The First Crusade as a Defensive War? Four Historians Respond

Above Image: From left to right, John D. Hosler, Daniel Franke, Janet G. Valentine, Andrew Holt, and Laurence Marvin.

On Friday, April 6, I participated in a panel discussion at the annual meeting (held in Louisville, Ky.) of the Society for Military history that considered the question, “Was the First Crusade an Offensive or Defensive War?” The panel had been organized by John D. Hosler, Associate Professor of Military History at the Army General Command and Staff College, who also participated in the discussion. Other historians who participated include Daniel Franke, Assistant Professor of History at Richard Bland College of William and Mary, and Laurence Marvin, Professor of History at Berry College. Janet G. Valentine, Assistant Professor of Military History at the Army General Command and Staff College, served as Chair and Moderator. John put together the panel in response to some controversy emerging over the issue of whether the First Crusade can be considered a defensive war back in the summer of 2017. One can read more about that controversy herehere, and here.

Many, who were unable to attend, have expressed an interest in finding out more about the panel and how the discussion went. After a lengthy and engaging discussion, both between the panelists and the many historians in the audience, a number of complex issues were discussed and debated as they relate to the question, including even the validity of the question itself. When pressed by the moderator at the end of the discussion for our positions on the question, asking if we saw it as an offensive or defensive war, the panel was three to one in favor of viewing it as a defensive war. Yet as academic historians we naturally have many qualifications and reasons for our positions. Consequently, and in light of the interest expressed by our colleagues, I asked the panelists if they might submit a brief summary of how each of them thought it went. All of them agreed and I provide their responses below, then followed by my own brief reflections.

Professor Hosler’s response:

I thought the conversation was stimulating and evocative of some of the best aspects of the historical profession. And it was a conversation: a nice mixture of short presentations by the panelists, discussions between them, and lots of interactions with the attendees. I was especially impressed by the level of reading and awareness brought to the conversation by non-specialists. Opinions on whether the First Crusade was an offensive or defensive endeavor (or mix of the two) were clearly divided, with adherents of all sides advancing notions supported by medieval evidence and thoughtful interpretations thereof. Despite what many medieval scholars seem to wish to believe, the question is not firmly settled.

In the minds of the crusaders, the cause of the war may well have been a defensive reaction to events on the edges of Christendom. These events, such as Turkish progress in the broad Levant, Byzantine overtures to the Roman papacy, attacks upon Christians in the Levant, or even latent memories of the Fatimid destruction/desecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the German pilgrimage of 1064-1065, were neatly outlined during the panel by Andrew Holt. Distant lands and people under Muslim rule were construed as being under threat; given that many in the West imagined those areas as part of Christendom, a war in succor could be construed as defensive in nature. In other words, it sure felt like self-defense.

Juxtaposed against such sensibilities of defending Christendom and protecting Christians being attacked, however, is the character of the war itself. The alliance between Latins and Byzantines was, in effect, coalition warfare. But fighting in one’s own “national interest” (to use a modern parlance) or in the interest of an allied state is not a de facto defensive act. I enjoyed Lawrence Marvin’s formulation of the army of the First Crusade as an expeditionary force seeking a regime change; in this sense, the intent was not to simply defend but to defeat. One must also take seriously two important eschatological aspects relating to crusading spirituality and pilgrimage, both of which seemingly support an offensive character to the war. The first regards soldiers’ efforts to gain remission of sins. The stakes of Particular Judgment are, of course, individualistic and eternal. A second point regarded widespread eleventh-century expectations of the “heavenly Jerusalem,” Christ’s impending return, and the Final Judgment of mankind. In this light, crusaders defended nothing but rather joined God’s ongoing war against evil—a war whose end had been preordained.

We therefore have a dilemma, one not easily solved. Fighting for individual spiritual rewards or in support of God’s final victory reeks of an offensive intent, while fighting on the basis of a perceived need to protect and recover Jerusalem sounds defensive. Moreover, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. My own suggestion was that of a duality: that we can judge the First Crusade to have had an offensive character while also admitting a medieval sensibility bent on defending Christendom. Here at Fort Leavenworth, we are prone to turn to the writings of Carl von Clausewitz for clarity. He wrote:

“A campaign is defensive if we wait for our theater of operations to be invaded” (On War, 6.1.1)

Was the Levant the West’s theater of operations? It was not. Did the West believe the Levant to be its theater of operations? I think so—hence the dilemma, which resulted in a wonderfully stimulating conversation at the 85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History.

– John D. Hosler

Professor Marvin’s response:

Here follow my thoughts on the panel:

I’d like to emphasize that the below remarks are made informally, rather than as a definitive scholarly argument hewing closely to the source material and secondary literature.  I present them in the spirit of free-flowing discussion, which is what the roundtable was, and is supposed to be.

It’s probably best if I stick to my own position based on what I knew (or didn’t) going into the roundtable, and just a bit about what was said during it.  In the months and weeks leading up to the roundtable, I mulled over the pros and cons of both positions based on the title of the session: “Was the First Crusade an offensive or defensive war?”  By the time the roundtable began, I argued that the First Crusade was an offensive war based around the following assumptions:

  • That the Society for Military history conference was well, on military history, and that I ought to be thinking along the lines of military history when I articulated my position.
  • The likely audience would not be medievalists (which turned out only partly true) and would be most interested in an argument based around military history, as opposed to some other sort of analysis or arguments that would have required a detailed knowledge of the crusade on the part of the audience.

Therefore, my articulation reflected a narrow line of inquiry, naive as that might have been.  I did not place value judgements on defensive or offensive warfare (that defensive warfare is ok; offensive is not) but simply on the First Crusade as a war, campaign or conflict.  During the session a member or members of the audience broached the idea of just vs. unjust war, but I had not thought about it in those terms, given the two assumptions above.

Thus I argued that the crusade was offensive conflict, primarily for two reasons:

  • The army that carried it out was essentially an expeditionary army which operated far from its own borders in non-contiguous territory. While the crusaders were at the very least an international lot, in a loose sense the vast majority of them came from the Latin West.  An expeditionary army by its very nature conducts some sort of offensive task.  I suppose an expeditionary army can act preemptively, though that doesn’t seem to be that common.
  • On a certain level, the crusaders sought regime change, at least for the city of Jerusalem. A member of the audience correctly stated that contingents of the crusaders had an agreement with Alexius Comnenus to return territory they took to the Eastern Roman Empire, which they did not do of course.  But, undoubtedly the crusaders envisioned that control over Jerusalem if they captured it would not be Muslim, hence one of the goals of the crusade was bringing about a change of government in the city.  That requires some sort of offensive action.

The other members of the roundtable concluded that the First Crusade was a defensive conflict, which they did in qualified, nuanced and appropriate ways.  In their discussion my colleagues reflected apocalyptic, Eastern Roman and Muslim perspectives, which was definitely a wider perspective than I argued.  Without question I certainly understand that, based on 11th century western European attitudes that the First Crusade could be seen as a defensive conflict.  But from a strictly military analysis, it was an offensive campaign, or at least that’s what I argued at the roundtable.

Professor Franke’s response:

Thoughts on the First Crusade round table at SMH, April 6 2018, Louisville, KY

Dan Franke

It was an honor to participate in Session 113, the First Crusade round table at this year’s Society for Military History conference in Louisville. I think between our opening statements, our chair’s questions, and the robust audience participation (I didn’t count, but estimated we had between 25-30 people), we explored the question of whether the crusade was an offensive or defensive war from micro and macro levels of analysis. We were complimented at various points after the session on how informative it was for a non-specialist audience, yet without simplifying our talking points or erasing the historiographic controversies endemic to such a topic. In that sense, I think our session was a very successful example of public history in action, in that we considered a commonly-asked question about a topic on which the panelists are all experts, and at the end of the session people not only knew more than they had before, but left with a lot to think about.

Among other things that I think were pretty clearly established in the discussion were the following points:

  1. The issue of whether the First Crusade qualified as an offensive or defensive war is one that is debated within the scholarly community, and frequently matters a lot to people outside academia.
  2. The Christian framework for just war envisioned both offensive and defensive wars as potentially just.
  3. The First Crusade cannot be understood, as many still try by default to do, without understanding the situation in the eastern Mediterranean in the ten years before the Council of Clermont in 1095. Peter Frankopan’s work is crucial in this regard.
  4. It is noteworthy that, while Urban’s framing of the call to journey to Jerusalem was in apocalyptic terms, much of the argument was not framed in terms of an eternal Christian “claim” on Jerusalem, but on exactly the recently altered situation in the Byzantine Empire and the Levant (and by ‘recent’ I mean from the mid-1080s to early 1090s, not from Manzikurt in 1071, as is often assumed—I think we were all in agreement on that point).
  5. The question, while framed as a dichotomy, was not a dichotomy in reality, since the answer depends on one’s perspective and level of analysis. The framing, supported to considerable degree by evidence, was defensive, but the military operations involved were clearly offensive. In fact, in some respects the conversation recalled to me debates I’ve read and listened to on Confederate strategy in the Civil War–was it offensive-defensive, defensive-offensive, strategically defensive while operationally offensive, and so on. Several audience members, as well as the panelists, made this point, particularly a young graduate student from the University of Calgary whose name I did not catch, but who has a bright future ahead of her.

My own contribution was to discuss Muslim authors’ interpretation of the First Crusade, both in terms of theories of jihad in the 11th century and in terms of historical observations. Drawing on work by Sohail Hashmi, Carole Hillenbrand, Suleiman Mourad, and Niall Christie, among others, I suggested that, while Muslim authors of course regarded the First Crusade as an offensive war, there was a remarkable diversity of opinions regarding why it occurred and what the objective was, beyond taking territory that had been part of the Dar al-Islam. The Ayyubid historian Ibn al-Athir has perhaps the most interesting account, as, looking back after more than a century of these wars, he sees the First Crusade as the third stage of a counter-offensive against Islam, starting with Toledo, continuing with Sicily, and only by accident being diverted to the eastern Mediterranean. There is also a tendency, among Muslim authors, to detect what Elizabeth Lapina and Jay Rubenstein have argued, that there were two stages to the First Crusade, the second of which came after Antioch. Up to the capture of Antioch, authors such as Usama b. Munqidh could understand broadly speaking what their enemies were seeking. After Antioch was a puzzle. Usama attributes the post-Antioch campaign to greed.

All this being said, there are couple things I think we could have done better. One was to define terms at the very start, although definitions were hashed out in discussion with the audience. I entirely agree with Cliff Rogers’ comment that whether, by medieval standards, a war is just, and whether it is offensive or defensive, are actually two different questions. This basic point underscores my feeling, expressed to Nick Paul on Twitter afterward, that the outcome of conversations of this kind, which I think are necessary and useful to have, depends very much on why the question is asked to begin with. So, clarifying for the audience at the very beginning the “so what” question could have been helpful. As it is, I think John’s remarks in particular laid out the historiographic terrain quite succinctly, as a basis for helping the audience to understand why different historians define terms differently.

Another point that really should have been hit better was the perspective of victims. Sarah Douglas, of *The* Ohio State University, raised this question, and though I tried to respond to it the topic simply wasn’t picked up as it should have been. Any potential answer highlights the tensions over who gets (and got) to decide what the crusade was. As I have suggested in my chapter in The Seven Myths of the Crusades, from the perspective of the Shum communities this hardly looked “defensive.” But if the perpetrators weren’t “real” crusaders, then it’s easy to discount their actions. If, on the other hand, as Jay Rubenstein has argued, this was an apocalyptic war, then the perpetrators’ actions are all of a piece with the campaign itself, and the offensive (in both senses) nature of their actions makes sense. Since I (and I think many, if not most, crusades historians) give the papacy the prime agency in determining what a crusade was and who was or was not a crusader, the Rhineland massacres of 1096 do not render the international diplomatic and political context irrelevant.

One last note: I was rather surprised at some online pushback, polite as it was, against the notion the First Crusade should be described and analyzed as a “war,” and the faint suggestion that we military historians were appropriating the phenomenon and probably missing a lot of complexity. But, although there is debate over that point, I think it is so self-evident that it was a war as to need no great elaboration here. Ultimately, when Janet asked our final verdicts, mine was that the First Crusade was a defensive war, but with so many caveats as to make the issue largely a distraction from other historical questions. Above all, the medieval Catholic answers to the question would not well onto our modern framework of international law, and I agree with Thomas Madden that the medieval crusades have very little to do with the modern concerns that constantly try to make use of them.

I am not sure I can add too much to what these historians have already covered. John, Larry, and Dan’s responses were written independently, without having seen each other’s commentary, which is not the case for me. It’s certainly no secret that I believe the First Crusade can be seen in the context of a defensive war, as I have written elsewhere. As engaging and as thoughtful as the discussion was, I have not changed my opinion. I do, however, better understand (and appreciate) the alternative view that requires very precise definitions of terms as highlighted by my colleagues in their comments above.

I should note, as John points out, that I emphasized a Byzantine perspective of events, and the efforts of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I to win better relations with Pope Urban II after 1088. For this, as Dan notes above, Peter Frankopan’s work on the First Crusade is essential reading. The Byzantines found themselves under a severe threat in the ten to fifteen years prior to the calling of the First Crusade in 1095. Moreover, Alexios’ reign was facing internal challenges due to the collapse of Byzantine policy in Asia Minor and the surrounding regions. The attempt to foster better relations between Alexios and Urban offered the potential to help both men secure their authority at home.

Importantly, Byzantine efforts to negotiate military aid from the West, emphasizing their Christian brotherhood and the suffering of eastern Christians, proved effective in the recruitment of western warriors for the First Crusade as reflected in their surviving charters. These charters, as often highlighted in the influential works of the late Jonathan Riley-Smith, show that many crusaders viewed their actions as a defense of both eastern Christians and Christian holy places, which they understood to be threatened by the Turks. Indeed, many cities or towns in Asia Minor and the surrounding regions had been conquered by the Turks in the ten to fifteen years before the calling of the First Crusade, to include such historically important Christian cities as Nicaea and Antioch. By the time the crusade was over, regardless of the establishment of the crusader states, much of Asia-Minor had been restored to Byzantine control, either with the help of crusader armies as witnessed at Nicaea and Doryleaum, or by Byzantine armies that were able to operate more effectively since the crusaders were keeping the Turks busy. The Byzantines found themselves in a far stronger strategic position by the end of the crusade than when it began.

In rationalizing my position, the perspectives of the various participants are obviously important. The Byzantines, in their propaganda seeking to win western support, framed the crusaders’ efforts as a defense of Christians (themselves) and Christian interests. Latin Christian preachers of the First Crusade also framed the efforts of anyone who would take the cross as a defense of Christians and Christian interests. Finally, based on their charters, many of the participants of the First Crusade understood their efforts as a defense of Christians and Christian interests, or even as an “act of love” or charity, as Riley Smith has argued. Based on these perspectives, I think the First Crusade can be viewed in the context of a defensive war.

On a final note, I should mention that I am grateful for having been able to participate in such an interesting panel and I express my thanks to John both for setting it up and inviting me. It was also a genuine pleasure to see Dan again, even if only briefly, and to finally meet Larry, whom (although I have long been aware of his excellent scholarship) I had only communicated with through email up to this point. I must also compliment Janet, who managed the discussion wonderfully. A discussion of this kind of topic, with many opinionated panelists and audience members, has the potential to devolve into a bit of a spectacle, but it never did. Although definitely engaging, the commentary remained reasoned, polite, and thoughtful.