All About History
THE FIRST CRUSADE HAD BEEN DEFEATED?
How might the history of the Middle Ages have been altered had this massive event gone in a different direction?
Who were the main forces behind the First Crusade?
The Byzantine Empire, centred around Constantinople, was a model in managing risk – one reason it had been so stable and successful for over half a millennium after the fall of Rome. In the late 11th century, however, a build-up of pressure for multiple sources brought the empire to its knees. The Emperor Alexios I Komnenos had taken his throne by military force in a coup in 1081, and as basically a usurper with no inherited authority his position was perhaps not as stable as many of his predecessors. And the deterioration of the position in Asia Minor was serious, in particular the loss of large, fortified cities to the Turks, thereby enabling them to cement their foothold in the region. The emperor needed large-scale support to recover those – and turned to the west for expertise as well as manpower. In 1095 he sent envoys to Pope Urban II, imploring him to help fellow Christians against the scourge of the Muslim threat. The Pope did not disappoint, and at the Council of Clermont in 1095 gave a fiery and passionate speech which would ignite crusading fever.
How significant is it that the first to respond was the ‘People’s Crusade’?
On the back of the religious fervour drummed up in passionate campaigning by both the pope and the French cleric Peter the Hermit, the population in Western Europe had been whipped up by news of the crisis in Byzantium and beyond and were responding to calls to do something about it. In military terms, however, the People’s Crusade – made up of some knights but mainly ordinary devout Christians mixed together with the dispossessed, opportunists and the downright criminal and led by
Peter – was totally insignificant. The People’s Crusade was a disaster – chaotic, disorganised and foolhardy. A bit like a crowd of football hooligans on the rampage. It also had a very sinister and disturbing side. As this first wave of crusaders moved through Europe what could and should be done in the name of Christ was often ignored or excused away. In order to support themselves there was mass looting; in order to show their devotion to Christ there was the brutal massacre of several communities of Jews in Germany who were caught up in this fiery uncontrollable tide against all non-christians. Such was the success, interpretation and effectiveness of the spread of the Crusade message in the mid-1090s.
Can the motives of either side be seen as purely religious?
Much depends on what one means by ‘purely religious’ or even by ‘religious’.
A lot of historians take ideas about faith and devotion on trust – and over-rely on charter documents and other primary sources that can easily result in over-simplifications or even mislead entirely. I think motivations are always problematic as they are usually complex and their interpretation highly subjective. And, of course, they could and did change before, during and after the Crusades for participants, observers and indeed people living far away too. The initial ‘call to arms’ for the Crusade was, on the surface at least, very much a message of defence of the Christian faith, but the underlying issues of land, power and influence were always very close to the surface.
How different could the Byzantine Empire, Western Europe and future control of the Holy Land have looked if the Crusade had been defeated? And how ambitious could the Turks potentially have been?
That’s relatively easy to answer because all the Crusades effectively did was to hold up the advances of the Turks for a few hundred years. By the late 1300s the Ottomans were deep into the Balkans, bypassing Constantinople (which they finally took in 1453) and over the next five centuries occasionally threatened to overspill far beyond too. Vienna could have fallen in 1529 or in 1683.
Ironically, the more interesting question here is a counter-intuitive one: would there have been an Ottoman Empire in the first place without the Crusades? In fact, what the western expeditions to the Holy Land did was to unify the Islamic world and to paper over the very substantial political, religious and ethnic cracks to pave the way for a true Mediterranean, African and Asian superpower. I doubt that could or would have happened without the intervention of the Crusades.
What consequences would defeat have had on the reputation of the pope, the church, and the military might of Western Europe? Were other individual reputations at stake?
The Crusades were the making of Urban II and of the papacy in general. Had the expedition ended in defeat at Jerusalem in 1099, or not taken place at all, the pope would have been far less significant as a political figure in European and global history. There was a long history of competition between religious and secular leaders in the church in Western Europe; this would have continued without the Crusades, and I suspect the Pope would have got to the same place of wielding real power in the end some other way. Peter the Hermit, after heavy defeat in battle, was stopped from fleeing to the safety of Constantinople and made to suffer the same dangers and tribulations of his fellow crusaders. The prominent kings of Western Europe such as France, England and the Holy Roman Emperor took no part as, ironically, having all been excommunicated by Pope Urban II they were excluded from taking part in a ‘holy war’! For the prominent nobility and military leaders, such as Raymond of Toulouse and Godfrey of Bouillon, the capture of Jerusalem was to catapult them into the realms of stardom, idealising their exploits, their honour and their heroism through heavily romanticised song and literature. The realities of anti-semitism and the massacre of innocent men women and children after the capture and fall of the Holy City were to be ignored or conveniently forgotten. Now there was a new idealised benchmark against which levels of chivalry, honour and piety would be upheld by those crusaders who were to come, as well as firmly fixing the accepted image of the crusading knight into history for hundreds of years. Defeat of these ‘heroes’ would have painted a very different picture altogether.
Were there potential flaws that could have led to defeat or was victory inevitable?
This very much depends on perspective. Seen from the perspective of the capture of Jerusalem as being the sole purpose of the First Crusade then yes, it turns into a great success; but taking the Crusades as a whole they ended in failure. So, the First Crusade can be seen as a classic case of winning a battle but losing the war.
But if we are to look at the First Crusade on its own, it’s a different story. It could have ended in disaster on multiple occasions. In one way, it is incredible that it did not do so, especially during the Siege of Antioch in 1098.
It should also be remembered that after travelling such a huge distance, battles and disease took a horrific toll on numbers, with only a fraction of the original armies actually making it to the walls of Jerusalem, leaving them vulnerable to larger forces and defeat or victory very much on a knife edge.
Would defeat have stopped any future Crusades in their tracks?
Defeat would have meant that an army of at least 60,000, and by some estimates and reports perhaps as many as 100,000, had failed; something of a substantial blow to the reputation of Western military might and expertise, and the stomach for any future conflict in the name of Christ or honour may have dissolved. One can also speculate that such a catastrophe would have led to a much more galvanised and even greater response – but I doubt it. It’s worth remembering that Jerusalem fell to the Arabs 450 years before the Crusades, and no one made much of an effort to recover if before the 1090s, emphasising the complex and various elements that had come into play that ignited the First Crusade and then fanned the flames.