccessful, and in their retreat, the crusading armies were largely destroyed. The kings left the Holy Land in disgust, acknowledging that the crusade was a total fiasco. Only Queen Eleanor had made the best of things during the journey, carrying on a notorious affair with her youthful uncle, Raymond II, prince of Antioch.

The Muslims continued nibbling at the Christian holdings, and in 1187, they captured Jerusalem. Their great general, Saladin, refused to follow the Christian precedent of massacring the city’s inhabitants. He offered his captives for ransom, guaranteeing them safe passage to their own lines. The news of Jerusalem’s fall inspired yet a third crusade, led by Philip Augustus of France, Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, who was drowned on his way to the East.

Warring nations often have a pet enemy – in the First World War, Count von Luckner, in the second, General Rommel. To the crusaders, Saladin was such a gallant foe. When he attacked the castle of Kerak during the wedding feast of the heir to Transjordania, the groom’s mother sent out to him some dainties from the feast, with the reminder that he had carried her, as a child, in his arms. Saladin inquired in which tower the happy couple would lodge, and this he graciously spared while attacking the rest of the castle. He was fond of a joke. He planted a piece of the True Cross at the threshold of his tent, where everyone who came to see him must tread on it. He got some pilgrim monks drunk and put them to bed with wanton Muslim women, thus robbing them of all spiritual reward for their lifetime toils and trials. In a battle with Richard the Lion-Hearted, Saladin saw Richard’s horse fall, generously sent him a groom with two fresh horses – and lost the battle. And when Richard came down with fever, Saladin sent him peaches, pears, and snow from Mt. Hermon. Richard, not to be outdone in courtesy, proposed that his sister should marry Saladin’s brother, and that the pair should receive the city of Jerusalem as a wedding present. It would have been a happy solution.

Though Richard captured Acre in 1191 (with the aid of a great catapult known as Bad Neighbor, a stone thrower, God’s Own Sling, and a grappling ladder, The Cat), he could not regain Jerusalem. He had to be content with negotiating an agreement that opened the way to the Holy City to Christian pilgrims. The third crusade marked, on the whole, a moral failure. It ended in compromise with the Muslims and in dissension among the Christians. The popes lost control of their enterprise; they could not even save their champion, Richard the Lion-Hearted, from imprisonment when he was taken captive by the duke of Austria, who resented an insult he had received from Richard during the crusade. Idealism and self-sacrifice for a holy cause became less common, and most recruits who went to the Holy Land were primarily looking for quick returns. People accused the men collecting taxes to pay for a new crusade and even the pope himself of diverting the money to other purposes.

In 1198, the great Innocent III acceded to the papacy and promoted another expedition, the lamentable fourth crusade. Its agents made a contract with the Venetians for the transport to the Holy Land of about 30,000 men and 4,500 horses. However, by embarkation day, the expeditionaries had raised only about half the passage money. The Venetians, always businessmen, offered the crusaders an arrangement: If they would capture for Venice the rival commercial city of Zara in Dalmatia, which the Venetians described as a nest of pirates, they would be transported at a cheaper rate. Zara was efficiently taken, to the horror of Pope Innocent, for Zara was a Catholic city, and its Hungarian overlord was a vassal of the Apostolic See. Now that the precedent of a crusade against Christians was set, the leaders, at Venetian urging, espoused the cause of a deposed, imprisoned, blinded Byzantine emperor, Isaac Angelus. By restoring him to his throne, they would right a great wrong, return the East to communion with the Roman church, and receive from their Byzantine protégé men and money for a later conquest of Egypt. The pope was persuaded to look on the project with favor, and the ships of the fourth crusade set sail for Constantinople.

The noble city was taken by storm on April 12, 1204. The three-day spree that followed is memorable in the history of looting. The French and Flemish crusaders, drunk with powerful Greek wines, destroyed more than they carried off. They did not spare monasteries, churches, libraries. In Santa Sophia, they drank from the altar vessels while a prostitute sat on the patriarch’s throne and sang ribald French soldiers’ songs. The emperor, regarded as a wicked usurper, was taken to the top of a high marble column and pushed off, “because it was fitting that such a signal act of justice should be seen by everyone.”

Then the real booty, the Eastern Empire, was divided. Venice somehow received all the best morsels: certain islands of the Aegean and seaports on the Greek and Asian mainlands. The Franks became dukes and princes of wide lands in Greece and in Macedonia, where one still sees the massive stumps of their castles. The papal legate accompanying the troops absolved all who had taken the cross from continuing on to the Holy Land to fulfill their vows. The fourth crusade brought no succor to Christian Palestine. On the contrary, a good many knights left the Holy Land for Constantinople, to share in the distribution of land and honors.

“There was never a greater crime against humanity than the fourth crusade,” says Stephen Runciman. It destroyed the treasures of the past and broke down the most advanced culture of Europe. Far from uniting Eastern and Western Christendom, it implanted in the Greeks a hostility toward the West that has never entirely disappeared, and it weakened the Byzantine defenses against the rising power of the Ottoman Turks, to whom they eventually succumbed.

A few years later, the crusading spirit staged a travesty upon itself. Two twelve-year-old boys, Stephen in France and Nicholas in Germany, preached a children’s crusade, promising their followers that angels would guide them and that the seas would divide before them. Thousands of boy and girls joined the crusade, along with clerics, vagabonds, and prostitutes. Miracle stories allege that flocks of birds and swarms of butterflies accompanied the group as it headed southward over the mountains to the sea, which, however, did not divide to let them pass. Innocent III told a delegation to go home and grow up. A few of the Germans managed to reach Palestine, where they disappeared. The French party fell into the hands not of angels but of two of the worst scoundrels in history, Hugh the Iron and William of Posquères, Marseilles shipowners, who offered the young crusaders free transport to the Holy Land, but carried them instead to Bougie in North Africa and sold them as slaves to Arab dealers.

The melancholy tale of the later crusades can be briefly told. Unable to recapture Jerusalem, the strategists tried to seize Egypt, one of the great bases of Muslim power. In 1219, after a siege of a year and a half, an expedition took Damietta, on one of the mouths of the Nile. But the Christians were able to hold on to the city for only a few years. Again in 1249, Saint Louis invaded Egypt, hoping to retake it, but he was unsuccessful.

There were numerous attempts to recapture Jerusalem after it had fallen to the Saracens. The Emperor Frederick II’s rather comic expedition of 1228 resembled a goodwill tour rather than a crusade. The mood of the times had changed. It now suited almost everybody to maintain the status quo. The Muslims were threatened from the east by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his equally formidable successors; they wanted no little wars in Palestine. The Christian Old Settlers had developed a thriving import-export trade in Oriental goods, with merchandise brought by camel caravan to the coastal cities to be shipped to Europe. They had enough of visiting zealots, who were eager to plunge into furious battle, commit a few atrocities, break the precarious peace, and then go home, leaving the Old Settlers holding the bag.

With want of enthusiasm, want of new recruits, want, indeed, of stout purpose, the remaining Christian principalities gradually crumbled. Antioch fell in 1268, the Hospitaler fortress of Krak des Chevaliers in 1271. In 1291, with the capture of the last great stronghold, Acre, the Muslims had regained all their possessions, and the great crusades ended, in failure.

Why? What went wrong? There was a failure of morale, clearly; there was also a failure in military organization and direction. The popes were no commanders in chief; the various allied armies were riven by dissension; there was no unity of command or strategy in the rival principalities of Palestine and Syria. The military means available were insufficient to maintain the conquest; with the distance from European bases so great, supply problems were insuperable. The armies were over-officered, for the crusades were regarded as a gentleman’s game, and poor men soon ceased to volunteer. And always there was the wastage caused by malaria, dysentery, and mysterious Oriental diseases.

As the historian Henri Pirenne has pointed out, the crusades did not correspond to any temporal aim. Europe had no need for Jerusalem and Syria. It needed, rather, a strong Eastern Empire to be a bulwark against the aggressive Turks and Mongols; and this empire the crusaders destroyed with their own swords. In Spain, on the other hand, the crusading spirit was successful because it matched a political need.

It is easy enough for us to see that the early enthusiasm of the crusaders was based on illusion. Long before the forms and phraseology of the crusades were abandoned, disillusionment had set in. The character of the later recruits changed. Many went out to the East to escape paying their debts; judges gave criminals their choice of jail or taking the cross. After the defeat of Saint Louis in 1250, preachers of a crusade were publicly insulted. When mendicant monks asked alms, people would summon a beggar and give him a coin, not in the name of Christ, who did not protect his own, but in that of Mohammed, who had proved to be stronger. Around 1270, a former master general of the Dominican order wrote that few still believed in the spiritual merit promised by the crusades. A French monk addressed God directly: “He is a fool who follows you into battle.” The troubadours and the minnesingers mocked the church, and Walther von der Vogelweide called the pope the new Judas. There were counter-crusades in France and Germany. The dean and chapter of the cathedral at Passau preached a crusade against the papal legate; in Regensburg, anyone found wearing a crusader’s cross was condemned to death. A pacifist party arose, led by the Spiritual Franciscans. “Don’t kill the heathen; convert them!” was their cry. At first the crusades had strengthened the church, but eventually the papacy’s sponsorship of warfare came to undermine its spiritual authority.

The effects of the crusades on the lay world were mixed. Troublesome younger sons were packed off to the Holy Land so they could not disturb the peace at home. The rising middle class benefited by lending money to the crusaders and selling them supplies. Many a peasant and serf bought his freedom from his master, who needed cash for travel expenses, and discovered a new trade in the swelling cities.

The crusades coincided more or less with the West’s rediscovery of the East. Traders, of whom the best known is Marco Polo, found their way to the Mongol Empire in the Far East and organized a great international business, both overland and seaborne. Eastern products became common in the West – rice, sugar, sesame, lemons, melons, apricots, spinach, and artichokes. The spice trade boomed; the West learned to appreciate cloves and ginger and to delight in exotic perfumes. Eastern materials had a mighty vogue – muslins, cottons, satins, damasks, rugs, and tapestries; and new colors and dyes – indigo, carmine, and lilac. The West adopted Arabic numerals in place of the impossible Roman system. Even the rosary is said to have come to Christian Europe by way of Syria.

The crusades stimulated Europe’s economy. Trade became big business as the new devices of banking and credit, developed during the period, came into common use. Europe’s imagination was also stimulated, for the crusaders gave rise to a rich vernacular literature, epic poems, histories, memoirs. And the heroic ideal, however abused, possessed the Western imagination and still lives there as the great example of self-sacrifice for a holy cause.                   

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