I crawled out from under a mound of work and discovered that Lost to the West was a week overdue, and I still had three chapters to go! I returned it without finishing it, but I did manage to get through the Crusades. It sounds like not a lot happens after that anyway: just losing battles with Turks.
The Turks are, indirectly, what set off the Crusades to begin with. Before about 1000 A.D., the area now known as Turkey was called Asia Minor or Anatolia, and it was inhabited by various Indo-European peoples who, under Byzantium, became largely Christian and Greek-speaking. The Turks originated in central Asia, where many of them still reside in all those former Soviet “stans”. Turkish tribes had been turning up in the West since around the fall of Rome — a number of them rode with Attila — but it wasn’t until 500 years later that they really started to take over. In the 11th century, a powerful group called the Seljuks conquered most of the Middle East and the eastern part of Asia Minor, starting the long road to Turkey.
This came at an especially difficult time for Christendom. In 1054, after centuries of rising tension, the churches of Rome and Byzantium formally went into schism. This split of the old Greco-Roman civilization seems to have grieved the participants; rather than bidding good riddance to the heretics, they kept dreaming of getting back together. (They still do.) It was in this spirit that the Byzantine emperor at the time wrote to the Pope asking for troops from the West.
The Empire had been “borrowing” troops from other powers ever since it was still the Roman Empire, usually offering land and plunder as compensation. So in one sense, this request wasn’t anything new. But the religious flavor it took on was. The Pope pitched this to Westerners as a holy war, not so much in defense of Byzantium — about which people like the Franks cared little — but Jerusalem. The Holy Land had been ruled by Muslims for the better part of 400 years, but something about the combination of the Seljuks, the Great Schism, and the spirit of the age turned this into an outrage in urgent need of rectification. Moreover, the Pope seems to have insinuated, for the first time in Christian history, that soldiers dying in this conflict would earn a holy martyrdom.
The response was so enormous that the Byzantine emperor was overwhelmed and alarmed by the number of “barbarian” troops who showed up in his capital. It didn’t help matters that one of the leaders was a Norman prince who had tried to attack Constantinople just a decade earlier. The attempt at Christian unity soon fell apart, and the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land themselves, establishing several “Latin” kingdoms there.
From then on, the Crusades were a multi-sided conflict. Not only were there the three major religious parties, but individual ambitions created various alliances, sometimes across sectarian lines. By the time of the Fourth Crusade in 1202 — more than 100 years after the whole thing started — the religious motivations had become weirdly muddled. A palace coup had deposed the emperor, Alexius IV, who turned to the Crusaders to restore him to the throne. But the Doge of Venice, which was then a rising power rivaling Byzantium, essentially took control of the Crusade because he was the only guy who could fund the thing. The Doge persuaded them to turn their swords against Christians instead of Muslims, and take the capital. They wound up sacking and occupying Constantinople for over 50 years.
What’s interesting about this to me is that the Pope disapproved vehemently of the sacking, and excommunicated everyone who participated. This did dissuade some soldiers from the campaign, but clearly, there were plenty left to conquer the Empire. It makes me wonder, not for the first time, just how people in the Middle Ages thought about their religion. In the post-Enlightenment, essentially Protestant version of Western history that I grew up with, the era was the “Age of Faith” and the Pope held almost godlike power. Yet this and other histories I’ve read make papal power actually sound pretty tenuous. The Pope held lands and had an army just like a prince, and the other rulers of Europe tended to treat him like a peer and a rival. The German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa got himself excommunicated for one such tangle, but that didn’t stop him from retaining the title Holy Roman Emperor. The princes who glommed on to Martin Luther were probably relieved that there was a theology supporting what they were already doing.
Even the Byzantine Imperium itself — probably one of the longest-lived monarchies in European history — was an insecure place to be. The emperors had to face courtly intrigue, military coups and popular revolts; arranging an orderly succession was a feat that few of them achieved. After having read that book on fascism during the summer, I do wonder if we moderns sometimes mistakenly see these old regimes through the lens of 20th century totalitarianism. As George Orwell pointed out, modern technology provides a means for distant central powers to monitor and influence people, both physically and mentally, that the world had never seen before. This is not to say the medieval rulers didn’t commit hair-raising acts of oppression — they certainly did — but you get the feeling this was partly to make up for their lack of power over daily affairs. Without direct communication with the vast majority of their subjects, popes and emperors had to delegate authority down the pyramid, trusting that the network of personal loyalties would keep everyone bound to the top.
The church network didn’t always mesh with the others. Brownworth writes that, back in the heady early days, the Crusaders were eager to join the war partly because it got them out of an impossible bind. Their loyalties to family, town and prince led them into constant fighting, especially in the western feudal system where political power was highly fragmented. They knew they had done unholy things and their souls were at risk, but who could live up to unrealistic standards of Jesus Christ? The Crusades offered a tempting solution: do for God what you’re good at — fighting — and all that will be made up for.
Even the openly heretical Fourth Crusade never lost its religious flavor. Some lower-level clergy were apparently on board with it, arguing that it was OK to attack the Byzantines because of the Great Schism. (The Pope, for his part, still hoped the churches could reunite.) The Crusaders also had clear financial motivations — even they were amazed at how much they managed to pillage from the city — but I don’t know that God had entirely left the picture.
One of these days, I should read The Honor Code, a new book arguing that honor is a crucial and underrated agent of historical change. Brownworth never talks about it directly, but I kept thinking of it in his description of the Crusaders. Even at their messiest, the Crusades never turned into a Hobbesian war of all against all. Most of the soldiers kept to their personal loyalties, and in fact the emperor who first invited them over made them swear an oath of fealty to him, since he’d heard Westerners were serious about oaths. (Unfortunately for him, they considered the oaths void if they thought he violated them.) The Crusades married medieval honor with God, and that proved so irresistible that even the Pope couldn’t kill it. It did, however, end up delivering a crippling blow to Christianity on earth. If the Western countries had not, at the same time, been honing their nautical skills for their eventual voyages to new worlds, then the Pope might have wound up being about as powerful as the Byzantine patriarch is now.