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Monday, June 6, 2022

The Second Crusade

 The loss of Edessa shook Europe. The First Crusade had already become legendary and very few living in the West had any idea of how vulnerable the crusader states had been in the intervening forty-five years. Indeed, Europeans were largely unaware of the frequent setbacks suffered, the high cost (in blood) of the victories, or the continuing threats faced by the Franks in the east. To most Europeans, it appeared that God had granted the Holy Land to the Christians and all was well with the world — at least the world Beyond the Sea. As a result, the loss of Edessa shattered their world view and triggered a new crusading frenzy that culminated in what is known as the Second Crusade. 


            From the start, the character of the Second Crusade differed fundamentally from the First. There was no longer any need to ‘ransom Christ’ or ‘liberate’ his city or his people from oppression. Instead, a new and dangerous precedent was set of offering spiritual benefits merely for fighting for Christ in any expedition called for by the pope. Henceforth, a ‘crusade’ might entail fighting anywhere that the pope viewed useful — against the Wends east of the Elbe, against the Moors in Spain, or by the thirteenth century, against heretics or the political enemies of the papacy. The Second Crusade set the precedent by encompassing three divergent theatres of conflict: a campaign led by the Danes and Saxons against the pagans of northeastern Europe; an offensive against the Moors led by Alfonso VII of Castile and Alfonso Henriques of Portugal, and an expedition against the Saracens in the Near East. 
The crusade to the Near East was broken down into two main components: a German crusade under the Conrad III, and a French crusade under Louis VII. The Germans first attacked the Jews at home before crossing Byzantine territory in an undisciplined fashion that led to many clashes with the local authorities and population. They crossed into Turkish territory without awaiting the arrival of the French and promptly walked into a Turkish ambush near Dorylaeum. Here the bulk of the German crusaders were annihilated. 
The French followed in a more disciplined fashion. Although suffering one serious defeat in which King Louis was unhorsed and came close to being captured, they avoided annihilation. Despite remaining in Byzantine-controlled territory thereafter, they found markets rare and insufficient, the terrain inhospitable and the weather cold and wet. To add insult to injury, the Byzantine garrisons largely remained behind their walls, leaving the crusaders vulnerable to lighting strikes by Turkish light cavalry. Even without a major battle, the near continuous Turkish harassment resulted in steady attrition.  Worn down by these tactics, the weather and terrain, the French arrived in the Byzantine port of Adalia on 20 January 1148 in a sorry and dispirited state. Louis VII promptly abandoned his infantry and set sail for Antioch with his wife, knights and nobles. 
As a result of this disastrous performance on the part of both commanders, few crusaders who came overland actually made it to the Holy Land. Most of Louis’ infantry died of hunger, exhaustion, wounds and disease or accepted slavery in exchange for their lives. On the other hand, a large contingent of northern Europeans, including many English, arrived by ship, swelling the number of combatants available in the Holy Land to an exceptional number. 
In consequence, on 24 June 1148, a council of crusade leaders and local barons convened to discuss what to do with their troops. The re-capture of Edessa was no longer viewed as a serious option. Not only had the destruction been too complete, Edessa lacked emotional appeal and religious significance. The argument that the re-capture of Edessa was vital to the defense of Antioch fell on deaf ears because the Prince of Antioch had done homage to the Byzantine Emperor a decade earlier; from the point of view of the Western leaders that made Antioch’s defense the Emperor’s problem, not theirs. The options narrowed down to an attempt to capture Ascalon, the only remaining port on the coast of the Levant still in Saracen hands, or an attack on Damascus. 
Historians can only speculate why Damascus, technically still an ally of Jerusalem, became the target of the Second Crusade. Possibly the absence of a significant fleet made a siege of Ascalon impractical. Nevertheless, Damascus was far from an easy target. The crusaders did not have and did build siege engines, nor were their forces sufficient to surround the city and cut it off from supplies and reinforcement. In the event, the ‘siege’ lasted only five days, before the approach of Zengi’s relieving army sent the crusaders scampering back to Jerusalem. The only positive feature of this miserable performance was there were few casualties; the losses of the crusade came during the march to Jerusalem not during this disgraceful military (in)action.
Accounts of what happened in the ‘siege’ are contradictory and marred by untenable accusations of treachery leveled at practically everyone. Christian sources speak of an inexplicable and unjustified move from a good to a bad position, but Muslim sources record no such blunder. Conrad III blamed the barons of Jerusalem for giving bad advice. However, the King of Jerusalem at this time was a minor and the ruling Queen both opposed the attack on Damascus and was absent from the siege; she can hardly be blamed for the failure of an army doing something she had advised them against. Given the history of alliance with Damascus, it is far more likely that the crusaders — always shocked by the readiness to local lords to cooperate with Muslims — ignored the advice of Jerusalem’s barons not to attack Damascus in the first place. 
Other commentators blamed the militant orders for accepting bribes yet admit that no money actually passed hands — a fact they explained away with Saracen duplicity.  William of Tyre indirectly blamed Louis VII, saying he promised Damascus to the Count of Flanders, thereby offending and demotivating everyone else. Michael the Syrian, a native Christian chronicler, believed the Damascenes tricked Baldwin III into believing Conrad III would depose him and set himself up as King of Jerusalem, if the crusaders succeeded in taking Damascus, a complicated conspiracy story. 
The consequences of the ignominious failure of a crusade led by two crowned heads of Europe and advocated by the most important clerics of the age were more far-reaching and damaging than the loss of Edessa that had triggered it. For one thing the sense of ‘manifest destiny’ that had inspired European confidence in their right to control the Holy Land was shaken. Naturally, clerics attempted to blame the crusaders themselves, suggesting their motives had not been pure enough or that they had sinned too greatly; God, they warned, had sent defeat to punish them. Alternatively, they argued that the defeat was a gift of God to ‘give brave men an opportunity to show courage and win immorality’ in the future.[i] People being people, however, it was much easier to blame someone else. The obvious scapegoats were the Byzantines, who had failed to provide sufficient support and protection during the long march through territory they nominally controlled, and the Franks living in the East, the so-called ‘Poulains,’ because they had ‘given bad advice’ or ‘taken bribes’ or been ‘too greedy for titles.’ Whatever the exact version of events, it further poisoned relations between the West and Constantinople while casting aspersions on the reliability of the Franks living in Outremer. Mistrust of ‘the Greeks’ and the ‘Poulains’ became a recurring sub-plot of all future crusades.
Furthermore, in the immediate aftermath of the failed crusade, Saracen confidence surged, triggering a new attack on Antioch. Prince Raymond, the consort of the heiress Constance and younger brother of Duke William of Aquitaine, sallied out to confront Nur al-Din in the field. Like his predecessor, he did so without awaiting reinforcements from Tripoli or Jerusalem. He was encircled on the night of 28 June 1149 and his army was slaughtered. Raymond’s body was found among the dead. Nur al-Din ordered his head and right arm hacked off. They were sent as trophies to the caliph in Baghdad. Such ‘civilized’ behavior has never been recorded among the Franks after a victory. Meanwhile, with the Frankish military force destroyed, Nur al-Din turned to absorbing into his own territory what was left of the County of Edessa. 
When the relief force from Tripoli and Jerusalem arrived, there was nothing left to salvage. All the Frankish leaders could do was provide protection for the surviving Frankish civilians and any Armenians that wished to evacuate the former County of Edessa. The Franks ceded all claims to territory to the Byzantine Emperor, while Frankish troops escorted a column of refugees south. They had to withstand repeated assaults from the forces of Nur al-Din. It is noteworthy that thousands of Armenians preferred Frankish to Saracen rule and chose to abandon their homes in order to seek refuge in Jerusalem. These refugees flooded the Holy City, briefly overwhelming the capacity of charitable institutions to deal with them. 
With the benefit of hindsight, historians often depict the capture of Edessa as the beginning of the end for the crusader states. In fact, Edessa had never been an objective of the crusade. It was not home to a single pilgrimage site. The population remained predominantly Armenian. Edessa might have been a useful buffer, but it was in no way essential to the raison d’être of the crusader states, their economy or their security. The heartland of the crusader states on the coast of the Levant remained viable entities for yet another hundred years.

[i] Jotischky, Andrew. Crusading and the Crusader States. [Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2004] 85.

 This entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

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


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1 comment:

  1. Something about "a house divided" comes to mind. Gotta love all the infighting.


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