Byzantine Recruitment of Western Warriors before the First Crusade: Peter Frankopan’s Call from the East

I have long thought that Oxford historian Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012) is one of the more interesting and important recent books for understanding the circumstances leading up to the calling of the First Crusade in 1095. His emphasis on Byzantine efforts to win western Christian military support in their conflict with Muslim forces in the East provides an up to date and robust consideration of the issue that is lacking in many other works that consider the era of the First Crusade.

The late Jonathan Riley-Smith and others have documented how many Latin-Christian participants of the First Crusade cited (in their charters) their desire to aid suffering fellow Christians in the east as a rationale for joining the First Crusade. This is also a prominent theme in the surviving accounts of Pope Urban II’s calling of the First Crusade in his speech at Clermont. So sources show that western Christians were (at least in part) inspired to join the crusade to go to the aid of eastern Christians who portrayed themselves as under siege by Muslim forces.

Frankopan’s work, particularly chapter six, gives a good sense of why western Christians believed this based on his analysis of extensive Byzantine efforts to cultivate and win such military support. Here are some interesting observations from that chapter that reflect the situation prior to the calling of the First Crusade and extensive Byzantine efforts to recruit western fighters.

  1. The Byzantines established a recruitment center in London.

Frankopan, referring to the “decades prior to the First Crusade,” notes: “There had of course always been interaction between east and west, but with the Byzantine Empire eager to attract western knights to Constantinople, this exchange had become increasingly institutionalized in the eleventh century. There was even a recruitment bureau in London where those seeking fame and fortune had their appetites whetted, with Byzantine officials assuring those who wanted to venture east that they would be well looked after in Constantinople. A range of interpreters were kept on hand in the imperial capital to greet those who had come to serve the emperor.” (p. 87)

  1. Byzantine calls for western military support intensified in the 1090s prior to the calling of the First Crusade.

Frankopan notes: “As the situation in Asia-Minor deteriorated toward the end of the eleventh century, [Emperor] Alexios began to look more keenly for help from outside the empire. Contemporaries from all over Europe started to note increasingly anxious calls for assistance emanating from Constantinople in the 1090s. Ekkehard of Aura recorded that embassies and letters ‘seen even by ourselves’ were sent out by Alexios to recruit help in the face of serious trouble in ‘Cappadocia and throughout Romania and Syria. According to another well-informed chronicler: ‘[Alexius] was trembling at the constant incursions of the heathens and at the diminishment of his kingdom in great part, and he sent envoys to France with letters to stir up the princes so that they would come to the aid of… imperiled Greece.” (p. 88)

  1. Byzantine depictions of the suffering of eastern Christians were intense, widely shared in the west, and effective at stirring both outrage and sympathy.

Frankopan notes: “These shocking tales of Turkish violence and Christian suffering provoked outrage in the west. In the early 1090s, when Nikomedia came under attack, Alexios’ appeals become more urgent. The emperor ‘sent envoys everywhere with letters, heavy with lamentation and full of weeping, begging with tears for the aid of the entire Christian people’ to appeal for help against the barbarians who were desecrating baptismal fonts and razing churches to the ground. As we have seen, a western force was raised as a result by Robert of Flanders, finally enabling the recovery of the town and of the land as far as the Arm of St. George, extending into the Gulf of Nikomedia. News of the empire’s collapse spread across Europe, brought by embassies made up of ‘holy men.’ According to one chronicler it became widely known that Christians in the east, ‘that is to say the Greeks and Armenians,’ were facing extensive and terrible persecution at the hands of the Turks throughout Cappadocia, Romania [Byzantium] and Syria.” (p. 89)

  1. The Byzantines exploited growing concerns about the fate of the city of Jerusalem to stir the passions of western Christians.

Frankopan notes: “One particular element common to many of the reports was the worsening situation in Jerusalem itself. [Tensions between Sunni Turks and Shia Fatimids] were taken out on the local population. Reports stressed there were forced conversions of Greek and Armenian Christians in Antioch, and sharp rises in taxes and obligations for Christians living in Jerusalem were accompanied by persecution. Jews too were targeted. A major synagogue in Jerusalem was burnt down in 1077…. Arabic sources also recorded tensions in Jerusalem, Antioch, and the Holy Land immediately before the crusade. One twelfth-century Arabic commentator…noted that ‘the people of the Syrian ports prevented Frankish and Byzantine pilgrims from crossing to Jerusalem. Those who survived spread news about that to their country…. The growing concern about Jerusalem in Western Europe was exploited by Alexios….At the beginning of 1091, [Byzantine] envoys arrived at the court of King Zvonimir of Croatia…The envoys described…how Jerusalem and the holy places had fallen to pagans, who were destroying and desecrating these sacred sites….Alexios controversial letter to Robert of Flanders in the early 1090s also seems to have made deliberate use of Jerusalem to elicit a response from the west.” [Frankopan provides many other examples] (p. 90-92)

Also of interest in this chapter is Frankopan’s focus on the development of good relations between Emperor Alexios, who initiated and fostered such efforts, and Pope Urban II. Frankopan interestingly compares their relationship to the relationship of Emperor Michael VII and Pope Gregory VII two decades earlier in the wake of the disastrous Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, when Pope Gregory had unsuccessfully called for an army of western knights to go to the Byzantine Empire’s defense.

On the whole, Frankopan’s effort to highlight extensive Byzantine efforts to win western military support in their struggle with various Muslim powers in the east is the best recent treatment I have read of the topic. It emphasizes the important role the Byzantine Empire played in making the First Crusade not only possible, but likely. The First Crusaders were not uninvited. To the contrary, Byzantine rulers had spent decades systematically recruiting and lobbying (at times pleading) for western military support in the east through the use of often powerful propaganda and emotional appeals to Christian brotherhood. It’s true that the armies of the First Crusade, with large numbers of non-combatants, were not precisely what the Byzantines were hoping for and that relations between the Byzantines and crusaders deteriorated quickly resulting in the establishment of the crusader states. But the expedition also resulted in the restoration of Byzantine control to much of Asia-Minor and left the Byzantine Empire in a better situation than the position it had been in prior to the First Crusade.