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Impearls: Cause of the Crusades

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Earthdate 2003-11-24

Cause of the Crusades

In One Hand Clapping, Donald Sensing has posted a piece “Setting the record straight,” attempting to correct modern misperceptions about the causes of the medieval Crusades, pointing in turn to an article a year or so back by historian Thomas F. Madden “The Real History of the Crusades” writing in the 2002-04 issue of Crisis Magazine.  Given the timeliness and urgency of the present-day war on terror, the popular search for causes of which has unearthed issues going back as far as the Crusades if not beyond, intelligent consideration of this topic is particularly pertinent today.  In this connection, as Sensing says, “Prof. Madden's article [is] all well worth reading.”

I agree with the points Sensing and Madden are making, and in the case of Madden I certainly don't deign to criticize a professional historian (which I definitely am not) writing in his area of expertise.  I do have a concern, however, about the emphasis and some of the facts cited (or rather, facts not cited) by these gentlemen in support of their position. 

Madden, for instance, writes that, “Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics.  Muslims really were gunning for them.”  Madden, however, provides no examples of Muslim perfidy and aggression in Europe after the (early) 8th century, when the Iberian peninsula, modern Spain and Portugal, were (mostly) lost to Islam.  The conquest late in the 11th century of Asia Minor, by the Seljuk Turks, from the old Roman Empire (whose Emperor's appeal to the West can be said to have directly inspired the Crusades) took place far from western Europe.  The Roman Empire in the East obviously suffered, but why should the West (though spiritually sympathetic with their fellow-Christian East Romans) have cared very much, at least to the extent of launching — again and again over centuries — armies and armadas?  It's almost as if Britain, surviving fragment of the British Empire and mother country to the United States, were to successfully motivate America to come to its aid today against (say) “Papist aggression”… by denouncing outrages dating back to Spain's conquest of the Americas, the Spanish Armada, and the Thirty Years War!

Medieval Arabic world map. Presented to the Norman king of Sicily by Arabic geometer al-Idrisi in AD 1154 (note: south is at top). Medieval western European knights may have been violent folk by our standards, but they were no more inclined to sail off in their thousands to (what was then) the ends of the Earth, for what were by even then ancient causes, than is anybody else.  No, the proximate cause of the 11th century western European military challenge to Islam must be sought much closer in space and time.

As Prof. William B. Stevenson wrote in The Cambridge Medieval History, it was, “The Muslim attack on southern Europe, from the eighth century to the eleventh, [which] called forth the counter-stroke which is known as the First Crusade.”  (Emphasis added.)  The Muslim scourge on Europe thus didn't end in the 8th century but rather intensified.  As Prof. Stevenson describes it: 1

After the Muslim conquest of North Africa, Spain (eighth century), and Sicily (ninth century), all the southern coast of France and the western coast of Italy, with the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, lay at the mercy of hostile fleets and of the forces which they landed from time to time.  The territories and suburbs of Genoa, of Pisa, and of Rome itself were raided and plundered.  The Italian cities of the north had as yet no fleets, and the Muslims held command of the sea.  In the south of Italy and in southern France Muslim colonies established themselves and were the terror of their Christian neighbours.

During the 10th century, this tide began to turn.  Muslim colonists were expelled from southern France, for instance, by 975.  As late as 1002, however, Bari could still be besieged and the southern coast of Italy ravaged, while Pisa was sacked in 1004 and again in 1011 by Saracen fleets.  In 1015 Muslims from Spain seized the sizable island of Sardinia outright, driving Genoa and Pisa into an alliance to evict them (in which they were successful by 1017).

Around the same time frame Norman adventurers, redoubtable fighters from the formerly Viking domain of Normandy in northern France, began establishing themselves in southern Italy, and by 1060 had crossed over the strait and started conquering bits of Muslim Sicily.  In 1072 Palermo was taken, signaling the Normans' overall success, but some parts of the island were not secured for their new Norman realm of Sicily (and southern Italy) until as late as 1091.

With regard to contemporary events in Spain, Stevenson writes:

In Spain the same work of reconquest made steady progress after the middle of the [11th] century.  Here too Norman valour and Norman swords played an efficient part.  Expeditions from South France, and probably also ships from Italy (1092-1093), joined in the war.  Normans, Italians, and southern French, were thus already practically leagued in warfare against the common foe.  The First Crusade joined to these allies other peoples, more widely separated, and bore the contest from the Western to the Eastern Mediterranean.  But the contest remained the same, and the chief combatants on the Christian side were still Normans, Italians, and Frenchmen.

The battle continued to be fiercely fought in Spain (also under the aegis of a “Crusade”) for many decades, though nearly all the work of the Reconquista was done by the middle of the 13th century, leaving only a small enclave of Granada for Ferdinand and Isabella to finish off more than two hundred years later (just before sending Columbus, in 1492, on his way).

Stevenson considers when Europe first became capable of undertaking the Crusading effort:

The date at which Europe became ready for a united attack on the Muslim East cannot be put earlier than the last quarter of the eleventh century.  The enemy were then at last driven out of the home lands, excepting Spain, and the Western Mediterranean was again a Christian sea.  As long as the struggle in the West was proceeding, schemes for the conquest of Palestine were impracticable.

As he says, “The recovery of Italy and Sicily and a large part of Spain from Muslim rule gave an impulse to the victors which could not fail to carry them to further enterprises.”

The biggest signpost of shifting strategic balances in the western Mediterranean during the 11th century may be regarded as the attack by Genoa and Pisa on the port of Mahdiyah in what is now Tunisia in 1087, signaling acquisition of naval supremacy by the Christians.  Without superiority at sea nothing else was really possible.  Even if some Crusaders could, and did, march overland as far as Constantinople and thence over to Asia Minor, they could not be supplied in their destination of the Holy Land without seaborne support.

Notice by when the First Crusade was actually underway: 1096.  Thus, by the standards of the time, western Europeans launched their counterstroke of the Crusades essentially as quickly as they could after it first became possible for them to do so (and not several centuries after the insult).

One other point.  It's often characterized as if the Crusaders' determination to go to and emphasis on securing the Holy Land was strictly a matter of faith and religious conviction, which had and made no military sense.  Disregarding the potent motivating factor such powerful symbolism had for medieval Crusader warriors (which armies do at their peril), from the Eastern Roman Emperor's point of view it probably would have made sense were the Crusaders to have concentrated on destroying the Seljuk Turk states that had threateningly established themselves in central and eastern Anatolia.  The Crusaders, however, did not do that “sensible” thing, and there is another viewpoint according to which attacking the Holy Land makes perfect military sense.

During the half century that the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem extended as far south as Elat and islands to the south in the Gulf of Aqaba, the Islamic domain was strategically cut in two.  Had such a geographic severing been permanently enforced, in theory the remaining now-disjoint Muslim-controlled parts (many regions of which still contained Christian majorities) could over time have been subdued piecemeal.

It's also not well known that several of the later Crusading expeditions were aimed at securing not the Holy Land but rather Egypt, and a couple times came close to achieving their goal.  Conquering Egypt would have accomplished much the same thing: strategically, geographically splitting Islam.  Long-term Crusader success at either of these projects would have constituted, of course, an alternate history far distant from our own.


1 Professor William B. Stevenson, Chapter VII: “The First Crusade,” Volume V: Contest of Empire and Papacy, edited by J. R. Tanner, C. W. Previté-Orton, and Z. N. Brooke, The Cambridge Medieval History, planned by J. B. Bury, Cambridge at the University Press, London, 1926; pp. 265-271.

UPDATE:  2003-11-29 16:20 UT:  A supplemental article Crusades II – Eastern Empire vis-a-vis the West, comparing the Roman Empire in the East with the medieval West, has been posted.

UPDATE:  2003-11-26 15:30 UT:  Added medieval Arabic world map.  Presented to the Norman king of Sicily by Arabic geometer al-Idrisi in A.D. 1154 (note: south is at top).

UPDATE:  2003-11-27 16:00 UT:  Donald Sensing has linked back to this article (thanks, Donald).

UPDATE:  2003-12-02 16:20 UT:  In News From the Fridge, Phil Fraering has posted a link to this article, along with the comment, “I now want to find a history of Italy during the Middle Ages.”  I must say that Phil, and anyone else choosing to delve into this amazing history, has quite a story awaiting them!  I have no specifically Italian history to recommend to them (I've been mostly reading more general histories of the area and era such as The Cambridge Medieval History), but a quick search for “Norman Sicily” (say) on the Advanced Book Exchange turns up a variety of interesting-looking possibilities, such as:

Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, Sicily: The Mythic Garden of Persephone, an Islamic Paradise on Earth, the Fairy-Tale Norman Kingdom, Globe Pequot Press.
John Julius Norwich, The Other Conquest: The Norman Conquest of Sicily in the 11th Century, Harper & Row, 1967.  [That one was popular in Britain, I noticed a decade or so ago.]
The Travels of Ibn Jubayr: Being the Chronicle of a Mediaeval Spanish Moor Concerning his Journey to the Egypt of Saladin, The Holy Cities of Arabia, Baghdad the City of the Calips, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, translated by Ronald J. C. Broadhurst, 2001.

Also, in his blog Dean's World, Dean Esmay has posted an article Exposing Anti-Christian Bias which explores its title's subject by concentrating on secularist mischaracterizations of the Crusades, as he puts it, “as an example of Christian aggression.”  (Dean has also included this article and its commentary in his Best Discussions archive.)  At the end of his piece, Dean links to Donald Sensing's couple of articles on the subject, and finally — with the comment, “Still more interesting info, that gets into even greater nitty-gritty, can be found here” — to Impearls' article here.

While I agree with most of Dean's analysis, I do have a couple of qualifiers and points of disagreement.  Dean writes:

With rare exception, the Crusades almost all ended in victory for Muslims.  The defeats for Christianity were often humiliating, and the few victories were almost all short-lived.

That “rare exception,” of course, being the First Crusade — which was a brilliant, staggering victory.  It was such a success that even all the following decades of disunion and internecine strife among the Christians — probably the most significant factor in the eventual failure of the (eastern) Crusades, best I can make out — couldn't completely negate that victory for nearly two hundred years (1291) when the Kingdom of Jerusalem finally met its bitter end.  Moreover, it can be argued (as The Cambridge Medieval History certainly does) that even with the unmitigated disaster to the Byzantine cause that the Fourth Crusade entailed, the Crusades taken as a whole probably gave an additional three century lease on life to the Eastern Roman Empire, no mean accomplishment and one with lasting consequences for our world (see the follow-up article for an appreciation of the Byzantine Empire).

And that's just for the eastern Crusades.  One can't overlook the Crusades in the West, though today we tend to forget them, or categorize them as something else (“Reconquista” rather than numbered “Crusade”), but to those fighting those wars, they were Crusades, and their hard-won gains have been lasting.  Parts of France and Italy, Crete, Sicily, Sardinia (from a brief occupation), the Balearic Islands, the huge Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) itself, all were recovered from Islamic hands, and remain so to this day.  Sicily or Sardinia taken alone is as big as historic Palestine (and somewhat larger than the modern state of Israel).

If Osama Bin Laden yet lives today, he assuredly remembers those historic events as lasting victories (so far, as he thinks) for the Crusaders.

UPDATE:  2003-12-03 19:50 UT:  A supplemental article Crusades III – the End of the Crusades, concerning reasons why the Crusades came to a close, has been posted.

UPDATE:  2003-12-13 12:00 UT:  Geitner Simmons, writing in his blog Regions of Mind, has replied to Donald Sensing's and my Crusader articles with a posting entitled “The first crusader,” concerning crusades undertaken by the Eastern Empire itself.  I've responded to his piece with a follow-up article Crusades IV – the Byzantine Crusades.

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