Some quick notes on the crusades

Here are some summarized forum responses I made on the subject of the crusades that I feel are worthy of putting up in a blog post. What I’m responding to has been edited to clarify the issue being discussed and increase the pomposity on my part. I normally wouldn’t bother putting up some forum responses in a blog post, but I’ve encountered these two common opinions before so I think it deserves at least some attention.

“Those “Christian” crusaders were clearly just out for blood and money! They even sacked Constantinople, the greatest Christian city of the east. Please help us understand some of the context to the Fourth Crusade, Master Lucas.”

It’s a lot more complicated than that. While I think that we can safely say that the actions of the crusaders were reprehensible, the Byzantines were not entirely innocent. Much of the blame has to fall on Manuel I Komnenos and his incompetent cousin Andronikos I Komnenos. Manuel for building great relations with the Latins, and thus giving the crusaders the realistic hope that they would actually received aid from Constantinople, giving them a reason to try to put a friendly regime in place there; and Andronikos for breaking all of Manuel’s alliances and destroying the good relations that he had with the Latins, going so far as to upset a good number of them. The Angeloi deserve some blame for general military incompetence as well.

It should also be remembered that many crusaders deserted from the Fourth Crusade when it became clear that the target was Constantinople (and many had been deserting earlier, as recorded by Geoffrey de Villehardouin, when the target was Egypt, showing that a large number of crusaders were more interested in doing the pilgrimage to Jerusalem than killing the “enemies” of Christendom) and the Pope Innocent III was furious when he learned that the crusaders took Constantinople and he excommunicated them.

“The crusades were totally justified! Those vile Muslims had been attacking Christendom for centuries, and were murdering pilgrims to Jerusalem. It was time to strike back! Please enlighten us on the eastern context behind the crusades.”

It’s important here to remember that there was no such thing as “the Muslims” or “the Christians.” There was no unified Islamic world in this period any more than there was a unified Christian world. The Turks who began attacking Byzantine and Armenian lands in the late 1050s were not part of any Islamic push to destroy Byzantium. Rather, they were the troublesome and uncontrollable semi-Islamic Turkoman raiders that had made up the core of Tugrul Beg’s army when he installed himself in Baghdad in 1055. He decided to play the part of a responsible Muslim ruler, and despite being Turkish, to not rely on his Turkish troops for his power. He assimilated himself into the traditional power structures in Baghdad and sent those uncontrollable elements of his army into the Caucasus, where presumably they would accomplish little and get killed off. That’s not what happened. They were successful against the Armenians and then the Byzantines, and this brought Baghdad and Constantinople into the conflict. Local politics in Constantinople demanded a military response and a large army was sent east. Familial politics made the ruling emperor Romanos IV Diogenes’ position perilous while on campaign and he needed a major victory to secure his support against the House of Doukas, who occupied Constantinople and major positions in the army. Up hearing news of a major Byzantine army in the east, the Seljuk Sulate Alp Arslan had to abandon his campaign against Egypt (yep, his efforts were directed at fighting other Muslims. He wasn’t invading Christian lands) and march upon Romanos, because the road to Baghdad was open to the Byzantines and it is not impossible that Romanos would take it since his position was imperiled. The Byzantines were defeated at Manzikert in 1071 and Romanos was captured. Rather than capitalize on this victory, the sultan let Romanos go and made very generous peace terms.

The loss of Anatolia only occurred during the next decade of civil war. An important question to ask is how these unorganized Turks managed to capture the hundreds of “Dark Age” forts that dotted the Anatolian landscape. The simple answer is they didn’t. They were let in by the Byzantines, who hired them as mercenaries and then used as garrison troops. As Byzantine power evaporated due to constant civil strife, there were no resources and no impetus to take the forts back. After all, all interest and power was focused on Constantinople, not the cities or kastra of rural Anatolia. These Turkish groups began to form larger polities in the wake of the lack of Byzantine power to do anything about the problem. One can hardly call this part of a concerted assault on Byzantium.

“The crusades were a proper response to Muslim aggression. They almost took Paris!”

Sure, it's an inaccurate 19th c. depiction of the battle, but I like it.

Two problems with this. The first is that bringing Paris into the equation is a rather sly attempt to suggest that western society would have been derailed had the Muslims taken Paris. I don’t deal in counterfactuals, but the anachronism is clear enough. Paris wasn’t much of anything in the eighth century. The accounts of the Viking attacks on Paris suggest that there wasn’t much there, and it only began to become an important center for the Franks after the establishment of the House of Capet in the Ille de France in 987. The Merovingian court was peripatetic, not based in Paris, so a conquest of Paris would probably have been irrelevant.  The second problem is that the Muslim “army” that Charles Martel defeated in 732 was not an army. It was a large Muslim raiding expedition, the kind of which regularly crossed the Tauros Mountains into Byzantine territory. This maintained a powerful body that was large enough that it was very hazardous for enemies to attack. Raiders fanned out from the main body. This was not a conquest army.

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