Friday, January 30, 2015

France’s Wars: The Crusades 1096-1270

by Jack Le Moine

Did you ever notice that in almost every great war in history, France has been involved in some way? Here’s an example: the wars between Christians in Europe and Muslims in the Middle East for control of Palestine.

Summary: Amid much religious fervor, western Europe’s kingdoms and fiefdoms attack the Middle East in order to keep the Christian holy places accessible. Riches and glory motivate, too. Saracens counter-attack and drive the Christians out.

Background: Like Europe, the Muslim territories fought and competed against one another. In 1070 the Seljuk Turks took Jerusalem from the Saracens who had occupied it before. Where the older Saracens had welcomed Christian pilgrims and their money, the new conquerors discouraged them. This caused a wave of religious victimhood in Christian Europe not seen since the Roman persecutions 700 years before. After a half millennium of enduring invasions, the Christians were now less inclined towards peaceful non-violence.

Major Players:
1) France: Divided by a complex system of feudal vassalages, but feeling a new confidence as it emerged from the Dark Age, the realm embraced the cause and carried the heavy lifting for most of the Crusades. Where kings did not participate themselves, various French nobility did.

2) Other Countries:
The Muslim countries are collectively called “Saracens” for our purposes for this period. Some were more tolerant of the Christians than others.
Spain having been mostly conquered by the Saracens centuries before was now in the preoccupied by a quasi-crusade/reconquest by the Christian kingdoms. El Cid and other heroes of later Medieval ballads operated during this era. Cordova had passed back into Christian hands in 1065. Toledo fell in 1084. The Christian powers of Western Europe were already on the offensive.
The Papacy used the Crusades for the greater glory of God and power for itself.
The Holy Roman Empire was handicapped by its own struggle with the Papacy.
England, at first preoccupied with the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, leapt into the wars with Richard III “The Lionheart” in the 3rd. Crusade but after that stayed on the sidelines.

3) The Leaders: The most interesting of the leaders was the ones from the 3rd. Crusade, Richard of England, Phillip-Augustus of France, and the Sultan of the Egypt and Syria, Saladin. Louis IX of France led the last crusades and received a sainthood from the Church for his efforts.

The Siege of Antioch in the 1st. Crusade.
Public domain image from Wikipedia.
Narrative: When Pope Urban first called for a Crusade to free the Holy Lands from the Saracens a tide of feelings spread throughout Western Europe. Thousands of peasants followed a monk named Peter the Hermit to their doom. Imagine today’s Peace Movement organizing a million-person march through Iran to protest their nuclear weapons program and you can get the idea of what happened to Peter’s followers in 1095. Some of the nobility came forward to mount a proper expedition.

The First Crusade plunged into the unknown, with the elements gathering in Constantinople in May, 1097. As the Crusaders advanced into Anatolia (modern Turkey) they resented the Byzantine Emperor using their advance to rebuild his empire there. This was their first strategic mistake. They should have realized that a strong Byzantine Empire served as both a buffer and an ally against future Saracen counter-offensives and a base for future Christian expansion. After a truly heroic story, they managed to conquer the Holy Land and capture Jerusalem on June 15, 1099. They botched the ending of the story by sacking the city and massacring the inhabitants.

The Crusader kingdoms were in a precarious position, dependent on faraway Western Europe for support and supplies, surrounded by people and powers of varying degrees of hostility, and a leadership with the usual medieval politics. They gave in to their prejudices rather than thinking strategy by provoking the Saracens by attacking their caravans and by attacking Saracen powers that were friendly to the Christians such as Damascas.

The Second Crusade was led by King Louis VII of France and Conrad III, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. After reaching Jerusalem in 1147, they attacked friendly Syria instead of the main enemy base at Aleppo. The siege of Damascas was a fiasco with the Crusaders withdrawing after only four days because they ran out of water.

The Crusader kingdoms were now worse off than before. In 1154 Damascas was absorbed into the growing sultanate of Syria and Egypt. This power was determined to destroy the Crusader kingdoms. In 1174 Saladin became the new Sultan. In 1187 he destroyed the Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin and then captured Jerusalem.

The Third Crusade should have served as a tie-breaker. Kings Richard the Lionheart of England and Phillip Augustus of France left together by ship in 1090; Emperor Frederick Barbarossa traveled overland but died enroute. The German army returned home. This campaign was the first and only large scale joint French-English one until the Crimean War in the 1850’s. Richard’s daring assault carried the important city of Acre on July 12, 1191 but Saladin’s defensive maneuvers and Phillip’s desertion back to France prevented further progress against Jerusalem. Richard stayed behind and captured four important fortresses on the coast, enabling the truncated Crusader kingdom to linger for another century. The peace treaty opened up Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the holy places. This restored the pre-crusade situation and should have ended the era in a win for the Christians.

The Fourth Crusade was a disaster to the Christians. First, operations were conducted only against other Christians. The Crusaders made it to Constantinople, sacked the city on April 12, 1204 and ruined the Byzantine Empire for good. While it eventually recovered its independence, it lingered on for a couple of centuries only as a minor power. This Crusade not only ever made it to the Holy Land, unlike other Crusades that did not make it there geographically; it did not affect anything there in any other way, too.

The Fifth Crusade didn’t make it to the Holy Land, either but at least it had a purpose. The Crusaders sought to capture Egypt and trade it for the Holy Land. This was a good strategy. Egypt might not be as well defended as the Palestine area was after a century of warfare. The Crusaders besieged Damietta, Egypt 1218 – 1219 and did obtain an offer from the Sultan to exchange their Egyptian conquests for Jerusalem and lands west. However, got caught in a Nile River flood and had to settle for their own ransom.

The Sixth Crusade was marked by Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire using his army as a basis for a peace offensive. Diplomacy substituted for military campaigning. He brought back a peace treaty in 1229 which gave the Christians Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other places plus peace for ten years. The Pope denounced Frederick for negotiating with the enemy instead of fighting him and launched a Crusade against Frederick’s lands in Italy.

The Seventh Crusade was led by Louis IX, King of France. Repeating the plan of the Fifth Crusade, he invaded Egypt and again took Dalmetia in 1250. Learning from the mistakes of the previous crusade, he evaded the Nile River floods but still managed to get himself captured. The Crusade ended on the same terms as the previous one: give-backs of the conquered city and territory in exchange for ransom of the King and safe passage back to Europe. Meanwhile the Pope had launched a Crusade in Italy against the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Eighth Crusade was another try by Louis IX. This time he got diverted even further a field, Tunisia. Nothing was accomplished but when Louis died, he was canonized a saint by the Pope.

The Last Crusades failed to stop the reduction of the Crusader strongholds in the Holy Land. Acre fell in 1291. Various islands in the Mediterranean held out as the last remnants of the Crusader conquests.

Aftermath: While one cannot help but be enchanted by the romance and the glory of brave men pursuing a grand cause, in the end the verdict of the Crusades must be that they were a mistake. The mistakes began on the grand strategic level. With Europe only just then emerging from the Dark Age (and why do historians call it “the Dark Ages?”) and what Will Durant calls “The Age of Faith” just then really starting, it would have been better for the Crusaders to have considered the omnipresence of God and directed their efforts to building infrastructure and institutions as home. The Crusades weakened the Byzantine Empire. With that buffer weakened, the Saracen powers wreaked more havoc in the ensuing centuries on Christian Europe than they otherwise would have been able to do.

The biggest practical lesson for Christians today is that zeal is great and laudable. People can and should “dream the impossible dream”. However, people should not neglect thinking. God gave us brains; we should use them.

For Further Reading: Wikipedia and Timeline of the Crusades.

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