Monday, June 23, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Crusades: How were the Crusaders able to get to conquer, and establish themselves in the East?

I was very fortunate to sit through Christopher Tyerman’s lecture series on the Crusades as a undergraduate. Although I greatly enjoyed his lectures, one particular remark has always stuck with me above everything else. At the beginning of the first week, there were some fifty students in the lecture theatre. As the weeks continued (and it being the summer term with exams on the way) numbers began to dwindle. Eight weeks later, at the start of the final lecture, few of us remained of the original fifty. Dr. Tyerman surveyed the rows of empty chairs and counted eight of us left. “Well” he said. “I suppose this is about the right proportion who would have survived a crusade.” We burst into laughter.

Given the incredible hazards of the journey to the Holy Land and the low survival rate of the average Crusader, it is interesting to consider how exactly westerners were able to establish themselves and even thrive in Palestine in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The likelihood of an expedition succeeding was not very high. This is supported when one looks at the failures of the other Crusades to the East. In comparison to the First Crusade, the Second Crusade in 1147 was almost a total failure.

Byzantine support
Despite attempts by Latin Chroniclers such as Fulcher of Chartres to discredit the Byzantines, the First Crusade owed much to the active co-operation of Alexius Comnenus. The Crusaders rendezvoused at Constantinople before embarking on their quest. They would have had little knowledge of the ‘lay of the land’ in the territories to which they would be crossing. Even Fulcher highlights the necessity of securing Greek counsel and assistance. It was they who controlled communications and would have to keep supply lines open for the main crusading army. Proof of the necessity of Byzantine support can be offered through looking at the results of the Second Crusade. The First Crusaders had the knowledge and experience of Tactikus, an old soldier with long familiarity of warfare in Anatolia. The Second Crusaders did not receive the level of assistance that Alexius I had provided to their predecessors because Manuel had made long-term truce arrangements with the Seljuk Turks. Consequently, the expedition was largely conducted without any real knowledge of the dangers ahead. The First Crusaders may have felt abandoned after reaching Antioch, but that had been supplied and escorted on their journey by experienced troops provided by Byzantium.

Weaknesses in the Islamic world
The work of Carole Hillenbrand has done much to open up the Islamic perspective to western scholars concerning the arrival of the first crusaders. She argues that the Islamic world went through a series of catastrophic events during the last decades of the eleventh century, and as a result, the Crusaders were able to force their way into the East and establish states in hostile lands. In the space of less than two years, beginning in the 1092 there was a total sweep of all the major political pieces in the Islamic world. Nizam al-Mulk, the ruler of the Seljuks was murdered leading to a spiral of fratricide and power struggles. This diverted resources away from fighting western invaders. The disparate nature of the Seljuk army (consisting of standing troops, nomadic Turcomans, and groups of soldiers under provincial commanders) made strong military leadership under a Sultan essential for victory. This had been the case at Manzikert when the Turks had been led to victory under Alp-Arslan. In 1094, the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, al-Mutansir died. This succession of deaths in both the key power centres of the Islamic world led to disorientation and anarchy. This made the First Crusade all the more likely to succeed.

More significantly, to the survival of the Crusader states was the religious schism that had developed within the Islamic word. The Fatimid Ismaili shi’ites of Egypt shared a political enmity with the Seljuk Sunnis in Anatolia. Indeed the Crusaders would be able to play these groups off one another. In addition to this, the Fatimid Egyptians suffered further religious schism after the death of al-Mutansir in 1094 with the breakaway group known as ‘Assassins’. The concept of ‘Jihad’ had also become a rhetorical term and was not revived until later in the Middle Ages. Jerusalem in 1095 was not yet considered as important in the Muslim world as it would become in the build up to 1187 (the Fall of Jerusalem to Saladin). Economically in the period of the First Crusade, Egypt was suffering from famine and plague. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Muslim world was unable to offer serious concerted opposition to the arrival of Western armies.

Strong political leadership of the Crusader states
The establishment of the Crusader territories was vitally dependent upon the implementation of strong political leadership. Crucially, the first issue that had to be dealt with was the question of the political status of the territory surrounding the Holy places. Was it to be a state of the church governed by a papal legate, or simply a Christian kingdom in the Holy Land? The death of Adhemer of Le Puy had removed the legitimate channel of papal authority. Godfrey of Bouillon decided to take the title of ‘advocatus’, meaning a layman who protected and administered Church estates. This situation changed after Godfrey’s death in 1100 and the new ruler was able to assert his strength and become Baldwin I. The papal legate, Daimbert was slowly undermined until 1102, when he was sent into exile. The establishment of a king gave the opportunity for the practice of feudal forms of government already in operation in Europe at this time. The other three territories acknowledged the leadership of the kingdom of Jerusalem as shown by the high degree of co-operation between the Frankish states.

Co-operation of the Crusader kingdoms

In 1118, the forces of Jerusalem, Antioch and Tripoli combined to meet an army from Egypt and Damascus that was threatening the kingdom of Jerusalem. Roger of Antioch campaigned for three months with the king and gave the king three hundred of his own soldiers to strengthen the royal army. In addition, the traditional marriage alliances also helped to strengthen the solidarity of the Crusader states. At first the Crusaders were ill-equipped for the task of establishing themselves and securing territory. They lacked manpower and had suffered huge losses during the First Crusade. This was made worse by the departure of some of the most important magnates and their companies after Jerusalem had been taken (such as the Counts of Flanders and Normandy). The historian Malcolm Barber has gone so far to say that the major reason for the success of the kingdom was that the Muslims were in an even worse condition that the Crusaders, disunited and lacking a sense of unity.

Control of the coast

Control of the coast was essential in sustaining Crusader power. The ports gave the merchants a trading post and opened up the supply route to the west. Therefore the co-operation of the Italian city-states of Venice, Pisa and Genoa was crucial in maintaining operations in the Levant. In 1104 a fleet of Genoese ships had enabled Baldwin to capture the important port city of Acre and Genoa had received extensive trading privileges in return. Later the Venetians assisted with the blockade and capture of Tyre in 1124. The terms of their support gave the Venetians 1/3 of the city and made them almost entirely exempt from the payment of customs. The consequences of this and other grants was the establishment of autonomous Italian settlements in the trading cities of the Frankish states. They formed enclaves, under their own jurisdiction and administered by officials appointed by their mother-cities in Italy. The Italian fleets were essential in securing the Eastern Mediterranean from Muslim counter-attack, as well as successfully besieging coastal cities.

Contribution of the military orders
The chronic shortages of manpower would have proved fatal, if not for the establishment of the religious military orders. I have explored their contribution to defence of the Crusader States in more detail in earlier posts on this blog, but to summarise, the military orders provided much needed manpower to the Christian armies. The orders were an elite fighting force, dedicated to the defence of the Christian holy places in the Crusader states. Their network of financial resources in Europe enabled them to build castles and garrison strategic frontier areas on the borders of Muslim kingdoms and princedoms.

The disunity of the Muslim world was arguably the single largest factor in maintaining the western presence in the Levant. Although it took nearly ninety years for the Muslim world to organise itself effectively, they could afford to squabble during that time. For the westerners trying to establish themselves, disunity would have been disastrous.

If you are interested in reading more about the Crusader kingdoms, have a look at these books;


Malcolm Barber, ‘The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320 (London and New York, 1993)

Jean Richard, ‘The Crusades c.1071-c.1291 (Cambridge, 1999)

Carole Hillenbrand, ‘The Crusades: Islamic perspectives (Edinburgh, 1999)

P.M. Holt, ‘The Age of the Crusades: The near east from the eleventh century to 1517 (London, 1986)

Alan V. Murray, The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: A Dynastic history 1097-1125 (Oxford, 2000)

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