Whose Crusades?

A battle during the First Crusade; illustration from Sébastien Mamerot’s Les Passages d’Outremer, circa 1474
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A battle during the First Crusade; illustration from Sébastien Mamerot’s Les Passages d’Outremer, circa 1474

There are certain historical subjects—Mary Queen of Scots, Napoleon, the American Civil War, and the downfall of Hitler among them—that have attracted such a mass of writing and rewriting that they have acquired a gravitational pull and, rather than discouraging other historians from producing more books on these well-worn subjects, attract yet more retellings. The Crusades is another one. The story started to be told, shaped, and reshaped almost as soon as it had started. The medieval chroniclers of the Crusades—such as the anonymous author of the chronicle of the First Crusade known as the Gesta Francorum; William, archbishop of Tyre, the chronicler of the twelfth-century Kingdom of Jerusalem; and the “Templar of Tyre,” the eyewitness of the final downfall of the great coastal city of Acre in 1291—tended to present the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem as a morality tale whose past and future had been marked out by texts from the Bible. God gave victory to the deserving, while defeat and death were the punishments for sin and lack of faith.

When the army of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099, a slaughter of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants took place, and contemporary chroniclers reported that when the Christian knights rode through the Temple area of the city, the blood of the slaughtered rose to the level of their stirrups. This was not documentary reportage. The aim was rather to present the conquest of the city as a fulfillment of Revelation 14:20: “And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles.”

The Books of Maccabees were particularly favored by preachers and participants in Crusades, dealing as they did with the redemption of Israel through warfare. According to one source, Urban II cited Maccabees in the sermon at the Council of Clermont in 1095, which launched the First Crusade. A few years later, when the army of the First Crusade victoriously confronted the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Dorylaeum, the writer Raymond of Aguilers described how the Christian force had been aided by “protectors: ‘two handsome knights in flashing armor, riding before our soldiers and seemingly invulnerable to the thrusts of Turkish lances.’” He was probably borrowing this inspiring image from the second book of Maccabees, in which “five comely men upon horses, with bridles of gold” shield Maccabeus from the enemy. Isaiah was also useful. Innocent III, in arguing that the target of the Fourth Crusade should be godless Egypt rather than Palestine, cited Isaiah 31:3: “Now the Egyptians are men, and not God.” (In fact the Fourth Crusade went and sacked Constantinople in 1204.)

When the Crusades failed (and…


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