God’s War; A New History of the Crusades

God’s War; A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman. Harvard University Press, 2009 paper.

We usually think of the crusades as a series of religious conflicts between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Stretching from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, they involved thousands of armed warriors trekking to Palestine to liberate holy sites and their reliquaries from Moslem dominion. Christopher Tyerman’s history of the crusaders and their motives provides a more complicated narrative.

He explains, for example, the importance of trade relationships between the primitive Western Europe economies and that of Constantinople and its Syrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian provinces. Trade between the two regions produced considerable wealth but was largely in Italian hands – Venice, Genoa, and Pisa.

The crusades were also entangled with the evolving character of the Papacy. It desired to dominate Christendom and the sacred Holy Land but had no army to field or sufficient wealth to finance those ambitions.

Each crusade followed a pattern. First the papacy would issue a document that offered forgiveness – an indulgence – to those who took part in a crusade against, at different times, Moslems, pagans, and heretics. The papal bulls would be proclaimed by a cleric of some renown, who would undertake a preaching tour to arouse interest and participation in the crusade. These tours usually focused on one or more regions of France, Flanders, or the Holy Roman Empire.

The next step was to raise the necessary finances to support these thousands of armed cavalry and foot soldiers. Most of the knights and their retinues were generally self-financed. The nobility – magnates, counts, and marquis – mortgaged their land, borrowing from wealthy monasteries and other religious establishments. This often proved disastrous to their patrimonies when the loans could not be repaid.

Once the finances were in hand, the recruitment began. One positive outcome of this recruitment, it is often claimed, was the draining off of the armed and querulous nobility. Tyerman points out, however, that they were the managers of the Frankish agricultural economy and husbands and fathers. Their death in route or during warfare left holes in the family and social fabric.

Initially the crusaders went by land to Palestine, through southern Germany, Hungary and what is now Bulgaria. Others through Italy. The armies of the second and subsequent crusades were, however, were mostly transported by ships, supplied by the Venetians. This reduced travel time but involved a substantial fee for these ships and crewmen, and hence more expenses.

The conquest of territories along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and in Anatolia as a result of the first crusade led to states ruled by western magnates and new urban populations, called Outremer (overseas). The settlers were from the Greek-speaking world, also Armenians and Jews from the eastern Mediterranean, and a few Germans and Franks from Western Europe. The peasantry remained mostly Moslem. Some historians can see here the precursors of later European colonial states.

These settlers made a living off of the pilgrimage business. It supported several prosperous cities along the Palestinian and Syrian coast. Perhaps the two most important, captured by the crusaders after long sieges, were Antioch, besieged 1097 -1098, and Acre, 1189 -1190.

Jerusalem was one of the three major Christian pilgrimage sites in medieval Europe. It would remain so under both Moslem and Christian rule.

Tyerman narrates the little discussed treaty relationship between Roman Christendom and Constantinople, the center of Greek Christianity. The first crusade was in part at least a response to Constantinople’s request for military assistance from its ally against the Moslem Seljuk Turks who had occupied Anatolia and threatened the Holy Land.

It was, however, difficult to keep the crusaders focused. Constantinople and other Greek Christian cities were tempting with their strove of relics. The Christian city of Zara (Zadar in Croatia) was taken and sacked in 1205. The Venetians had provided ship transport, and in lieu of payment, the crusaders agreed to capture the rebellious city for the Venetians.

Pope Innocent III later excommunicated the Venetians and crusaders involved.  But excommunication seems not to have been too troublesome; later that year the crusaders captured and sacked Constantinople, the Pope’s ally.

Christopher Tyerman agrees that the crusaders were motivated by the wealth that could be acquired in rampages through ancient lands. Add to that a set of intolerances and prejudices. But he also acknowledges their religious idealism, even if blinkered.

Much of the book’s 900-some pages is assigned reading for a course that I am auditing and enjoying this semester on holy wars taught by Professor Nina Caputo, history, UF.

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