The Crusades – By Zoe Oldenbourg

If ever there was a book written which one could call “glorious”, this is most certainly it. Zoe Oldenbourg has composed a book, based on historical documents, poems and the various memoirs of many historians of the time about the invading armies, the ravaging of Europe and Middle East and the mentality and the daily lives of the people, great and small, who were involved, responsible and/or victims of this devastating time in the history of humanity known as The Crusades.

I went into this book without knowing a thing about the Crusades. On the cover of this nearly forty year old book, wrapped in stiff and slightly faded paper, the steel glove of a knight hung uselessly in the foreground, overshadowing the walls and fortifications of a large city. Two Seraphim floated up above carrying a sort of cross with a banner reading “Jerusalem” strung between the hands of the angels. Images from Monty Python and The Holy Grail leaped into my mind. Knights on errands, sans coconuts, and queens, and ladies of the lake, and muddy hillsides, and rocky castles and peasants and lords and jousting and catapults and war and killing and bloodshed and violence and atrocities and inhumanity and utter over zealousness all in the name God. The first astonishing fact I read as I opened this wonderful book, a fact a could have inferred by noticing the “s” at the end of the Crusades, was that there was not only one crusade, but six.

Zoe, Zoe Oldenbourg, the author of this book, focuses on the first three beginning 1096. She begins the book by detailing the every day life of medieval man and the society and the feudal system under which they existed. When I started this book several months ago, I had just finished reading Abandoned in the Wasteland which raised the concept of there being no childhood in the Middle Ages. Zoe echoed this for me very syncronistically.

Life was simple in Western Europe at the turn of the century. No mass media, no machines or technology to interfere with their daily existence, save the wheel, the plow and the horse to provide the power. Folks rose at dawn and worked and toiled in the fields for the ruling class, the land owners and those of Nobility, of which most peasants were serfs. The Feudal system dictated all social actions. Everyone worshiped the Lord and held sacred all which the high priests of the church imparted. Although there were Kings and knights of high honor, religion ruled them all. Princes and peasants alike worshiped and gave thanks to their lord. Slowly, one day at a time, Western Europe, or the Roman Empire, consisting of what is now France, Germany, Hungry, Denmark, England, and Italy begin to crawl out of the Dark Ages.

In Eastern Europe stood the Byzantine Empire comprised of the modern day Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Austria, Hungry, and a few other countries that have disappeared in my lifetime. The Byzantine’s were mostly Greek, and this empire held a huge influence in cultural and economic spheres of the Latin West. Over a short period of time, the umbrella of Christianity began to split in two. Zoe starts the book highlighting the ever widening separation between these two fractions. In the East was the Greek Orthodox, who were more spiritual in their beliefs, influenced heavily by far eastern religions and cultures, and in the Latin West, the peoples and beliefs were more materialistic. She certainly fleshed out this idea more in the book, but I do not wish to explore here theological ideas or the religious overtones of the Crusades, but wish to focus on the great armies, the endless marches, the fighting, the battles, the bloodshed, the massacres of great chunks of humanity, the— excuse me, I digress.

The divide within Christianity which Zoe explains thoroughly would come into play at many key moments during the Crusades when armies from one side or the other were forced to, or refused, to ask for help from the others out of mistrust, envy or pride. The fear was that the glory, or at least any conquered lands and/or booty, would end up in the “other side’s” possession.

The First Crusade began in the West. The Byzantine Empire, more specifically Constantinople, was under the threat of Turkish attack. Both Greeks and Latins alike realized the importance of this major city and the imminent peril of this attack by heathens drifted across Europe and became a fever burning in everyone’s hearts and minds. Christianity as a whole, in spite of the ever widening divide between the two main branches, could not stand still and let pagans rule. This mentality spread and grew and very quickly developed into the idea not only to prevent an attack by the Turks, but to force them back, back through the Holy Land of Jerusalem, and out of God’s country at all costs. The people of Europe were infected by a powerful idea that they were indeed the chosen people, acting under God, and were now called to action to stop the threat against them. They must not only defend themselves and their lands, but annihilate their enemy and regain the Holy Land, regain Jerusalem. The Greco-Latin alliance was formed between the two warring Christian fractions. The time had come.

What is remarkable to learn, as Zoe continued on, is not that this mentality spurred on the First Crusade in 1096 and began the quest for Jerusalem and the Holy Land, but that the First Crusade was started and organized not by a great King or valorous knight, but by a lowly hermit named Peter. Peter the Hermit, a poor, wretched soul who traveled from town to town on his donkey spouting off religion scriptures and inciting the hearts of men, is credited for organizing and leading the First Crusade.

The year is 1096. Across Europe traveled the idea of a holy war, inciting all through whom this news was carried. Also travelling through Europe was Peter, a man in the right place at the right time. Flocking to Europe were the poor, the wretched, the criminal, joining together as one under God. The First Crusade was under way. Although present were a few Princes and Dukes of some notoriety, the main army consisted of untrained peasants armed with sparse weapons. Yet somehow this makeshift army of ragamuffins quickly and quite astonishingly tore through Europe and the Middle East. At ever chance they had, in each new territory, the crusaders attacked what was often vastly overwhelming opposing armies, but they came out victorious. This very fact of their surprising success drove home more and more the feeling and general consciences that these folks were indeed God’s soldiers. They felt in their minds and hearts, that they were invincible and could do no wrong. Although Jerusalem lay a thousand miles away, in their eyes it was just on the other side of the next battle. And it was many battles they fought and won as they trekked onwards towards their goal. They left in their wake such terror and awe as cannot be fathomed. The horrors that one cannot believe man is capable of was routine: the undiscriminating slaughter of unprepared and defenseless armies of men, the roasting alive of children on spits, raping and killing of all women, the crusaders spared no one or nothing in their paths. Word went out to both sides that a real and vicious Jihad was raging across the continent.

Even so, the Turkish leaders still considered the crusade a joke and ignored them. They considered this nothing more than a group of lunatics who would eventually kill themselves. At one point in this crusade, a rogue band of crusaders fractured off from the rest of the group. Apparently, they were carried away by delusions of grander and unsatisfied with what they felt to be a cowardly decision to head toward Constantinople instead of directly into Turkish lands. They were completely and utterly annihilated as they set foot across the border. The Turks turned the attention elsewhere.

Four years and thousands of miles later, what was left of the First Crusade found themselves 250 miles from the Holy City. The army was very much weakened and the causalities were great. Doubt and fear began to rear their ugly heads. Several of the knights of rank began to break away from the cause. They did so after word that Alexius Comnesus, Emperor of Byzantine, was to offer support and they felt this would mean the Greeks and not the Latins would be hailed as the victors. But Zoe seems to think the real reasons many knights, including Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Saint-Gilles and Robert of Normandy left was their greed for land and power. They all left to set up their own principalities in places such as Edessa and Antioch. These defections would turn out fortuitous during the Second Crusade, but as still part of the First Crusade, this was a devastating blow. Many were unsure as to how to proceed, and many more were convinced the Holy Land was out of their reach. But the Lord works in mysterious ways.

A year earlier, word had reached Europe that the army was making great progress and would soon actually reach and recapture the Holy Land. Not wanting to be left out of this glory, many high knights prepared their lands and set their things in order, and set out to catch up with the crusaders. They were upon the straggling remains of the crusaders, as if sent by God himself, several months later. Although it is difficult to accurately estimate the numbers of the armies, Zoe claims that Peter’s army numbered tens of thousands. The arrival of the second wave of crusaders raised the size of the army to nearly fifty thousand. With vast reinforcements and spirits soaring high, they set out immediately for the Holy Land.

After many months travelling across the desert, past modern day Turkey, through Armenia and down the coast of the Mediterranean Sea into Syria, the Crusading army appeared in full force before the walls of Jerusalem on June 7, 1099. Through the sweltering heat of the desert, with little or no water, ravaged by disease and death, the crusaders had reached their prize. God had personally led them to their rightful possession and there was much rejoicing. Eyewitness accounts at the time detail knights and peasants dropping to the knees, hugging one another, bursting into tears and wailing just at the sight of the towers and fortifications of the cherished city. For weeks, the crusaders rejoiced and gave thanks to the lord for guiding them to the birthplace of Jesus. Euphoria raced through the hearts of all the men and woman and children the army included or picked up along the way; all pilgrims making their way to the Holy Land, all the Christians standing before Jerusalem, all had found heaven on earth. But the euphoria wore off quickly as this renewed army realized they were not yet in possession of the city. The birthplace of Jesus Christ was still owned by pagans who just in their presence befouled the city and blasphemed the very name of Christ Himself. The crusaders quickly regrouped and wasted no time in attaching.

A month and a half later, they had punched a hole through the wall of Jerusalem, burst into the city enraged in their religious right and massacred every living person in sight. No man, woman, child, peasant or priest was sparred. The army of Christ ran through the streets and alleyways, kicking down doors and slaughtering everyone they found by cutting them in half, poking out their eyes, roasting them and burning them alive. Once witness account mentioned a knight striding through the chaos snatching up small children by their feet and bashing their heads against rocks and walls. All historians, on both sides of the war, cite this massacre as one of the bloodies they had ever witnessed, and contemporary histories, as Zoe states, considers this massacre one of the greatest crimes in history.

God had recaptured the Holy Land.

With the Christians in control of the Holy Land, Zoe takes the time to focus even more on the human element within all this madness. The Crusaders had beaten all opposing armies by the courage and/or over zealousness of random individuals along the way. The support offered or denied by neutral countries and Kings were based on the decisions of single individuals, inspired mostly by greed, weakness or pride. I often thought while reading the book that these emotions are indeed today still what dictate many crucial decisions between heads of nations and states, but it seems today’s decisions are not those of any one single man, but by groups of men. Zoe details many moments during the hundred years of the first three crusades, many moments that did not happen due to a single individual’s personal motives that could have turned the tide for either the crusaders or their enemies. And enemies they did indeed have.

The Frankish Kingdom the Crusaders established flourished for a hundred years, but did not prosper. From the day of the great massacre in Jerusalem, and due to it, the enemies of the crusaders continually marched upon Jerusalem. There were the Seljuks of Iraq and Persia led by Ridwan, King of Aleppo and Kilij Arslan, Sultan of Rum. There were Atabeg of Syria, led mercilessly first Zengi Imad ed-Din and Nur Ed-Din, Mahmud atabegs of Aleppo and then later by the more humane yet just a dangerous, Salah Ed-Din (Saladin), King of Damascus. They paid little attention to the initial stirrings of the Crusade, but once Jerusalem was decimated, the Arabs, Turks, and Sheiks realized these Christians were a worthy opponent and had to attack to defend their empires. And Zoe also tells in great detail of similar infighting and greed and internal conflicts between the leaders of these great enemy empires. Regardless, the enemy of Christianity waged a continual war against the crusading army backed within the walls of the Holy Land. Zoe goes into great detail about the fascinating characters of the leaders of each army, and turns the book slyly into an ongoing soap opera of intrigue and revenge full of scorned woman and queens, bitter kings and nobleman, and an assortment of eccentric characters like the gypsy women who rose to unlimited power, simpletons who wore the crown of Jerusalem by default, double agents and even one Baldwin V, a leper who would become King of Jerusalem at the age of thirteen for no one else wanted the position.

The Second Crusade was begun in 1140 to help defend the Holy Land. It had been a couple years since the initial siege of Jerusalem, and things were looking bad. The army was losing more and more battles. The Egyptians, had managed to work their way up the coast and began blockading the Italian and English ship sailing on the Mediterranean delivering the Christians supplies. The Arabs and Sheiks were slowly recapturing many of the outlying territories in just as horrendous fashion as the crusaders had done years prior, but with a few new twists. Like tossing captured knights into sacks with mad dogs. Soilders of war will continually think of new and different ways of killing their enemies. Saladin, a respectful and wise leader for the most part, also had his barbarous moments. Such as the time when a captured knight personally refused to ante up a very large ransom. Upon the knight’s refusal, Saladin summoned into his tent another prisoner and with the help of several guards, proceed to cut this solider in half with his sword. The knight agreed to all demands as he realized Saladin’s intentions, but Saladin carried out his task anyway. The crusaders were losing ground, losing their army, and losing supplies. Word got out the holy land was in danger of being lost yet again.

If you recall, late in the First Crusade, many knights set out to establish their own kingdoms in the outlying lands of Jerusalem. These individuals accomplished their goals and did indeed establish legitimate strongholds, Antioch was one of them. Baldwin, who became of King of Antioch, rose to power in a very Crusade like manner. After he and his well trained army defected from the main army, they very quickly inherited a reputation so terrifying that when he and his army reached Antioch, the capital city at the tip of the coast, its army dared not attempt to defend itself. Thus, Baldwin marched into the city in full glory. He marched directly into the main palace and insisted that the mayor adopt him. The next morning was a large ceremony to make everything all nice and legal. Soon after, a small outbreak of violence erupted in the city, but no one was hurt, save the former mayor who was mutilated and killed. Hours later, the number two man in town pleaded for mercy at the feet of Baldwin and begged to be allowed to fetch his wife and flee the city without any further recourse against Baldwin. He was granted permission, but by the time he left his house with his wife, a mob had gathered and they were both hanged. In a final act of savage dominance, Baldwin ordered that the hands, feet and noses be cut off the remaining persons of power and have all their eyes poked out. It was years later, after Baldwin had been firmly establish as King of Antioch, when he got word that Jerusalem was in trouble. He asked the other Christian kings to join him in the march to the Holy Land. This march became The Second Crusade.

This crusade quickly reached the Holy Land, again some thinking due only to the direct hand of God, at the right moment. Nur A Din, the ruthless predecessor to Saladin, was about to launch a consolidated effort against the Christian army for what he thought would be the last time. He had all his people confident of a victory. And had he acted sooner, he would have completely decimated the Christian army, but he delayed, giving Baldwin and his kings time to arrived. The Christians were ready for the attack, and wiped out the invading army taking but a scratch themselves. The defeat sent the Egyptians and Arabs running back to their homeland. It seemed these Christians could never be accurately accessed, and with this I agree, for Baldwin, the poker outer of other peoples eyes, became the first King of Jerusalem, Baldwin I.

The defeat of Nur Ed-Den’s army was a slap in the face to all Syrians, to the entire Middle East. As the Christians held their own and somewhat prospered in the region of the Holy Land, all of Syria was plotting to wage a Jihad of their own. It took years to organize. During these years, Zoe describes all personalities on both sides of the conflict, and details many fascinating accounts of the relationships full of trust and treachery, respect and revenge. It was indeed fascinating. Zoe brought down the struggles of nations and cultures to single, meaningless events in individual’s lives that became monumental in history. A fine example is one in the life of Frederick Barbarossa, the Emperor of Germany, who was vehement in this rally for the support of the Crusaders, and would have motivated the other Kings to march sooner had he not stopped by a river to bathe and fallen from his horse breaking his neck. Thus, due to this unfortunate accident, it would be a few more years until the Kings marched.

No philosophy of history can correctly estimate the incalculable, inexplicable importance of the human personality in the case of a great leader of men.”

This statement, for me, summed up Zoe’s book.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem was slowly being eaten away. Years after the Second Crusade, the enemy regrouped and the frequency and ferocity of their attacks increased. It seemed the Kings of Jerusalem, and the many Princes and Knight in positions of power, instead of coordinating a unified front against these attacks, they occupied their time bickering between one another. Friendships and loyalties crumbled, marriages were ended, and many staged only to acquire lands, power and the thrown. There was still also the burning issue, that Zoe never lets us forget, of was the Holy Land held by the Roman or the Byzantine Empire? Was it the Greeks or the Latin’s? Both Empires went through a succession of Emperors, and nations went through Kings as these petty issues swirled through the lives of the inhabitants of the Holy Land. Before anyone knew it, much of the outlying lands, including most of the coast lands and the great city of Antioch, was recaptured by the Syrians & Moslems. Pleas for help were sent out to all Emperors and Popes and to the leaders of France and Germany, to anyone who would listen.

The Syrians, the Moslems and the Egyptians had slowly taken too much land, blockaded too many cities, and fought too violently and relentlessly for any army to counter. The entire coast line, save the smaller southern cities of Acre & Tyre, were in the enemies hands. Acre was miraculously defended and held onto by the Christians thanks to Guy of Lusignan. Guy was the weak, insecure and “simpleton” King of Jerusalem for a very short time after Baldwin V, the Leper King, died and no one wished to step up to the throne. Guy, by way of a forced marriage, became ruler by default. He scurried out of Jerusalem with his tail between his legs at his first opportunity with a tiny group of soldiers and eventually set up residence in Acre. Acre was right on the coast, thus an important city for Christians who depended much upon the cargo the Italian ships brought to them. While the lands all around Acre were being lost to Saladin’s armies, Acre defended itself strongly. In spite of Guy and his incompetence, he and his army successfully defended this city almost courageously. Acre became a strong rally point for the Christians. When the reinforcing wave of knights reached Acre, it was the largest number of soldiers, and knights and Kings the Crusading army every had. More men than the first two crusades combined. But Saladin and his armies were just too damn strong. Saladin became the modern day Mohammed of his people, and they were all sure of the success of this Syrian Jihad to recapture Jerusalem. The war waged for months, the final blow to the Crusading army came at Hattin, in July of 1187.

The Frankish army marched to Hattin, in the words of Al-lmad (a Moslem historian) like “a mountain on the move, a sea of tumbling, foaming waves.” The army was the largest assembly of knights and crusaders since the First Crusade. The Crusaders threw everything they had at Saladin’s troops and the Christian infidels, but more quickly than can be imagine, the Frankish Army was completely and utterly routed and decimated. Two months later, Jerusalem was lost once again to the hands of the enemy. Christianity was ousted from the Holy Land.

This was like the shot heard ‘round the world. If you were a Christian, and heard of the slaughter at Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem you dropped everything and set out to take Jerusalem back. It was stated in two separate manuscripts, Zoe points out, although obviously (we hope) an exaggeration, that the great hall of Hattin was the scene of the most ferocious of battles and the blood and gore of fallen soldiers and horses rose well past men’s ankles. After two hundred years, the Frankish Kingdom had collapsed and all was lost. Although Frederick Barbarossa would have started the Third Crusade years earlier had he lived, the crusade now happened. The annihilation of the Frankish army at Hattin now forced the commencement of this Third Crusade, or as it is known to history, the Crusade of the Kings.

Frederick was dead, but his army was not. While the Empire of Saladin continued to grow, and the Armenians, Syrians and Moslems continued to fight, Frederick’s army became the bulk of the King’s Crusade and marched from Constantinople towards Jerusalem over the course of two years. Along the way it recaptured Beirut, Acre, and the coastal cities of Haifa, Caeserea and Jaffa, but did not make it to Jerusalem. There enemy was simply too strong, the tide had turned on the crusaders. Many of the leaders of the Crusade of the Kings, including Richard Coeur-de-Lion, the King of England, Reynald of Chatillon and Conrad of Montferrat, who double crossed Richard out of weakness, knew the fight was lost. Unlike their predecessors over the years who fought to the death and sacrificed everything for their cause, these Kings and leaders had enough sense to recognize defeat and signed a treaty of peace. The treaty ratified the loss of Jerusalem, and secured the recaptured towns mentioned above. It also declared the “King of Jerusalem” ruling out of Acre, but under the accepted protectorate of the Sultan. The land of the Christians were nothing more than a tiny strip of land wedged between territories held by the Armenians, Ismailians and Aleppans. Although Frankish provinces, they too were under the rule of Saladan’s Empire. The continually infighting and petty feudal wars between the leftover Crusaders, as Zoe puts it, “inspired neither hate nor fear of the Moslems, the greed of the Greeks…, nor the interest of Europe.” It was the end.

The rest of the book, Zoe focuses on Frankish Syria as an Eastern Province, goes into great detail about the people who lived in and around the three crusades, and how they survived during enemy control over their homeland, and the overall feeling the crusades had on the people and on posterity. She finished the book as she starts it, with a broad overview of the every day life of the people living through these tumultuous times. She touches briefly on the Fourth, or Children’s Crusade, made up mostly of pilgrims and nomads who traveled through the enemies lands towards the Holy Land armed with only the power of God behind them only to be slaughtered. Then of the Fifth Crusade, which fared no better. She says that many people and even historians living through this time, did not make much deal of the Crusades. They did not see what impact it had on Europe, nor on Eastern Cultures.

It is interesting for one to end such a monumental book brutally detailing hundreds of years of violence and religions zeal with an almost blasé opinion of its impact on humanity, but maybe this was her point? By focusing on the individual, on everyday life of all alive at the time, maybe she realized, like we all should, that many events will work to shape and or destroy humanity as we know it, but we, as the individual parts of humanity, can never be changed. We are all human, capable of much atrocity, but always, in the end, nothing but human after all.

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