Thoughts on the first episode of ‘The Crusades’ by Thomas Asbridge

First of all, I would like to say that I am quite pleased to see TV history documentaries being made by scholars, rather than by professional documentarists (??) who interview scholars here and there and have no background in the subject at hand. This makes me feel that I can, by and large, trust Dr. Thomas Asbridge, given that he is, in fact, a scholar of the Crusades with scholarly books and articles on the subject under his belt.

This new series claims that it is going to give us a fuller picture of the Crusades by investigating evidence beyond the usual western chronicles. We got our first taste of this in the discussion of the siege of Antioch.

If you don’t know the story, the Crusaders besieged the city for eight months and were reduced to terrible circumstances such as the eating of rodents and the bone marrow of their dead horses. When they heard that a fearsome Iraqi general with a huge army was on the move, they took the city by treachery (an Armenian Christian within betrayed it). Then the tables were turned, and the Frankish army found itself besieged in turn.

Then a peasant religious … fanatic? visionary? … named Peter Bartholomew said that St. Andrew had come to him in a vision and shown him where the Iron Lance which pierced Our Lord’s side was hid. They dug it up, made an assault, and drove off the besieging army.

However, the evidence from Matthew of Edessa’s Chronicle gives a vision that goes beyond this simple version of the unbreakable faith and fanatical piety of the western mediaeval Christian on Crusade. Matthew of Edessa reveals that shortly before Peter Bartholomew’s vision, the Crusading generals had tried seeking mercy from the Iraqi warlord outside the walls — they would surrender the city and he would let them go back to France in one piece. This failed, and the despetate Franks and Normans, holed up in a city surrounded by enemies in a foreign land, with nothing to lose, made an assault on the Islamic forces outside. Was it their desperation or the fanatical belief in the Lance that gave them the fierceness that brought victory? Perhaps both.

Perhaps also, and Dr. Asbridge did not mention the sources, the Muslims fled due to the fact that they didn’t trust their Iraqi general in the first place and felt that if they won, he would merely take Antioch as his own and lord it over them — for their army was an alliance between more than one Middle Eastern warlord.

All three, no doubt contributed to the ‘miraculous’ delivery of Antioch into the Crusaders’ hands.

Unfortunately, the usual dichotomy between the Latin accounts and Islamic calls for vengeance is drawn when Asbridge discusses the Fall of Jerusalem.

As a person with a growing interest in Eastern Christianity, I wish to know what the Byzantine chroniclers and historians thought when they heard about the bloodbath. I’d read somewhere that the indiscriminate slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants also included a certain number of its Christian population — Greek and otherwise. No mention was made of this, if it really occurred. (Although it seems reasonable — could a French Crusader tell a tanned, turbanned Muslim from a tanned, turbanned Christian?)

What is the view of the Crusades given by the Matthew of Edessas of the mediaeval world? What do the Byzantine chronicles have to say? Or the Nestorian Christians? What about Coptic sources? Or Monophysite Syriac writers? These people were all crossing paths in the mediaeval Middle East, watching as Frankish warlords carved out their own kingdoms and duchies in their midst. What did the Eastern Christians think about these things?

Hopefully later episodes will tell.

You can watch The Crusades on BBC iPlayer if you live in the UK:

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on the first episode of ‘The Crusades’ by Thomas Asbridge

  1. You bring up good points and a few I had in mind as well after viewing 2 of the 3 episodes. I think the killing of other Christians (either in Jerusalem or en route) merited (more) attention and I somewhat disagree with Asbridge over the motives of the Crusaders (I think he over-emphasizes the religious considerations). Plus, he really didn’t fully address Urban II’s reasons for calling for crusade in the first place.

    Asbridge pays more attention to the Muslim view in the second episode and offers nuanced (but controversial?) analysis of Richard I and Saladin.

    • Well, I shall have to watch the other episodes. Given the fact that Raymond of Toulouse starts raiding all over Syria/Lebanon instead of going straight to Jerusalem, and that Bohemond settles down in Antioch for a while, we should certainly be questioning, if not HOW religious their motives were, at least what OTHER motives accompanied the religious ones. He also gives far too simplistic a view of western mediaeval Christianity (this is a fault I attribute to the fact that this is a TV documentary, not to Asbridge’s knowledge or skills as a researcher).

      When I have time for Ep. 2, I shall be interested in his analysis of Coeur-de-Lion and Saladin.

  2. Agreed on all counts. The old chestnut of academia accommodating entertainment and vice versa certainly must be taken into consideration.

  3. When I hear about the Crusades I always bring up the following article by a professor of medieval history here in the U.S, Dr. Thomas Madden of St. Louis University:

    Sociologist Rodney Stark of Baylor also has written a book dispelling some of the myths that surround the Crusades as well:

    I’m interested to your response to the Madden article.

    • As regards the Madden article, if we see the Crusades — as people tend to — as Christians defending the West against Islam, then they are not so bad a blot on the pages of Christian history. However, if they were defensive wars aiding the Byzantines, why did the Latins carve their own kingdoms and duchies out of their fellow-Christians’ land? Why were Eastern Christians treated with little respect? From the point of view of the slowly submerging Byzantine Empire, the Crusades were not much of a success, outside of the recapture of Nicaea in the First, because they did not gain for Byzantium any of its own lands. It simply planted a bunch of semi-hostile, semi-barbarous Franks on their frontiers.

      I agree that, in view of the rest of mediaeval history, the Crusades are perhaps not as bad as most people these days make them out to be. The atrocities, such as the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of certain cities, were committed back home as well (cf. Soissons, 1424). The Franks were doing little other than what the Arabs and Turks had done before them. As defensive wars, they were understandable and justifiable (in a mediaeval context, mind you).

      What we should not do is glorify them. Giving out papal indulgences for killing people is a bad practice, even in a world where indulgences are acceptable. The concept of Holy War is a bad idea, even in a world where war is part of the fabric of living. The Eastern Churches have never developed Holy War (and with neither Pope nor Purgatory, neither did they develop indulgences). Indeed, there was always an ambivalence even towards Just War for the Eastern Church. After excessively bloody wars and battles with the Persians, priests would give heavy ‘penances’ for the moral and spiritual cleansing of the soldiers and nobles involved. The wars against Zoroastrian Persia, raiding pagan Bulgars or Saracens, and Muslim Arabs were seen as in the best interests of the Christian state and its Christian citizens as well as of the Empire as a purely secular entity — but not as Holy, not as acts of righteousness where the killing of the foe is actually good.

      If the Crusades had developed such a mindset, they would have been less unsettling for modern Christians to look upon. We would say, ‘Indeed, protect the pilgrims, help your fellow-Christians defend their lands, make the Holy City more accessible for Christians!’ But we do not, for in the years of the Crusades, the miles Christi was no longer the monk praying for your soul, but the soldier fighting in peril of his own.

  4. One answer to why they “carved out” states is because Alexios did not hold up his end of the bargain by leading a unified Christian army. There was mistrust on both sides, and the Crusaders fully expected active Byzantine support. Stark’s book gets into that a great deal, and how to view these states as “colonies” or some sort of imperialistic enterprise is incorrect, and that the states were more like “bases,” with the population over 90 percent Islamic, and the Christians concentrated in the cities, in order to protect pilgrims and consolidate the recovery of lands that were previously in Christian hands, Eastern or Western.

    • I would never call Crusader States colonies. And I approve of the protection of pilgrims. However, I do not think that the Frankish/Norman actions were as simple as the protection of the temporal interests of Christianity in the Holy Land. I think it’s ‘all of the above’ — Yes, the ‘salutary’ motives were there. But I can’t imagine people of the likes of Bohemond casting aside their personal quest for power. I think that the motives are mingled and mixed, as in so much that involves politicians and religion. Their religious motives got in the way of their political motives; their political motives got in the way of their religious ones.

      As for the Byzantines, I want to hunt down the Byzantine sources myself. I reckon they are generally … unread … in modern Western accounts, even ones sympathetic to the Crusaders’ cause. Something broke down in communication, and one is curious as how each side of the Greek/Latin divide interpreted it. And, in the end, what about all those Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christians, not all peasants, running about? What did they think of all this? This is my current concern.

      I agree with the motives of the western Christians being about as respectable as any other warrior in the Middle Ages, if not more so. But what of the results of how they behaved? I understand that the Muslim vengeance upon the Christian dhimmi was terrible. This is when crazy men like Ali in Egypt start putting heavier and heavier burdens upon a Christian population that never asked for a Frankish invasion to begin with.

      • I’m not disagreeing with you (especially with the unintended consequences that impacted the local Christian minorities) for the most part, but I thought you’d find the following interesting for those who argue that those who went on Crusade did so for material gain. This is from something I did awhile back using Stark’s book:

        Crusading was enormously expensive, and the crusades were led by the heads of families, not inheritance-deprived children in search of wealth. Crusading was dominated by a few closely related families (Stark, God’s Battalions, p.110). The best estimate is that “a typical crusader needed to raise at least four or five times his annual income before he could set forth. This reveals the absurdity of all claims that the crusaders were mostly landless younger sons, since it would have been cheaper for families to have kept such sons at home and provided them an adequate inheritance” (Ibid., p.112). In addition to this, the wealthier nobles subsidized knights that were less fortunate, and some sold huge amounts of property to go on a crusade, with Godfrey of Bouillon selling the entire county of Verdun to the King of France (ibid). These facts, in addition to the fact that about 85 to 90 percent of the Frankish knights did not go to the Crusade, should put to rest that this was some sort of economic enterprise. Far more likely is that those who left did so because of “pious idealism” (p.114).

      • Ah. I see now. Indeed, there is much trouble in trying to talk about the Crusades as the historical wars they were in their own context with everyone using them for their own agendas instead. That was certainly a good part of Madden’s article — simply setting the record straight! 🙂

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