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: