Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
NGC3132 ©
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.

E = M

Energy is eternal delight.
William Blake

Impearls: 2003-11-23 Archive

Earthdate 2003-11-29

Crusades II – Eastern Empire vis-a-vis the West

Renowned scholar J. B. Bury planned the entire (originally) 8-volume series of The Cambridge Medieval History, and among other things wrote the Introduction to Volume IV of the series, on The Eastern Roman Empire (that great medieval empire known to historians today as the Byzantine Empire but, as Bury says, more properly would be called simply the Roman Empire).  The subject of the Crusades, the Middle Ages, and the relationship between the Eastern Empire and western Europeans of the time having been previously raised, it's worth considering some of Bury's words from his Introduction to Volume IV.  With regard to an overall assessment of the Eastern Empire vis-a-vis the medieval West, Bury wrote: 1

As a civilised state, we may say that the Eastern Empire performed three principal functions.  As in its early years the Roman Empire laid the foundations of civilisation in the West and educated Celtic and German peoples, so in its later period it educated the Slavs of eastern Europe.  Russia, Bulgaria, and Serbia owed it everything and bore its stamp.  Secondly, it exercised a silent but constant and considerable influence on western Europe by sending its own manufactures and the products of the East to Italy, France, and Germany.  Many examples of its embroidered textile fabrics and its jewellery have been preserved in the West.  In the third place, it guarded safely the heritage of classical Greek literature which has had on the modern world a penetrating influence difficult to estimate.  That we owe our possession of the masterpieces of Hellenic thought and imagination to the Byzantines everyone knows, but everyone does not remember that those books would not have travelled to Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, because they would not have existed, if the Greek classics had not been read habitually by the educated subjects of the Eastern Empire and therefore continued to be copied. 2

Here we touch on a most fundamental contrast between the Eastern Empire and the western European states of the Middle Ages.  The well-to-do classes in the West were as a rule illiterate, with the exception of ecclesiastics; among the well-to-do classes in the Byzantine world education was the rule, and education meant not merely reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the study of ancient Greek grammar and the reading of classical authors.  The old traditions of Greek education had never died out.  In court circles at Constantinople everyone who was not an utter parvenu would recognise and understand a quotation from Homer.  In consequence of this difference, the intellectual standard in the West where book-learning was reserved for a particular class, and in the East where every boy and girl whose parents could afford to pay was educated, were entirely different.  The advantages of science and training and system were understood in Byzantine society.

The appreciation of method and system which the Byzantines inherited both from the Greeks and from the Romans is conspicuously shewn in their military establishment and their conduct of war.  Here their intellectuality stands out in vivid contrast with the rude dullness displayed in the modes of warfare practised in the West.  Tactics were carefully studied, and the treatises on war which the officers used were kept up to date.  The tacticians apprehended that it was stupid to employ uniform methods in campaigns against different foes.  They observed carefully the military habits of the various people with whom they had to fight — Saracens, Lombards, Franks, Slavs, Hungarians — and thought out different rules for dealing with each.  The soldiers were most carefully and efficiently drilled.  They understood organisation and the importance of not leaving details to chance, of not neglecting small points in equipment.  Their armies were accompanied by ambulances and surgeons.  Contrast the feudal armies of the West, ill-disciplined, with no organisation, under leaders who had not the most rudimentary idea of tactics, who put their faith in sheer strength and courage, and attacked all antagonists in exactly the same way.  More formidable the Western knights might be than Slavs or Magyars, but in the eyes of a Byzantine officer they were equally rude barbarians who had not yet learned that war is an art which requires intelligence as well as valour.  In the period in which the Empire was strong, before it lost the provinces which provided its best recruits, its army was beyond comparison the best fighting machine in Europe.  When a Byzantine army was defeated, it was always the incompetence of the general or some indiscretion on his part, never inefficiency or cowardice of the troops, that was to blame.  The great disaster of Manzikert (1071), from which perhaps the decline of the Eastern Empire may be dated, was caused by the imbecility of the brave Emperor who was in command.  A distinguished student of the art of war has observed that Gibbon's dictum, “the vices of Byzantine armies were inherent, their victories accidental,” is precisely the reverse of the truth.  He is perfectly right.

Concerning the specific subject of the Crusades, as Bury put it, “The Crusades were, for the Eastern Empire, simply a series of barbarian invasions of a particularly embarrassing kind […].”

And it's worth remembering the origins of Venice, which played such a critical role in the Crusades and, especially, in the Fourth Crusade wherein the “New Rome” of Constantinople was conquered (1206) by the armed forces of the West.  Bury notes:

The character of Venice and her career were decided by the circumstance that she was subject to the Eastern Emperors before she became independent.  She was extra-Italian throughout the Middle Ages; she never belonged to the Carolingian Kingdom of Italy.  And after she had slipped into independence almost without knowing it — there never was a violent breaking away from her allegiance to the sovrans of Constantinople — she moved still in the orbit of the Empire; and it was on the ruins of the Empire, dismembered by the criminal enterprise of her Duke Dandolo, that she reached the summit of her power as mistress in the Aegean and in Greece.  She was the meeting-place of two civilisations, but it was eastern not western Europe that controlled her history and lured her ambitions.  Her citizens spoke a Latin tongue and in spiritual matters acknowledged the supremacy of the elder Rome, but the influence from new Rome had penetrated deep, and their great Byzantine basilica is a visible reminder of their long political connexion with the Eastern Empire.


1 J. B. Bury (M.A., F.B.A.), “Introduction” to Volume IV: The Eastern Roman Empire, 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, 1923; pp. x-xi, xiv.

2 A superb example of such preservation can be seen in the Archimedes palimpsest, reported on in Impearls' article here.  Notice the implication: 10th century Constantinopolitans were reading, and making copies of, The Method of Archimedes.

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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Impearls: 2003-11-23 Archive

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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Impearls: 2003-11-23 Archive

Earthdate 2003-11-23

Southern Militancy

Glenn Reynolds, wearing his Instapundit cap, contradicts the common European perception that the United States (and Britain for that matter) have never experienced foreign invasion and defeat, and thus have a difficulty “in comprehending the humiliation of occupation.”  In reality, as Reynolds points out, the American South experienced profound and disrupting foreign occupation — from the North — in the decades following the end of the savagely bloody American Civil War.  Glenn writes:

Reconstruction was very unpopular, and my grandmother can still tell stories that she heard from her grandmother about Union soldiers passing through and stripping the place bare of everything except what they were able to hide, and of the years (decades, really) of privation that followed the war.

Reynolds goes on to comment, however:  “But American southerners know something that apparently a lot of other people seem to have trouble with: how to lose a war and not hold a grudge.  (Much of one, anyway.)”

Glenn is quite correct.  The great American victory — over time reconciling Southerners, inhabitants of the former Confederacy, so that they did not seethe as a nation under foreign subjugation, yearning to breathe free, but rather became Americans (citizens of the United States, of a particular, ethnically aware region to be sure, but still patriotic Americans) — is a political success almost Roman in its profound historic triumph.  Thus, as Reynolds notes, Europeans are particularly off base in criticizing this aspect of what they see as American inexperience.

I will quibble with one speculation Glenn makes, that Southern experience with (post-Civil War) occupation “may possibly explain why the American South is also far more military-minded than other parts of the United States — or, for that matter, than London.”  To the contrary, it's clear that the “military-mindedness” of the South greatly predates the Civil War, much less the follow-on occupation. 

This can be seen from the Civil War itself, where the most brilliant generals and valorous troops for most of the war, actually, were southerners.

Long before that, however, the insightful Alexis de Tocqueville informed us of the differences between South and North, Southerner and Northerner, in his famous comparison of freedom and slavery floating down the Ohio River during the 1830s:

So the traveller who lets the current carry him down the Ohio till it joins the Mississippi sails, so to say, between freedom and slavery; and he has only to glance around him to see instantly which is best for mankind.

On the left bank of the river the population is sparse; from time to time one sees a troop of slaves loitering through half-deserted fields; the primeval forest is constantly reappearing; one might say that society had gone to sleep; it is nature that seems active and alive, whereas man is idle.

But on the right bank a confused hum proclaims from afar that men are busily at work; fine crops cover the fields; elegant dwellings testify to the taste and industry of the workers; on all sides there is evidence of comfort; man appears rich and contented; he works.  […]

These contrasting effects of slavery and of freedom are easy to understand; they are enough to explain the differences between ancient civilization and modern.

On the left bank of the Ohio work is connected with the idea of slavery, but on the right with well-being and progress; on the one side it is degrading, but on the other honorable; on the left bank no white laborers are to be found, for they would be afraid of being like the slaves; for work people must rely on the Negroes; but one will never see a man of leisure on the right bank: the white man's intelligent activity is used for work of every sort.  […]

The white man on the right bank, forced to live by his own endeavors, has made material well-being the main object of his existence; as he lives in a country offering inexhaustible resources to his industry and continual inducements to activity, his eagerness to possess things goes beyond the ordinary limits of human cupidity; tormented by a longing for wealth, he boldly follows every path to fortune that is open to him; he is equally prepared to turn into a sailor, pioneer, artisan, or cultivator, facing the labors or dangers of these various ways of life with even constancy; there is something wonderful in his resourcefulness and a sort of heroism in his greed for gain.

The American on the left bank scorns not only work itself but also enterprises in which work is necessary to success; living in idle ease, he has the tastes of idle men; money has lost some of its value in his eyes; he is less interested in wealth than in excitement and pleasure and expends in that direction the energy which his neighbor puts to other use; he is passionately fond of hunting and war; he enjoys all the most strenuous forms of bodily exercise; he is accustomed to the use of weapons and from childhood has been ready to risk his life in single combat.  Slavery therefore not only prevents the white men from making their fortunes but even diverts them from wishing to do so.

The constant operation of these opposite influences throughout two centuries in the English North American colonies has in the end brought about a vast difference in the commercial capabilities of southerners and northerners.  Today the North alone has ships, manufactures, railways, and canals.

My impression is that traits of “northerner” and “southerner,” as perceived by persons such as Tocqueville prior to the Civil War, since that war have spread more broadly throughout the American populace.

(Read a more complete excerpt from Tocqueville's writings on slavery here.)


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