#36 – The Divine Campaigns, Time Life BOOK REVIEW

March 5, 2018

The Divine Campaigns

Before faggots stole “divine” as a word

Finally, this twenty-volume history of the world is getting to a topic I can enthusiastically get behind, the Crusades. Get stuck in there, my son!

As has happened many times over during my little 2018 “learn history” study exercise, I’ve not only had the factual blanks filled in on various periods of history but I’ve also tended to shift my opinions on the matter [1]. My main takeaway here is how unlikely the whole Crusades episode was, that thousands of Dark Age knights from Western Europe would call truce on their vicious internecine struggles and then voyage East to give Muhammad a bloody nose. This was a time before EasyJet and Airbnb, lest you forget.

Before we get into the real history, let’s just say a prayer of thanks for all the awesome stuff that the Crusades gave us:

  • Awesome castles dotted throughout Syria, such as Krak De Chevaliers
  • Awesome battle armour and swords, many reproduced in video games such as Dark Souls
  • Awesome historical fiction about adventurers in the Middle East, e.g. Gates Of Empire
  • Awesome modern-day Deus Vult themed t-shirts and bedspreads.

Imagine living in this cunt. Would be awesome

Western Europe of the 12th century was feudal. That’s not as obvious as it sounds because the era of Empire had only recently passed, such as the Romans stretching their borders as far as Northern England, Charlemagne uniting most of Europe, and then the Vikings turning themselves into Normans. With the weakening of centralised power, European power became regional again and local warlords dominated. The end result was a network of highly militarised nobles who were obliged to provide knights and men-at-arms to the King, but who were otherwise self-ruling. Western Europe, insulated from all the chaos towards the East, had reorganised itself into army divisions spoiling for trouble but no existential threat to worry them.

Interestingly [2] the Christian world had it’s own pilgrimage route to Compostela in North-Western Spain. Four major roads, beginning each in Paris, Vezelay, Le Puy, and Marseilles, converged at the Pyrenees mountains than a single highway crossed Spain almost to its Atlantic coast. It seems to have been quite a thing. Picard wrote a tour guide for it and:

“The pious travellers provided a living for many: pedlars, entertainers, confidence tricksters and money-changers abounded all along the route” [page 45]

Traveller’s rests at hospices drew the Hospitallers knightly order and Templars originally established in the Holy Land. It sounds like a good little jaunt.

Anyway, to the Crusades. There were three, and only the first was a success. There should’ve been a fourth but the kind of yahoos detailed in Sir Nigel were on it, so they got sidetracked and just sacked Constantinople instead even though the city was supposed to be on their side.


“Excuse me, do you have a moment to talk about Jesus Christ?”

The unlikely first crusade succeeded largely because of division in the Muslim world. Two rival dynasties saw themselves as true successors to the Prophet: the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Fatmids of Cairo, sunni and shia respectively. Against that fighting there was civil war in Egypt and the Seljuks had carved their own little piece out of Egyptian territories. This meant that Syria, which was tossed between each side regularly, wasn’t under anyone’s firm control.

It all came to head when the Byzantines had a crack at the Seljuks in Anatolia, failed miserably, and then sought aid from arch-rival Rome rather than be overrun by the Turks. Pope Gregory VI in Rome couldn’t help but the Byzantines survived under emperor Alexius and then, spotting opportunity when the last undisputed Seljuk leader died in Baghdad, Alexius looked East and had a thought.

“I fancy a crack at that” [3]

He wrote a speculative letter to the new pope Urban II requesting aid for a little jaunt into Anatolia. Time Life suggests taking Jerusalem wasn’t on his mind because it had been many centuries since Byzantium had embraced the Holy City. Urban had a thought:

“All those Sir Nigel yahoos are heavily armed, spoiling for a fight, and currently just running around Europe smashing shit up. Let’s point them towards the Muslims”

Saint Augustine had already defined, in the fifth century, that Christians can view warfare as holy, even an act of love, if its object were to restrain sinners from evil; if it were carried out under due authority and with a charitable disposition of the heart. Urban sweetened the pot further by declaring all those who went to fight the infidel, whether they lived or died, would receive complete absolution of their sins and thus certain salvation [4]


Point me towards the infidels

Crazy heavily armed yahoos pointed at foreigners and promised salvation. Sign me up!

The Crusades were wildly popular, the Woodstock of their time. A People’s Crusade of barely-armed fanatics led by Peter The Hermit walked right into a Turk ambush and were massacred but by 1097 the real knights had assembled in Constantinople then 40,000 struck out into Anatolia. A series of victories followed and as they pressed on into Syria, Alexius wisely pulled his men back, letting the yahoos march into certain death without pulling his empire down with it.

A series of wild risks that pay off, Muslim division and internal treachery, and occasionally inspired leadership from Raymond of Toulouse led to the Crusaders unexpectedly reaching and then taking Jerusalem in 1099. Unfortunately it was all so improbable, so far from home, that holding it all was impossible. By 1144 the Muslim counterattack began reclaiming territory that further Crusades could not recapture.

It’s a fascinating period and my biggest takeaway is how unlikely the enterprise was and how fragile the Frankish empire in the Middle East. It’s the equivalent of Pakistani or Turkish Muslims deciding to set up their own empire in somewhere so far from home as…. I dunno…. say Luton, Bradford, Highbury, or Rochdale.

If you’d like to strap on your cowboy boots, leather jacket and skull rings then sally forth into foreign lands to teach those infidels a thing or two by stealing their women, I think Daygame Infinite will give you complete absolution for your sins.

[1] Don’t get me wrong, I still think the Crusades were fucking awesome and I hope we have a fourth one to kick that Islamist boor Erdogan out of Constantinople.
[2] To me, at least.
[3] His actual words, I’d wager
[4] Though not 72 virgins in death, or a harem of kidnapped sex slaves in life, so not quite so sweet a pot as ISIS promised their jihadis.


  1. I have read The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge an it is an excellent piece of narrative history of the whole crusader period.

    My favourite episode is the Siege of Antioch during the first crusade. Antioch was one of the best defended cities in the world so when the crusader army arrived outside the walls they had little prospect of conquering the city. However the orchards and fields were full of food so the crusaders enjoyed themselves outside. Eventually the food began to run out, sickness plagued the camp, desertion was rife and worst of all, a large relief force was descending on the city. The crusaders were about to be sandwiched between the relief army and the city walls.

    The leaders knew they had to take the city. One of the leaders, Bohemond (a Norman prince from Sicily who had a very eventful life), suggested that whoever was responsible for taking the city should be allowed to rule it. The other leaders initially rejected the idea but eventually relented. Unknown to them, Bohemond had a contact on the walls who was prepared to betray the city and open the gates – but Bohemond would only give the order once the other leaders had agreed to his demand. Eventually the attack took place, the gates were opened and the city was captured just before the relief army arrived.

    The crusaders then found themselves in a worse position than they were before as there was even less food inside the city than outside it. They were all desperate but could not escape the city and the relief army was far too large to consider an attack. A mystic came forward and told the leaders that he had seen a vision informing him the holy lance was buried in the city. The crusaders began frantic digging and when they eventually found a piece of wood under the ground they declared this was the holy lance.

    Using this as divine inspiration, the then got on their horses and charged out of the city against the relief army (thereby losing the enormous defensive benefit of the city walls). The Muslims struggled to believe the crusaders would do this and so did not react quickly enough. The disarray led to a panic, retreat and ultimately to the Muslims losing the battle. [Like I said, yahoos. Might try that book. K.]

    • My first encounter with the ‘yahoos’ was when I read into La Chanson de Roland (the song of Roland) – it was mentioned briefly in the Asbridge book and piqued my interest to read more.
      It was a French poem which was very popular during the crusader period. It tells of Charlemagne’s army fighting the Moors in Spain and deals with treachery, trickery and valour. In Roland’s final scene his army is ambushed by the Moors after his position has been betrayed by his stepfather. He could call for help from Charlemagne and beat the Moors but his pride will not let him ask for help and so he chooses to fight alone in a battle he is certain to lose. All his men are killed, and Roland himself dies when he blows his oliphant so hard his head explodes.

      To our modern view Roland was an idiot who unnecessarily caused the death of all his men due to being too proud to ask for help.
      But the view during the Crusader period was that Roland was a hero and the crusaders idolised him and wished to imitate his heroic exploits.

      The crusader period came to an end and was followed by the 100 years war.
      A good book about that period is A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. There are some extremely dull parts in the book (e.g. lists of food consumed at feasts that goes on for multiple paragraphs but it is easy to skim these sections and get to the juicy stuff).

  2. The First Crusade in the 11th century was mainly led by acquisitive warlords and second sons of noble houses who would miss out through primogeniture and would rather steal someone else’s fortune.

    That, or chasing Persian skirt.

  3. Krauser, I just finished reading “The Lost History of the Church”, which is a history of the eastern Church, independent of Rome. This book dovetails nicely with your book about the Crusades. For quite a while, especially during the Middle Ages, the eastern Church was quite a bit larger than the European Church.

  4. Seems to Me that the crusaders were obsessed with taking over Jersusalem to the detriment of fellow European Christians who had been enslaved i.e. Spain was under Muslim moor control at the time they were heading to Jerusalem. You’d think they would have driven out the Muslims out of Spain first?

  5. Dr Bill Warner has an excellent video explaining why the Europeans went on the Crusades in the very first place:

    … something that your history teachers kept quiet about due to political correctness, or maybe they were just ignorant of the truth themselves, having never been taught it either.

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