I never liked history. “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child” said Cicero, but how was I to make sense of the humongous data dump that we were subjected to during so many years in the classroom? Monarchs, battlefields, martyrs, saints, kingdoms, inventions, conquests, everything presented in discrete bits disconnected from each other.

Thus once I finished school I bought fiction or science books only. They were fun to read because they told a story. History, ironically, lacked storytelling. But that was just me: a product of prejudice and ignorance.

Then one day not long ago, I purchased the three volumes of A History of The Crusades, by Steven Runciman. The edition was so beautifully put together by Folio Society that I began reading immediately. And I didn’t stop until I finished the third volume.

Runciman not only connects and makes sense of 500 years of events in Europe, the Middle East and Asia but also permeates those events and the history of the peoples with humanity and culture, in a way that allowed me to (think that I) understand how The Crusades affected our reality today. Cicero was right.

Here are some of the notes I took:

  • There were innumerable peoples in Europe and the Middle East: Normans, Franks, Venetians, Byzantines, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Jews, even the Mongols make a terrifying appearance.
  • Order and equilibrium were possible due to the existence of a powerful and shrewd empire: The Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital.
  • The Church (Rome) encouraged knights to fight for the church. In return, the warriors could keep the conquered lands and obtain spiritual benefits. This became popular in northern France, where the practice of primogeniture was being established (the eldest son got to inherit everything, and thus the younger sons had to seek their fortunes by themselves).
  • The Crusaders take Jerusalem from under Arab Muslim rule in 1099. The Crusaders killed all muslims and jews living in the city. “It was this bloodthirsty proof of Christian fanaticism that recreated that fanaticism of Islam. When, later, wiser Latins in the East sought to find some basis on which Christian and Moslem could work together, the memory of the massacre stood always in their way.” (Runciman).
  • The military orders: Knights Hospitaller. White cross on their tunics. Their origin was a hostel/hospital administered by Amalfitans. Their first leader maintained the order as hospitality only, but its successor, Raymond of Le Puy (took control around 1118) transformed it into an order of knights devoted to fight the heathen and maintain vows of poverty. Knights Templar.  Red cross on white tunics. A knight from Champagne, Hugh of Payens, convinced King Baldwin I in 1118 to allow him and a few companions to stay in the Royal Palace, in the Temple Area.The Orders were independent to the king, owing allegiance only to the Pope. They also provided the kingdom with a regular, ever-present supply of trained knights, never distracted by thoughts of personal ambition.
  • In general, western europeans resented Byzantium and passively (and later openly) wanted the debilitation, if not the destruction, of the empire. A myopic and foolish desire. As Runciman puts it: “Was it to the better interest of Christendom that there should be occasional gallant expeditions to the East [Palestine and the Levant], led by a mixture of unwise idealists and crude adventurers, to succour an intrusive state there whose existence depended on Moslem disunity? Or that Byzantium, who had been for so long the guardian of the eastern frontier, should continue to play her part unembarrassed from the West? The story of the Second Crusade showed even more clearly than that of the First that the two policies were incompatible. When Constantinople itself had fallen and the Turks were thundering at the gates of Vienna, it would be possible to see which policy was right.”
  • The Horns of Hattin and Saladin: the greatest army that the Crusaders had ever assembled was annihilated. The Holy Cross was lost, and the victor was lord of the whole Moslem world, Saladin. He was a kind and honorable man. The city of Jerusalem was not looted. He demanded ransom of 10 dinars for each man, 5 a woman, and 1 a child, or else they would be sent to slavery. There were about 20,000 men who could not afford their freedom. Many thousands could have been spared slavery if only the Orders and the Church had been more generous. As the Christians were leaving the city, one group as free men, the other as slaves, Saladin announced that he would liberate every aged man and woman, and also every captive husband. And to the widows and orphans he gave gifts from his own treasury. Saladin “at the Horns of Hattin and the gates of Jerusalem he had avenged the humiliation of the First Crusade, and he had shown how a man of honour celebrates his victory.”
  • In the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, the Crusaders and Venetians sack Constantinople. This not only caused the destruction or dispersal of all the treasures of the past that Byzantium had devotedly stored, and the mortal wounding of a civilization that was still active and great; it was also an act of tremendous political folly. It brought no help to the Christians in Palestine. Instead it robbed them of potential helpers (as many Christians from Palestine migrated to Greece). It also upset the whole defense of Christendom.
    Since the inception of its empire, Byzantium had been the guardian of Europe against the muslim East and the barbarian North. She had opposed them with her armies and tamed them with her civilization.
  • The Little Crusade: Shepherd boy Stephen, aged 12, preaches the Crusade and recruits a mass of children and they embark, all on foot, from Vendome south to Marseilles. They were expecting the sea to divide before them. It did not happen. They, however, were offered to sail to Palestine. In seven vessels they embarked and nobody heard of them for eighteen years (two of the vessels sank in the Mediterranean, the children of the remaining five vessels were sold to slavery).
  • The Mongols, an unstoppable force, were sympathetic to the Christians (initially). Genghis Khan, Ogedei Khan, Guyuk Khan, Mongke Khan, Kublai Khan developed the vastest empire known to man, ranging from China to the Ural Mountains, and from Korea to Greece. They also conquered the Caliphate of Baghdad and wanted to attack Syria but needed the cooperation of the Europeans. They sent two embassies to Europe but did not receive assistance. Had the West reacted and allied with the Mongols, the Franks in Palestine would have survived and the Mameluke Sultanate destroyed. Instead, the Mameluke Empire lasted for another 300 years and the Mongols of Persia passed into the Moslem camp.

The Summing Up

  • The pope vastly extended his dominions through the Crusades, conquering the ancient patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Constantinople. His missionaries travelled as far Ethiopia and China.
  • Apart from the widening of the spiritual dominion of Rome, the chief benefit obtained by western Christendom from the Crusades was negative. When they began the main seats of civilization were in the East, at Constantinople and at Cairo. When they ended, civilization had moved its headquarters to Italy and the young countries of the West. The Renaissance era began then.
  • If it wasn’t for the Crusades and the sack of Constantinople by the Europeans, it is likely that the Renaissance would have begun in Constantinople. The knights that had come from France and Italy to conquer it could not believe that so superb a city could exist on earth; it was of all cities the sovereign.

“In the end, there was so much courage and so little honor, so much devotion and so little understanding. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.”(S. Runciman).

Siege of Jerusalem
Siege of Jerusalem, 1099