The Crusades as Medieval World War

By johnthomas didymus

(Part 1)

First Crusade: Mass Pilgrimage of Pillaging Hordes of Western Europeans to the Holy Land (1095-1097)

Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands in 637 A.D. when the Arab Muslim Caliph Umar, who succeeded the first Caliph Abu Bakr in 634 A.D., captured the city. The early Muslim conquerors were magnanimous. They refrained from unnecessary bloodshed and destruction. The Caliph Umar was said to have conversed amicably with the patriarch of Jerusalem while he rode triumphantly into the city. His declaration that "the [Christians] shall be protected…and their churches shall not be put down," reflected the best tradition of the early Islamic conquerors derived from the Quranic teaching that Christians and Jews were "people of the Books," and thus, should be tolerated by Muslims.

While the Muslims, during the Medieval period of the Crusades, were of a far more tolerant, civil and cultured disposition than the Christians (especially Western Christians), they could sometimes be very cruel indeed. The policy of tolerance followed by the early Caliphs, beginning with Umar I, soon began deteriorating and by the beginning of the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks who rose to power, after defeat of the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert (1071), began causing the West some concern, following authenticated stories of hostility to Christian pilgrims in the holy land. Christian pilgrims were ill-treated, robbed and sometimes killed by the Turks. General persecution of Christians in the Holy Land broke out. The tales of misuse of Christians in the Holy Land by the Seljuks provoked popular feelings in the West and contributed significantly to the resolve to launch the First crusade.

The equally significant cause of the First Crusade, however, was the threat posed to the West by the Seljuk assault on Byzantine. The Pope Urban II managed to convince the Franks, who were fighting among themselves, to unite for the greater cause of reclaiming the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks. The Frankish crowd that gathered to listen to his open air sermon and appeal was said to have bayed enthusiastically in response "God wills it."

Another important influence in the mobilization of Western Europe for the First Crusade was Peter the Hermit who, while on an attempted pilgrimage to Jerusalem, became aware of the deprivations Christian pilgrims suffered in the Holy Land. He resolved, after a visit to Pope Urban II, to begin spreading the news of the atrocities visited on pilgrims and Christians in the Holy Land by the Muslims, and urged the mobilization of the West for a Crusade. His emotional sermons whipped up public sentiments and set Western Europe in a popular crusading mood.

A council called by Pope Urban II in March 1095 was reported to have been attended by over two hundred bishops and four thousand clergy meeting daily for seven days in the open as no single cathedral was large enough to hold them. The council was attended by representatives of the Byzantine Empire who came to appeal to the West for military aid against the Muslims. A final decision for a Crusade was taken in the Council of Clermont held in November which, besides bishops and clergy, was attended by Knights and the common people. At his final sermon, Urban II promised remission of sins and paradise to those who joined in the Crusade. He granted indulgence and special privileges to all who agreed to "take up their cross and follow after the Lord." Any one who joined the Crusade was immediately freed of debts and certain categories of civil suits.

The response to call to arms was enthusiastic. The military nobles, especially, were drawn to the call by exaggerated stories of the riches and luxuries of the East. Many dreamed of carving out kingdoms for themselves in the East and the clergy dreamed of being rewarded with bishoprics in fabled lands.

Such was the popular enthusiasm in response to the call to arms, in the name of Christ, that ordinary people, especially illiterate and superstitious peasants, mistook the call for some sort of pious religious pilgrimage. Tens of thousands, especially in France, flocked out with signs of the red cross either fixed or cut into their flesh, on the back, upper arms and forehead. What was intended to be a military expedition quickly snowballed into a mass movement of peasant rabble with no clearly defined military objectives or organization.

The movement consisted of many factions under various petty knights and holy men who began marching east independently, taking different routes to Constantinople where they all finally joined up. A group led by Walter the Penniless consisted mostly of peasants who, fired with excitement by the papal promise of remission of sins and automatic admittance to heaven, came along with their wives and children on carts and wagons loaded with pots, pans, blankets and other domestic effects, on what seemed to them an armed popular pilgrimage.

The group led by Robert II, Count of Flanders, left from Italy by sea, while the groups led by Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse took a land route by the Adriatic Sea. The group led by Walter the Penniless had about twenty thousand peasant footmen who marched by land through Hungary and finally Bulgaria where they were repulsed forcefully and massacred by Bulgarian forces who were alarmed at the influx of such rough, uncultured and undisciplined crowd of peasants into their country.

The group led by Peter the Hermit, consisting of about forty thousand people (men, women and children), took to avenging the first group in Bulgaria. They attacked Bulgarian towns slaughtering about seven thousand people in Malleville and plundered their way to Constantinople where they were refused entry by the Byzantines already thoroughly alarmed by the news of the rapacious horde that was approaching. They were hastily supplied with provisions and ferried across the Bosphorus by the Byzantines who were very anxious to have them out of their territory. Once in Turkish territory in Asia Minor, they were abandoned to their own devices by the Byzantines. Peter the Hermit lost control of his men who went plundering and killing. He was forced to return to Constantinople under the guise of resupplying the force.

The French who had established a reputation for exceptional ferocity and savagery in war caused much alarm to the Turks at their approach. The Turks hastily assembled an army which dealt the ravaging French horde, under the leadership of Walter the Penniless, a decisive blow, killing thousands of them and piling up their bones on a highway as warning to other Crusaders on the way.

The Crusading group led by Godfrey of Bouillon arrived in Constantinople soon after and Peter the Hermit joined them on their march to Jerusalem. Another Crusading group arose from Germany. This group which probably was most undisciplined and rapacious of all the Crusading groups that marched overland to Constantinople. It was a large group consisting of about two hundred thousand peasants–the poor, vagabonds and criminals; in short, the scum of German society that the law must have been relieved to get rid of. Most had joined the Crusade at the preaching of the German monk Godeschsal, but so extremely unbridled were the outrages that they inflicted on the towns along their way that they were waylaid by Hungarian forces and massacred. It is claimed that Hungarians were provoked when, at Mersburgh, a drunken crowd of the the Germans impaled a Hungarian youth after a minor quarrel.

Yet another group arose from England which, as soon as it landed on Continental Europe, had its ranks swelled by all sorts of criminal personalities and rabble of people from France, Flanders and Lorraine, most seeking opportunity to escape from some trouble or problem at home. The rowdy crowd took a detour to Rhineland and temporarily forgot its original mandate while it unleashed terror in Rhineland Jews (Jews were "Jesus Killers" according to Roman Catholic propaganda). The English contingent was an armed mob of the worst of English citizenry and, due to their overwhelming numbers, the local Rhineland authorities could do little but look on nervously while for several days the Crusading mob hunted down Jews killing them and dumping their bodies into the Rhine which soon began flowing for miles red with blood, corpses and odd chunks of putrefying remains of Jewish dead.

The massacre was unprecedented in European history. Thousands of Jews were tortured, burned and slaughtered in Cologne, along the banks of the Rhine in Moselle and Mayence. Such was the ferocity of the onslaught that, rather than await their killers, hundred of the Jews committed suicide, especially in Treves and Worms, where whole families barricaded themselves in and set their homes on fire, preferring to perish in flames by their own hands than fall into the hands of the Crusaders who would torture the men, rape the women before slaughtering and dumping the bodies into the river.

The movement of this group across Europe was at last arrested by the Hungarians who killed several thousands of them along the Danube.

(Part 2)

The Crusading group led by Godfrey of Bouillon was by far the most professionally organized of the waves of the First Crusade. It consisted of professional soldiers, princes and feudal nobles of Western Europe, many of whom sold their wealth in the euphoric frenzy to carry the cross and march east to liberate the Holy Land. The news of their approach spread panic in Eastern Europe. Communities organized themselves into para-military vigilante groups to guard their territories, praying that the soldiers of Jesus would merely pass by. But Godfrey and his men fulfilled the dreadful expectations of the Eastern Europeans. As they marched along, they availed themselves of every opportunity to burn heretics and harry rural communities who fled in panic as they advanced. The Emperor Alexius of Constantinople must have had the occasion to rue his appeal to the West for help. Not even he had anticipated the wild mobs of the refuse of Western citizenry that was being dumped at his doorstep. He awaited the arrival of Godfrey's men with extreme agitation.

The Western European horde finally arrived in May 1097, and mustered itself outside Nice; a horde with an incredible strength of seven hundred thousand. But after some deft diplomatic maneuvering, the throng was finally persuaded to march on to Antioch, on which it laid siege. It was from this period in the Crusades that disturbing stories of cannibalism in the Christian crusader camp come. Having stripped the countryside bare of crops and eaten all the horses in their one hundred thousand strong cavalry, the Crusaders resorted to feeding openly on human flesh. All victims who fell into their hands were slaughtered roasted on spit and eaten.

An old French poem from this period tells of how the representatives of the Crusaders went to Peter the Hermit, spiritual leader of the Crusaders, complaining of hunger and starvation in the camps. Peter was said to have cursed them and pointed their attention to the slain of the battlefields saying: "A dainty dish is Paynim flesh with salt and roasting due." The leader of the camps ("King Tarfur"), his eyes opened for the first time to the alternative in cannibalism retorts: "Now by my faye the Hermit sayeth true." And he sent out his men who gathered ten thousand corpses and heaped them and hewed them "limb from limb" and disemboweled them and dressed them like chicken and there was meat and roast for a great banquet all nightlong. And the feasting cannibals smacking their lips in enjoyment of the feast, made themselves cheerful and merry saying: "Farewell to fasts, a daintier meal than this who asks to make …sweeter than porker's flesh or bacon greased…"

History documents reliably that cannibalism soon became culture in the Crusader camps. The Crusaders resorted to feeding on infants and adult captives and actually deliberately sought captives to satisfy their hunger. The Crusade leaders regularly roasted for dinner the flesh of their prisoners of war. In the siege of Marra it is reported that the Crusaders showed a preference for human flesh (their Saracen captives) over dog flesh which was available.

The disturbing accounts of bestial behavior which would characterize the Albigensian wars had its origins in the First Crusade. The regular sadistic practices of beheading and displaying of human head trophies, in thousands, on poles with sharpened ends fencing the camps around,the mutilation of captives: dismembering, cutting of limbs, ears, noses, lips, gorging out eyes, practices which chroniclers of the bloody and barbaric Albigensian Crusades would report as routine occurrence, began in the First Crusade. Sometimes these practices were used as terror tactics to scare the enemy populace as, for instance, when the one thousand five hundred heads were displayed outside the city wall of Antioch.

The siege of Antioch ended in brutal massacre with at least ten thousand people murdered in one night of the bloodbath that followed the fall of Antioch. It wasn't until the next morning that the Crusaders first noticed that not all the dead were Muslims and that some of the dead were Armenian and Greek Christians.

After the fall of Antioch, the Crusaders abandoned themselves to wild riotous celebration consuming the city's entire stores and stripping the entire country side of supplies. They would soon rue their wasteful use of the city's provisions for the remnant of the Turkish forces rallied and the besiegers soon became the besieged. Famine soon set in among the Crusaders, and when conditions became unbearable in the city, many of the soldiers began attempting to escape at night by dropping over the walls on ropes. Many historians place the infamous incidence in which Peter the Hermit attempted deserting in the Turkish counter-siege at Antioch. Peter was captured along with a companion(identified as William the Carpenter) and brought before the Commanders who almost had him executed as a deserter, but he was saved at the consideration of his past services to the Crusade.

The morale of the Crusaders was at a low ebb when a certain priest, Peter Bartholomew, announced that St. Andrew had informed him that the lance which pierced Christ's side at Golgotha was buried under the Church of St.Peter in Antioch. When the lance head was discovered in the morning, the superstitious folk were emboldened and, in a furious charge dispersed the besiegers, lifted the siege and regained control of the city.

After the siege had been raised someone raised questions on the authenticity of the holy lance, and after investigation it was shown to have actually been a Saracen spearhead. The poor Bartholemy died while being passed through a fire ordeal in defense of the truth of his revelation.

After the fall of Antioch, came some of the most sordid and infamous moments of the First Crusade. After the relief of the siege at Antioch, quarrels flourished among the Crusaders over a multitude of issues, including the sharing of booty. Bloody fighting actually broke out among the factions and soon after, from the mass of unburied corpses, a plague broke out in the camp which decimated the entire army. It is estimated that about one hundred thousand people died from the plague, forcing the survivors to abandon Antioch and march on towards Marra.

At Marra, the Crusaders displayed to the Easterners, freely and unabashedly, the worst aspect of the savage habits they had acquired during the Crusade campaign, namely, cannibalism. By this stage in the Crusades cannibalism was no more a practice imposed by necessity but human flesh had become a delicacy. As the poem we have already quoted states: "…a daintier meal than this who asks to make …sweeter than porker's flesh or bacon greased…"

The Crusaders made bonfires and roasted the flesh of their captives openly for dinner. When they captured Marra, they killed off the entire inhabitants after they had sold the young and able bodied into slavery.

Historians agree, from the evidence of contemporary sources, that out of the over seven hundred thousand Crusaders mustered by the Crusade leaders outside Nice, only about forty thousand were left after the capture of Marra. Elizabeth Hallam in her  Chronicles of the Crusades estimates the overall casualty over the entire Crusades, on the Crusader's side, at over one million, with Charles Mills, in his History of the Crusades estimate slightly lower at eight hundred and eighty thousand.

After the capture of Marra, the Crusaders moved on to Jerusalem, with Tripoli and Ramula providing minor distractions of opportunity for loot and spoil. Historians have pointed out that the success of the remnant of the Crusaders in the Middle East owed much, not only to the disunity of the Muslims, but also to the religious fervor of Crusaders. It is extraordinary that the remnant of the Crusading forces of about thirty thousand which laid siege of Jerusalem still had the fervor and spirit after the heavy losses they suffered in their trek across Europe.

When the Crusaders first sighted Jerusalem, a cry rang out in their ranks, with many going hysterical and others weeping. Others fell on their faces kissing the soil of the Holy Land, and there was general excitement in the camp which raised morale for the last lap of the bloody campaign. As far as military tactics and strategy are concerned, the siege of Jerusalem was an unprofessional haphazard affair. The Crusaders conducted themselves after a mythico-legendary precedent: marching around the city like the children of Israel before the walls of Jericho with barefooted priests carrying crosses singing hymns and saying mass like incantations to bring about the downfall of the city.

Jerusalem was defended halfheartedly by a garrison of troops under the command of the famous general Istakar. After an initial unsuccessful attempt at taking the city by a storming assault, the Crusaders withdrew and renewed their attack and finally took the city on a Good Friday.

The capture of Jerusalem witnessed an orgy of bloodshed adorning the entire blood-soaked Crusade.The Crusaders went literally berserk in Jerusalem with the resolve that no pity be shown to the infidel Muslims (not minding the fact that a significant proportion of the population of Jerusalem was actually Christian). Eyewitness accounts of the carnage that followed the fall of Jerusalem has been used by modern researchers to judge the attitude of the Christian world of Medieval Europe to Muslims. No single contemporary Christian author providing us with a blow-by-blow account of the intimate details of the massacre of the inhabitants of Jerusalem betrays even a trace of feelings of disapproval or remorse, not to mention horror, at the savagery of the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. It seems that as far as Western Europeans were concerned, Muslims were not to be counted among the masses of what they acknowledged as humanity. The historian Charles Mills describes the scene from the account of contemporary writers:

Such was the carnage in the Mosque of Omar, that the mutilated carcasses were hurried by the torrents of blood into the court; dissevered arms and hands floated into the current that carried them into contact with bodies to which they had not belonged. Ten thousand people were murdered in this sanctuary. It was not only the lacerated and headless trunks which shocked the sight, but the figures of the victors themselves reeking with the blood of their slaughtered enemies. No place of refuge remained to the vanquished, so indiscriminately did the insatiable fanaticism of the conquerors disregard alike supplication and resistance. Some were slain, others were thrown from the tops of the churches and of the citadel…

The Crusaders had the time, in-between the slaughter, to pause to refresh themselves, during which they crowded around the Holy Sepulcher for thanksgiving to Jesus at their victory. Peter the Hermit was honored on the occasion as the "Apostle of the Crusade," with prayers of penitence and shouts and cries of praise and gratitude to God before they once again (now refreshed) resumed the slaughter with grim determination and confidence in the favor of Christ..

…All the captives whom humanity or the lassitude of carnage had at first spared; all those who had been saved in the hope of a rich ransom, were slaughtered. The Saracens were forced to throw themselves from the tops of towers and houses; they were burnt alive; they were dragged from their subterranean retreats; they were haled to the public places and immolated on piles of the dead. Neither the tears of women, nor the cries of little children, nor the sight of the place where Jesus Christ forgave his executioners, could mollify the victors' passion.

(To be continued)

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