12. The Initial Crusades: A Fight to the Death

Slaughter in Jerusalem: The First Crusade (1095-99)

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Another Religious Experience gone Haywire

With the Pope’s blessing this ragamuffin crew of peasants and wannabe lords set off in 1095 CE to re-conquer Jerusalem, that mystical place around which so much of the Bible is centered, both Old and New Testaments. Thus began the First Crusade[1]. First they slaughtered a Jewish community that was in their path – just because. Then they attacked some Orthodox Christian communities because they thought they were Moslem Arabs, as they were Semitic in appearance rather than European. When they reached Constantinople, the Emperor thought that human locusts had descended upon his city. He was expecting a trained army for assistance rather than a migrating horde of undisciplined peasants, who were counting on their faith to defeat the Moslems.

Most of the French and German peasants who were in the vanguard of this migration of the First Crusade were slaughtered. However more followed with the professional armies led by the European knights, including the Norman Bohemond and his nephew Tancred.

The Norman knights, who heeded the call, came primarily to carve their own kingdoms out of Byzantium and the Islamic Empire. They were neither fighting to aid the Christian cause, nor to fight the Muslim ideology, nor to recapture Jerusalem from the Moslems. Indeed the Norman knights were satisfied after they had conquered Antioch, a city-state belonging to Byzantium. They were content to stay and rule, now that they had achieved their objectives. Inspired by these motivations the other military leaders conquered their own city-states – Baldwin, a leader of the Crusaders from Lorraine, the city of Edessa – and Raymund, the leader of the Provencals, the city of Tripoli. As an indication of their motivations inner rivalry led the armies of these Christian knights to fight each other as well as the Muslims over the booty, which happened to be entire city-states.

This strategy of annexing city-states alarmed the Byzantines, as they had hoped to reclaim this territory for their Empire. Further the Emperor’s request to the Pope was for some European knights and soldiers to assist his army, while these were autonomous armies with an independent agenda, which were in no ways benign. Bohemond, one of the leaders of the Crusade, had already been campaigning successfully with his Norman father against Byzantium in Sicily. Unfortunately the Emperor’s attempts to reign in and moderate the goals of these European armies further antagonized the Latin populace against the Greeks. This growing alienation between the two branches of Christianity eventually had dire consequences for Byzantium – as we shall see.

The European peasant army wasn’t happy with their leaders’ direction either. United behind their divine mission, they demanded that the armies move on to Jerusalem – the military and religious destination. After repeated entreaties to the leadership, which were ignored, the peasantry began trashing the cities that the Normans and their like-minded knights were hoping to rule.

While their leaders came to rule, the peasants came to ‘re-conquer Jerusalem from the Infidel’. While the religious conviction of the leaders was nearly non-existent and mostly opportunistic, the religious fervor of the peasant army was deep. However they believed in the ‘sticks and stones’ version of Christianity rather than the pacifism of Jesus. They were there as an invading culture rather than to spread any higher ideals.

Due in part to this fervent belief on the part of the peasantry the Crusaders were able to conquer Jerusalem. After which they slaughtered all the inhabitants and the blood flowed waist deep in the city. After all, the migrating lower classes were intent on replacing the inhabitants, not just conquering them. Further they were to be the subjects of a brand new Latin Christian kingdom. ‘We are meant to be in charge of Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified there, and we are the true Christians, aren’t we. We deserve to possess it. God wants us to have this city. And he is on our side. After all we have the cross of Jesus.’

With the conquering of Jerusalem a Latin feudal kingdom was set up with allegiance to the Pope, not Byzantium – confirming the Emperor’s fears. Bohemond would probably have been named king but the Turks had captured him while he was on one his endless military campaigns. Antioch, Tripoli, and Edessa, the three city-states already conquered by the Crusaders, were also included as fiefdoms in this newly formed, but short lived, Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The Cross of Jesus as a military symbol

The Cross of Jesus was one of those ‘sticks and stones’ that had attained magical powers. Ever since Constantine placed the Christian Cross on his banners in response to a dream Jesus’ Cross became a military symbol rather than a symbol of non-violent resistance. Indeed these early Crusaders probably won some miraculous battles due to their possession of what they had discovered and believed to be the Cross of Jesus. They fully believed that it protected them in battle. During the first Crusade, while they possessed this magical Cross, they were nearly invincible. After the Muslims captured their mystical Cross in the later Crusades, their resolve weakened and they were routed. The Muslims berated Christians as idolaters for worshipping a piece of wood, while the Christians looked down on the Muslims for worshipping a rock, the Kaba.

Note that the word Crusades is derived from the crucifix, the cross – the wars of the cross. And further the expression ‘to take up the cross’ meant that one had joined a crusade. Amazing how Jesus’ unambiguous non-violent resistance was turned upside down. And the participants didn’t even give it a thought.

The sophisticated Byzantines with their rich cultural life at least gave a nod to the pacifism of Jesus. While maintaining a strong army to protect its borders, Byzantium attempted to avoid bloodshed at all costs. They believed in negotiation and payoffs to reduce outright battle. If there was a way to avoid war they would. There was no provision in Eastern Christianity that a soldier dying in battle for Byzantium would go straight to heaven, as it was in both the Western European Christian and Islamic belief systems. Byzantium was eventually crushed between the Latin Christianity and the Moslem Empire, further establishing militarism as the way of the world.

Never assimilated, Kingdom of Jerusalem doomed

The growth of Islam was very different from this expansion of Christianity. The initial Muslim expansion was like a hot knife through butter because many viewed them as liberators. They demanded money for the poor and tolerance for other monotheistic religions. Further they believed that all humans were equal as opposed to the class system, which was prevalent then as well as now. This was fresh and liberating.

In contrast the European Crusade had no motive except to invade and conquer the ‘Holy Land’, which was held by an enemy culture. They had no agenda except to supplant the indigenous culture with their culture. In the end this is one reason their invasion ultimately failed. Not enough European Christians could be enticed to migrate to the Holy Land to keep it populated with good Latin Christians. Further these invading Christians were not at all tolerant of the culture of the locals. As always, Roman Christianity, i.e. Catholicism, was intolerant of anything but absolute conversion. While the Muslims tolerated all the monotheistic religions as long as political obeisance was granted, the Roman Christians demanded conversion or death.

The Moslems had held Jerusalem for 400 years allowing Christians, Jews, and Moslems pilgrimages to this holy city with complete freedom. As long as the pilgrims paid their duties and spent their money they were a source of great wealth for the Moslem rulers, which is why the variety of Moslem rulers had been fighting over Jerusalem almost constantly. Each time there was a change in leadership, Egyptian, Syrian, or Turkish Moslem, the local population was left fairly intact, as, realistically speaking, they were the financial base of the city, to be protected from harm by the conquerors from new conquerors. Some conquerors might demand greater taxes than others, but life went on.

Not so with the Crusaders. When they conquered Jerusalem all the inhabitants were slaughtered resulting in a river of blood knee-high. The Moslems were shocked at this show of intolerance - at this example of incredible barbarism. It frightened them also. Prior to this rulers changed hands but people were not executed en masse for their religious beliefs. This ignited the reawakening of Islam as a force, because the warring tribes realized they had to stand together to withstand these barbarous Christian attacks.

Of course, the leaders of the Crusades had no such murderous intent. They were merely in it for the plunder. Conquer this small coastal area - divide it into dukedoms and kingships - exact tribute from the subjects - get rich! Why murder all the subjects when it is they who will pay the rent. In fact the leaders were furious with their followers for the slaughter but were helpless before the onslaught. Remember the leaders were members of the military aristocracy who had converted as a matter of convenience, while the followers were the ‘true Christian believers’. Watch out for the uneducated masses when they turn into a mob.

In brief the European Crusaders first captured some Christian cities from Byzantium, the nation they had come to assist. They went on to conquer Jerusalem in 1099 CE, slaughtering all the inhabitants in the process. They did not come to liberate the people as the early Muslims had. They came to occupy Jerusalem – the mythical center of the Bible.

Because they were invaders not military conquerors, they needed more immigrants to keep Jerusalem as a European outpost. These were not forthcoming despite pleas from the Pope. Only those with nothing to lose wanted to go live in this foreign area, separated by hundreds of miles from their home. Most of those that did come were criminals or destitute, without much to really offer. One reason a European Jerusalem was doomed because it was too far away from home.

A second reason was they didn’t assimilate with the other cultures, whether Byzantine or Muslim. The relation didn’t start out on a good foot with the slaughter of Jerusalem. Plus the Europeans continued to feel superior to their neighbors. Hence there was no local cooperation or support. Some of the Christian cities conquered by the Normans collaborated with the Moslems to have the Normans removed because they were such harsh rulers – further eroding this Latin Kingdom.



[1] The inspiration for these essays came from The Crusades by Zoe Oldenberg – from which we learned that: 1. War is good for nobody – neither the victor nor the victim. 2. Religious wars are mostly an excuse for looting and plundering innocent people. (A direct quote from the first write in September 1990)

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