Nicopolis 25 September 1396 Part I

The end of resistance to the Ottomans in Albania, northern Serbia and Bulgaria was to provoke energetic, though belated, action in the west. The Turks were in fact halted by Mongol armies from the east, not by the Christians from the west, but the ‘Crusade of Nicopolis’ of 1396 is an event of sufficient significance to justify a brief excursus on the history of crusading thought in the century after the disappearance of Christian rule in Syria. Throughout this period there was much discussion concerning the methods to be used to regain the territory now lost to Christianity. The ideas of the Catalan Ramon Llull (1232–1315/16) are of interest for their originality, though they had no practical effect. Llull had plans for military reconquest, but his most novel recommendation proposed the foundation of chairs of oriental languages in western universities. Muslims were to be converted by what might now be called ‘brain-washing’. Special linguist-preachers should ‘hold disputations with prisoners to convert them to the Holy Catholic faith’, and they should read certain books which prove that Mahomet was not a true prophet.

Afterwards the ruler-commander [under whom the military religious orders were to be unified] should release these captives. He should pay them their travelling expenses with a fair and friendly expression on his face, and send them off to the Saracen kings and other rulers … so that they should make clear to them (the rulers) what we believe concerning the most holy Trinity … and this will be a way of converting the Infidels and of spreading our most holy faith.

The most fundamental of the many disadvantages of this scheme was that the Christians very rarely succeeded in taking Muslim prisoners.

In the early fourteenth century the Byzantines lost western Anatolia to the Turks, of whom the most successful were the Ottomans who established themselves opposite Constantinople. This blocked further expansion until 1354, when involvement in the Byzantine civil wars allowed the Ottomans to establish a bridgehead at Gallipoli. This became their base for the conquest and settlement of Thrace, completed with their victory in 1371 over the Serbs at the battle of the Maritsa. Turkish expansion has been attributed to the ghazi-ethos, i.e. the Turks were warriors for the faith bent on extending the frontiers of Islam. They were also pastoralists seeking new lands for their flocks. They fed on the weakness of their opponents. In 1387 Thessalonica, the second city of the Byzantine Empire, voluntarily submitted to the Ottomans. In 1389 the Serbs were defeated at Kossovo and became their tributaries. In 1393 the Ottomans entered Trnovo and annexed Bulgaria. They were also taking over the Turkish emirates in Anatolia, including in 1397 Karaman.

The threat from the Turks gave a new lease of life to the crusade which had lost its purpose after the fall of Acre in 1291. The Knights Hospitallers led the way. In 1308 they seized Rhodes from the Byzantines and used it as a base against Turkish piracy in the Aegean. Their success encouraged crusading activity which suited Venetian commercial interest and pandered to nostalgia for the glories of the crusade. There was a fashion for the creation of chivalric orders dedicated to the promotion of the crusade. The main success came with the crusade of 1344, which conquered Smyrna, handing it over to the Knights Hospitallers. The initiative thus wrested from the Turks in the Aegean, the focus of the crusade now became Cyprus, where Peter I was preparing a crusade against the Mamluks of Egypt. Alexandria was stormed in 1365, but any further progress was dampened by the Venetians who feared for their trade with Egypt.


During the period of internal wars in Hungary, relations between the kingdom and its neighbours changed profoundly and irreversibly. Ottoman expansion reached Hungary in 1389 and the kingdom was soon compelled to adopt a defensive policy to counter this threat. From this time until the catastrophe of Mohács, Hungary lived, almost without interruption, under the constant menace of Ottoman raids and invasions, which, besides straining her economic and military forces to the limit, also led to internal conflicts. Proud of their ancestors’ warlike traditions, the nobility found the necessity of a defensive policy unacceptable. They demanded the same offensive attitude towards the Ottoman empire as had for so long prevailed towards others. The failures that were bound to follow were invariably blamed on those who happened to be in power.

In early 1389, Lazarus, prince of Serbia, confirmed his allegiance to Sigismund, but he was killed in June at the battle of Kosovo, and his son Stephen Lazarević soon became an Ottoman vassal. In early 1390 Turkish troops devastated the region of Timişoara, in 1391 they did the same in Srem, and thereafter their incursions became regular occurrences. Sigismund took the threat seriously from the very first moment. As early as the autumn of 1389 he led an expedition to Serbia, taking Čestin and Borač by siege, and he repeated the action in 1390 and 1391. In 1392 he pushed forward as far as Ždrelo, but Sultan Bayezid, who arrived there in person, refused to give battle. In 1393 the barons led a campaign along the southern frontiers, and Sigismund was also there in August 1394. In early 1395 he mounted an expedition against Moldavia and forced its prince to submit, but this success proved only temporary and Moldavia soon shifted back under the influence of Poland. By this time Wallachia had passed temporarily under the suzerainty of the Ottomans, who raided Transylvania for the first time in 1394. Mircea cel Bătrîn, prince of Wallachia, who had hitherto opposed Hungary with Polish support, asked Sigismund for help in order to regain his land. On 7 March 1395, in Braşov, he agreed to be a vassal of Hungary. However, on 17 May the Hungarian army sent to Wallachia was defeated and its commander, Stephen Losonci, killed. In July Sigismund himself invaded the province, restored Mircea to his throne and recovered from the Ottomans the castle of Minor Nicopolis on the Danube.

These wars were exhausting and yielded only meagre results. Consequently, Sigismund decided to settle the Turkish problem once and for all. He set about organising a major enterprise with the ambitious aim of driving the Ottomans out of Europe. In 1395 his envoys made a tour of the courts of Europe and an embassy may also have been sent to the Mamluk sultan of Egypt. As a result of these efforts the Pope declared the planned expedition a crusade, and by the summer of 1396 an army of considerable size had assembled. Alongside the Hungarians and their Wallachian auxiliaries, the core of the army was made up of Frenchmen, with John of Nevers, heir to Burgundy, at their head, though knights also came from Germany, Bohemia, Italy and even England. In August the army, led by Sigismund, invaded Bulgaria along the Danube and laid siege to Nicopolis. Bayezid, leading the counter-attack in person, marched to relieve the beleaguered castle, and it was there that a European army faced the Ottomans for the first time. The battle, which for a long time was to determine the nature of Hungaro-Ottoman relations, took place on 25 September 1396. The crusader army was virtually destroyed, allegedly as a consequence of the ill-considered actions of the French knights. As for Hungarian casualties, several barons were killed, Palatine Jolsvai captured, and Sigismund himself barely escaped with his life, fleeing on a ship to Constantinople and returning by sea to Dalmatia in January 1397.

The last of the major crusading ventures was the outcome of the great Ottoman victory of 1389. Like the al-Mahdiya expedition, the Crusade of Nicopolis was made possible by the long lull in the Anglo-French war. In 1395 negotiations led to the formation of a league involving France, England, Hungary, Venice and Burgundy: Duke Philip the Bold was the principal promoter and his son John of Nevers (the future John the Fearless) commanded the Franco-Burgundian element. More than half of the very large Christian force involved were Hungarians. In the summer of 1396 this army advanced from Buda along the Danube and besieged Nicopolis. Sigismund of Hungary, experienced in warfare against the Ottomans, favoured cautious tactics, but the French could only think in terms of the headlong chivalric assault which had cost them so dear at Crécy and Poitiers. When Bayezid broke off the siege of Constantinople and came to the aid of Nicopolis the French at once launched an attack (25 September 1396). After winning ground in the early stages of the engagement, they were defeated with the loss of almost their entire force. The Ottomans then turned against the Hungarians, who had held aloof from the French battle, and they too were overcome. Most of the French prisoners were put to death, but Bayezid spared the nobles, who were later ransomed for a fee of 200,000 florins. Among these was John of Nevers, who reached home the following year.

The catastrophe of Nicopolis demonstrated that the Ottoman empire represented a power against which Hungary was unable to wage an offensive war, even with support from abroad. The hope that Ottoman attacks might be stopped through a single determined effort vanished. From this point on priority was given to defence rather than to offensive campaigns. The kingdom had to learn how to live with the constant menace of Turkish incursions.

The great military undertaking of 1396 had failed to halt the Turkish advance and Constantinople would almost certainly have fallen within a few years but for the defeat of Bayezid by Timur in 1402. Throughout the preceding century the western Christians had compared unfavourably with their opponents—whom they had consistently underrated—in every respect. Their tactics and discipline had been inferior and they had fought in unsuitable armour. Above all, their efforts had been spasmodic and had been frustrated by internal divisions and conflicting motives. As an old man, Philip of Mézières, the great crusading propagandist of the age, learned the news of the crushing defeat of his hopes at Nicopolis. In these last, sad years of his life he was accustomed to write of himself ruefully as a vieil abortif‘(an old failure).

Bayezid’s defeat and capture near Ankara in 1402 postponed Ottoman domination throughout south-eastern Europe for several decades. During this period both Venice and the kingdom of Hungary were sufficiently powerful to dispute what was left of the Eastern Empire with the Turks—though inevitably they were rivals and not allies. After the death of Sigismund (1437) Hungary lost much of its cohesion, and the eventual successor, Ladislas of Poland, had to struggle for control in Hungary as well as fighting the Turks in Serbia. The campaigns of 1442–4, which probably saved Constantinople from conquest by Murad II, were fought under the virtual leadership of John Hunyadi of Transylvania, a Wallachian noble who had come into prominence in the service of Hungary. Hunyadi was also involved in the attempt to exploit Murad’s absence in Asia during 1444, which culminated in the disastrous defeat of Varna, in which king Ladislas was killed. Surviving this battle, Hunyadi became regent in Hungary for Ladislas Posthumus, the grandson of Sigismund and heir to Ladislas III. Hunyadi in his turn became preoccupied with internal factional strife, and in the following years the main role in opposing the Ottomans was assumed by the Albanian George Castriot, later known as Scanderbeg (born c. 1405). Scanderbeg had been taken by the Turks in youth as a hostage and, as a Moslem, served them for many years before he fled to his native land and set up as the leader of resistance there in 1443.

Nicopolis 25 September 1396 Part II

The Crusade of Nicopolis in 1396 was disorganised and badly led: the result was a catastrophic defeat. However, it was the aftermath of the battle which produced the greatest impact in Europe. Jean de Froissart described in Book 4 of his Chronicle how, after the battle, the Sultan ordered the execution of many of his noble prisoners, harsh recompense for the slaughter of Ottoman prisoners by the French. A miniature in one edition of Froissart shows the bodies of the decapitated men beginning to pile up before the Sultan, who wished to make an example that his enemies would not forget. The watercolour in Loqman’s sixteenth-century Ottoman court history, like Froissart, shows the Turk as a fearsome enemy. By the time the Ottomans finally captured Constantinople in 1453, the image of their implacable cruelty had been formed and reinforced over almost three generations.

Whilst besieging Nicopolis, the crusader army became aware of Bayezid’s advance. It was Sigismund’s intention to deploy his unreliable vassals, the voivodes of Wallachia and Transylvania, in -front of his main body in order to force them to fight. But the French demanded the honour of the van and charged directly at Bayezid’s position. Behind a screen of Akinji light cavalry, and invisible to the westerners, lay a belt of sharpened wooden stakes, at chest height to the horses, full of Janissary archers. As the Turkish light cavalry melted away to the flanks, the crusaders lost their horses to both the arrows and the obstacles. Undeterred, they abandoned their mounts and attacked on foot, routing the unarmoured bowmen. Unfortunately, when they saw the crusaders’ horses galloping back across the plain, the Wallachians and Transylvanians made off. Meanwhile, the French arrived at the top of the hill, exhausted by their efforts, to find the cream of Bayezid’s heavy cavalry – the Spahis – awaiting them. Surrounded and overwhelmed, they surrendered en masse. Sigismund’s Hungarians arrived too late, and were themselves driven off by the flanking attack of Bayezid’s Christian Serbian vassals. The outcome epitomized the difference between Bayezid’s well-balanced defence in depth and a headstrong western charge. Numbers on both sides are difficult to assess, but there is no reason to believe that the Turks greatly exceeded the crusaders. They were Simply better disciplined and better led.

The Battle

This was the battle that ended the ill-fated crusade, largely financed by the Duke of Burgundy, that had been organised in response to appeals for aid against the Ottoman Turks from the future emperor Sigismund, king of Hungary. Contemporary chroniclers claim that the combined Hungarian and crusader forces comprised 50-62,000 Hungarians (26,000 of them mercenaries), 10,000 Wallachians under Mircea the Old, 16,000 Transylvanians, 10-14,000 Frenchmen and Burgundians, 6,000 Germans, 1,000 Englishmen and 12-13,000 Poles, Bohemians and Italians. These figures, however, are fantastically high and can probably be largely discounted; in reality they may have totalled only 12-16,000 men (Schiltberger, an eyewitness, says 16,000, while Froissart puts the French crusader cavalry at no more than 700 men). Similarly, although another eye-witness (the author of the ‘Religieux de Saint-Denis’) reported the opposing Ottoman forces, commanded by Sultan Bayezid, as comprising a vanguard of 24,000, main battle of 30,000 and rearguard and household troops of 40,000, the Turks perhaps really numbered no more than 15-20,000 men, two Ottoman sources actually putting their own strength at just 10,000 men. Whereas the Christian forces were almost entirely cavalry, those of the Turks included a substantial number of infantry.

Marching to the relief of besieged Nicopolis, Bayezid chose a defensive position on a rise, straddling the road to the city with his flanks protected by ravines. His first line comprised irregular horse (i. e. akinjis, 8,000 of them according to Froissart), behind which infantry archers were drawn up in 2 large companies behind a line of stakes that was 16 feet deep. Behind these were his feudal cavalry, and behind these again, on his flanks, were two reserves, that on the left of Serbs under Stephen Lazarevic, that on the right being composed of the troops of the Porte under Bayezid himself, ‘hidden in a certain copse to avoid detection’ according to Doukas, the Religieux confirming that Bayezid’s division was hidden behind a bill.

Sigismund’s sound proposal that his own light troops should open the attack, to soften up the Ottomans for the decisive charge of the Western European heavy cavalry, was met with hostility by the haughty French and Burgundian crusaders, who regarded it as an insult to be put in what they deemed the rearguard position. Consequently, claiming that Sigismund wanted only to rob them of ‘the honour of striking the first blow’, they spurred ahead of their allies and approached the Ottoman position totally unsupported. As they came within range the Turkish light cavalry opened fire with their bows, then wheeled left and right (though not without casualties) to reveal the stakes and infantry archers, who outflanked the crusaders on both sides. These too now opened fue, upon which the crusaders charged uphill against them, negotiating the stakes with considerable losses, and many of them either dismounted or unhorsed, until they finally reached the Ottoman infantry, of whom they allegedly killed 10,000.

However, while thus disordered (as Bayezid had planned), the crusaders were counter-attacked by the Ottoman feudal cavalry. These too they managed to break through after a hard struggle in which 5,000 more Turks are claimed to have died, only to then be finally overwhelmed by Bayezid’s 10-40,000 men, who came in on one end of their line. Most of the understandably biased Western chroniclers claim that Sigismund’s Hungarians had fled by this time, but the eye-witness Schiltberger reports that a second battle now took place as the Hungarian and crusader main battle – although abandoned by its left flank (the Wallachians) and right flank (the Transylvanians) as it became apparent, from the riderless crusader horses stampeding past, that Bayezid was the victor up ahead- advanced in the wake of the French and Burgundians, cutting down the reformed Ottoman infantry, 12,000 in number, as they came. The feudal cavalry too were being pushed back when suddenly Bayezid’s Serbian vassals emerged from ambush and overthrew Sigismund’s banner, upon which the Hungarians broke and fled, to be pursued in rout to their ships anchored on the Danube.

In a battle that had lasted only 3 hours contemporaries estimated that the Christians had lost 8-100,000 men, the reality undoubtedly lying somewhere in between; Schiltberger says they lost 10,000. The Turks also suffered severe losses (Western contemporaries exaggeratedly claimed 6-30 were killed for every Christian), figures ranging from 16-60,000. Enraged by his heavy casualties, the next morning Bayezid executed the majority of his prisoners (300 according to Froissart, 3,000 according to the Religieux and 10,000 according to Schiltberger), the survivors being given to his army as slaves, except for a small handful of the very highest rank who were eventually ransomed.

Naval Crusade

The so-called “crusade of Nicopolis” started as a Burgundian and Hungarian affair. The chronology, the events and the outcome of the expedition are well known. Less clear are the actions of the fleet. In February 1396 four Venetian galleys were already in partibus Romanie but the captain of the Gulf was instructed to avoid any clash with the Ottoman ships. In April the Venetians expressed their concern about the slow preparations of the crusade and their impression that the expedition seemed to rely only on Hungarian forces. Even in these circumstances the Venetians assured King Sigismund that the Venetian fleet would wait for Christian forces from July until the middle of August. Sigismund was asked to keep the Venetian commander informed about the progress of the crusade and especially if the expedition was cancelled.

The naval strength of the crusade of Nicopolis seems to have been composed exclusively of Venetian and Hospitaller knights’ ships. Nevertheless, there was no joint action or coordination between the two squadrons and it seems that each fleet followed its own plan. This situation was caused by older disputes between the Order and the Republic, but also by the fact that Venice recognised the authority of the Roman pontif, Boniface IX, while the Hospitallers were faithful to the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII.

The Venetians were unable to break through the Straits because of defensive measures undertaken by Bayezid I at Gallipoli. For this reason, the Venetian galleys may have stopped at Tenedos. As a matter of fact, Francisc Pall suggested that the episode regarding the Venetian ships’ entrance on the Danube was just a tale of the Venetian chroniclers who were eager to underline, on the one hand, the Republic’s attachment to the crusade and, on the other, the ingratitude of the King of Hungary who, in 1396, owed his salvation to the Venetian galleys. The Hospitallers’ fleet headed from Rhodes towards Smyrna, but from this point on, the itinerary is very hard to know. Jean Christian Poutiers assumed that the ships commanded by Philibert of Naillac might have entered the Black Sea and the Danube. Should this scenario prove correct, it might explain the way in which Sigismund of Luxemburg reached Constantinople after the defeat.

The results of the naval expedition from 1396 are far from being spectacular. The fleet could not make the junction with the land forces and was not able to stop the disaster of September 25, 1396. The sultan’s victory compelled Venice to take defensive measures not only for its own territories, but also in Constantinople, which was in a dire situation. After the success of Nicopolis, Bayezid I was willing to grant the Venetians peace “on sea”, but not also on land, where he claimed the Venetian possessions Argos, Nauplion, Atena, Durazzo and Scutari. Venice, in turn, wished to get an agreement for its possessions in the Peloponnese and Albania, but refused to accept peace on sea because of increasing activity by Turkish pirates. Given these conditions, the last years of the fourteenth century were very difficult for Venetian possessions in Romania.

Composition of crusader forces

From France, it was said about 2,000 knights and squires joined, and were accompanied by 6,000 archers and foot soldiers drawn from the best volunteer and mercenary companies. Totaling some 10,000 men. Next in importance were the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, who were the standard bearers of Christianity in the Levant since the decline of Constantinople and Cyprus. Venice supplied a naval fleet for supporting action, while Hungarian envoys encouraged German princes of the Rhineland, Bavaria, Saxony and other parts of the empire to join. French heralds had proclaimed the crusade in Poland, Bohemia, Navarre and Spain, from which individuals came to join.

The Italian city-states were too much engaged in their customary violent rivalries to participate, and the widely reported and acclaimed English participation never actually occurred. The report of 1000 English knights comes from contemporary Antonio Fiorentino, and was taken as fact by historian Aziz S. Atiya and others following him. A thousand knights would have actually amounted to “four to six thousand men and at least twice as many horses”, counting foot-soldiers and other retainers. However, there are no records of financial arrangements being made in England to send a force abroad, nor of any royal preparation needed to organize and dispatch such a force. Reports of Henry of Bolingbroke or other “son of the Duke of Lancaster” leading an English contingent must be false since the presence of Henry and every other such son, as well as almost every other significant noble in the land, is recorded at the king’s wedding five months after the crusade’s departure. Atiya also thought that the invocation of St. George as a war cry at Nicopolis signified the presence of English soldiers, for whom George was a patron saint; but Froissart, who mentions this, claims that the cry was made by the French knight Philippe d’Eu. Furthermore, there was no collection of ransom money in England to pay for captives, as there was in every other country that had sent men to the battle. Sporadic mention in contemporary accounts of the presence of “English” may be attributed to Knights Hospitaller of the English tongue subgrouping, who joined their comrades for the crusade after leaving Rhodes (where the Hospitallers were based at the time) and sailing up the Danube. Possible reasons for the English absence include the increasing tension between the king and the Duke of Gloucester, which may have convinced the two that they had best keep their supporters close, and the antipathy caused by the long war between the English and French, resulting in the English refusing to consider putting themselves under a French-led crusade, regardless of the recently concluded peace.

Nevertheless, obviously inflated figures continue to be repeated. These include 6-8,000 Hungarians, ~ 10,000 French, English and Burgundian troops, ~ 10,000 Wallachians led by Mircea cel Batran (Mircea The elder) the prince of Wallachia, ~ 6,000 Germans and nearly 15,000 Dutch, Bohemian, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Bulgarian, Scottish and Swiss troops on the land, with the naval support of Venice, Genoa and the Knights of St. John. These result in a figure of about 47,000 – 49,000 in total; possibly up to 120,000 or 130,000 according to numerous sources, including the 15th-century Ottoman historian Şükrullah who gives the figure of the Crusader army as 130,000 in his Behçetu’t-Tevârih.

Composition of Ottoman forces

Also estimated at about 20-25,000; but inflated figures continue to be repeated of up to 60,000 according to numerous sources including the 15th-century Ottoman historian Şükrullah, who gives the figure of the Ottoman army as 60,000 in his Behçetu’t-Tevârih; alternately described as roughly half of the Crusader army. The Ottoman force also included 1,500 Serbian heavy cavalry knights under the command of Prince Stefan Lazarević, who was Sultan Bayezid’s vassal since the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, as well as his brother-in-law after the Sultan married Stefan’s sister, Princess Olivera Despina, the daughter of Prince Lazar of Serbia (Stefan’s father) who had perished at Kosovo.

Orderly Knight-Crusader I

“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.”

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.                   


Pope Alexander II’s successor, by acclamation of clergy and people, was Archdeacon Hildebrand, who took the name of Gregory VII (1073-1085) in memory of his mentor Gregory VI and in honour of Gregory the Great, whose writings strongly influenced him. He would prove to be one of the most significant and controversial of popes. We know his policies from the decrees of the twice-yearly synods, held during Lent and in November, but also from 390 letters. He is the only pope in the period 882 to 1198 whose register, the official collection of a pope’s correspondence, has survived.

It includes a text headed Dictatus Papae (Dictation of the Pope), a list of twenty-seven propositions by the pope himself, drawn up in 1075. Although not an official decree, it reveals Gregory’s ideals and something of his ‘demonic zeal’ in promoting them. Several of the propositions stated long-accepted papal rights, such as those of hearing appeals and judging all major cases. More novel were the theses that only the pope ‘can use imperial insignia’ and that ‘all princes kiss the feet of the pope alone.’ So too were the claims that he ‘is permitted to depose emperors’ and ‘can absolve subjects from fealty to the wicked.’ These derived from recent discussions in the papal circle over the conflict in Milan, and a search for such historical precedents as Pope Zacharias’ role in the deposing of the Merovingian dynasty in 751. These claims would be put to the test before a year was out.

Gregory did not inform Henry IV of his election, but the king was facing a serious revolt in Saxony and at first was keen to mend fences with the new pope, at least until the revolt was crushed in October 1075. After that he ignored papal protests, appointed Italian bishops on his own authority and called a synod of German and northern Italian bishops to meet at Worms on 24 January 1076. Here both king and episcopate denounced Gregory VII for interfering in their affairs and denying them their rights. The twenty-six bishops renounced allegiance to him, claiming he had broken a promise not to seek election to the papacy and was committing adultery with Countess Matilda of Tuscany. They complained that ‘all judgements and decrees are enacted by women in the Apostolic See, and ultimately the whole orb of the Church is administered by this new senate of women’ and that Gregory called his fellow bishops ‘sons of whores and other names of this sort’.

Their letters arrived before the opening of the Lenten synod in Rome in February, at which Gregory composed his reply: By virtue of the power ‘given to me from God of binding and loosing in heaven and on earth . . . I deny to King Henry, son of the emperor Henry, who has risen with unheard-of pride against your church, the government of the entire kingdom of the Germans and of Italy, and I absolve all Christians from the bond of any oath that they have taken, or shall take, to him; and I forbid anyone to serve him as king.’ Henry and all the bishops who had written with him were declared excommunicate.

The king could not use force against the pope, and all hinged on whether or not Gregory’s sentence on Henry would have any practical effect. To make it work, the pope resorted to the tactic he used to enforce his ecclesiastical judgements, sending copies of his decree to as many interested parties as he could reach, to make it as widely known as possible. Thus, when an archbishop was excommunicated, the pope ensured that all his suffragan bishops were informed, as the papal decision justified their defying the metropolitan.

In this case the king’s weak political position in Germany proved crucial, as the Saxon aristocracy used the papal decree to justify renewing their revolt, since it invalidated their earlier submission to the king. Other discontented magnates were equally keen to use the papal ban to justify disregarding their oaths of fealty. Many German bishops, however resentful of Gregory’s conduct, felt unable to reject papal authority and accepted his sentence.

So, in the course of 1076 Henry’s position in Germany crumbled, while he could not coerce Gregory, who was backed by Matilda of Tuscany, the heiress of the Margrave Boniface and the wealthiest and most powerful lay magnate in northern Italy. The king attempted a spiritual riposte, asking his bishops to excommunicate Gregory VII. Only one of them would agree to do so, and he died suddenly a few weeks later, making it appear God favoured the pope.

By 16 October, when Henry met the German princes, his position had become untenable. They demanded that he get the excommunication lifted within six months or they would feel freed from their previous oaths of loyalty to him. They also invited Gregory VII to come and meet them at Augsburg in February 1077 to mediate in their disputes with the king. It was while on his way to this meeting that the pope was intercepted by King Henry at Countess Matilda’s castle at Canossa in January 1077.

The road to Canossa was in many ways a short one. The conflict that produced Henry’s submission was of recent origin, as were the papal reform party itself and the king’s political difficulties in Germany. But the new relationship between pope and German ruler, consisting largely of friction, distrust and periodic conflict, would last for centuries to come. The traditions of more harmonious papal-imperial relations that characterised the preceding millennium effectively withered and died when the papacy ceased to be an essentially Roman institution with wider aspirations and tried instead to become a universal one with Roman connections.

The transformation in the nature of the papacy in this period reflects wider changes taking place in Western Europe. The ideal of a common Christian society of shared beliefs and culture needed an institutional structure that could no longer be provided by the emperors. In the West, the imperial office had been confined to the rulers of Germany since the mid-tenth century and was little more than a constitutional pretext for their fragile rule over its regional duchies and the overlordship of various Slav states beyond its eastern frontier. Whatever respect was accorded his title, the emperor had no authority over the other Western kingdoms and never tried to claim it. The only institution with ideologically grounded and widely accepted claims to superiority over all secular rulers was the papacy.

In political terms Canossa was less of a victory for Gregory VII than it might appear, and this may explain his reluctance to accept the royal submission. Having lifted the excommunication, the pope deprived Henry’s enemies in Germany of their excuse for continued resistance, and they were less willing to rely on papal support in the future, preferring instead to elect a new king, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, in March 1077.

By 1080 Henry was able to disregard almost all the undertakings he had made to the pope at Canossa, and Gregory excommunicated him again at a synod. The impact was far weaker a second time, and on 25 June a group of twenty-seven bishops and a cardinal loyal to Henry met at Brixen in northern Italy and deposed ‘the pseudo-monk Hildebrand known as Gregory VII’ on charges ranging from heresy and sacrilege to arson and including claims that ‘he is an open devotee of divinations and dreams, and a necromancer working with an oracular spirit.’ He was also accused of murdering four previous popes, including Alexander II, and of being devoted to ‘obscene theatrical shows’. Having recorded these crimes with considerable relish, the bishops elected Archbishop Wibert of Ravenna as pope. He took the name of Clement III in honour of the first German pope, Clement II.

As with earlier schisms, this conflict produced a flurry of historical research into earlier papal texts supporting the claims of one side or the other, and the invention of new ones when required. Thus in the 1080s lawyers working for Clement III forged a decree of the obscure Pope Leo VIII (963-965), stating that it was the emperor who made the pope. Around 1085 an Italian bishop driven into exile by the reformers wrote to Henry IV to show that the Liber Pontificalis proved that bishops and popes should be appointed by kings and emperors. He further cited Otto III’s mutilation of ‘a certain false pope’ (John XVI) and Henry II sitting in judgement on three papal claimants at Sutri in 1046. Biblical exegesis was also used to comment on the current crisis, particularly by a circle of writers patronised by Matilda of Tuscany.

In 1080 Henry killed the ‘anti-king’ Rudolf, enabling him to intervene more effectively in Italy. In March 1084 he and his army entered Rome, while Gregory VII took refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo. Clement III was formally elected pope by the Roman clergy and people, and then crowned Henry emperor. But in May the approach of Gregory’s Norman allies, led by Robert Guiscard, made Henry and his antipope withdraw. The Normans sacked Rome and massacred those who resisted, an episode long remembered. Evidence of the destruction has been found on the Caelian where the basilicas of San Clemente and the Quattro Sancti Coronati were burned down. In consequence Gregory himself was expelled by the infuriated populace when the Normans departed and took refuge with them in the south, dying in May 1085. He was canonised by Paul V in 1606.

Related to Gregory’s attempt to create a new order within Christian society under papal leadership was his concern for its defence against external enemies. During the unstable period that followed the ending of the Macedonian dynasty in 1057, the Eastern empire was threatened by the Seljuk Turks. After their decisive defeat of the emperor Romanus IV (1068-1071) at the battle of Manzikert in 1071, Seljuk warlords overran Asia Minor and carved out new states for themselves. Unable to replace the army lost at Manzikert, the emperor Michael VII (1071-1078) asked the pope to secure military aid from the West, promising a restoration of relations between Rome and Constantinople on papal terms.

On 1 March 1074 Gregory issued a general letter ‘to all who are willing to defend the Christian faith’, stating that ‘a race of pagans has strongly prevailed against the Christian empire . . . it has slaughtered like cattle many thousands of Christians.’ In a private letter to Matilda of Tuscany, he said he intended to lead the expedition in person, although expecting it would result in his martyrdom. Later the same year he told King Henry IV that he hoped to form an army 50,000 strong and hinted that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem would be its destination. In practice, this expedition hardly made it onto the drawing board, any more than did a proposal by the French Count Ebles de Roucy to raise an army to fight against the Muslims in Spain, which Gregory backed in 1073. His predecessor, Alexander II, may have sanctioned what in retrospect has been seen as the prototype crusade: a similar French expedition in 1064 that crossed the Pyrenees to take the fortress of Barbastro in Aragón, only to lose it again the next year.

Where Gregory had more success in the Iberian peninsula was in trying to suppress the Mozarabic liturgy, the distinctive liturgical tradition of the church in Spain, whose texts, music and ritual distinguished it from Roman and Frankish equivalents. The pope relied upon a mythical tale of a visit to Spain by seven bishops, supposedly sent by Peter and Paul themselves, to claim that ‘it is sufficiently clear how great a concord Spain enjoyed with the city of Rome in religion and the ordering of the divine office.’ But this uniformity in faith and worship, he argued, had been broken firstly by the spread of heresy and then by the conquest of Spain by the Goths and subsequently by the Arabs. In 1074 he demanded of King Alfonso VI of Castile (1072-1109) that he and the church in his kingdom ‘recognise the Roman church as truly your mother . . . and that you receive the order and office of the Roman church, not of the Toledan or any other, but that like the other kingdoms of the west and north, you hold to that which has been founded through Christ by Peter and Paul upon the firm rock and consecrated by their blood, against which the gates of hell, that is the tongues of heretics, have never been able to prevail.’

Despite argument and prevarication by both the monarch and his bishops, the Mozarabic liturgy was formally renounced at a synod held in Burgos in 1087 and replaced by the papally approved service books, which, however, were not purely Roman in origin but contained a strong admixture of Frankish elements. In reality the papal view that there had once been a uniform Latin liturgy of Roman origin used by all the churches of the West and that local variants, such as the Spanish Mozarabic rite or the Ambrosian one followed in Milan, were deviations caused by loss of communication with Rome was entirely mistaken.

Gregory’s death in Salerno in May 1085 left his supporters divided, and only a year later could they agree on a successor, the Lombard aristocrat Desiderius, abbot of the great monastery of Monte Cassino since 1058. Taking the name of Victor III, he was opposed not only by the antipope Clement III but also by the more uncompromising followers of Gregory, since he had once tried to broker a compromise with Henry IV. Victor was driven from Rome four days after his election by popular rioting, and withdrew to Monte Cassino, refusing to function as pope until reconfirmed by a synod of bishops meeting at Capua in March 1087. Two months later his supporters led by the Norman prince of Capua and Countess Matilda of Tuscany seized control of the Leonine City, the fortified area around St. Peter’s, where he was finally consecrated on May 9. Although the antipope was expelled from Rome in June, Victor spent most of his short pontificate in Monte Cassino, dying there on 16 September.

By this time Clement III had regained Rome, and it was not until March 1088 that the reform party was able to meet at Terracina, to elect Odo de Châtillon, who became Urban II (1088-1099). A French aristocrat and former monk of Cluny, he had been made cardinal bishop of Ostia by Gregory VII in 1080 and papal legate in Germany in 1084. He was an unwavering Gregorian, writing ‘in all things trust and believe in me as in my blessed lord Pope Gregory,’ and thus could reconcile those who had refused obedience to Victor III. He reconfirmed the reform programme through the decrees of a synod he held at Melfi under Norman protection in 1089.

Control of Rome continued to fluctuate, with Urban having to abandon the city to Henry IV and Clement III in 1090 to take refuge again with the Normans. He regained part of the city in 1093 and was triumphantly reinstalled by the army of the bellicose Matilda of Tuscany (whose armour was preserved as late as the seventeenth century) in 1096, but Clement III did not lose his last hold on Rome until 1098, when the Castel Sant’Angelo fell. Clement withdrew to his archbishopric of Ravenna, where he died in September 1100.

Just as Urban’s position in Rome gradually improved throughout the 1090s so did his wider standing in Western Christendom. Compromise was necessary to bring this about, something Gregory VII would never have contemplated. No reconciliation proved possible with Henry IV, but papal relations with France recovered from threats by Gregory VII to excommunicate its king Philip I for marrying a near relative. In England Urban had to concede in 1095 that his legates would only enter the kingdom with royal consent, and he was unable to persuade King William II (1087-1100) to admit Anselm, his appointee as archbishop of Canterbury. Papal involvement in Spain was more warmly welcomed, following Alfonso VI of Castile’s conquest of Toledo in 1085 and the reinstatement of its archbishopric as the primatial see for all the Iberian Peninsula by Urban II in 1088.

The principles of the reform programme, especially the removal of lay involvement in the selecting and investing of bishops, continued to be reiterated, particularly at the council Urban held at Clermont in 1095 and in his last synod in Rome in 1099. Such decrees did not provoke the frequent confrontations that had marked the pontificate of Gregory VII, not least because Urban had other more urgent objectives, notably his aim to persuade Christians in the West to join in an expedition to Jerusalem.

The loss of Urban II’s letters and the text of the sermon he preached at the opening of the Council of Clermont in November 1095 make it impossible to know how he presented the objectives of what became the First Crusade. The Eastern emperor Alexius I (1081-1118), founder of the Comnenian dynasty, had sent envoys to the pope earlier in 1095, asking him to raise military aid from the West for his campaigns against the still expanding Seljuks in Asia Minor. However, following the lead of Gregory VII in his plan to march to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Urban focussed instead on calling for an expedition to restore Christian rule over Jerusalem. And two weeks before he died, it was achieved.

Reconquest, Holy War, and Crusade I

Caliphate of Córdoba, circa 1000

When the crusaders assaulted and captured Jerusalem in July 1099 the struggle between Christians and Muslims in Spain had been in progress for nearly four hundred years. From 711, when a mixed force of Arabs and Moroccan Berbers crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and overthrew the Visigothic kingdom, until the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031, Muslim supremacy in Spain was unquestioned. As the seat of Islamic power was Córdoba, an eccentric location in the southern part of the peninsula, the Muslims did not permanently occupy large stretches of mountainous zones in the north. That made it possible for small groups of Christians to form the tiny, independent states of Asturias, León, Castile, Navarre, Aragón, and Catalonia. Clinging to the Cantabrian and Pyrenees mountains, this congeries of Christian enclaves, variously ruled by kings or counts, was kept on the defensive for nearly three hundred years, as Muslim armies marched northward every summer to ravage their lands but never to conquer them. In those early centuries a no-man’s land stretching along the Duero River from the Atlantic to the borders of Aragón separated Christian and Muslim territory, but it was many years before the Christians dared to venture southward to occupy that zone. As the Christian population increased a gradual movement toward the Duero occurred and the process of settling that frontier zone commenced. In the northeast, however, Muslim rule reached as far north as the foothills of the Pyrenees until the late eleventh century.

After the occupation of the Duero valley, the Christians took advantage of the breakup of the Caliphate to move into the Tagus valley, capturing Toledo in 1085. The invasions of the Almoravids (al-murābiṭūn) from Morocco soon afterward and of the Almohads (al-muwaḥḥidūn) in the middle of the twelfth century put the Christians on the defensive again, however, and temporarily checked their advance. Early in the thirteenth century victory over the Moroccans enabled the Christians to press forward to the Guadiana River and to capture the principal towns of the Guadalquivir valley. By mid-century all of Islamic Spain was in Christian hands except the tiny kingdom of Granada, and that was reduced to tributary status to Castile-León. Occupying the central meseta, the largest segment of the peninsula, the kingdom of Castile-León maintained a contiguous frontier with the Muslims until Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. Meanwhile, the kingdoms of Portugal on the west and Aragón-Catalonia on the east had expanded as fully as possible by the middle of the thirteenth century, and their boundaries would remain fixed thereafter save for some minor adjustments. Thus in the closing centuries of the Middle Ages the conquest of Islamic lands remained the primary responsibility of the kings of Castile-León.

Reconquest, Holy War, and Crusade

When the crusaders assaulted and captured Jerusalem in July 1099 the struggle between Christians and Muslims in Spain had been in progress for nearly four hundred years. From 711, when a mixed force of Arabs and Moroccan Berbers crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and overthrew the Visigothic kingdom, until the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031, Muslim supremacy in Spain was unquestioned. As the seat of Islamic power was Córdoba, an eccentric location in the southern part of the peninsula, the Muslims did not permanently occupy large stretches of mountainous zones in the north. That made it possible for small groups of Christians to form the tiny, independent states of Asturias, León, Castile, Navarre, Aragón, and Catalonia. Clinging to the Cantabrian and Pyrenees mountains, this congeries of Christian enclaves, variously ruled by kings or counts, was kept on the defensive for nearly three hundred years, as Muslim armies marched northward every summer to ravage their lands but never to conquer them. In those early centuries a no-man’s land stretching along the Duero River from the Atlantic to the borders of Aragón separated Christian and Muslim territory, but it was many years before the Christians dared to venture southward to occupy that zone. As the Christian population increased a gradual movement toward the Duero occurred and the process of settling that frontier zone commenced. In the northeast, however, Muslim rule reached as far north as the foothills of the Pyrenees until the late eleventh century.

After the occupation of the Duero valley, the Christians took advantage of the breakup of the Caliphate to move into the Tagus valley, capturing Toledo in 1085. The invasions of the Almoravids (al-murābiṭūn) from Morocco soon afterward and of the Almohads (al-muwaḥḥidūn) in the middle of the twelfth century put the Christians on the defensive again, however, and temporarily checked their advance. Early in the thirteenth century victory over the Moroccans enabled the Christians to press forward to the Guadiana River and to capture the principal towns of the Guadalquivir valley. By mid-century all of Islamic Spain was in Christian hands except the tiny kingdom of Granada, and that was reduced to tributary status to Castile-León. Occupying the central meseta, the largest segment of the peninsula, the kingdom of Castile-León maintained a contiguous frontier with the Muslims until Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. Meanwhile, the kingdoms of Portugal on the west and Aragón-Catalonia on the east had expanded as fully as possible by the middle of the thirteenth century, and their boundaries would remain fixed thereafter save for some minor adjustments. Thus in the closing centuries of the Middle Ages the conquest of Islamic lands remained the primary responsibility of the kings of Castile-León.

The Reconquest: Evolution of an Idea

The preceding historical sketch summarizes a long period in the history of medieval Spain that Spanish historians have called the Reconquista. The reconquest has been depicted as a war to eject the Muslims, who were regarded as intruders wrongfully occupying territory that by right belonged to the Christians. Thus religious hostility was thought to provide the primary motivation for the struggle. In time, the kings of Asturias-León-Castile, as the self-proclaimed heirs of the Visigoths, came to believe that it was their responsibility to recover all the land that had once belonged to the Visigothic kingdom. Some historians assumed that that ideal of reconquest persisted without significant change throughout the Middle Ages until the final conquest of Granada and the inevitable union of Castile and Aragón under Ferdinand and Isabella.

Nevertheless, in the last thirty years or so historians have challenged these assumptions, asking whether it is even appropriate to speak of reconquest. Did the reconquest really happen or was it merely a myth? If it is legitimate to speak of reconquest, then what exactly is meant by that term? Doubts about the validity of this idea are reflected, for example, in Jocelyn Hillgarth’s consistent placement of the word “Reconquest” in quotation marks. However that may be, Derek Lomax pointed out that the reconquest was not an artificial construct created by modern historians to render the history of medieval Spain intelligible, but rather “an ideal invented by Spanish Christians soon after 711” and developed in the ninth-century kingdom of Asturias. Echoing Lomax’s language, Peter Linehan remarked that “the myth of the Reconquest of Spain was invented” in the “880s or thereabouts.” Like all ideas, however, the reconquest was not a static concept brought to perfection in the ninth century, but rather one that evolved and was shaped by the influences of successive generations. In order to assess these views it is best first to trace the origins of the idea of the reconquest in the historiography of the early Middle Ages.

The Loss of Spain and the Recovery of Spain

The idea of the reconquest first found expression in the ninth-century chronicles written in the tiny northern kingdom of Asturias, the so-called Prophetic Chronicle, the Chronicle of Albelda, and the Chronicle of Alfonso III, which proposed to continue the History of the Gothic Kings of Isidore of Seville (d. 636).6 These texts, written in Latin no doubt by churchmen, have generally been associated with the royal court and probably reflect the views of the monarch and the ecclesiastical and secular elite. What ordinary people thought is unknown, but the chroniclers developed an ideology of reconquest that informed medieval Spanish historiography thereafter. The Chronicle of Alfonso III also served as the basis for subsequent continuations in the eleventh and twelfth centuries by Sampiro, bishop of Astorga (d. 1041), Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo (d. 1129), and the anonymous author of the Chronicle of Silos.

The history of the idea of the reconquest may be said to begin with the collapse of the Visigothic Monarchia Hispaniae of which Isidore of Seville spoke. From their seat at Toledo, the Visigoths were believed to have extended their rule over the whole of Spain, including Mauritania in North Africa, in other words over the whole Roman diocese of Spain. Given the interest of medieval and early modern Spaniards in the possibility of conquering Morocco, it is well to remember that they knew that Mauritania or Tingitana was anciently one of the six provinces of the diocese of Spain. In the early fourteenth century Alfonso XI of Castile (1312–50), repeating the language of the canonist Álvaro Pelayo, laid claim to the Canary Islands because, as part of Africa, the Islands were said to have once been subject to Gothic dominion. In the fifteenth century Alfonso de Cartagena made much the same argument. The concept of a unified and indivisible kingdom embracing the entire Iberian peninsula, though it hardly corresponded to reality, was one of the most significant elements in the Visigothic legacy. That idea was reflected in the thirteenth-century account of Infante Sanchos protest against the plans of his father, Fernando I (1035–65), king of León-Castile, to partition his dominions among his sons: “In ancient times the Goths agreed among themselves that the empire of Spain should never be divided but that all of it should always be under one lord.”

The Muslim rout of King Rodrigo (710–711), the “last of the Goths,” at the Guadalete river, on 19 July 711, brought the Visigothic kingdom crashing to the ground and changed the course of Spanish history in a radical way. The contemporary Christian Chronicle of 754, written in Islamic Spain, deplored the reign of King Rodrigo, “who lost both his kingdom and the fatherland through wicked rivalries.” Decrying the disaster that befell the Visigoths, the chronicler lamented that “human nature cannot ever tell all the ruin of Spain and its many and great evils.” The Prophetic Chronicle declared that “through fear and iron all the pride of the Gothic people perished . . . and as a consequence of sin Spain was ruined.” In varying degrees the ninth-century Asturian chroniclers mourned the loss or extermination of the Gothic kingdom, the ruin of Spain, and the destruction of the fatherland. Similar language appears in the chronicles of later centuries.

By contrast with the catastrophic loss of Spain, the chroniclers tell us that through Divine Providence liberty was restored to the Christian people and the Asturian kingdom was brought into being. This reportedly occurred when the majority of the Goths of royal blood came to Asturias and elected as king Pelayo (719–737), son of Duke Fáfila, also of the royal line. Pelayo, formerly a spatarius or military officer in the Visigothic court, supposedly was King Rodrigo’s grandnephew. When faced with an overwhelming Muslim force demanding that he surrender, Pelayo, in the chronicler’s words, responded:

I will not associate with the Arabs in friendship nor will I submit to their authority . . . for we confide in the mercy of the Lord that from this little hill that you see the salvation of Spain (salus Spanie) and of the army of the Gothic people will be restored. . . . Hence we spurn this multitude of pagans and do not fear [them].

The ensuing battle of Covadonga, fought probably on 28 May 722, was a great victory for Pelayo, for “thus liberty was restored to the Christian people . . . and by Divine Providence the kingdom of Asturias was brought forth.” Among the Asturians the battle of Covadonga became the symbol of Christian resistance to Islam and a source of inspiration to those who, in words attributed to Pelayo, would achieve the salus Spanie, the salvation of Spain.

The inevitability and the inexorability of the struggle that Pelayo commenced was stressed by the Chronicle of Albelda, which declared that “the Christians are waging war with them [the Muslims] by day and by night and contend with them daily until divine predestination commands that they be driven cruelly thence. Amen!” Recording the prophecy that the Muslims would conquer Spain, the Prophetic Chronicle expressed the hope that “Divine Clemency may expel the aforesaid [the Muslims] from our provinces beyond the sea and grant possession of their kingdom to the faithful of Christ in perpetuity. Amen.!”

Identifying the Goths with Gog and the Arabs with Ishmael, the author of the Prophetic Chronicle offered this reflection on the words of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 38–39) addressed to Ishmael: “Because you abandoned the Lord, I will also abandon you and deliver you into the hand of Gog . . . and he will do to you as you did to him for one hundred and seventy times [years].” Although the Goths were punished for their crimes by the Muslim invasion, the chronicler proclaimed that “Christ is our hope that upon the completion in the near future of one hundred and seventy years from their entrance into Spain the enemy will be annihilated and the peace of Christ will be restored to the holy church.” Calculating that those one hundred and seventy years would be reached in 884, the author predicted that “in the very near future our glorious prince, lord Alfonso, will reign in all of Spain.” Aware of Alfonso III’s (866–910) recent successes against the Muslims, as well as internal disorders afflicting Islamic Spain, the chronicler was confident that the days of Muslim domination were numbered. This anticipation of the imminent destruction of Islam proved illusory, but the hope persisted for centuries.

The notion of continuity existing between the new kingdom of Asturias and the old Visigothic kingdom, whether actual or imagined, had a major influence on subsequent development of the idea of reconquest. The ninth-century chroniclers were at pains to establish the connection between the old and new monarchies, identifying the people of Asturias with the Goths, and linking the Asturian kings to the Visigothic royal family. Indeed, the chroniclers consciously conceived of themselves as continuing Isidore’s Gothic History. According to the Chronicle of Albelda, Alfonso II (791–842) “established in Oviedo both in the church and in the palace everything and the entire order of the Goths as it had been in Toledo.” Exactly what that meant is not entirely certain, but the purpose of the statement was to affirm the link between Asturias and the Visigothic kingdom, however tenuous that might be.

The Gothic connection thus established was repeated again and again in subsequent centuries, though without any further attempt at proof. For example, the twelfth-century author of the Chronicle of Silos described Alfonso VI, king of León-Castile (1065–1109) as “born of illustrious Gothic lineage.” Two centuries later, Álvaro Pelayo recalled that Alfonso XI was descended from the Goths. When Enrique of Trastámara claimed the throne in opposition to his half-brother Pedro the Cruel (1350–69), he declared that “the Goths from whom we are descended” chose as king “the one whom they believed could best govern them.” Fifteenth-century expressions of this sort were commonplace, and even Ferdinand and Isabella were reminded of their Gothic ancestry. By asserting, though not demonstrating, the bond between the medieval kings and their supposed Visigothic forebears, the chroniclers also underscored the close link between the Visigothic monarchy and its purported successor in Asturias-León-Castile. In doing so they justified the right of the medieval kings, as heirs of the Visigoths and of all their power and authority, to reconquer Visigothic territory and restore the Visigothic monarchy.

The emergence of the kingdoms of Portugal and Aragón-Catalonia in the twelfth century, and to a lesser extent, of Navarre, necessitated some readjustment in Castilian thinking as it became apparent that the eastern and western monarchies would also have their share of the old Visigothic realm. In expectation of the inevitability of conquest, the kings of Castile, León, and Aragón optimistically made several treaties that will be discussed in later chapters, partitioning Islamic Spain. Even more optimistically the kings of Castile and Aragón concluded a treaty in 1291 providing for the partition of North Africa, allotting to Castile Morocco—ancient Mauritania—over which the Visigoths reportedly had once held sway, and to Aragón Algeria and Tunis.

Reconquest and Holy War

The Christian struggle against Islamic Spain can be described as a war of both territorial aggrandizement and of religious confrontation. In speaking of the warlike activities of the Asturian kings the chroniclers tell us that the king “extended the kingdom” or “expanded the land of the Christians with the help of God.” The greatest encomium that could be bestowed on the monarch was that he had increased the extent of his dominions. The thirteenth-century Latin Chronicle, for example, emphasized that Fernando I “liberated Coimbra from the hands of the Moors.” Later in the century, Fray Juan Gil de Zamora remarked that Alfonso III had “liberated from Arab dominion” Gallia Gothica (southeastern France and Catalonia), Vasconia (the Basque provinces), and Navarre. Then, after repeatedly noting that “Spain was recovered” (recuperate fuit Hispania) or “liberated” (liberata fuit) by this king or that, he summed up the process by commenting that “Spain was recovered by many noble kings.”

Among them was Fernando III (1217–52), who, as he lay on his deathbed, admonished his son, the future Alfonso X (1252–84), as follows:

My Lord, I leave you the whole realm from the sea hither that the Moors won from Rodrigo, king of Spain. All of it is in your dominion, part of it conquered, the other part tributary. If you know how to preserve in this state what I leave you, you will be as good a king as I; and if you win more for yourself, you will be better than I; but if you diminish it, you will not be as good as I.

In effect, after recalling the reconquest of lands lost by Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king, Fernando III urged his son to continue a policy of territorial aggrandizement and expansion.

While the king might hope to increase the size of his kingdom, the soldiers who did his bidding often were motivated, as we shall see, by the desire to enrich themselves and to raise their social standing by the acquisition of booty. Beyond that, they looked for pasturage for their flocks, and over the centuries extended the sheepwalks or cañadas from the northern stretches of Castile into Andalucía (Ar. al-Andalus). They were also anxious to secure land for cultivation, to acquire the wealth of Islamic Spain, and ultimately to control markets and means of production. In order to accomplish all that they had first to dominate a given territory and to hold it by the establishment of fortified settlements or by taking possession of old Roman towns then in Muslim hands.

The ideas of territorial aggrandizement and religious expansion were coupled in the late eleventh century, just before the First Crusade, when Sancho I Ramírez, king of Aragón and Navarre (1063–94), expressed his aspirations in this way:

Let it be known to all the faithful that for the amplification of the Church of Christ, formerly driven from the Hispanic regions, I, Sancho . . . took care to settle inhabitants in that place [Montemayor] . . . for the recovery and extension of the Church of Christ, for the destruction of the pagans, the enemies of Christ, and the building up and benefit of the Christians, so that the kingdom, invaded and captured by the Ishmaelites, might be liberated to the honor and service of Christ; and that once all the people of that unbelieving rite were expelled and the filthiness of their wicked error was eliminated therefrom, the venerable Church of Jesus Christ our Lord may be fostered there forever.

In other words, the liberation of the kingdom, following the destruction and expulsion of the Muslims and the extirpation of their rite, would result in the recovery, growth and fostering of the Christian religion.

Damian Smith suggested that the reforming popes of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries influenced the idea of reconquest by their use of such words as recuperare, restituere, liberare, reparare, reddere, reuocare, restaurare, and perdere. Urban II, for example, referred to the liberation of the church of Toledo and commended the efforts of the count of Barcelona to restore the church of Tarragona. Noting the restoration of the metropolitan see of Toledo, Paschal II remarked that the church there “was ripped from the yoke of the Moors and the Moabites.” Such language, although referring primarily to the restoration or liberation of churches, likely reinforced the idea of territorial liberation or reconquest.

Muslim authors were aware of the Christian ambition to dispossess them. ʿAbd Allāh, king of Granada (1073–90), commented in his memoirs that “the Christians’ thirst for al-Andalus became quite evident.” The early fourteenth-century Moroccan chronicler, Ibn ʿIdhārī, whose work reliably reflects traditions handed on by his sources, reported that Fernando I made the following reply to a deputation from Islamic Toledo seeking his help against their fellow Muslims of Zaragoza:

We seek only our own lands which you conquered from us in times past at the beginning of your history. Now you have dwelled in them for the time allotted to you and we have become victorious over you as a result of your own wickedness. So go to your own side of the Strait [of Gibraltar] and leave our lands to us, for no good will come to you from dwelling here with us after today. For we shall not hold back from you until God decides between us.

Thus the Christians made plain their belief that the Muslims had no right to the lands they held and would eventually be driven out.

Territorial conquest undoubtedly prompted many military actions along the frontier and may have been uppermost in the minds of many warriors over the centuries. Religious considerations, however, also fueled the struggle against Islam. Menéndez Pidal remarked that “the war of reconquest always had a religious character” and Sánchez Albornoz emphasized that the struggle with the Muslims “was not only a war of reconquest, but also of religion, and it was maintained, not only by the desire to recover territory, but also by hatred between creeds.”

Such a war may be described as a holy war, though to do so is surely a travesty. War, which of its very nature entails the destruction of life, the infliction of extreme harm on human beings, and the ruination of crops, homes, churches, temples, and other structures, is not holy or sacred. The type of war of which we are speaking was not holy but rather religious. A religious war was a conflict between two societies, in each of which the spiritual and the temporal, the sacred and the secular, were wholly integrated. In such a society religion and religious values were paramount, touching upon and regulating every aspect of individual and community life. Full participation in the community was dependent upon one’s adhering to the community’s religion.

By proclaiming oneself a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, one espoused not only specific religious doctrines such as the Christian dogma of the Trinity, or the absolute monotheism of the Muslims or the Jews, but one also accepted an entire system of cultural values affecting one’s daily life, habits, traditions, laws, and even language. Thus Christian and Muslim societies were mutually exclusive, by reason not only of social and legal differences, but above all because of religion which suffused every facet of life. Daily interaction between Christians and Muslims did contribute to a degree of acculturation, especially in matters of language and social usage, but there was no real possibility of the full integration of Christians into Muslim society or Muslims into Christian society. In each instance Christians or Muslims could only be protected minorities with limited political and legal rights.

The purpose of war against Islam was not to convert the Muslims. Aside from the challenge to Islamic rule by the ninth-century martyrs of Córdoba, and some Mozarabic apologetic treatises of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Hispanic Christians were remarkably passive in confronting Muslim theology. Those who did make an attempt to preach the Gospel among the Muslims tended to come from beyond the peninsula. One of the first recorded efforts of this sort was undertaken around 1074 by a Cluniac monk, Anastasius, who offered to prove the certitude of the Christian faith by undergoing an ordeal by fire; but when the Muslims proved obdurate, he “shook the dust from his feet” and returned home. Less than a century later, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, visited Spain and obtained a translation of the Qurʾān (done by the Englishman Robert of Ketton) so he could refute Islamic doctrine, but he did not initiate any serious effort at conversion. Although Mark, a canon of Toledo, also translated the Qurʾān early in the thirteenth century, that apparently did not prompt any missionary campaign. From time to time individual Muslims converted, but the popes and northern Europeans expressed greater interest than peninsular Christians in persuading the Muslims to adopt the Christian faith.

In time the Muslims came to be regarded as invaders wrongfully occupying territory that by right belonged to the Christians, and whose entire way of life was foreign to that of the Christians. Thus the aim of the conflict was to drive the Muslims from the peninsula. Sampiro of Astorga put that succinctly when he remarked that Fernando I appeared on the scene “to expel the barbarians.” The difficulty, if not the impossibility, of reconciling or assimilating different religious and cultural points of view was at the root of the conflict between the Christians and Muslims. Both sides came to understand that it would end only when the Christians completed the subjugation of the Muslims or ousted them from the peninsula. Though the discord was obviously based on religious antagonism, the term holy war or guerra santa appeared for the first time that I am aware of in fifteenth-century peninsular sources.

Some scholars have argued that a holy or religious war was totally contrary to Christian belief. Jaime Oliver Asín, for example, stated emphatically that “neither here [Spain] nor in any Christian country could there be born by itself alone a kind of war whose spirit was essentially anti-Christian: the propagation of religious faith by the violence of arms.” This statement misunderstands the nature of the war in Spain as well as the crusades to the Holy Land. Neither the reconquest nor the crusades were intended to convert anyone by force, but rather to evict them from territory claimed by the Christians or at least to subject them to Christian rule. Américo Castro, following Oliver Asín, argued that because warfare is inconsistent with the tenets of Christianity the source of the holy war must be sought in the teachings of Muḥammad. Castro concluded that “the holy war against the Muslims in Spain and Palestine, leaving aside the difference in its aims and consequences, was inspired by the jihād or Muslim holy war.” He also believed that the idea that those who fell in war against the “infidels” were martyrs to the faith was borrowed from Islam and was “simply a reflection of Islamic ideas and emotions.”

The Islamic concept of jihād (a word etymologically signifying any effort aimed at a specific objective) was a precept established in the Qurʾān. A religious duty incumbent upon all male members of the community, its aim was the subjugation of all people to the rule of Islam. This was an obligation that would continue until the rule of Islam had been extended throughout the entire world. Given the universal and unified nature of the Islamic community in theory, there could be no holy war against other adherents of the faith. Warfare against non-Muslims might be interrupted by truces (though these ought to be limited to a ten-year period), but there could never be permanent peace with them until they had finally submitted to Islam. Service in the holy war, according to Muḥammad, was the most meritorious of all works, bringing spiritual benefit to the participants. In several places in the Qurʾān God promised the reward of heavenly bliss to those dying in the holy war, who were accounted as martyrs (shuhadāʾ) to the faith.

It was understood that all peoples should be invited to embrace Islam, and only after they had refused to do so would the holy war be declared against them. In practice, pagan peoples were forced to accept Islam, but Christians and Jews, as “Peoples of the Book” (ahl al-kitāb), peoples who had received a revelation from the one true God, contained in their respective scriptural texts, were allowed to worship freely, provided that they submitted to Muslim rule, and paid both the poll tax (jizya) and the land tax (kharāj). The opportunity to participate in the holy war in Spain and to obtain religious merit and even entrance into paradise drew many volunteers to the peninsula. Al-Andalus, according to al-Ḥimyarī, was “a territory where one fights for the faith and a permanent place of the ribāṭ.” Following an ascetic regimen, volunteers (al-murābiṭūn) were stationed in frontier garrisons (ribāṭ) in defense of Islam.

The argument that the Christians had to borrow from Islam in this respect because of Christianity’s repugnance to the use of force needs to be subjected to close scrutiny. Given the obvious similarities between Christian and Muslim concepts of holy war, one could argue that the idea ultimately derives from the Hebrew Scriptures, a common source for both Christian and Muslim teaching. Even though the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” explicitly and without qualification prohibited killing, God directed Joshua, Judah Maccabee, and other Jewish leaders to take up arms and gave them victory over their enemies. Victory was attributable to God’s care for his people, and defeat was construed as a sign of his wrath, a punishment for sins. When the continuator of Lucas of Túy, described Fernando III as a new Joshua, he was doubtless aware of God’s promise to Joshua: “Your domain is to be all the land of the Hittites.” With that promise in mind Joshua instructed his officers: “Prepare your provisions, for three days from now you shall cross the Jordan here, to march in and take possession of the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you” (Josh. 1: 4, 10). After noting that Joshua “had conquered the kings who occupied the promised land,” the continuator went on to say that, like Joshua, Fernando III, had conquered the Muslim kings and “established the people of León and Castile, who are the sons of Israel, in the land of the Moors.”

Reconquest, Holy War, and Crusade II

Christians clearly were aware of the use of violence at God’s command in the Hebrew Scriptures, but they also knew that the fundamental message of the Gospel is peace. Jesus seemed to condemn all warlike activity when he declared that “all that take the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26: 52). Early Christian writers condemned the use of force to spread the Gospel and questioned or even denied the moral right of a Christian to follow a military career. Nevertheless, there is no explicit condemnation of war or of the military profession in the New Testament. Christians were expected to avoid the shedding of blood under any circumstances and especially in defense of religion. Once the empire became Christian after the conversion of Constantine, these attitudes began to change as more and more Christians held civil or military positions, where they exercised the authority to condemn guilty persons to death or to order men to kill in battle. In effect Christians accepted the authority of the state and its coercive power.

In these circumstances, St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), basing himself on Roman legal concepts, developed the western theological tradition concerning the legitimacy of warfare. He held that warfare is licit when undertaken for just cause under the direction of a duly constituted authority. The purpose of warfare was to establish peace and order. To achieve that end the state, like the individual, had an inherent, natural right of self-defense, against both internal and external enemies. Offensive war to punish those who inflicted harm without cause or to recover property seized wrongfully might also be undertaken. Thus, warfare, though abhorrent, was necessary at times. On the other hand, Augustine condemned the waging of war “through mere lust of dominion to crush and subdue people who do you no harm.” He asked: “What else is this to be called than great robbery?”

A just war was not identical with a religious war, but that transformation was not long in coming. The establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire eventually meant that sacred and secular interests were united in war which was thought of as being carried out in God’s name. In the Carolingian age the church was identified with the community that was often described simply as the populus christianus. The concept of the Christian people transcended ethnic, racial, or linguistic barriers. As members of the church, of the one Body of Christ, all Christians had responsibility for one another. The defense of Christian values was tantamount to the defense of society itself. Eventually Christians acknowledged that the use of force to achieve that purpose was justifiable.

Reflecting on papal attitudes toward Islam, John Gilchrist argued that from the eighth century onward the popes justified hostilities against the Muslims threatening southern Italy and the Mediterranean world by referring to the wars waged at God’s command in Sacred Scripture. Scant mention of Augustine’s theory of the just war appeared in papal and canonistic texts of the central Middle Ages. In general until the eleventh century Christians taught that warfare was sinful and inappropriate behavior for a follower of Christ. H. E. J. Cowdrey argued that Gregory VII played a decisive role in transforming Christian attitudes toward the use of force, “so that from being inherently sinful, it was, or at least might be, meritorious to engage in it, and so to promote ‘right order’ in human society by force of arms.” Gregory VII and the other reform popes of the late eleventh century and beyond justified their wars by branding their enemies as Anti-Christ and sanctioning the shedding of blood to maintain the rights of Christ and his Church. In that sense warfare was made holy or sacred.

One can fairly say that both Christian and Islamic societies, founded upon the unity of the sacred and the secular, drew upon the Hebrew Scriptures and their own respective traditions to arrive at a similar acceptance of warfare. One should also emphasize that the participation of Spanish Christians in the struggle against Islam was not based on any evangelical precept; nor was it their aim to convert the Muslims or to subjugate them to their rule, but rather to dispossess them entirely. Nevertheless, once the Christians in the thirteenth century began to occupy extensive Muslim lands, they found there an overwhelming Muslim presence which they could not easily get rid of. Thus, they treated subject Muslims, known as Mudejars, as a protected minority, whose status was similar to that of Christians living in Muslim lands.

The Populus Christianus Against the “Pagans”

The gulf separating Christians and Muslims in Spain is reflected in the language they used to refer to one another. Language mirrored their respective attitudes and often made plain their bitter animosity toward those whom they perceived as enemies. We may begin our inquiry by considering the names by which they identified one another.

Muslim authors referred to Christians in several ways. Rūm, meaning the Romans, was essentially an ethnic or political term without any pejorative connotations. In the eastern Mediterranean it referred to the Byzantines, but it was also extended to the entire Christian population. The words al-lshban (from Hispani or Spaniards), or al-Franj, the Franks or Catalans, both ethnic references, were also used. From time to time, reference was made to Christians or Nazarenes (naṣrānī), a description of their religious affiliation and their devotion to Jesus of Nazareth, but without implying any negative judgment. Terms such as boor (ʿilj) and foreigner or barbarian (ʿajamī), of course, suggested people of inferior social status. Very commonly used were the words infidel (kāfir), polytheist (mushrik), or idolater (ʿabid al-aṣnām), all of which reflected the Muslim opinion (expressed in the Qurʾān) that the Christians, by holding to the dogma of the Trinity, actually believed in three Gods rather than the one true God. On this account, one chronicler could say that “the land of the Christians is a land of idolatry (arḍ al-shirk).” Muslim authors also often described Christians as enemies of God (ʿadūw Allāh), and Christian rulers as tyrants (ṭāghiya). The mention of a ruler’s name was followed frequently by an imprecation: “May Allāh curse him!” “May Allāh damn him!” Despite these negative remarks Muslim authors, realizing that a triumph over a worthy adversary enhanced the quality of victory, at times exhibited a grudging respect for the abilities of Christian warriors.

The earliest Christian sources written immediately after the Muslim invasion are surprisingly silent concerning the nature of the religion professed by their conquerors. However, as the Muslim presence grew stronger and appeared more threatening, especially from the ninth century onward, Christian authors began to speak more often and more negatively about their adversaries, employing a variety of words, some of biblical derivation, some ethnic, and some condemnatory. Saraceni, Agareni, and Ismaelitae, all derived from the Book of Genesis (Gen. 16–17, 21, 25), appear primarily in the early Latin sources. As Sarah, the wife of the patriarch Abraham, failed to conceive, he turned to Sarah’s Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, who bore him a son Ishmael. The Prophetic Chronicle explained these terms to ninth-century readers: “The perverse Saracens think that they descend from Sarah; more truly the Agarenes are from Hagar, and the Ishmaelites from Ishmael.” Noting that “Abraham sired Ishmael from Hagar,” the chronicler then gave a genealogy from Ishmael to Muḥammad “who is thought by his followers to be a prophet.” A pejorative note was injected when Christians stressed that the Muslims were descended from the slave girl Hagar, rather than from Abraham’s legitimate wife Sarah.

Also of biblical origin, but quite anachronistic, were the words Chaldeans, used in the Hebrew Bible with reference to Babylon, and Moabites, a people settled east of the Dead Sea; the word Moabites was used most often to refer to the Almoravids, a Muslim sect who invaded Spain in the late eleventh century. The ethnic origin of one of the principal elements in the Muslim community was stressed when the sources mentioned the Arabs, though they were a distinct minority. When Christian authors referred to the Muslims as “pagans” they were in effect condemning them in much the same way as the ancient Romans who were charged as idolators because they did not believe in the Christian God.

Muslims were also commonly described as “infidels,” a term that literally designated men without faith, here meaning that they did not share the Christian faith. By calling them barbarians, Christian authors emphasized that the Muslims did not belong to the Christian community, but there was also an implication that they were less civilized than the Christians. The description of the Muslims as enemies of the cross of Christ (inimici crucis Christi), which became more common during the era of the crusades, emphasized the religious nature of the opposition to them.

Finally, we have the word mauri. The earliest citation of mauri that I have encountered is in the Chronicle of 754, but it does not appear in the Christian chronicles of Asturias-León until Bishop Sampiro used it in the eleventh century. Mauri referred to natives of Mauritania, the old Roman province in North Africa, and eventually appeared in the vernacular as moros, whence our Moors. Mauri or moros, an ethnic description not implying any condemnation, eventually supplanted nearly all of the other biblical and ethnic terms in common usage.

Although Muslims referred to Jesus respectfully, believing him to be one of the prophets, they pointed out the error of the Christians who declared him to be God. Eighth-century Christian chroniclers had little to say about Islam or Muḥammad, though the Byzantine-Arabic Chronicle of 741 recorded that the Muslims “worshipped him with great honor and reverence and affirmed in all their sacraments and scriptures that he was an apostle of God and a prophet.” By contrast, ninth-century Mozarabic writers, such as Eulogius (d. 859) and Aivarus (d. 861) of Córdoba, felt no compunction in denouncing Muḥammad as a perfidious and false prophet, and his religion as a false or damnable sect. The Chronicle of Albelda, for example, described him as the “wicked Muḥammad.” After remarking that he “was thought to be a prophet by his followers,” the Prophetic Chronicle included a life of Muḥammad, the pseudo-prophet, the heresiarch, who was buried in hell. Archbishop Rodrigo incorporated a life of Muḥammad into his History of the Arabs and also reported that the prophet was buried in hell. The twelfth-century Chronicle of Nájera spoke of the “superstitious Muḥammadan sect” and the thirteenth-century Poem of Fernán González condemned Muḥammad as “the man of wicked belief.” Comparing the Muslim leader al-Manṣūr, known to the Christians as Almanzor, and the count of Castile Fernán González respectively to Goliath and King David, the poet put these words in the mouth of the defeated Muslim: “Ay, Muḥammad, in an evil hour I trusted in you . . . all your power isn’t worth three fruit trees.” The Libro de Alexandre of the same century called the Muslims a “renegade people who pray to Muḥammad, a proven traitor,” and the Chronicle of 1344 referred to Muḥammad’s “wicked sect” and “wicked law.” Reminding Alfonso XI that his ancestors, the Gothic kings, were “the shield and protection of the faith of Christ,” a contemporary poet urged him “to honor the holy law [of Christ] by destroying the wicked law [of Muḥammad].” A century later, Fray Martín de Córdoba, spoke of the “dirty flies of Muḥammad.” These examples could be multiplied.

Muslim rulers were also mentioned with contempt. The Chronicle of Silos, recording the death of al-Manṣūr, the Muslim leader who ravaged the Christian states in the late tenth century, remarked that “he was seized by the devil who had possessed him in life and he was buried in hell.” The thirteenth-century poet Gonzalo de Berceo described the caliph as “lord of the pagans, the mortal enemy of all the Christians.” On the other hand, the History of Rodrigo, after recording the victories over the Muslims of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known as the Cid, uttered no word of condemnation and used no pejorative adjective to describe them.

Finally, one ought to observe that when Christian chroniclers speak of warfare against the Muslims, they generally speak of Christian armies and Christian soldiers, rather than Castilians, Leonese, Portuguese, Navarrese, Aragonese, or Catalans. In doing so they were highlighting the religious differences between the combatants.

Reconquest and Crusade

Now we may return to the question: is it appropriate to speak of reconquest, and if so what was it? Did the reconquest really happen? One may suppose that initial resistance to Islam in the northernmost sectors was prompted by a desire to protect one’s own and did not have any ideological coloration. Although Abilio Barbero and Marcelo Vigil argued that northern mountaineers opposing Muslim rule had previously been equally hostile to Roman and Visigothic attempts to subdue them, Bonnaz, Montenegro, and others have emphasized the continuing Gothic presence in Asturias. Whether or not Pelayo and his followers thought of themselves as engaged in the reconquest of the lost Visigothic kingdom is unknown, but in time an ideological framework for Christian opposition to Islam developed. The historiography of the late ninth century supposed a direct link between the Visigothic realm destroyed by Muslim invaders in 711 and the kingdom of Asturias-León-Castile. By implication the neo-Gothic peoples of the north, after resisting Muslim expansion, were merely reconquering land once belonging to their ancestors. Emphasizing that Divine Providence was on their side, the Christians concluded that the Muslims would inevitably be driven from Spain.

Richard Fletcher, however, declared unacceptable Menéndez Pidal’s suggestion that the ideal of reconquest set forth by the ninth-century chroniclers “remained the dominant concern of Spanish rulers, especially those of the succcessor-states in the Asturian kingdom in León and Castile, until the process was complete.” Indeed for most of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries the Christians were at the mercy of the Muslims and could only make weak and ineffectual efforts to oppose their intrusions. The chroniclers of the tenth and eleventh centuries scarcely touched on the theme of reconquest, inasmuch as the Christians had all they could do to survive the overwhelming power of the Caliphate. To speak of the expulsion of the Muslims and the recovery of Spain in such circumstances one would have had to have had great faith in God’s promises.

In the twelfth century, however, given changing political conditions, the possibility of reconquest became very real and from that point on reconquest ideology fills the pages of the Christian chronicles. According to Julian Bishko “the last years of the eleventh century witnessed a profound transformation in the nature, tempo, and course of the Spanish and Portuguese reconquest.” In much the same way, Roger Collins commented that “the eleventh century and the early twelfth marked a period of profound change in the peninsula, in which the ideology of the Reconquista was first born.” While an idea such as reconquest may not be tangible, it was nevertheless real in that it influenced the actions of Spanish kings and princes from the late eleventh century onward. Spain may not have been reconquered by the descendants of the Visigoths, but it certainly was reconquered by the Christians, who again and again expressed their belief that the recovery of Spain from Muslim hands was their ultimate objective. As Lomax remarked: “The Reconquest really did happen, in the sense already defined, and the Christians involved really did believe that they were recovering Spain for Christian political predominance.”

Too often the reconquest has been presented in a monolithic, institutionalized way, without nuance or variation. On the contrary, it was a process unfolding in the context of the changing political, religious, social, and economic circumstances of each epoch. It was characterized by a slow and intermittent advance from one river frontier to another and was accompanied by the colonization or repopulation of occupied territory. Thus Angus MacKay, following Sánchez Albornoz, emphasized that most historians “would agree . . . that the related concepts of the frontier and the reconquest provide the key to Spanish historical development.”

The reconquest has also been described as a crusade, although in a strict canonical sense crusades did not appear in Western Europe until the end of the eleventh century. Prior to that time northern Europeans had paid scant heed to peninsular events, but thereafter northern influences, including crusading ideology, permeated Spain in every way. In time the notion of crusading fueled traditionalist and nationalist fervor as generations of Spaniards were taught that for seven hundred years their ancestors almost singlehandedly had waged a crusade to hold back the Muslim hordes threatening to engulf Christian Europe. During the Spanish Civil War the effort of General Franco’s forces to bring down the Republic and destroy the republican opposition was described by propagandists as “our crusade” (nuestra cruzada), a term that suggested a religious struggle against the forces of godless communism. The twentieth-century crusade was an appeal to the medieval tradition of a crusade to drive the “infidels” from the peninsula.

Nevertheless, the study of crusading influences on the idea of the reconquest did not receive significant scholarly attention until more than forty years ago when José Goñi Gaztambide wrote his monumental study of the papal bull of crusade in Spain. A crusade, in his view, was “an indulgenced holy war” (una guerra santa indulgenciada), a war sanctioned by ecclesiastical authority (popes, councils, or bishops) who granted remission of sins to those taking part in it. Since then Spanish historians, perhaps assuming that everything had been said about the subject, have paid only minimal attention to it. Emphasizing the crusading nature of the thirteenth-century wars against the Muslims Robert I. Burns, however, commented that he had “relentlessly used the phrase ‘Crusader Valencia’ ” in the titles of his books and articles.

Students of the crusades usually tended to concentrate on the struggle to liberate the Holy Land in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and to ignore or even to deny that crusades also were undertaken in the Iberian peninsula. Some, however, have spoken of the war against Spanish Islam prior to the twelfth century as a pre-crusade and the wars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as crusades. Paul Rousset summed up the arguments in favor of the crusading character of those wars: they had papal encouragement, an international character because of French participation, and they were part of a general Christian offensive against Islam. On the contrary, he argued, the wars of the reconquest lacked the distinctive crusading indulgence, the wearing of the cross, and the intention of delivering the Holy Land. In much the same vein Hans Eberhard Mayer argued that the wars in Spain were holy wars, but not crusades. However, they “became a substitute for a crusade. French knights, chary of the difficult journey to Jerusalem, could instead fight Islam in Spain. The popes promoted this, recognizing it as the equivalent of a crusade.”

The collaborative A History of the Crusades published under the general editorship of Kenneth Setton tried to broaden that outlook by taking into account crusades against the Muslims in Spain, the pagan Slavs of Eastern Europe, the Albigensian heretics, and political opponents of the papacy. Julian Bishko’s lengthy chapter on the Spanish Reconquest was a notable contribution to that series. In spite of such major works as Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, crusading historians did not fully appreciate the nuances of canon law relating to the crusaders until the publication of James Brundage’s studies. In recent years English scholars have sparked a renewal of interest in the crusades and have incorporated the wars of the reconquest into the general theme of crusading history. Jonathan Riley-Smith, for example, defined the crusade as “an expedition authorized by the pope, the leading participants in which took vows and consequently enjoyed the privileges of protection at home and the Indulgence, which, when the campaign was not destined for the East, was expressly equated with that granted to crusaders to the Holy Land.” Quite recently, however, Christopher Tyerman has raised many questions, pointing to the ambiguity surrounding the notion of the crusade, especially in the twelfth century, and emphasizing the lack of a coherent crusading organization and structure.

The same may be said of the idea of the reconquest, which did not have an institutional or structural foundation; nor can one say that everyone involved in it was motivated in precisely the same way. The reconquest can best be understood as an ongoing process, which, though often interrupted by truces, remained the ultimate goal toward which Christian rulers directed their efforts over several centuries. Claiming descent from the Visigoths, they argued that they had a right, indeed an obligation, to recover the lands of the Visigothic kingdom; once Christian, those lands were now believed to be held unjustly by the Muslims. Thus the struggle for territory was placed in a religious context and the reconquest became a religious war between Christians and Muslims.

While the “traditionalists” among crusading historians limited the crusade to expeditions directed to Jerusalem, the “pluralists” (to use Tyerman’s characterization) emphasized the multiplicity and diversity of crusades proclaimed by the popes. My position obviously is with the “pluralists,” as I do not believe that the term crusade can only be applied to expeditions to the east. From the beginning the popes acknowledged that the war against Islam in Spain was as worthy of spiritual and material support as the effort to recover the Holy Land. In many instances the popes stated explicitly that Hispanic crusaders would gain the same spiritual benefits as those going to Jerusalem.

Unlike the reconquest, the crusade in Spain can be viewed as an event, a specific campaign, resulting from a proclamation by the pope, a council, a papal legate, or a bishop who granted remission of sins to those who would take up arms against the Muslims. Whereas kings often made donations of property for “the remission of my sins,” waging war against the Muslims as a way of atoning for sin was a new development principally of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. The proclamation of a crusade presupposed that the benefits offered would be preached to the faithful so that they could be recruited. Preachers presumably expected some declaration of intent on the part of the listener. Only in that way and by confessing his sins and receiving absolution could he obtain remission of sins. Thus the Hispanic crusader, like his eastern counterpart, probably took a vow to participate in the planned expedition and placed a cross on his garments as a sign of his intention. From time to time kings, nobles, and others took the crusader’s vow and set out to meet the enemy, fortified by the knowledge that their sins would be forgiven and that if they were killed in battle they would be rewarded with eternal life in heaven. Christian rulers recognized the recruiting value that a promise of remission of sins entailed and were quite prepared to take advantage of the spiritual and material benefits accruing from the crusade. Thus the canonical apparatus relating to crusading was adapted to the peninsular war against Islam. While the reconquest was a constant aim of the Christian kings, not every campaign of the reconquest was a crusade, but just as one might refer to Reconquest Spain, I believe it is entirely appropriate to speak of Crusading Spain. Papal crusading bulls are strewn across the pages of Spanish history and crusading ideas and wars had a profound impact on peninsular life.

The End of the Fourth Crusade and the Early Years of the Latin Empire, 1204–5 Part I

The story of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-61) is a convoluted and frustrating tale. The crusade had culminated in Baldwin’s coronation, but the attempt to consolidate this achievement meant years of warfare, brief periods of progress and peace and, for many of the main actors, a violent death. Yet the impact of the events of April 1204 went far beyond the walls of Constantinople. A change of such magnitude in the landscape of the Christian world had enormous consequences for many different peoples, not just those in and around the Byzantine Empire. The papacy, the Crusader States in the Levant, the families and countrymen of the crusaders back in western Europe, the Italian trading cities and the Muslim world: each had to calibrate and assess a political and religious topography that had never previously been conceived of. A full consideration of these issues would, however, fill another book and the main concern here is with the early years of the nascent Latin Empire.

In the first months of his reign Baldwin experienced two unexpected and agonising difficulties: the challenge of an internal rebellion and the tragedy of personal bereavement. After his coronation the new emperor started to allocate Byzantine lands to his followers, although many of these areas remained under hostile control. Baldwin had to defeat several challengers who included: Murtzuphlus, Alexius III, Theodore Lascaris (leader of a group of the Byzantine exiles and brother of Constantine Lascaris, the man elected emperor on the eve of the crusader conquest) and, most seriously of all, the powerful King Johanitza of Bulgaria. Given this formidable array of contenders there was every likelihood of a protracted and bloody fight to extend and sustain Latin rule in Greece, but before beginning this, the emperor had to confront an issue closer to home.

The March Pact of 1204 had stated that the unsuccessful candidate for the imperial throne would receive the Peloponnese peninsula and lands in Asia Minor. Following Baldwin’s coronation, Marquis Boniface wanted to renegotiate this: he wished to exchange the territories originally stipulated for the kingdom of Thessalonica, because the latter lay near the kingdom of Hungary – the royal house of his new wife. Boniface had a further interest in Thessalonica through his deceased brother Renier, who had been granted overlordship of the city by Manuel Comnenus as a part of his marriage gift in 1180. Villehardouin mentioned a ‘serious discussion of the pros and cons’ of the situation before Baldwin agreed to this proposal. Some of the emperor’s men opposed the idea, presumably because they had earmarked it for themselves and viewed it as a better prospect than territory in Asia Minor – land that was under threat from Theodore Lascaris and the Seljuk Turks. Boniface, however, had been the nominal leader of the crusade and, if Baldwin turned him down, he could simply leave for home, thereby depriving the Latins of one of their most powerful nobles. This fear of losing manpower had shaped the crusaders’ pre-election discussions and this same concern now surfaced again. The emperor granted Boniface the kingdom of Thessalonica, and amidst much rejoicing the marquis paid homage for the land.

The Latins’ first aims were to extinguish the threat of Murtzuphlus and to bring western Thrace under their authority. As Baldwin led a large army out from Constantinople, the aged doge and the infirm Louis of Blois, along with Conon of Béthune and Villehardouin, remained to preserve authority on the Bosphorus. The Latins’ initial target was Adrianople, a major city about 100 miles north-west of Constantinople, which soon submitted to an advance force led by Henry of Flanders. Murtzuphlus was known to be in the vicinity, but managed to stay ahead of the Latins to reach the settlement of Mosynopolis, around 160 miles west of Constantinople.

The ruler of this town was Alexius III, who had fled from the crusaders in July 1203. Might the two deposed emperors join forces to confront their mutual enemy? Initial contacts were extremely cordial. Alexius offered to give his daughter in marriage to Murtzuphlus (with whom she was already romantically involved) and suggested a formal alliance.

One day Murtzuphlus and a few companions came into Mosynopolis to dine and bathe. As soon as his principal guest arrived, Alexius took him aside into a private room where his men were waiting. They flung Murtzuphlus to the ground, held him down and tore his eyes out. The gestures of friendship had been a façade because Alexius III had no shred of trust for a man who had so callously murdered a rival, and he now showed similar ruthlessness in eliminating a challenger to his own position. Alexius III had signalled his determination to lead the opposition to the Latins alone. To Villehardouin this brutality was yet more evidence of the inherent duplicity of the Greeks: ‘Judge for yourselves, after hearing of this treachery, whether people who could treat each other with such savage cruelty would be fit to hold lands or would deserve to lose them?’ Once Baldwin heard of this gruesome act he marched towards Mosynopolis as fast as he could, but Alexius III departed and all the people of the region submitted to Latin rule.

At this moment, after years of close and effective co-operation, a serious rift developed between Baldwin and Boniface. Despite the emperor’s promise to give Thessalonica to the marquis, when Boniface asked permission to take control of the region and, at the request of its people, to fight off an incursion from the Bulgarians, Baldwin rejected the idea. The emperor decided to march there and take possession of the lands himself. Boniface was understandably enraged: ‘If you do, I shall not feel you are acting for my good. I must tell you clearly that I shall not go with you, but break with you and your army.’

Villehardouin was perplexed by these developments and wrote how ill-advised this breach was. One senses that his sympathies lay with Boniface and that he felt the emperor had taken bad counsel, perhaps from men who wanted parts of Thessalonica for themselves or who felt that the new emperor should assert his authority over the marquis. Baldwin would achieve the latter goal by going to the lands in person and then publicly bestowing them upon Boniface, rather than letting the marquis assume power by himself.

Furious at such shabby treatment, Boniface stormed away towards Demotika, south-west of Adrianople. Many nobles followed him, including the German contingent and warriors of the standing of Jacques of Avesnes and William of Champlitte. As Baldwin took possession of Thessalonica, Boniface made his displeasure clear: he seized the castle of Demotika from the emperor’s men and laid siege to Adrianople. Messengers rushed to Constantinople to tell Count Louis and Doge Dandolo of these troubling events. The senior crusaders cursed the people who had fomented this rupture, because they feared such divisions might expose them to the loss of all their hard-fought gains. Diplomacy was called for and once again Villehardouin came forward. He approached the marquis ‘as a privileged friend’ and reproached him for acting so rashly. Boniface countered by saying that his behaviour was entirely justified and that he had been grievously wronged. Eventually, Villehardouin persuaded him to place the matter in the hands of the doge, Count Louis, Conon of Béthune and himself. This core of men had been at the heart of the crusade throughout, and it is a mark of the respect in which they were held that Boniface agreed to this idea.

When Baldwin heard that the marquis had besieged Adrianople, his first reaction was one of anger and he wanted to rush to the city and confront him. The situation seemed to be spiralling out of control. Alas! What mischief might have resulted from this discord! If God had not intervened to put things right, it would have meant the ruin of Christendom,’ lamented Villehardouin.6 During the emperor’s stay outside Thessalonica a serious illness had hit the Latin camp. Amongst those who perished were the imperial chancellor, John of Noyon; Peter of Amiens, one of the heroes of the capture of Constantinople; and around 40 other knights. These losses were a grievous blow to the westerners and revealed how easily their numbers could be depleted. Perhaps such sad events brought Baldwin to his senses. When envoys from the crusaders in Constantinople arrived to mediate, some of his nobles decried this as impertinence. Baldwin, however, disagreed and came to see that, in the longer run, he could not alienate the quartet of senior men, as well as Marquis Boniface, and he consented to submit to the judgement of the four nobles.

Back in Constantinople the wise old heads quickly convinced the emperor of his mistake and of the need for reconciliation. Boniface was summoned to the city and many of his friends and allies came to greet him warmly. They organised a conference and decided that Thessalonica and its environs would be given to the marquis as soon as he handed over the castle of Demotika. When this was done, Boniface rode west to take hold of his rightful lands and most people in the region quickly came to recognise his authority.

It was at this point, in September 1204, after the resolution of this wasteful bout of in-fighting, that Villehardouin was able – for the only time in his history – to write of calm in Latin Greece. He said that ‘the land of Constantinople to Salonika [Thessalonica] was at peace. The road from one city to the other was so safe that although it took twelve days to cover the distance between them people were able to come and go as they pleased.’

The westerners began to extend their operations into the Greek islands and across the Bosphorus into Asia Minor. The Venetians took the islands of Corfu and Crete, two valuable and fertile areas in their own right, but also vital staging posts on the sea routes to and from the eastern Mediterranean. Louis of Blois planned the annexation of the duchy of Nicaea, although the count’s health remained poor and he sent the mighty Peter of Bracieux to make war on the Greeks there.

Around this same time the Latins achieved a genuine coup. The blinded Murtzuphlus had managed to escape from Alexius III and was trying to flee into Asia Minor, but informers betrayed his movements and he was captured and brought to Constantinople. The Latins were elated because at last they held the man who had murdered their candidate for the imperial throne, who had directed the fire-ships against them, and whose virulent anti-western invective had caused them so much suffering.

Murtzuphlus knew that he was going to pay a terrible price for his deeds and he could only hope that the westerners would be marginally less cruel than some of his own predecessors had been. In September 1185 Emperor Andronicus had met a particularly grisly fate. At the end of the coup that removed him from power he was seized by the supporters of Isaac Angelos, cast into prison and grotesquely tortured. One eye was gouged out, his teeth torn out, his beard pulled out and his right hand severed. He was paraded through the streets of Constantinople on the back of a mangy camel to face the spiteful savagery of the mob. Some poured human and animal excrement onto him, others pelted him with stones and a prostitute emptied a pot of her urine over his face. In the forum Andronicus was hung upside down and had his genitals hacked off. A few of the crowd thrust swords into his mouth, others between his buttocks, before finally, mercifully, Andronicus expired – surely one of the most public and hideous deaths of the medieval age.8 Could Murtzuphlus hope for greater mercy from the Latin ‘barbarians’?

Some form of hearing or show-trial was held and Murtzuphlus tried to justify the killing of Alexius IV. He claimed that the young emperor was a traitor to his people and that many others had supported his (Murtzuphlus’s) actions. There was, of course, some truth to these arguments, but no heed was paid to the Greek’s desperate pleas and he was sentenced to death. The question remained: how should the captive die?

Baldwin consulted with his nobles. Some recommended that Murtzuphlus should be dragged through the streets, others simply wanted him hanged. It was the doge of Venice who came forward with the solution. He argued that Murtzuphlus was too important a man to be hanged. ‘For a high man, high justice!’ he exclaimed. ‘In this city there are two columns . . . let us make him mount to the top of one of them and then have him thrown to the ground.’ The match of this play on words and the unpleasantness of the proposal pleased everyone and they agreed on death by precipitation. The form of punishment may also have been known to Baldwin and Henry of Flanders because similar executions had taken place earlier in the twelfth century in the city of Bruges.

In November 1204 Murtzuphlus was taken to the column of Theodosius in the Forum of the Bull. As he was led up the narrow steps inside, the baying of the crowd must have been temporarily muffled by the interior of the pillar. He had, of course, seen the column many times and knew where he stood, although now his lack of sight added a further element of hopelessness to his doomed situation.

Emerging from the narrow, cylindrical stairwell into the clear air on the top of the pillar, the defeated emperor must have sensed the space below him. There is no record of any prayers or speeches; one sharp push and he was propelled into the void, where his body fell feet first, accelerating and plummeting headlong, before twisting sideways to thump violently onto the stone ground, a ruptured and shattered sack of flesh and bone. Villehardouin claimed that the decoration of the column included a representation of a falling emperor and marvelled at the coincidence of this with Murtzuphlus’s death.

Within a few weeks the Latins would remove another challenger to their power when Alexius III was captured by Boniface near Thessalonica. The emperor’s scarlet stockings and imperial robes were dispatched to Constantinople to show what had happened and he was imprisoned. Alexius was not a figure so reviled as Murtzuphlus and he was sent to the marquis’s homelands in northern Italy.

Towards the end of 1204 the brief period of calm mentioned by Villehardouin was about to come to a close. Serious opposition to Latin rule began to appear: the Byzantine noble Theodore Lascaris led uprisings in Asia Minor, and in northern Thrace King Johanitza stirred tensions near Philoppopolis. The westerners faced the prospect of having to fight a war on two fronts – a task compounded by the failing health of their leaders. The doge found it difficult to leave Constantinople; Louis of Blois remained ill; and Hugh of Saint-Pol became crippled by gout that meant he could not walk. Fortunately, a large group of crusaders led by Stephen of Perche and Reynald of Montmirail, both cousins of Louis of Blois, arrived from Syria.

Stephen had left the main body of crusaders back in the autumn of 1202 when illness prevented him from embarking at Venice with the main fleet, although he had then chosen to sail to the Holy Land rather than Constantinople. Reynald had taken part in a diplomatic mission to the Levant following the capture of Zara but, contrary to his promise, he had failed to return to attack Byzantium. By late 1204, however, both men wished to assist their fellow-crusaders and perhaps hoped for a share in the spoils of victory.

The coming of Reynald and Stephen was not, however, wholly a cause for celebration: they carried the terrible news that Emperor Baldwin’s wife, Marie, had died of plague in the Holy Land. Her connections with the crusade were tragic and complex. Her brother, Thibaut of Champagne, had been the original choice to lead the expedition before his death. Marie had taken the cross with Baldwin, but could not accompany him because she was pregnant with their second child (they already had an infant daughter, Joan, born in 1199 or early 1200). Once she had given birth to another girl, Marie set off for Marseille, leaving her babies in the care of one of Baldwin’s younger brothers. Sadly, the two girls never laid eyes on either of their parents again. In the spring of 1204 Marie sailed towards Acre, ignorant of her husband’s second attack on Constantinople. Almost immediately after she landed, however, messengers told of his success and summoned her to Constantinople as the empress. Marie was delighted, but before she could begin her journey she fell victim to an outbreak of plague that ravaged the Crusader States at that time. She died in August 1204 and her husband’s envoys brought only a corpse to Constantinople, rather than the emperor’s adored and admired wife. Baldwin’s fidelity and devotion, so praised by Niketas Choniates, were cruelly unrewarded and he was crushed by these mournful tidings.