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Monday, March 28, 2022

The Byzantine Reaction to the First Crusade

As almost every student of the crusades knows, it was the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus who ignited the crusading movement by sending an appeal for aid to Pope Urban II. Yet the response of the West did not resemble what the Emperor had envisaged and the First Crusade triggered a new period of tension between the Latin West and the Orthodox East largely based on fundamental misunderstandings. Below is a short summary.

Alexios' request that reached the West in 1095 was a response to increased pressure on the Eastern Roman Empire’s eastern frontiers. The Seljuk Turks had converted to Islam and with the passion of the newly converted and the skills of nomadic warriors had set about establishing their domination over Syria. This conquest complete, they turned on Armenia, Cilicia, and the Levant, driving the Byzantines out, before striking at Anatolia. In 1071, the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes had assembled the military forces of his empire and marched to the defense of this vital heartland -- only to be decisively defeated on August 26 at the Battle of Manzikert.  

In the quarter-century that followed, the idea that Western (barbarian) Christians might be able to assist the Empire in its struggle with the Turks had gained popularity. After all, the Byzantine Emperors were familiar with the fighting qualities of many of the Western “barbarians” because they employed Norse, Norman, English and Frankish mercenaries in the Varangian Guard, the personal body-guard of the Emperors. The Byzantines had also had the less than pleasant experience of clashing with the Normans over control of Southern Italy and Sicily. While these encounters increased Byzantine contempt for the Normans as barbarians, it also convinced them of the value of the Normans as fighters.  

What the Byzantine Emperor had in mind when he requested aid from the West was the recruitment of several hundred trained knights to serve as mercenaries in the Byzantine army. The Emperor planned and expected to place these trained fighting men strictly under the control and command of Byzantine authorities. What he got, as everyone knows, was tens of thousands of undisciplined, amorphous “armed pilgrims” (an oxymoron in Byzantine tradition). The Byzantine government and administration were overwhelmed, baffled and ultimately frightened of the monster they had created.

Byzantine sources reveal a sense of horror at the sheer numbers of “crusaders” that suddenly descended upon them. Sources described them as “a crowd as innumerable as grains of sand and the stars” or “like rivers which, flowing from all directions…came against our [lands]” and “beyond count.” The daughter of the ruling Emperor, Anna Comnena, writing decades after the First Crusade (that she had personally witnessed) claimed that “the whole of the West and all the barbarian races who had inhabited the land beyond the Adriatic” descended on her homeland. [Anna Commena, trans. Aphrodite Papayianni, 283-284.] 
Yet nearly as terrifying as their numbers was the character of these “pilgrims.” Particularly shocking was the presence of women and children among the “pilgrims.” Because the Byzantines had requested military support, they expected trained soldiers. Because they did not have a secular tradition of pilgrimage, they did not understand why women or children would want to undertake a long and perilous journey. Because they did not see Jerusalem as central to Christianity (now that it had been replaced by the New Jerusalem, Constantinople), they could not fathom the emotional appeal of Jerusalem for Latin Christians.  

Added to the bewilderment about the nature of the crusaders themselves was confusion -- and ultimately disgust -- at the lack of unified command. The Byzantine Empire was still a highly centralized and hierarchical state. All power derived from the Emperor, even the church was no competitor and challenger to secular authorities as in the West. Byzantine armies had traditions reaching back to the legions of ancient Rome. Although in this period the army had been newly reorganized under Alexios I, the basis of this army remained proud, professional, and disciplined units. The Byzantines retained from the Roman past clear command structures, ranks, and regiments — units of a specified size (e.g. 10, 50, 100, 300, 500).The First Crusade, in contrast, had no overall commander. There were no organized units. Even those bodies of men associated with one another through kinship and vassalage could be any size from a handful to scores and all remained volunteers on pilgrimage for the benefit of their individual soul, not soldiers under orders.

It is hardly surprising that when confronted with this flood of undisciplined, disorganized armed pilgrims engaged in an incomprehensible undertaking that the Byzantines became unnerved. The irrational always triggers suspicion in humans, and so, unable to believe that these disorganized and undisciplined barbarian hordes could really hope to regain Jerusalem, the Byzantines concluded that the real intention of these masses descending on them was the capture of Constantinople itself!

Thus, Anna Comnena wrote in her history: “to all appearances, they were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; in reality, they planned to dethrone Alexius and seize the capital.” [Wright, 61] A Byzantine historian writing about the Second Crusade (1147-1159) likewise claimed: “…the whole western array had been set in motion on the handy excuse that they were going to cross from Europe to Asia and fight the Turks en route and … seek the holy places, but truly to gain possession of the Romans’ land by assault and trample down everything in front of them.” [Wright, 62]

The fact that the crusaders failed to take Constantinople and, in fact, did continue on to the Holy Land where they captured Jerusalem, established independent states and continued to fight the Saracens for the next two hundred years was attributed (conveniently) to the brilliance of Byzantine policy. The Byzantine court patted itself on the back for deflecting the crusaders from their evil intents and successfully diverting their energies to the conquest of Muslim-held territory.
Indeed, the actual conquest of Jerusalem not only failed to assuage suspicions but rather created new problems. On the one hand, the Byzantine Emperors claimed all the lands conquered by the crusaders as their own since it had once been part of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Furthermore, the Byzantine Emperors as (in their eyes) the Head of the Christian Church claimed to be the protectors of the Holy Sepulcher. As the crusaders were understandably unwilling to recognize the claims of the Byzantine emperors to their conquests (won with hard fighting, blood, and casualties) and equally unwilling to recognize the primacy of the Orthodox Church over their own, the Byzantine suspicions of the western “barbarians” only increased.

The tragedy was that Byzantine suspicions of the crusaders turned into a self-fulling prophesy. In the first century of crusading, Byzantine emperors so frequently hampered or harassed crusaders that sentiment in the West turned increasingly hostile to the “Greeks” (as the Latin Christians called the Byzantines). The history of tension and broken promises as seen from the crusaders’ perspective made the assault against Constantinople possible. 

The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations is available for pre-order on and

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades:





Monday, March 21, 2022

The "People's Crusade"

 The numbering of crusades is an anachronism, introduced centuries after the armed pilgrimages to the Holy Land were over. What we call the "First Crusade," the campaign that ended in 1099 with the successful recapture of Jerusalem by an armed host from Western Europe, was not the first attempt by a hoard of armed Westerners to re-establish Christian control of Jerusalem. It was actually the second such movement. The first crusade called forth by Pope Urban II's appeal for aid to the Holy Land has gone down in history as "the People's Crusade."

The Byzantine Emperor had asked for military aid and expected mercenaries. The pope, on the other hand, sought to organize something grander. He diligently coordinated with leading secular lords for an armed expedition to be led by noblemen and composed of well-armed and provisioned knights. What neither the emperor or the pope had anticipated was that the pope’s highly-organized and systematic preaching campaign would inspire tens of thousands of common pilgrims, many of whom were non-combatants, to set forth for the Holy Land. 
When the phenomenon became apparent, the pope back-watered frantically. He prohibited monks from leaving their monasteries. He told priests to absolve the unfit, infirm, destitute and women of crusading vows. He wrote to the rulers of states confronting the Moors to assure them their job (and that of their subjects) was to continue that fight, not join the expedition to the east. But the ‘genie’ was out of the bottle.

The pope’s inspired preachers, it seems, had been too successful and far more dangerous, they had imitators. Charismatic leaders, the most famous and successful of which was a certain preacher known Peter the Hermit, gathered thousands of followers around them and started for Jerusalem on their own.   

Peter the Hermit recruited thousands of pilgrims in France, and then crossed into Germany, where he was equally successful. Although some knights and isolated nobles joined his improvised host, the preponderance of those who joined his ranks came from lower classes and most were armed with farm and household implements. Many were women. The majority had little to lose and no understanding of the risks. Many appear to have believed that their devotion alone would induce an all-powerful Christ to sweep aside the heathens. This mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem was more a messianic movement than an armed expedition.

Poor, but expecting God to provide for them, they had no means to pay for provisions along the way. Instead, they felt entitled to steal from the inhabitants of the Christian kingdoms through which they passed, provoking clashes. Only the speed with which the Byzantine Emperor made provisions available at his own expense prevented worse incidents. Nevertheless, a mob of pilgrims pillaged the suburbs of Constantinople after reaching the city in July 1096. Meanwhile, in their wake, a second wave of pilgrims undertook a series of violent attacks directed at Jewish communities, notably in Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Trier, and Cologne. Peter the Hermit might have inspired his followers with his preaching, but he could not control them.

The Byzantine Emperor had requested military aid; he had not invited the destitute and deluded. He had expected trained and battle-hardened fighting men like the familiar Varangians, not peasants and shopkeepers armed with hoes and hammers. Particularly shocking was the significant number of women and children.  Byzantine contempt for this hoard was only magnified when, against the advice of the Emperor, these masses of pilgrims insisted on continuing their march. No doubt secretly glad to be rid of this useless mob of plunderers and trouble-makers, the Emperor graciously provided transport across the Bosporus in early August 1096, and the People's Crusade Muslim controlled territory for the first time.

Once East of the Dardanelles, the host split into two contingents based largely on language. By the end of October, they were all dead or enslaved. First the German component, and then several weeks later the French had been lured into a trap, surrounded and defeated by the Turks. Those that converted to Islam were sent East as slaves, and those that did not were killed on the spot. The stragglers, those recruited in Germany and responsible for the attacks on Jews, followed in their footsteps and were wiped out in the spring of 1097. Although there are no reliable aTccounts of how many were killed and captured, historians suggest that as many as 20,000 people were lost in this ill-judged expedition. 

The "People Crusade" was a tragic prelude to the establishment of the crusader states in the Near East. A comprehensive history of the crusade states is forthcoming from Pen & Sword and can be pre-ordered now at: and 

 Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades:






Monday, March 14, 2022

Europe's Outcasts? A Re-examination of Crusaders

  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. Dr. Schrader takes 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, there was precisely at 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.

The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations is available for pre-order on and

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades:




[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.

Monday, March 7, 2022

The Road to Heaven: Crusader Motives 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.

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.
The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations is available for pre-order on and

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: