Let’s take a moment to talk about Crusader fetishim.
My love for the Crusaders is strong—otherwise I’d never have gotten through so many tedious academic Crusader histories. But I don’t buy into those images of heroic, muscular Crusaders charging (heroically!) into (muscular!) battle. Or the T-shirts with slogans like, “I’m the Crusader Allah warned you about.”
Ugh. No. Stop. If that’s what you think of the Crusaders, you have some history to catch up on.
Here are some things to consider:
In reality, the Crusaders spent a lot of time crying like little girls.
Terror and despair were constant companions, especially in the First Crusade. In addition, medieval knights did not exactly have stiff upper lips.
“Truly you would have grieved and sobbed in pity when the Turks killed any of our men.”[i]
“As for the knights, they stood about in a great state of gloom, wringing their hands because they were so frightened and miserable, not knowing what to do with themselves and their armour, and offering to sell their shields, valuable breastplates and helmets for threepence or fivepence or any price they could get.”[ii]
“When Guy, who was a very honourable knight, had heard these lies, he and all the others began to weep and to make loud lamentation.”[iii]
“They stayed in the houses cowering, some some for hunger and some for fear of the Turks.”[iv]
They (and their noble steeds) frequently died of starvation, thirst, and disease.
Dysentry! Leprosy! Starvation! Dehydration! Heatstroke! Medieval war promised lots of exotic and humiliating ways to die that didn’t involve battle at all.
“On such food we survived wretchedly enough, but we lost most of our horses, so that many of our knights had to go on as foot-soldiers, and for lack of horses we had to use oxen as mounts.”[v]
“The rich as well as the poor were wretched because of starvation as well as the slaughter, which daily occurred. Had not God, like a good pastor, held his sheep together, without doubt they would all have fled thence at once in spite of the fact that they had sworn to take the city.”[vi]
“Many of us died of hunger, for a small loaf cost a bezant, and I cannot tell you the price of wine. Our men ate the flesh of horses and asses, and sold it to one another; a hen cost 15 shillings, an egg two, and a walnut a penny. All things were very dear. So terrible was the famine that men boiled and ate the leaves of figs, vines, thistles and all kinds of trees. Others stewed the dried skins of horses, camels, asses, oxen, or buffaloes, which they ate. . . . We endured this misery, hunger and fear for six-and-twenty days.”[vii]
“The king . . . was suffering from the sickness that had attacked the army, and from very bad dysentry as well.”[viii]
They’re actually quite famous for running away.
Sometimes Crusaders ran from the battlefield. Sometimes they shinned down ropes to escape besieged cities. Sometimes they gave up and went home. They did this a lot.
“We were stunned. . . . Since we faced death and since many of us were wounded we soon took to flight. . . . Because our men had retreated to our tents those of the enemy who had entered [the camp] fled at once thinking that we had suddenly returned to attack them. What they took for boldness and courage was, if they could have known, really great fear.”[ix]
“Because of this great wretchedness and misery William the Carpenter and Peter the Hermit fled away secretly.”[x]
“Now at vigils, the time of trust in God’s compassion, many gave up hope and hurriedly lowered themselves with ropes from the wall-tops; and in the city soldiers, returning from the encounter, circulated widely a rumour that mass decapitation of the defenders was in store. To add weight to the terror, they too fled. . . .”[xi]
“Now it happened that, before Antioch was captured, that coward Stephen, count of Chartres, whom all our leaders had elected commander-in-chief, pretended to be very ill, and he went away shamefully to another castle which is called Alexandretta. When we were shut up in the city, lacking help to save us, we waited each day for him to bring us aid. But he, having heard that the Turks had surrounded and besieged us, went secretly up a neighbouring mountain which stood near Antioch, and when he saw more tents than he could count he returned in terror, and hastily retreated in flight with his army.”[xii]
“In the course of that day’s battle there had been many people, and of fine appearance too, who had come very shamefully flying over the little bridge you know of and had fled away so panic-stricken that all our attempts to make them stay with us had been in vain. I could tell you some of their names, but shall refrain from doing so, because they are now dead.”[xiii]
Crusaders were not particularly noteworthy for their Christian virtue.
Even if you set aside the accounts of actual war crimes committed by the crusaders (including massacre, rape, slavery, and one instance of cannibalism), you still have to deal with commonplace, everyday evildoing:
“Our troops refrained from attacking the citadel while they examined and took inventory of the spoils; and further oblivious of God, the bestower of so many favours, they gormandised sumptuously and splendidly as they gave heed to dancing girls.”[xiv]
“One who would undertake with careful pen to portray their morals, or rather their monstrous vices, would succumb under the vast amount of material; in short, he would seem to be writing satire rather than compiling history.”[xv]
“When I first entered this monstrous city [Acre] and found it full of innumerable crimes and iniquities, I was greatly perturbed. . . . Virtually every day and night murders occurred, in the open or unnoticed; husbands slit their wives’ throats because they were displeased with them, while in traditional fashion wives disposed of their husbands by means of poisonous potions so that they could marry another. In the city there were drug and poison traffickers, trust between people was virtually non-existent, and a man’s foes are those of his own household. . . . The city was filled with brothels. . . . Who could enumerate all the crimes of a second Babylon in which Christians refused baptism to their Saracen servants who were tearfully and earnestly requesting it?”[xvi]
Crusaders permitted Muslims to have mosques and to pray in Christian churches.
As the Crusaders settled in the East, they had to find ways of cooperating with local non-Catholic populations as well as visiting Muslim diplomats. This is how they did it:
“When I [Usama ibn Munqidh] was in Jerusalem I used to go to the Masjid al-Aqsa, beside which is a small oratory which the Franks have made into a church. Whenever I went into the mosque, which was in the hands of Templars who were friends of mine, they would put the little oratory at my disposal, so that I could say my prayers there.”[xvii]
“In Tyre [Ibn Jubayr] rested in a mosque that remained in Muslim hands and learned about others which were in their possession; in Acre he saw a small oratory in the erstwhile main mosque where Muslims from outside the town could “congregate to perform the obligatory prayers” as well as the mosque at ‘Ayn al-Baqar, in Frankish possession and with a Frankish-built eastern apse, where Muslims and Christians assembled to pray, each in the customary direction.”[xviii]
Crusaders had good things to say about their Muslim enemies.
“This is true, and nobody can deny it, that if only they had stood firm in the faith of Christ . . . you could not find stronger or braver or more skilful soldiers.”[xix]
“[Saladin] was a man wise in counsel, valiant in war, and generous beyond measure.”[xx]
Crusaders were fine with sharia law.
This could be the most surprising thing of all, but historian Benjamin Kedar presents good evidence to believe that self-governing Muslim communities within the Crusader states administered a form of sharia law:
“Even as bitter a foe of the Franks as ‘Imad al-Din concedes that they let the subjected Muslims practice their religion. Writing of the Muslims in the Nablus area, he remarks that the Franks ‘did not change a single law or cult practice’ . . . . The crusaders, initially bewildered at the array of non-Catholic beliefs they encountered in the Levant, soon evolved the realistic policy of letting each group observe its ‘law’, which, as far as the Saracens were concerned, was the law of detested Muhammed. Thus the laws of the kingdom of Jerusalem take it for granted that in Frankish-administered courts a Saracen would give his oath ‘sur le Coran de sa lei’ [on the Koran]. . . . There is no documentary evidence for internal Muslim jurisdiction, but it is plausible to assume that the Muslims, like other subjected communities, had institutionalized ways of settling their own affairs. . . . For instance, a headman of a Muslim community might well have exercised jurisdiction over his coreligionists.”[xxi]
Oh yeah, and: the Crusaders lost.
The First Crusade was the only one that could be called a success—and probably less than twenty percent of the the disease-ridden, hunger-maddened, and humiliated participants managed to survive it. As for the rest, when a twentieth-century French diplomat argued the Crusades as basis for a French presence in Syria, Faisal I of Iraq summed it up with a pithy, “Pardon me, which of us won the crusades?”[xxii]
To summarise, incompetent leadership caused humiliating retreats in both the Second and Fifth Crusades. The Third Crusade managed to claw the Crusader states back from the edge of extinction after the devastating defeat at Hattin, but the Fourth Crusade got excommunicated and then sacked the Christian city of Constantinople. And the Sixth Crusade ended with the whole army being captured in Egypt and needing to be ransomed.
Further, Wikipedia lists 83 major battles during the Crusades. Only 42% of these could possibly be described as victories, and many of those were very costly. And during the 1200s, the crusaders probably spent more time fighting fellow Christians in the Fourth Crusade, the War of the Lombards, and the War of St. Sabas than they did their Muslim neighbors.
So you want to post an inspirational picture of Crusaders charging boldly into battle?
Well, you’re going to need a picture of a miserable, sick, and emaciated man riding into battle on a cow. Because that’s what the Crusaders looked like in their greatest moments of victory. The precarious courage of those enfeebled, terrified First Crusaders is far more inspiring to me than the chest-thumping propaganda I see posted on social media by men who have never known bodily discomfort.
Moreover, those who post Crusader imagery as a statement of virtuous opposition to Islam are barking up the wrong tree. Not only were the Crusades a resounding failure, but the Crusaders themselves would not recognize most current-day worries about Islam. Their primary concern, problematic as it might have been, was to secure stable Christian rule in the Holy Land, not to close borders, ban burkas, or eradicate sharia law. In the final account, it’s just as historically ill-informed to depict them as righteous heathen-smiting warriors as it is to think of them as barbaric and ignorant fanatics.
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her parents and siblings, writing and publishing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history. Visit her online at suzannahrowntree.site.
[i] Christopher Tyerman (editor), Chronicles of the First Crusade (Penguin Books, London, 2012) p 115.
[ii] Tyerman, p 138.
[iii] Tyerman, p 219.
[iv] Tyerman, p 217.
[v] Tyerman, p 135.
[vi] Tyerman, p 147.
[vii] Tyerman, p 218.
[viii] Joinville and Villehardouin, Chronicles of the Crusades (Penguin Books, London, 1963), p240.
[ix] Tyerman, p 130.
[x] Tyerman, p 159.
[xi] Tyerman, p 206.
[xii] Tyerman, p 218.
[xiii] Joinville and Villehardouin, p 226.
[xiv] Tyerman, p 187.
[xv] William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, Vol II (Columbia University Press, New York, 1943), p 406.
[xvi] Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate, Letters from the East: Crusaders, Pilgrims, and Settlers in the 12th-13th Centuries (Ashgate, Surrey, 2013) pp 102-103.
[xvii] Usama ibn Munqidh’s Autobiography, quoted in Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades (Routledge, New York, 2010), p 48.
[xviii] Benjamin Kedar, “The Subjected Muslims of the Frankish Levant”, in J. M. Powell (ed.), Muslims Under Latin Rule 1100–1300 (Princeton: Princeton Legacy Library, 1990), pp. 135–174.
[xix] Tyerman, p 128-9.
[xx] William of Tyre, p 405.
[xxi] Kedar, above n. 18.
[xxii] Quoted in a letter from T. E. Lawrence to Robert Graves, 28 June 1927, in Robert Graves and B. H. Liddell-Hart, T. E. Lawrence to His Biographers (Doubleday, New York, 1938), p 52, note.