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 . 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.
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  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.
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” 
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 
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.
 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.
 To me, at least.
 His actual words, I’d wager
 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.