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Friday, January 25, 2019

The Road to Heaven: Motives for Crusading Re-examined

“By this kind of death people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road.” 13th Century preacher of the crusades.[i]

Modern man finds it difficult to follow the reasoning that a crusade could open the gates of heaven. Indeed, the idea is so shocking and repulsive to modern ears that it has fueled contempt and condemnation for the crusades generally. Popular culture for more than a century has characterized the crusades as brutal land-grabs preached by fanatical priests who advocated “killing Saracens” as the way to heaven. 
Such portrayals are inaccurate and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of medieval theology and mentality.

Today I look more closely at crusader motives.

The theological basis for the crusades grew from the concept of “just war” — not, note, holy war. This notion was first articulated by the Christian theologian St. Augustine, who lived between 354 and 430 AD. Augustine argued that Christian leaders (not just anyone) had the right to engage in defensive wars. He did not, however, suggest that the church should engage in violence for its own purposes. On the contrary, he opposed wars of conversion or wars for the purpose of murdering pagans. Augustine argued that only the state -- not the church -- could under certain circumstances legitimately use violence -- i.e. in a just cause, usually defined as wars against aggression and oppression. Yet such wars, St. Augustine argued, must not be disproportional or cruel, and they must be motivated by love, e.g. the desire to end aggression and oppression.

That the crusades fell in the category of defensive wars — i.e. wars against aggression and oppression — was self-evident to Christians in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Islam had been spread by the sword ever since the mid-seventh century. (For details see: Jerusalem Forgotten?) The call to arms that evolved into the first crusade stressed both the oppression of Christians living under Muslim rule and also the fact that Muslim aggression had stolen from Christ his homeland.

It is now commonplace to talk about Jerusalem belonging to all three monotheistic religions equally. Jews, Christians and Muslims, modern leaders intone repeatedly, all have an equal right to Jerusalem because it is holy to all three faiths. This view was not shared in the Middle Ages. Jews, naturally, viewed Jerusalem as their city because it was the heart of their lost state. Jerusalem was both the political and religious capital of the Jewish people. For the Eastern Roman Empire, the claim to Jerusalem and the Levant was likewise both territorial and religious. The Eastern Roman Empire claimed Jerusalem based on the fact that Constantinople viewed itself as the heir to the Roman Empire (to which Palestine had belonged), as well as because Christ had lived, died and been resurrected in Jerusalem. For Latin Christians, the significance and draw of Jerusalem was solely religious — but it was no less powerful because of that.

The Muslim claim was, in contrast, extremely weak. Mecca was the Holy City of Islam, followed by Medina. These were the two cities where Mohammed had lived and preached. Indeed, Mohammed lived his entire life in the Arabian Peninsula; he never set foot in Jerusalem — except in a dream. Jerusalem had been just one of a thousand conquered cities in the four hundred years after Mohammed’s death. Mosques had been erected all across these conquered territories; the Dome of the Rock was only one of these, even if a particularly beautiful one. It was not until the Franks had captured Jerusalem that Muslim leaders started talking about how “important” Jerusalem was in order to recruit and motivate troops to fight the Franks.

Note, at the time of the first crusade, the religious importance of Jerusalem to Islam had not yet been discovered. The Muslim hold on Jerusalem was primarily political: it was a conquest of a Muslim power, the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo. For the Latin Christians, however, that conquest had a religious character.  Because of that conquest, “Christ was crucified again in the persecution of his faithful and the defilement of his sanctuaries.”[ii]

This is an essential point that cannot be over-emphasized: to a feudal Europe that viewed Christ as the “king of king and lord of lords,” the destruction of churches or their conversion into mosques constituted an insult to their Lord. Just as a vassal was obliged to come to the assistance of his lord if that lord was attacked, so Christians felt obliged to come to the assistance of their Lord Jesus Christ. The duty to secular lords was legal and rational but did not always include an emotional component. The duty to defend Christ on the other hand was hugely emotional and spiritual because devout Christians genuinely loved Christ. No one was more moved by this logic and obligation than the Christian warrior class: knights and nobles.


So why hadn’t they responded in 648 when Jerusalem fell to the Arabs?

The answer is simple: they had not been strong enough. Indeed, they had not been strong enough at any time before the First Crusade. It was not the sudden discovery of the affront to Christ that was different in 1095 than 648, but rather the gradually evolved capacity of Western Christians to take action.

Even so the degree to which the plea for aid resonated with people was surprisingly great. It surprised even those who had called for action, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus and Pope Urban II. They were astonished by the response to their plea for aid and embarrassed by the numbers who followed the call, particularly by the numbers of non-combatants, namely women, elderly people, the sick and the lame.

The response was so strong largely because Pope Urban II had combined the notion of a just war to free Christ and fellow Christians from oppression with the promise of the remission of sins for those who undertook the journey. Thus, in addition to being a just war against aggression and oppression, the crusades (still not yet called by this name, by the way) offered a route to heaven through the remission of sins. The journey to Jerusalem was first and foremost a pilgrimage for each crusader because what defined a crusader (one who took the cross) was that he took an oath to God — not the pope, a bishop or his secular lord. 

The crusader oath was not — as Hollywood would have us believe — “to kill Saracens.” It was not even an oath to take political control of Jerusalem. It was a vow to pray at the Holy Sepulcher. For the participants of all but the Second Crusade, this entailed crossing into Muslim held territory. While this could (and was) done peacefully in the periods before and after the crusader era, for most fighting men the notion of praying at the Holy Sepulcher was tied up with the goal of restoring Christian control the Holy Sepulcher. 

This did not, however, cancel or even obscure the penitential character of the vow. On the contrary, to a man conscious of his sins (and medieval knights were usually very guilty and very conscious of sinning), the need for penance was particularly great.  An armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem offered them a means to receive forgiveness of past sins, without giving up their status or profession. Up to this point, most penance entailed putting down the sword, showing humility and charity, and in extreme cases taking holy orders. Here at last was a chance to win favor with the God of Love, without actually taking the tonsure of the clergy. This is not to be confused with seeking an easy way out. A significant percentage of crusaders died on crusade. All of them impoverished themselves at the outset. It was the very hardships and risks of the journey that made it valuable as penance. 


The penitential character of crusades, however, is all too frequently misunderstood in modern popular culture. Crusaders did not wash away their sins in Saracen blood. They did not view killing and violence as the means to attain admittance to heaven. It was the hardships they suffered and the sacrifices they made in the service of Christ (i.e. to liberate his tomb from hostile occupation by individuals who did not honor Him as their Lord) that could absolve them of other sins already committed.

Returning to the quote at the start of this essay, the point the preacher was trying to make was that the struggle for Jerusalem was so difficult and dangerous that it provided an opportunity — even for those (such as fighting men) whose sins were so great that they otherwise had little hope of compensating for them — in order to have a chance of entering heaven. 

What this meant, however, was that every crusader, i.e. every man and woman who ‘took the cross’ and made the crusader vow, was on an individual quest for purification. They were not acting in accordance with the demands of authority but in accordance with bidding of their own conscience. Professor Madden put it this way: “A crusade army was, in effect, a loosely organized mob of soldiers, clergy, servants and followers heading in roughly the same direction for roughly the same purposes. Once launched, it could be controlled no more than the wind or the sea.”[iii]

[i] Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades: A History. Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 20.
[ii] Madden, Thomas. The Concise History of the Crusades. Rowman and Littlefield, 2014, p. 9.
[iii] Ibid, p. 10.

 Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.

She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.

She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent releases are a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus and a new series on the baronial revolt against Frederick II. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Europe's Cast-Offs? Crusaders Reconsidered

Throughout most of the last century, historians contended that crusading armies were composed primarily of younger sons, fortune-seekers and ne’re-do-wells. The theory, which resonated well with a cynical, anti-clerical public, was that crusaders were people with few prospects at home who flocked to the Holy Land for material gain. 

However, the “advent of computer databases” has enabled much more thorough analysis of who participated in the crusades — and, as Professor Thomas Madden pointed out The Concise History of the Crusades points out this evidence-based research has completely disproved the popular theory.[i] Yet while the data is unambiguous, the results have not been widely acknowledged with the result that the out-dated theories of the last century still dominate popular understanding of the crusades today. Today I take a closer look.

The theory that crusaders were motivated by the expectation of loot and land had its roots in the Reformation and the Enlightenment, movements that viewed crusading askance either because of its connections with the papacy or because of its religious character as such. The Protestant Reformation associated the crusades with an ascendant, over-weening and hopelessly corrupt papacy. The Enlightenment associated the crusades with superstition, fanaticism and irrationality on the part of the masses and cynicism and greed on the part of the elites. By the twentieth century, the notion that the crusades were “madness,” and — with the benefit of hindsight — obviously futile from the outset was so widespread that Western historians found it ipso facto implausible that anyone would undertake a crusade for altruistic reasons. Ergo: all (or most) crusaders must have had materialistic (rather than spiritual) motivations.

Hollywood's version of a crusader: greedy, ruthless, cynical and mad.

This theory was soon bolstered by initial studies in northern France that noted that the introduction of primogeniture was spreading in the century before the first crusade. Primogeniture created a new social phenomenon: the landless younger son. French historian George Duby hypothesized that these younger sons, who had previously been integrated into society, were now an increasing threat to it. 

Raised to view themselves as privileged and trained in no profession except that of arms, they were the restless and violent men who needed wars to survive. Logically, they were the men Pope Urban addressed when he criticized Christian knights for fighting each other. They were the “natural” recruits for a crusade. The crusade, so the theory goes, offered them an opportunity to win not only fame and a remission of their many sins, but a chance to gain loot and most important land. In short, younger sons were drawn to the crusade because it offered them an opportunity to regain what they had lost through the introduction of primogeniture: riches, land and titles.

The only problem with this immanently logical and believable theory is that “it has not stood up to the rigorous examination to which it has been subjected in the last generation of crusader studies.”[ii] For a start, two of the regions that produced the largest numbers of crusaders, southern France and Germany, did not have primogeniture at the time of the crusades. Secondly, it was at precisely this time, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that considerable marginal land and frontier land become available for settlement, cultivation and control. In short, there were easier ways for younger sons to obtain land than to travel all the way to the Levant to improve their fortune. 

Furthermore and decisively, “the documentary record [demonstrates] that the great majority of these knightly crusaders were not spare sons but instead the lords of their estates.”[iii] Indeed, all the leading crusaders were great landlords, the most obvious being Robert, Duke of Normandy, but also the Duke of Lorraine and the Count of Toulouse (an extremely wealthy lord). 

Of course, even the already rich might want to get richer. So, theoretically, even if one dispenses with Duby’s hypothesis about who the crusaders were, the thesis that they were motivated by loot and land might still be correct. Theoretically.

Unfortunately for proponents of this theory there is, again, evidence to the contrary. A large number of medieval charters documenting the transfer of land from one owner to another have survived from the Middle Ages. In recent decades these charters have come under increased scrutiny. As Professor Jotischky summarizes it: “…the financial details evidenced by [charters] confirms the crushing expenses incurred by crusaders — and thereby provides ammunition against the argument that crusaders took the cross for economic enrichment…”[iv]

Professor Madden adds the following information on the costs of crusading:

The cost of crusading was truly enormous. A knight who planned to bring a few family members (as many did) and an army appropriate to his position and authority would have to assemble funds equal to five or six times his annual income. Few had that sort of money lying around. They were forced to sell freeholds or settle property disputes to their disadvantage to raise funds. In many cases, they also turned to their relatives, who liquidated their own assets to support the crusade. All this represented a significant, in many case dangerous, drain on the resources of a crusading knight and his family.[v]

Well, so a capitalist would argue, nothing ventured nothing gained. If it was very expensive to go on crusade, then obviously it was the wealthy who did it — which only goes to prove that (just like nowadays), the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, because it always takes money to make money.

The problem with this is that the facts again get in the way. While some prominent crusaders (Godfrey of Boulogne, Bohemond of Taranto, Raymond of Toulouse in the first crusade, Reynald de Chatillon in the Second, Henri de Champagne in the Third etc.) did indeed stay in the Levant to make their fortunes there, very few surviving crusaders stayed in the Holy Land at all. Indeed, “the vast majority [of crusaders] returned to Europe with neither riches nor land.[vi] Crusading was not a lucrative business except for the very exceptional few, and crusaders knew that before they left home. We can say with certainty that economic motives were not what sent most men and women on the long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem.

Next week I will look at what did motivate crusaders.

[i] Madden, Thomas. The Concise History of the Crusades. Rowman and Littlefield, 1999, p. 11.

[ii] Jotischky, Andrew. Crusading and the Crusader States. Pearson Education, 2004.

[iii] Madden, p. 11.

[iv] Jotischky, p. 15.

[v] Madden, p. 12.

[vi] Ibid.

 Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent releases are a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus and a new series on the baronial revolt against Frederick II

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Crusader Castles

One of the most impressive and visible legacies of the crusader kingdoms are the castles erected by Latin rulers in their territories.  Yet, T.E. Lawrence, famous as “Lawrence of Arabia,” disparaged the crusader castles as irrelevant and ineffective because these fortifications ultimately proved incapable of preventing the fall of the crusader kingdoms. 

This is too facile a judgment. In fact, the crusader castles enabled numerically small fighting forces to withstand repeated invasions by numerically vastly superior armies. Christian defeats in the first hundred years of the crusader kingdoms occurred almost exclusively in the open field, where Muslim leaders could bring their larger forces to bear, e.g. the Field of Blood (1119), Hattin, (1187). By contrast, when the crusaders retreated into their fortified cities or castles, forcing the Saracens to besiege them, they usually survived to fight another day. Yet even the strongest walls require defenders and when a castle such Krak de Chevaliers, built to be defended by 2,000 men, has a garrison of only a few hundred, it becomes indefensible. Outremer was not lost because its castles were irrelevant or ineffective, but because its castles could not be used as intended due to inadequate and dwindling manpower.

It is also important to remember, that crusader castles were not merely border fortresses designed for the defense of the realm against external enemies. They were also administrative and economic centers, symbols of royal/baronial power, residences, and places of refuge.  As in Western Europe, castles came in different sizes and designs, each reflective of the original and evolving purposes of the castle and the wealth and power of respective patrons.
Adrian Boas, in his excellent work Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, identified no less than five basic types of crusader castles. The simplest form of castle was a simple tower. Similar castles were already known in the West and became popular in, for example, Scotland. In the crusader kingdoms, such castles were usually square with a windowless cellar/undercroft used for storage, wells and or kitchens, over which were built two floors topped by a crenelated fighting platform on the roof.  Access from the outside was usually only at first-floor level by means of an exterior stair that ended several yards away from the door; the gap was bridged by a wooden drawbridge that could be closed from the interior to cover and so reinforce the door. Each floor had two or more barrel or cross-vaulted chambers, which might have been further partitioned by wooden walls or roofs/floors. Out-buildings containing workshops, storerooms, stables and the like were located around the foot of the tower but were not themselves defensible. A splendid, although late, example of a crusader tower castle is the Hospitaller castle at Kolossi on Cyprus.

A second type of crusader castle, the castrum or enclosure castle, had their roots in Roman military architecture and evolved from Roman forts via Byzantium into crusader castles consisting of a defensible perimeter with reinforcing towers at the corners. The concept was similar to creating a ring of wagons behind which pioneers in the “wild west” defended themselves from attack by Indians or outlaws. The Muslims had also adapted this type of defensive structure, and on their arrival in the Holy Land the Franks took over a number of existing castles of this type. In addition, they built a number of castles following this design for themselves, notably Coliath in the County of Tripoli, Blanchegarde, and Gaza in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These castles had large vaulted chambers with massive walls roughly three meters thick running between the corner towers. These housed the various activities necessary to castle life from kitchens and stables to forges, bakeries, and bath-houses. The upper story of the enclosing buildings generally held accommodations, eating halls and chapels for the garrison. The roofs of the buildings were the fighting platform facing out in all directions and reinforced by the corner towers that provided covering fire.

The third type of crusader castle was a combination of the previous types: a strong roughly rectangular complex built around a tower or keep.  The enclosing walls (with their vaulted chambers) and corner towers formed the first line of defense and the keep the second. A surviving example of this kind of castle is Gibelet (Jubayl) in the County of Tripoli and based on William of Tyre’s descriptions the royal castle at Darum in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was of this time.

As the Franks became wealthier or the threat became more intense the Franks started building outer works to provide a line of defense in beyond (i.e. before) the castrum containing so many vital parts of the castle’s inner life. These outer works may have originally been intended to provide a modicum of protection to the towns that often grew up around castles, but they soon evolved into what became one of the most distinctive, indeed iconic, type of crusader castle: the concentric castle. These were generally the castles of the military orders, built with the huge resources available to them and were more purely devoted to military dominance rather than the castles of secular lords or royal castles. These were the castles that inspired Edward I’s castles in Wales. In addition to Krak de Chevaliers, a famous example of this type of castle was Belvoir, overlooking the Jordan valley. Belvoir held out against Saladin a year and a half after the Battle of Hattin; Krak he never even tried to assault, deeming it too strong.

Boas distinguishes between hilltop and spur castles, but both of these castles were essentially castles that took advantage of natural geographic features to strengthen the overall defensibility of the castle. The hill-top castles and mountain spur castles were built on the top of steep slopes either occupying an entire hill-top of the tip of a longer corniche. They were undoubtedly the most difficult to take by storm since, built on bedrock, they were hard to undermine, and built on steep escarpments they were almost impossible to assault. Kerak, the castle of Reynald de Chatillon, was a spur castle and it withstood two unsuccessful sieges by Saladin, falling only to disease or demoralization more than a year after the Battle of Hattin.

Other crusader castles of this type were Montfort (or as the Teutonic Knights called it, Starkenburg), Beaufort/Belfort, Margat, and Saone.

A variation on the theme of the spur castle was the use of the sea rather than sheer mountainsides to provide protection. The Templar castle of Atlit Castle (Castle Pilgrim) and the castle at Tyre were both built on peninsulas extending into the sea and only accessible on one side from the land.  These castles proved almost impossible to capture as again, mining was impossible from three sides and assaults from boats were very precarious and difficult to carry out. As a result, a much smaller defensive force could hold such castles since only one side was vulnerable to attack and only a light watch was needed on the other three sides. Tyre became the only city in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that successfully resisted Saladin after the Battle of Hattin and became the base from which the coastal plain was reconquered.
I will be introducing four key crusader castles, Kerak, St. Hilarion, Kantara and Krak de Chevaliers in the coming months.

Castles play an important part in all my novels set in the crusader states. 

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: