Saturday, February 20, 2010

Crusade calumnies

In Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, Paul Gottfried excerpts (p62) from a speech given by Bill Clinton a couple of months after 9/11 as an illustration "exemplifying the power of multicultural concepts to influence political celebrities independently of tangible career interest" (that is, multicult worship is not merely a tool for achieving some desired political or social end, but has become an obligation on par with five-a-day prayer). Parts of the speech Gottfried elected not to quote, probably with space limitations in mind, strike me as more demonstrative than the ones he actually used. For example:

Look at you [Georgetown student body]. You are from everywhere. Look at us and you will see how more diverse America has grown in the last thirty-plus years. The terrorists killed people who came to America not to die, but dream, from every continent, from dozens of countries, most every religion on the face of the earth, including in large numbers Islam.
This paean to the putatively inherent value of racial and cultural diversity is ubiquitous in the political, educational, and business spheres of the modern West. The sacredness with which multiculturalism has been imbued is the subject of Gottfried's book. I found it to be too lacking in quantification and too orthogonal for my tastes, but that owes to my lack of enthusiasm for nuance and insinuation, not the professor's capabilities as a writer. Spare me the preamble and get to the point! That's advice I should follow more often than I do. So, on to the meat of this post.

The contemporary conventional description of the Crusades characterizes them as opportunistic, proto-colonialist undertakings, designed to plunder the wealth of a more advanced Arab world.

The colonial charge is risible. Crusading was extremely expensive. The first crusade was primarily funded privately, largely by those leading it. Godfrey of Bouillon, who would become the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (KoJ), sold the entire county of Verdun to the king of France and still had to mortgage Boullion itself to finance his expedition. In God's Battalions, Rodney Stark reports that "a typical crusader needed to raise at least four or five times his annual income before he could set forth". The poor, who comprised much of Peter the Hermit's following, were a constant drain on crusading efforts and were vociferously discouraged from taking part by the papacy itself. Subsequent crusades were financed in large part through taxation, first on the clergy and then on the general public.

Further, there had never been any prospect of the Kingdom of Jerusalem becoming a source of revenue for Europe. Over the course of its nearly two-century existence, the kingdom was perpetually propped up by men, supplies, and massive financial transfers from Europe. If anything, Europe acted as a "colony" of the KoJ. The Templars, who rivaled the major Italian banking houses in their breadth, made money in Europe to spend on sustaining their fortified castles, knights, sergeants, and squires in the holy land. In fact, likely the first ever income tax in the West was levied on those in England and France to finance the third crusade--now that's a genuinely ugly legacy of the crusading period! Returning from King Louis IX's second (and fatal) crusade, King Edward I of England would be the last person to lead a significant crusading effort from Europe. Twenty years later, with largescale support from the continent having dried up, the KoJ was, quite literally, driven into the sea by Muslim forces--the kingdom's last remnant was the Templar's island fortress at Arwad, a couple of miles off the Syrian coast.

That the Islamic world was more advanced than that of Europe at the time is debatable (and beyond the scope of my historical knowledge). Certainly, though, European military technology was superior to that of the Arabs or Turks. Without the crossbow, it is almost impossible to imagine that the KoJ could have ever come into being. With a range of up to 200 yards for which men could become accurate in a matter of hours (whereas traditional longbows took years to master, both in required arm strength and aiming ability), crossbow bolts could pierce full plate armor. At a much closer range, Muslims arrows often became harmlessly stuck in Christian chain mail. The use of saddles and stirrups, combined with horses much larger than those ridden by Arabs and Turks, allowed European cavalry, equipped with lances, to charge with force sufficient to both impale and knock opponents off their horses at the same time. In contrast, sometimes riding without either, and often placing their stirrups further forward to allow a rider to sit while riding, many Muslim riders carried only carried swords and bows.

While the crusaders may have attributed their successes to the will of God, these advantages were crucial in delivering repeated crusader victories against larger, better provisioned Muslim forces fighting on their own soil.

Of course, the crusades were hardly unprovoked. Before Islam was born, Christendom existed throughout North Africa, most of western and southern Europe, and in what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Turkey. A century after Muhammad died, Islam had conquered all of North Africa, most of the Middle East, and much of Spain. It would penetrate Europe all the way into France, reaching a high mark in 732 before the famous battle of Tours, when the Franks, led by Charles Martel, placed unmovable infantry lines in phalanx formation in front of Muslim cavalry. It proved deadly for the aggressors, who are thought to have been killed at rates as high as 10-to-1, despite outnumbering the Franks at something like 2-to-1.

When Urban II called for the first crusade at the Council of Claremont, it was in response to Byzantine emperor Alexius Commenus' plea for aid against the Seljuk Turks, who had made their capital Nicea, only 60 miles to the southeast of Constantinople. This came at a time when Christian pilgrims from both the Latin West and orthodox East were regularly robbed and harrassed by 'saracens', often fatally, on their way to Jerusalem.

The taking of Jerusalem during the first crusade is often used to epitomize the supposed ugliness that transpired for 200 years on account of the crusaders. Said Clinton:

First of all, terror, the killing of noncombatants for economic, political, or religious reasons has a very long history as long as organized combat itself, and yet, it has never succeeded as a military strategy standing on its own, but it has been around a long time. Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless. Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple mound. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple mound, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees. I can tell you that that story is still being told to today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it.
The memory of the crusades did not exist in the Muslim world until the turn of the 20th Century, when the first Arab history of it was written. The Europeans were only one relatively minor group among many fighting for a stake in what has since come to be referred to as the Middle East. The 11th and 12th centuries are largely the story of expanding Turkish power in the Arab world and the competition between Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad to become and remain the cultural center of the Islamic world. Jerusalem wasn't that important, and the other coastal cities even less so, especially since control of the seas was dominated by Byzantium throughout the crusading period.

Indeed, when the first crusade arrived to take Jerusalem, a majority of the city's population was Christian. The Arab governor of the city expelled them when he became aware of the approaching crusader forces. It was a prudent move, as Antioch (which was also majority-Christian at the time) had a year earlier fallen from Fatimid (Muslim) hands in part because after Bohemond of Taranto bribed a sentinel into leaving a gate to the city unlocked and unguarded, crusader forces were joined by Christian residents of the city in battling Muslim forces in the streets.

Jews were represented among the Fatimid ranks defending Jerusalem from crusader forces. Undoubtedly, crusaders storming the city had seen their brothers in arms dispatched by the steel and arrows of Jerusalem's Jews. That the they--or the synagogue they retreated into--would have been accorded special treatment following the city's fall is a rather egregious imposition of contemporary sensibilities onto the medieval past.

Had the city surrendered, it is almost certain that no ensuing massacre would've occured. It was a standard rule of warfare at the time that if a scaling of the walls had to be attempted--inevitably resulting in the deaths of many executing the siege--due to the city holding out against its attackers, a cruel fate awaited those inside if the city was penetrated.

With word of an enormous Fatimid army coming from to Jerusalem's aid from Eygpt, the crusading camp was in a desperate situation. It was running low on food and potable water, and the intensifying summer heat continued to take a brutal toll on the crusaders (who were more heavily armored than the Muslims were). The crusaders had been travelling through hostile territory for more than two years with their ultimate objective finally at hand. Jerusalem's Muslim and Jewish inhabitants were threatening to have them annihilated by a large Eygptian army headed their way by refusing them entry to the city. So when Godfrey's forces took control of a section of the city's walls that allowed crusaders to mount the walls and take to streets, it's little wonder that Jerusalem's inhabitants would be made to pay.

The predictable fate of the city's residents is often juxtaposed to the relatively humane treatment the Jerusalem's Christian population would suffer when Saladin retook the city in 1187. Instead of being massacred, most of them were merely enslaved. But the city's Christian inhabitants, many of them refugees from other KoJ cities already fallen to the Ayyubids, surrendered rather than fight on. As Edward Gibbon, who shared the general disdain for the crusades that characterized the Enlightenment period, wrote in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

Of some writeres it is a favourite and invidious theme to compare the humanity of Saladin with the massacre of the first crusade. The difference would be merely personal; but we should not forget that the Christians had offered to capitulate, and that the Mahometans of Jerusalem sustained the last extremeties of an assault and storm.
The image of Saladin as a paladin, sustained largely from the overtaking of Jerusalem (and maybe the way the two words rhyme?), is contradicted by the Kurd's* more typical (and again, understandable) brutality. After the battle of Hattin, he personally beheaded several captured members of the KoJ's military orders and happily allowed not only his soldiers but also imams and other Muslim religious practicioners to take part in the decapitations.

If historical objectivity is the aim, instances of the reverse occuring (which are as common, if not more so) should be similarly stressed. In 1153, for example, accompanied by both Hospitallers and Templars, Baldwin III took Ascalon after a surrender agreement allowing inhabitants to leave peaceably with their belongings was reached and carried out. More than a century later, the Mamluk Baibars, besieging a Templar castle in the Galilean uplands, proposed terms of surrender: Stop resisting and be allowed to withdraw without bodily harm to Acre. Upon opening the gates and surrendering the castle, Baibars had the entire Templar force beheaded.

That those of European ancestry should somehow carry on their shoulders a perpetual sense of guilt on account of the crusades typifies the mores of the "secular theocracy" of multiculturalism that Gottfried laments in his book. These are the same mores dictating that the slavery be thought of primarily as the act of white Europeans holding sub-Saharan Africans in bondage, despite slavery having existed throughout most of the world long before Europeans were capturing blacks, and having in fact likely been born in Africa only to be (mostly) extinguished on a global scale by northwestern Europeans. The crusades were military expeditions to reclaim land lost to Muslims over the preceding four centuries. Those undertaking them were believed to be divinely inspired, involved in pious undertakings for the good of Christians everywhere. They should not be anachronistically judged by Geneva convention standards, but viewed in context of those existing at the time.

* Today, Saladin keeps a relatively lower profile in the Arab world than he does in the Occident, presumably on account of his ethnicity.


Razib said...

minor point, where'd you read saladin was a shiite? don't recall that myself (in fact, i recall that he helped foster the sunni counter-reaction against the long dominant ismaili shia regime of the fatimids). these sorts of sectarian identifications can sometimes be sketchy, so i could be wrong here.

as for these arguments, i personally find them tiresome because history is interesting, and these ideological football matches are kind of insulting toward real scholarship. same crap happens with muslim spain.

i find stark's recent works pretty much unreadable because he seems to serve as a counter-narrative to the biased lefty post-colonial crap (he also repeats some out of date scholarship, which is not something that i find forgivable cuz i'm a random dude who knows a lot of history, not a historical scholar who writes books, so i shouldn't be catching obvious errors). but i'm not a big fan of two-wrongs making a right. if anyone is interested in the crusades, a recent book i found engrossing was *God's War: A New History of the Crusades*, by Christopher Tyerman. it's long, but dense (instead of long and unedited).

Razib said...

also, military history isn't something i'm super interested in, but i'm skeptical of an assertion like this:
Certainly, though, European military technology was superior to that of the Arabs or Turks.

the mongols basically liquidated the flower of the hungarian nobility with a predominantly light calvary force in the 1240s. the mamelukes later managed to defeat a mongol force with a heavily armed force actually similar to european knights in many ways, except even more professionalized. on the whole the emphasis toward heavy vs. light cavalry seems one that is less civilizational and more due to local conditions (the mongols picked up siege warfare to conquer south china, as their horses were pretty useless in wet hilly territory).

so during the period you're talking about i honestly think it's pretty useless to talk about who had the "better" military technology. later on, during the 15th century for example, the utilization of european technical experts on gunpowder in turkish armies shows that the technological gap had grown. but during this period the differences were more likely due to ecology (light cavalry can always run away from heavy cavalry in open ground, they might not win, but they can always not lose).

the point about the crossbow vs. longbow is good, but also don't see the relevance to the crusaders vs. muslims. i thought the turks tended to use the reflex bow.

Razib said...

ok, and my last history nerd comment. martel's victor over the muslims may not have been that seminal. more specifically, if he'd lost, i'm skeptical that the muslims would have made a lasting conquest of francia. the arabs seem to have kind of sucked at adapting to colder climates, see their inability to conquer the khazars north of the caucasus no matter how many battles they won.

additionally, muslims raided southern francia and had "nests" in the western alps until the late 800s. rome was sacked in the 800s by muslims. martel's victory is notable as an early signal of the "plateau" of muslim expansion into western europe.

by contrast, i think if constantinople had fallen in 718 then the muslims would have taken over the byzantine empire. the byzantine empire had a less decentralized structure than the frankish political order, so there was less fallback if the center collapsed, and anatolia probably would have been swallowed by the caliphate, and greece taken too.

good book on charles martel, *The Age of Charles Martel* by Paul Fouracre.

Audacious Epigone said...

I don't know why I was thinking Saladin was Shiite. My mistake. I've edited the post accordingly.

Audacious Epigone said...


The composite bows used in the Middle East were more powerful than simple longbows--that's a little sloppy of me to contrast the two--but the crossbow alone seems to me to be crucial in explaining how the crusades were able to be as militarily successful as they were, especially the first, before attempts at copying the crossbow were undertaken by Muslims.

Re: ecology, to the extent that there were normative differences in technological capabilities, I can't imagine they were as extreme as those from the 16th century onward, to the present. And discipline mattered, too--the crusaders heavier calvary, larger proportion of infantry among its armies, and use of the crossbow, were all major advantages in defensive pitched battles. There are several recounts of battles where crusader knights imprudently charged forward after being harrassed by hit and run tactics and paid for it. It almost cost the the third crusade the Battle of Arsuf.

We've not made any mention of European (and Byzantine) sea power, which I believe I'm correct in saying was clearly an area where the Muslims were at a distinct disadvantage. Without Norman, Genoan, Venetian, and English sea support, could the KoJ been sustained for any period of time?

Re: plateau vs high-water mark, the same could be said about the Ayyubids retaking of Jerusalem in 1187. Subsequent crusades would regain lost territory ahead of the third crusade, as well as expand into Egypt, but it seems to me that describing Saladin's victory at Jerusalem as representing the high mark of the KoJ (well, before the city's fall, more accurately).

Audacious Epigone said...


Re: real scholarship, I certainly am not claiming to add to it! I hope you're not expecting me to expand the body of historical knowledge we have about Latin Christendom in the middle ages or the history of the sultanate of rum.

The subtitle of Stark's book ("The case for the Crusades") leaves it as no surprise that he is sympathetic to the European side, but he isn't glorifying them as much as he is trying to put them into context--the period doesn't reveal some seminal strain of European viciousness toward the Muslim world that has accreted over the last eight centuries, but religiously-motivated irrendentism (of course there were varying personal reasons and emphases crusaders had for going) in a time martial classes everywhere were either trying to expand or defending against expansion.

It's not my intention to celebrate the KoJ or the military expeditions that created and sustained it. I suppose I do see surface parallels between the KoJ and Israel today--personally identifying much more strongly with the Western implant, yet simultaneously realizing that sustaining involves a perpetual cost it makes little sense for Europe or the US to keep paying--but I'm not trying to win an intellectual football match, just respond to the absurd insinuation that those of European ancestry must carry the guilt of their forefathers on their shoulders and should be forever apologizing and making amends for the sins those forefathers are said to have committed.

Brantigny said...

Excellent post may I link?

a Frank

Blode0322 said...

Good article Audacious. The medieval stuff always make me sit up and take notice. I really hadn't thought much about the crossbows, or how exactly the attacking Christians would have defeated Muslim defenders. Those are interesting things to think about.

Only tangentially related is Col. Allen West's citing of historical military opponents of Islam (Martel, the Lepanto coalition in 1571, etc.). He is running for Congress. Diana West has him on video here.

Audacious Epigone said...


Sure, it's an honor.


Col. Allen West's defiant stance in defense of Western civilization is refreshing, even though I might not be on the same page as him when it comes to US foreign policy.

B Lode said...

What's with the warning at the tauheed site/

Tim O'Neill said...

Stark's book might seem to make a plausible case to the non-specialist, but critical analysis shows it is riddled with errors, full of convenient use of selective evidence and undermined by flawed arguments. He manages to debunk a few myths about the Crusades, but his apologetic argument simply does not work.

For detailed critical analysis see:

Shona said...

In my view one and all may read this.