The First Crusade as a “Defensive War”: A Response to Prof. Gabriele.

Today, I read a curious essay in the Washington Post by Professor Matthew Gabriele, a fellow historian of the crusades, titled Islamophobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all. I’ve never met Professor Gabriele, but I am familiar with his scholarship. In his essay, he made some strong claims about what crusade historians believe, as well as the nature of the Islamic threat facing eastern Christians in the era of the First Crusade and how that threat was understood by western Christians at the time. I want to consider some points related to his comments on those issues here.

Professor Gabriele is most concerned with how modern people are comparing the situation in the era of the First Crusade with the troubling occurrences of modern Islamic terrorism in the West. He also objects to any notion that the crusades were, at least initially, a defensive response to Muslim aggression. He cites various modern westerners who are not specialists on the medieval crusading movement who have made statements romanticizing the crusades and arguing for their return.

I agree with Professor Gabriele that the past does not repeat itself and the situation of the eleventh century is certainly far different than the one we find ourselves in today in the twenty-first century. Crusading, in any form resembling the expeditions of the eleventh and twelfth century, is not the solution to the, as of yet, unsolvable problem of modern Islamic terrorism, which according to the Global Terrorism Index claims the lives of over 30,000 people worldwide per year, with most of them Muslims.

Where I disagree with Professor Gabriele, surprisingly, is in his understanding of crusading history and what crusade historians over the last thirty or forty years have written about the origins of the crusading movement. Professor Gabriele wrote:

“Exploiting a simplified, misleading story of the Crusades (namely, that they were primarily a Western, Christian, defensive response to Middle Eastern incursion on Christian lands) isn’t a strictly contemporary phenomenon. In fact, it came into fashion during the age of colonialism and was reborn again in the early 20th century. In both of those cases — and in our own current climate — the imaginary parallel between the Crusades and our own conflicts does much more to advance our own political causes than to accurately represent the Crusades.

As scholars of the Crusades have shown for several generations now, there was no necessary evolutionary movement toward the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The Arab conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century was long forgotten by that time, and Latin Europe felt very little (if any) pressure from the highly divided Seljuk Turks, who were quite busy fighting one another as well as the Fatimids in Egypt.”

Respectfully, I think Professor Gabriele’s has fallen into the very trap he condemns by himself providing “a simplified, misleading story of the crusades,” but in this case to buttress his own political viewpoints while condemning others for doing the very same to buttress theirs. He may be correct in condemning popular views of crusading that hold medieval crusading is applicable for the modern world, but then he glides over the current state of crusade scholarship, and the many aspects of it which work against his argument in a way that I find misleading.

The Turkish conquest of much of Christian Anatolia and surrounding areas that began to take place after the events of the battle of Mantzikert in 1071 was disastrous from the point of view of Eastern Christians, resulting in the conquests of such historically important Christians cities as Antioch, where Christians were first given their name as a form of derision, and Nicaea, the site of the first major ecumenical Christian council in 325 A.D. These events resulted in an often furious effort by Byzantine authorities to win western military support through graphic and disturbing accounts of Christian oppression by their Muslim conquerors. Such stories were carried to western authorities, both clerical and lay, by ambassadors and by letter. They had such an impact in the West that by 1074 Pope Gregory VII was regularly writing letters to members of the western nobility describing how Christians in the East were being “slaughtered like cattle” (a phrase he used on multiple occasions) and the pope himself advocated leading an army of 50,000 western knights to the East to bring military aid to suffering eastern Christians. Such concerns continued in the years that followed as Muslim armies continued to conquer Christian lands and holdings, often subjecting subject populations to dhimmis status or slavery. Byzantine concerns surged again in the 1090s, just a few years before the calling of the First Crusade in 1095, when the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus sent a rush of embassies and letters to western Christians, describing various abuses of Christians at the hands of Muslim conquerors, and pleading for western military aid. Once Pope Urban II’s papacy found greater stability, he was in a position to better entertain the requests of Alexius’ ambassadors, who had shown up at the Italian Council of Piacenza in 1095 and again at the French Council of Clermont later that year, leading to the calling of the First Crusade. Yet Gabriele dismisses all of this by describing it as, simply, a “Middle Eastern incursion on Christian lands…” These were bloody conquests of Christian lands, rather than simply “incursions,” which deeply concerned Christians in both the East and the West.

Gabriele also dismisses the Arab Conquest of the seventh and eighth centuries, specifically noting that the Arab conquest of Jerusalem had been long forgotten by the time of the First Crusade. I would point out that scholars have highlighted how the Arab Conquest resulted in the conquest of perhaps two-thirds of the Christian world at the time, including parts of western Europe. Much of Spain was also conquered during this time, with incursions into France. Sicily later came under Islamic rule from the ninth through eleventh centuries, governed by the Emirate of Sicily. Therefore, it was not just eastern Christians who had to deal with the consequences of the Arab Conquest, but western Christians in the eleventh century were still dealing with those consequences as well.

Moreover, it was not, as Gabriele seems to imply, just 19th and early 20th century colonists and romanticists who framed the crusades, or at least their origins, as a “defensive response to Middle Eastern incursion on Christian lands…” He omits the fact that so have many far better informed crusade historians over the last forty years and into the present. Certainly, Professor Gabriele is familiar with the current and recent historiography of the crusades, and so has some sense of the positions of his colleagues on this matter. They would include historians such as the late Cambridge University Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, who has dominated the current historiography of the crusades with his work on the motivations of the earliest crusaders; or St. Louis University Professor Thomas Madden, one of the leading U.S. scholars of the crusades; or the Oxford University historian Peter Frankopan, Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, whose recent book on the First Crusade has most powerfully demonstrated the extreme concern eastern Christians felt over the Turkish conquest of most of Christian Asia-Minor in the years just prior to the First Crusade, and the extraordinary efforts of Byzantine authorities to win western military support; or even the work of my friend, Professor Paul F. Crawford, whose work on the Muslim conquest of eastern Christian lands, including the years immediately prior to the calling of the First Crusade, is reflected in his recent essay in my co-edited (w/Alfred J. Andrea) volume, Seven Myths of the Crusades. There are several others I could cite, but at the moment these four come first to mind so I will focus on them.

To offer some of the related views of these prominent historians on the topic, consider the following.

In an article written for the Economist in 1995, Jonathan Riley-Smith wrote:

“Many Muslims, for instance, still reckon that the crusades initiated centuries of European aggression and exploitation. Some Catholics want the pope to apologise to the world for them. Liberals of all stripes see the crusades as examples of bigotry and fanaticism. Almost all these opinions are, however, based on fallacies. The denigrators of the crusades stress their brutality and savagery, which cannot be denied; but they offer no explanation other than the stupidity, barbarism and intolerance of the crusaders, on whom it has become conventional to lay most blame. Yet the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression…”

In an article written just after the events of September 11, when 3,000 Americans were slaughtered by jihadists and an additional 6,000 hospitalized, Thomas Madden wrote:

“Now put this down in your notebook, because it will be on the test: The crusades were in every way a defensive war. They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world. While the Arabs were busy in the seventh through the tenth centuries winning an opulent and sophisticated empire, Europe was defending itself against outside invaders and then digging out from the mess they left behind. Only in the eleventh century were Europeans able to take much notice of the East. The event that led to the crusades was the Turkish conquest of most of Christian Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The Christian emperor in Constantinople, faced with the loss of half of his empire, appealed for help to the rude but energetic Europeans. He got it. More than he wanted, in fact.”

In Peter Frankopan’s excellent 2012 book on the First Crusade, emphasizing Byzantine advocacy as its major cause, he described the extraordinary fear and efforts of Byzantine authorities in response to the Turkish threat:

“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.” (page 88)

“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.” (page 89)

Finally, Professor Paul F. Crawford has written a piece providing a lengthy overview of historic Christian and Muslim conflict prior to and immediately before the calling of the First Crusade. He describes (pages 18-20) the situation in the 25 years or so leading up to the calling of the First Crusade.

“By 1065, the Seljuk Turks had captured part of Christian Armenia, devastated Byzantine Cilicia, and made inroads into Byzantine Anatolia.  In 1067, they took Caesarea, in Palestine… But in 1071, the world fell apart for the Byzantines when the Seljuk ruler Alp Arslan thrust into far eastern Anatolia, meeting an imperial army near the shores of Lake Van.  On August 26, the Byzantine army was decisively defeated, and the emperor himself taken prisoner… Christian Byzantium was plunged into some thirty years of turmoil and instability, losing its “breadbasket” and principle military recruiting grounds in Anatolia and, of course, those ancient Christian centers such as Antioch (which was taken again by the Turks in 1084) and Nicaea, which would not be recovered until the First Crusade.  In the 1080s, Alp Arslan established his own “Sultanate of Rum (Rome)” with its eventual capital tauntingly near Constantinople, 125 miles away in the city of Nicaea….The Byzantines, in the person of the new emperor, Michael VII (r. 1071-1078),   had begun sending off appeals to the West soon after Manzikert, primarily to the person they thought most likely to help, since—among other things—his office had been involved in defensive actions against Muslim invaders in Italy for quite some time: the pope. Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085), current occupant of the See of St. Peter, was favorably inclined,  and immediately began to plan for an expedition to the Eastern Empire’s aid.   Unfortunately for him and them, he was soon interrupted by a conflict with the German king and emperor-elect, Henry IV, and embroiled in the Investiture Controversy (1075-1122)….”

But Turkish conquests and Byzantine efforts to recruit western military aid did not end there, as Professor Crawford further notes:

                “Meanwhile, the Muslim Turks continued their encroachments.  They seized Jerusalem from the Fatimids in 1073,  and took Damascus in about 1076. The Fatimids seem to have retaken Jerusalem in 1076, only to lose it again to the Turks soon thereafter.   The city still retained a  substantial Christian population, even after the Turkish massacres of the 1070s ; these were not just Eastern Christians of various loyalties, but increasingly Latin Christians too.  Charlemagne had taken an interest in the well-being of Eastern Christians in the eighth and ninth century,   and in the eleventh century not only pilgrims but also merchants such as Amalfitans from Italy were increasingly taking up residence in Jerusalem, despite the increased difficulties for, and pressure on, Christians in the area.   Just because the area had fallen under Muslim rule did not mean that Christians had ceased to live there, or had forgotten it or lost interest in its well-being and significance to their faith.   Far from it. Recognizing the dangers, determined Western pilgrims had begun to band together and bear arms to ensure their safety and ability to reach and return from their destination.  In 1064-65, a large group of armed French and German pilgrims made it to Jerusalem and back, though apparently with some losses,  and between 1087 and 1091 Count Robert of Flanders (later a leader of the First Crusade) led a major, and armed, pilgrimage to the Holy Land, stopping along the way to visit Emperor Alexius I Comnenus and swearing an oath to him to send 500 Flemish knights, on his return, to help the Byzantines fight off the Muslims.

In August 1098 the Fatimids recovered Jerusalem.   By this time the First Crusade was almost upon them.  Bracing for the attack, the Fatimids expelled all Christians from the Holy City in 1099—probably (and reasonably) supposing that their sympathies would be more likely to lie with their fellow Christians than their Muslim overlords —and waited for the arrival of the latest Christian attempt to recover their central city: the First Crusade.”

Professor Gabriele may well disagree with these historians, and likely could make a compelling case in some instances. The crusades are complex, after all, and some issues can be approached in different ways. But one of the things I found most objectionable in his piece was the way he claimed to speak for “scholars of the crusades” when I think many of them, including some of the most influential and prominent, do not share his views. To the contrary, I think Gabriele’s seeming rejection of any defensive impetus to the birth of the crusading movement is, by far, the minority position. Although other issues are important to the birth of the crusading movement and sources must always be read critically, the primary emphasis of sources from the era, whether ecclesiastical or lay, highlight the defense of fellow Christians and Christian interests in the Holy Land as the main justification for the calling of the crusade.

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end. Those he criticizes, after all, can read the same books and articles I reference above.

The concerns with Gabriele’s piece reminded me of an essay I recently read by Professor Dan Franke, in which he had similar concerns with another medievalist who seemed to be making assumptions about the crusades based how well they allied with his/her modern leftist political position. The medievalist, a trained medieval historian, no less, seemed to be entirely unaware of the current crusade historiography based on his/her comments. This would not necessarily surprise me as medieval history is a big field, covering a lot of space over one thousand years, and so it is possible that one can specialize in an area of medieval history that is distant and removed from the crusading era. But Professor Franke’s comments there seem relevant to my concerns here.

Professor Franke wrote:

“I think [that] there is a small group of medieval scholars who have sort-of deliberately revived Runciman’s tenets [which were hostile to the crusaders] and have adopted arguments such as the “religious madness” thesis of Rubenstein’s Armies of Heaven, largely by accepting the book’s rather…interesting…reading of sources (I’ve enjoyed other pieces written by him, but I’m not alone in critiquing that tome). This thesis was given a bit of a lift last year in an article that attempted to synthesize recent scholarship but largely ended up creating the impression that only recently have younger [enlightened, progressive] historians seen crusades for the problematic manifestation of religious violence that they were (are). That is disturbing in its own way, as it indicates what I’ve come to see as a growing rift within medieval studies between those who are determined to make the Middle Ages “speak” to “our present moment,” regardless of what the sources can reasonably bear, and those who choose to remain more grounded in historical methods that may sacrifice some measure of “transformative power” but at least avoid creating false idols and false narratives.”



Addendum 8/8/2017

See Professor Dan Franke’s thoughtful response to Professor Gabriele.


Addendum 6/10/2017: Objections by Other Historians

Professor Matthew Phillips of Concordia University- Radio Interview On Prof. Gabriele’s WAPO piece.

Dr. Paul Halsall’s comments on Prof. Gabriele’s piece


Addendum 6/10/2017: U.S. Involvement in World War II and the First Crusade?

I recently reread historian Paul Chevedden’s thoughtful article “Canon 2 of the Council of Clermont (1095) and the Goal of the Eastern Crusade: “To Liberate Jerusalem” or To Liberate the Church of God” AHC 37 (2005): 57-108. In it Chevedden makes an interesting comparison (in a few places in his article) of the First Crusade with World War II.

He writes: “[Pope] Urban’s crusade plan was not complex, nor was it ambiguous or prone to distortion. It was as straightforward and as unambiguous as Roosevelt’s 1943 “race for Berlin.”…The Jerusalem bound expedition sought to rescue the Eastern Church and, of course, Jerusalem as part of that Church.” (page 97)

This comparison of the U.S. effort in World War II is not unique to Chevedden, as Thomas Madden had made a similar comparison four years earlier, writing, “The crusades were no more offensive than was the American invasion of Normandy.”

I think this comparison by crusade historians of the efforts of the first crusaders with the U.S. military’s efforts in World War II is interesting and worthy, at least, of exploring in a future blog post. I’m not so sure I see a direct comparison, but the fact that crusade historians are making such arguments reflects the degree to which many of them embrace a defensive framework for the emergence of the crusading movement.