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The Holy Terror

In the year 1095, the Byzantine emperor appealed to the pope for help against the Islamic forces which for twenty years had been advancing through Asia Minor and which had now almost reached the Bosporous. Pope Urban II was himself by birth a member of the aristocratic military classes, whose spiritual aspirations he now decided to focus around the powerful symbolic issue of the recovery of the burial place of Jesus from Muslim rule. A war against Muslim forces in the Holy Land could be seen as fulfilling one of the prime conditions of a just war, counting as self-defense, since it was aimed both at recovering what had once been Christian territory and at relieving the Byzantine regime, bulwark of Christianity in the East, now under mounting military threat. A holy war to recover the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem could also be seen as the supreme penance for those participating—arduous, dangerous, costly in every sense, the ultimate penitential pilgrimage.

The psalms, the staple of the Church’s prayer, were filled with lamentations for the loss or oppression of Jerusalem, the city in which the drama of crucifixion and resurrection had been enacted. To eleventh-century Western pieties it seemed intolerable that the very stones sanctified by God’s death and resurrection should be in the hands of unbelievers; and that feeling intensified when, earlier in that century, a renegade Shiite ruler of Palestine, the Fatimid Caliph Hakim, broke with established Islamic toleration of Christian pilgrimage and ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For Pope Urban the liberation of Jerusalem from “abominable slavery” was the test of the resolve of Western Christendom to the cause of Christ. Here was a cause which went to the nerve center of contemporary religious sensibilities and anxieties, sanctified employment for the arms of Europe, and, because of its papal endorsement, guaranteed a means of expiation for all sins. And, as Tyerman points out, in case these religious incentives failed to stir the consciences of Europe, Urban, ever a realist as well as a reforming visionary, added the promise of wealth and power: “Rescue that land from a dreadful race, and rule over it yourselves.”

The response to Urban II’s proclamation of what came to be known as the First Crusade was staggering. His appeal was made in a year of prodigies. Spectacular meteor showers filled the heavens, and a bumper harvest suggested that God was miraculously providing supplies for the eastward march. Apocalyptic preaching by zealots like the diminutive evangelist from Picardy, Peter the Hermit, fueled popular excitement, and all over Europe tens of thousands flocked to take the crusade vow, whose emblem was a cross of cloth stitched on the clothing at shoulder or breast. From every country in Europe wave upon wave of armed men, some highly trained and well organized, others a rabble of poverty-stricken enthusiasts, flooded toward Constantinople, the normal route to the Holy Land.

Their arrival alarmed the Byzantine authorities almost as much as the Muslim advance, for in appealing to the pope they had envisaged help from a few bands of professional soldiers, not this invasion of half-savage Westerners, who appeared to their sophisticated Byzantine hosts as unappetizing as the busloads of tattooed, beer-fueled, and bellicose British soccer fans who travel Europe nowadays during World Cup competitions.

Many of the crusaders perished on the journey, many became disheartened and returned home, and those who made it to the Middle East were plunged into three years of famine, disease, and bloody and unrelenting conflict whose savagery would become legendary—notoriously, crusaders besieging Muslim strongholds catapulted the heads of executed prisoners over the walls to demoralize the defenders. The First Crusade culminated in a spectacular and apparently miraculous victory. After a desperate siege, Jerusalem fell to the combined Western armies on July 15, 1099. The bloody aftermath, though Tyerman makes it clear that it was exaggerated by contemporary chroniclers, would leave a permanent stain of genocide on the reputation of crusading. The victors, elated by success and agog both for loot and for vengeance after three long years of desperate danger and hardship, swarmed into the city and butchered everyone they found. Most of the Jewish population were burned alive in their synagogues. Muslim prisoners were coerced into carrying mounds of the dead outside the walls for cremation, and were then slaughtered themselves; the gutters ran with blood, and unburied corpses were still putrifying in the streets five months later. Blood was the cement for the rickety and quarrelsome federation of crusader states, known as “Outremer,” the land overseas, which now formed around the Holy Sepulchre, its precarious symbolic center at Jerusalem presided over (eventually) by a king, and spiritually by the Latin patriarch.

Jerusalem was eventually recovered for Islam in 1187 by the resourceful, civilized, and wily Sunni Muslim warlord Saladin (a Kurd born, by one of history’s little ironies, in Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit), for whose valor and magnanimity even contemporary Christian chroniclers admitted grudging admiration. But the dream of a Christian Holy Land would remain potent for the rest of the Middle Ages. Fresh crusades were launched in the 1140s, in 1188, in 1201, in 1217, and on into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. And the concept of the crusade itself was broadened—successive popes extended the crusade indulgences to warriors enagaged in religiously inspired struggles against Islam in the Spanish peninsula, Tunisia, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, against northern pagans in the Baltic, and against heretics within Christendom itself, most notoriously the Cathars in southern France. Popes established a special crusade tax on Church property, and the movement generated its own new institutions, most famously the hospitaler and military orders, warriors who vowed to serve the Church whether in battle or by caring for and protecting pilgrims—the Knights of Saint John, the Teutonic Knights, and, best known of all, the Templars, who have attained in modern times a posthumous fame through dubious pulp-press and cinema fantasy.

The savagery of the First Crusade would remain a recurrent feature of crusading, not merely in the confrontation with Islam (in which both sides perpetrated atrocities) but in the targeting of other victims. In the wake of Peter the Hermit’s preaching in 1095 and 1096, a wave of anti-Semitism swept through Rhineland Germany, and beyond. If battle was declared on the remote Muslim enemies of Christ, what of those other age-old enemies within the gate, the Jewish communities scattered through Europe, whom preachers now declared guilty of Christ’s blood? Why travel to the East to confront Islam, demanded the crusaders at Rouen, when “in front of our eyes are the Jews, of all races the most hostile to God”? Mobs en route to the Holy Land paused to lynch Jews, desecrate cemeteries, and burn synagogues in the cities through which they passed. As Tyerman notes, “Nothing in official Christian doctrine justified slaying Jews.” But in the new mood of vengeful zealotry, doctrinal niceties like this carried no weight. The pogroms were denounced by local bishops, and the Jews of Mainz were given refuge in the archbishop’s palace. But such help was often halfhearted, and almost always ineffective. Confronted with the inflamed and murderous mob, the archbishop of Mainz fled, leaving the Jews to their fate: his palace was stormed and the entire Jewish community slaughtered. Official Church teaching might differentiate sharply between Muslim and Jew; but a new level of Christian animus toward the Jews had been established. Every successive wave of crusade enthusiasm would set off further pogroms.

This virulent anti-Semitism was not the only “collateral damage” from crusading enthusiasm. Notoriously, the Fourth Crusade, launched by Pope Innocent III in 1201 to recover Jerusalem, never got there. Sucked into Byzantine dynastic politics, the Western armies converged on Constantinople, ostensibly to back a coup d’état to support Alexius Angelus as Emperor Alexius IV, in return for a guarantee of financial backing for the crusade. When Alexius was deposed in favor of an anti-Western rival, the crusaders invaded and sacked the city, the richest and most civilized center of Christianity on earth, and the capital of the empire which the Crusades had been called into existence to protect. For three days Westerners rampaged through the city, looting and destroying; within weeks, a Latin emperor and a Latin patriarch had been installed, and the annexation of the Byzantine Empire had begun. Pope Innocent denounced the sack as a religious calamity—“How is the Greek Church, so afflicted and persecuted, to return to ecclesiastical union and a devotion to the Apostolic See when she sees in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness?” Nevertheless, he eventually confirmed the Latin ecclesiastical takeover, thereby cementing into place an undying Greek hatred of the treacherous imperialism of the Latin Church.

The sack of Constantinople in 1204 was one of the events that stirred Runciman’s deepest sympathies as a historian. A devoted admirer of Byzantine Christianity, he saw the Eastern Church and empire as the principle victim of the Crusades. There was never, he declared, “a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade,” for the sack of Constantinople had given the deathblow to the most civilized empire the world had ever known, and had thereby crippled Byzantium’s ability to protect the beleaguered Christians of the Middle East.

This is one of the points at which Tyerman tackles Runciman head on, and he dismisses Sir Steven’s analysis of the disastrous consequences of the sack of Constantinople as “clouded by a crude religious and cultural analysis.” The Westerners, he writes, were drawn to Constantinople in part by the internal feuding of Byzantine factions. Byzantium, he believes, was already in decline long before 1204, and its inability to protect the Christians of the Middle East was one of the causes of the Crusades, not a consequence. And, more generally, he himself is prepared to credit the Crusades with far more positive consequences, seeing them for example as helping to foster the inquisitive openness of Western Renaissance society toward the wider world, in marked contrast to the closed character of some other more sophisticated societies, such as medieval and early modern China.

Nevertheless, as Tyerman himself demonstrates, the events of 1204 were to resonate for generations in the remotest corners of Christendom. Mountains of jewels, precious metals, and artworks looted from Constantinople in 1204, and the years of occupation which followed, traveled west, the best-known examples of which are the bronze horses of St. Mark’s in Venice, stolen from Constantinople’s Hippodrome. But the greatest treasures of all were relics. Western Christianity was obsessed with relics and the sacred power they were believed to radiate—the instruments of Christ’s passion, the bones of the saints. Two of the greatest trophies of the First Crusade were the Holy Lance of Antioch (believed to be the very one which pierced Christ’s side on Calvary), and the Jerusalem relic of the true cross. These objects, “discovered” during the 1090s, became the war banners and protection of the crusaders, and the loss of the Jerusalem relic of the cross when Saladin retook the city sent shockwaves through Europe. But Constantinople was the greatest repository of relics in the world, and after 1204 looted relics, some of them possibly even genuine, poured into Europe. Christ’s crown of thorns, acquired by the Venetians in 1237, passed eventually to the French monarchy, and one of the most exquisite Gothic buildings of the Middle Ages, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, was created to house it. A jeweled relic of the true cross looted by a priest from the imperial palace in April 1204 found its way to England, where it revived and transformed the fortunes of the foundering Cluniac monastery of Bromholm in Norfolk: Bromholm’s stolen relic became one of late medieval England’s greatest pilgrim attractions.

As long as Islam posed any threat to Eastern Europe, crusade ideology did not entirely disappear from Western thinking. But long before its formal demise it had ceased to have any practical consequences, in a world which no longer accepted that the protection of the true faith was the principal responsibility of the secular state. For the historians of the Enlightenment, crusading was a prime example of the evils of bad religion, stirring men to atrocious acts: the figure of the Muslim Saladin, humane, wise, and above all tolerant, became a literary cudgel with which to belabor Christian fanaticism. In the Romantic era, historians, poets, and novelists revived a sense of the glamour and nobility of crusade, and in the hands of conservative nationalists like the French writer J.F. Michaud, the Crusades themselves were interpreted as part of a struggle of civilizations, prefiguring the (benign) advance of the West in nineteenth-century colonialism. This anachronistic reading of the Crusades was seized and turned on its head in the late nineteenth century by Turkish leaders, as prefiguring contemporary Western aggression, though there had previously been no long-term Islamic tradition demonizing the Crusades in this way.

Those searching Tyerman’s book for direct clues to the present state of the Middle East or the confrontation of militant Islam and the West will, however, be disappointed. He shies away from “clear or sonorous summing-up” and he is wary of exaggerated moral praise or blame. In the millennium year, and subsequently on a controversial visit to Greece, Pope John Paul II included the Crusades, and especially the Fourth Crusade, among the historic “sins” perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church. Tyerman mentions these apologies without comment, but it is evident that he thinks themanachronistic. Extracting “the thread of the crusade from the weave of the middle ages,” he thinks, distorts both. That was then, this is now, and he does not believe that the Crusades prefigure any sort of twenty-first-century sequence of events. But they deserve study nevertheless, because they represent an aspect of humanity at its most vivid, and at times, for all their savagery, at its most noble, “an ideal that inspired sacrifice at times on an almost unimaginable scale and intensity.”

God’s War is a first-rate, scholarly, up-to-date, and highly readable survey of the entire crusading movement, overall perhaps less entertaining and less inspiring than Runciman, but more balanced and, as a synthesis of two generations of further research, often much better informed. Tyerman’s publishers have produced a physically durable and handsome book. But it has to be said that the decision to present so extensive a narrative in a single volume of over a thousand pages will probably do the book no favors with the general reader. Each page has almost forty packed lines of clear but small print, and in weight and appearance the book may strike the nonspecialist as hard to handle. That is a pity, for in the gullible age of The Da Vinci Code, Tyerman offers a sane, informed, and gripping account of one of the most characteristic and most extraordinary manifestations of the Christian Middle Ages.

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