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The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land

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The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land

  The Crusades

  The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land

  Thomas Asbridge

  For my father

  Gerald Asbridge


  List of Maps


  Part I: The Coming of the Crusades

  1 Holy War, Holy Land

  2 Syrian Ordeals

  3 The Sacred City

  4 Creating the Crusader States

  5 Outremer

  6 Crusading Reborn

  Part II: The Response of Islam

  7 Muslim Revival

  8 The Light of Faith

  9 The Wealth of Egypt

  10 Heir or Usurper

  11 The Sultan of Islam

  12 Holy Warrior

  Part III: The Trial of Champions

  13 Called to Crusade

  14 The Conqueror Challenged

  15 The Coming of Kings

  16 Lionheart

  17 Jerusalem

  18 Resolution

  Part IV: The Struggle for Survival

  19 Rejuvenation

  20 New Paths

  21 A Saint at War

  Part V: Victory in the East

  22 Lion of Egypt

  23 The Holy Land Reclaimed


  The Legacy of the Crusades




  Searchable Terms

  About the Author

  Other Books by Thomas Asbridge



  About the Publisher


  Western Europe and the Mediterranean

  The Near and Middle East

  Northern Syria

  Palestine and Southern Lebanon


  The First Crusaders’ Route to the Holy Land

  The City of Antioch

  The City of Jerusalem

  The Crusader States in the Early Twelfth Century

  Saladin’s Hattin Campaign

  The Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade

  Richard the Lionheart’s March from Acre to Jaffa

  The Third Crusade: Paths to Jerusalem

  The Crusader States in the Early Thirteenth Century

  The Nile Delta

  Mamluks and Mongols in 1260

  Western Europe and the Mediterranean

  The Near and Middle East

  Northern Syria

  Palestine and Southern Lebanon




  Nine hundred years ago the Christians of Europe waged a series of holy wars, or crusades, against the Muslim world, battling for dominion of a region sacred to both faiths–the Holy Land. This bloody struggle raged for two centuries, reshaping the history of Islam and the West. In the course of these monumental expeditions, hundreds of thousands of crusaders travelled across the face of the known world to conquer and then defend an isolated swathe of territory centred on the hallowed city of Jerusalem. They were led by the likes of Richard the Lionheart, warrior-king of England, and the saintly monarch of France, Louis IX, to fight in gruelling sieges and fearsome battles; passing through verdant forests and arid deserts, enduring starvation and disease, encountering the fabled emperors of Byzantium and marching beside forbidding Templar knights. Those who died were thought of as martyrs, while survivors believed that their souls had been scourged of sin by the tempest of combat and trials of pilgrimage.

  The advent of these crusades stirred Islam to action, reawakening dedication to the cause of jihad (holy war). Muslims from Syria, Egypt and Iraq fought to drive their Christian foes out of the Holy Land–championed by the merciless warlord Zangi and the mighty Saladin; empowered by the rise of Sultan Baybars and his elite mamluk slave soldiers; sometimes aided by the intrigues of the implacable Assassins. Years of conflict inevitably bred greater familiarity, even at times grudging respect and peaceful contact through truce and commerce. But as the decades passed, the fires of conflict burned on and the tide slowly turned in Islam’s favour. Though the dream of Christian victory lived on, the Muslim world prevailed, securing lasting possession of Jerusalem and the Near East.

  This dramatic story has always fired the imagination and fuelled debate. And, over the centuries, the crusades have been subject to startlingly varied interpretations: held up as proof of the folly of religious faith and the base savagery of human nature, or promoted as glorious expressions of Christian chivalry and civilising colonialism. They have been presented as a dark episode in Europe’s history–when ravening hordes of greedy western barbarians launched unprovoked, acquisitive attacks upon the cultured innocents of Islam–or defended as just wars sparked by Muslim aggression and prosecuted to recover Christian territory. The crusaders themselves have been depicted as both land-hungry brutes and pilgrim soldiers inspired by fervent piety; and their Muslim rivals portrayed as vicious and tyrannical oppressors, ardent fanatics or devout paragons of honour and clemency.

  The medieval crusades have also been used as a mirror to the modern world, both through the forging of tenuous links between recent events and the distant past, and via the dubious practice of historical parallelism. Thus, during the nineteenth century the French and English appropriated the memory of the crusades to affirm their imperial heritage; while the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed a deepening tendency within some sections of the Muslim world to equate modern political and religious struggles with holy wars witnessed nine centuries earlier.

  This book explores the history of the crusades from both the Christian and Muslim perspectives–focusing, in particular, upon the contest for control of the Holy Land–and examines how medieval contemporaries experienced and remembered the crusades.* It draws upon the wonderfully rich mine of available written evidence (or primary sources) from the Middle Ages: the likes of chronicles, letters and legal documents, poems and songs; recorded in languages as diverse as Latin, Old French, Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Syriac and Greek. Beyond these texts, the study of material remains–from imposing castles to delicate manuscript art and minuscule coins–has thrown new light on the crusading era. Throughout, original research has been informed by the great outpouring of modern scholarship in the field witnessed over the past fifty years.1

  Containing the history of the crusades to the Holy Land between 1095 and 1291 in a single, accessible volume is a massive challenge. But it does offer enormous opportunities. The chance to trace the grand sweep of events, uncovering the visceral reality of human experience–through agony and exultation, horror and triumph; to chart the shifting fortunes and perceptions of Islam and Christendom. It also makes it possible to ask a series of crucial, interlocking and overarching questions about these epochal holy wars.

  Issues linked to the origins and causes of the war for the Holy Land are of fundamental importance. How did two of the world’s great religions come to advocate violence in the name of God, convincing their followers that fighting for their faith would open the gates to Heaven or Paradise? And why did endless thousands of Christians and Muslims answer the call to crusade and jihad, knowing full well that they might face intense suffering and even death? It is also imperative to consider whether the First Crusade, launched at the end of the eleventh century, was an act of Christian aggression, and what perpetuated the cycle of religious violence in the Near East for the two hundred years that followed.

  The outcomes and impact of these holy wars are equally significant
. Was the crusading era a period of unqualified discord–the product of an inevitable ‘clash of civilisations’–or one that revealed a capacity for coexistence and constructive cross-cultural contact between Christendom and Islam? We must ask who, in the end, won the war for the Holy Land and why, but more pressing still is the question of how this age of conflict affected history, and why these ancient struggles still seem to cast a shadow over the world to this day.


  In the year 1000, the county of Anjou (in west-central France) was ruled by Fulk Nerra (987–1040), a brutal and rapacious warlord. Fulk spent most of his fifty-three years in power locked in near-constant struggle: fighting on every front to retain control of his unruly county; scheming to preserve his independence from the feeble French monarchy; and preying upon his neighbours in search of land and plunder. He was a man accustomed to violence, both on and off the battlefield–capable of burning his wife at the stake for adultery and of orchestrating the ruthless murder of a royal courtier.

  But for all the blood on his hands, Fulk was also a committed Christian–one who recognised that his brutish ways were, by the tenets of his faith, inherently sinful, and thus might lead to his eternal damnation. The count himself admitted in a letter that he had ‘caused a great deal of bloodshed in various battles’ and was therefore ‘terrified by the fear of Hell’. In the hope of purifying his soul, he made three pilgrimages to Jerusalem, more than 2,000 miles away. On the last of these journeys, now an old man, Fulk was said to have been led naked to the Holy Sepulchre–the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection–with a leash around his neck, being beaten by his servant while he begged Christ for forgiveness.2

  What drove Fulk Nerra to make such drastic gestures of repentance, and why was his story filled with such feral turmoil? Even people in the eleventh century were shocked by the count’s unbridled sadism and outlandish acts of devotion, so his career evidently was an extreme example of medieval life. But his experiences and mindset were reflective of the forces that shaped the Middle Ages and gave birth to the crusades. And it would be people like Fulk–including many of his own descendants–who stood in the front line of these holy wars.

  Western Europe in the eleventh century

  Many of those who lived in the same early eleventh-century world as Fulk Nerra feared that they were witnessing the last dark and desperate days of humanity. Apocalyptic dread reached its height in the early 1030s, when it was thought the millennial anniversary of Jesus’ death would presage the Last Judgement. One chronicler wrote of this time: ‘Those rules which governed the world were replaced by chaos. They knew then that the [End of Days] had arrived.’ This palpable anxiety alone helps to explain Fulk’s penitent mentality. But as far as the count and his contemporaries were concerned, it had not always been so. They harboured a collective memory of a more peaceful and prosperous past; a golden age when Christian emperors ruled in God’s name, bringing order to the world in accordance with His divine will. This rather hazily imagined ideal was by no means a perfect recollection of Europe’s history, but it did encapsulate some shards of truth.

  Roman imperial rule had provided stability and affluence in the West until the late fourth century CE (Common Era). In the East the Roman Empire lived on until 1453, ruled from the great city of Constantinople, founded in 324 by Constantine the Great–the first emperor to convert to Christianity. Today, historians refer to this enduring realm as Byzantium. In the West between the fifth and the seventh centuries power devolved on to a bewildering array of ‘barbarian’ tribes, but around the year 500 one of these groups, the Franks, established control over north-eastern Gaul, giving rise to a kingdom known as Francia (from which the modern nation of France took its name).* By 800, a descendant of these Franks, Charlemagne (768–814), had united such a huge swathe of territory–encompassing much of modern France, Germany, Italy and the Low Countries–that he could lay claim to the long-dormant title of emperor of the West. Charlemagne and his successors, the Carolingians, presided over a short-lived period of renewed security, but their empire crumbled under the weight of succession disputes and repeated invasions by Scandinavian Vikings and eastern European Magyars. From the 850s onwards, Europe was again ripped apart by political fragmentation, warfare and unrest. The embattled kings of Germany still sought to claim the imperial title and a royal house in France survived in a desperately emasculated state. By the eleventh century Constantine and Charlemagne had passed into legend, the embodiments of a distant era. In the course of medieval European history, many a Christian king sought to emulate and imitate their supposed achievements–among them some who would fight in the crusades.

  By the time of Fulk Nerra, the West was gradually emerging from this post-Carolingian age of decline (despite the predictions of Armageddon), but in terms of political and military power, and social and economic organisation, most regions were still highly fragmented. Europe was not partitioned into nation states in the modern sense of the word. Instead, the likes of Germany, Spain, Italy and France were divided into many smaller polities, ruled over by warrior-lords, most of whom were bound by only loose ties of association and loyalty to a crown monarch. Like Fulk, these men bore titles such as dux and comes (duke and count) that harkened back to Roman and Carolingian times, and were drawn from the ranks of a nascent military aristocracy–the increasingly dominant class of well-equipped, semi-professional fighting men who came to be known as knights.

  Eleventh-century Europe was not in a state of fully fledged anarchy, but the ravening violence of feud and vendetta was commonplace, and lawlessness endemic. Society was highly localised. Nature’s grip over the West had yet to be loosened, with vast swathes of land still blanketed in forest or left open and uncultivated, and most major road systems dated back to imperial Rome. It was common, in such a world, to go through life without travelling more than fifty miles from one’s birthplace–a fact that made Fulk Nerra’s repeated journeys to Jerusalem, and the later popularity of crusading in the distant Holy Land, all the more extraordinary. Mass communication also did not exist as it would be understood today, because most people were illiterate and printing had not yet been invented.

  Nevertheless, in the course of the central Middle Ages (between 1000 and 1300), western civilisation began to show sure signs of development and expansion. Urbanisation slowly gathered pace, and growth in the population of towns and cities helped to stimulate economic recovery and the revival of a monetary-based economy. Among those communities who spearheaded a resurgence in long-distance trade were the seaborne merchants of Italy, based in cities like Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa and Venice. Other groups demonstrated a marked propensity for military conquest. The Normans of northern France (descendants of Viking settlers) were especially energetic in the mid-eleventh century: colonising Anglo-Saxon England; and seizing southern Italy and Sicily from the Byzantines and North African Arabs. Meanwhile, in Iberia, a number of Christian realms began to push their borders south, reconquering territory from the Muslims of Spain.

  As western Europeans began to look beyond their early medieval horizons, the forces of commerce and conquest brought them into closer contact with the wider world, and with the great civilisations of the Mediterranean: the ancient ‘eastern Roman’ Byzantine Empire and the sprawling Arab-Islamic world. These long-established ‘superpowers’ were historic centres of wealth, culture and military might. As such, they tended to regard the West as little more than a barbarian backwater–the dismal homeland of savage tribesmen who might be fierce fighters, but were essentially just an uncontrollable rabble, and thus posed no real threat. The coming of the crusades would help to overturn this dynamic, even as it confirmed many of these prejudices.3

  Latin Christendom

  Ancient Roman rule undoubtedly had a profound effect upon all aspects of western history, but the empire’s most important and enduring legacy was the Christianisation of Europe. Constantine the Great’s decision to embrace Christianity–then a minor eastern sect–a
fter experiencing a ‘vision’ in 312 CE, catapulted this faith on to the world stage. Within less than a century Christianity had displaced paganism as the empire’s official religion, and through the agency of Roman influence ‘Christ’s message’ spread across Europe. Even as the political state that had given it impetus faltered, the Christian faith gained in strength. Europe’s new ‘barbarian’ chieftains converted and soon began to claim that they had a divinely ordained right to rule over their tribes as kings. The mighty unifier Charlemagne styled himself as a ‘sacral’, or sacred, ruler–one who held the right and responsibility to defend and uphold the faith. By the eleventh century, Latin Christianity (so-called because of the language of its scripture and ritual) had penetrated to almost every corner of the West.*

  A central figure in this process was the pope in Rome. Christian tradition maintained that there were five great fathers–or patriarchs–of the Church spread across the Mediterranean world at Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. But the bishop of Rome–who came to call himself ‘papa’ (father) or pope–sought to claim pre-eminence among all these. Throughout the Middle Ages, the papacy struggled not only to assert its ecumenical (worldwide) ‘rights’, but also to wield meaningful authority over the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Latin West. The decline of the Roman and Carolingian Empires disrupted frameworks of power within the Church, just as it had done within the secular sphere. Across Europe, bishops enjoyed centuries of independence and autonomy from papal control, with most prelates owing their first allegiance to local political rulers and the ‘sacral’ kings of the West. By the early eleventh century, popes were straining simply to make their will felt in central Italy, and in the decades that followed they would sometimes even find themselves exiled from Rome itself.

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