The Situation for Eastern Christians in the 1090s Prior to the First Crusade

*Main Image: Later map of western Asia-Minor. Please note Nicomedia’s proximity to Constantinople. Taken from Wikimedia Commons.

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As readers of this blog will know, some crusade historians have recently debated if the First Crusade can be considered in the context of a “defense” of Eastern Christians, or a “defensive war.” Such debates can be centered around multiple issues, to include the intentions of the participants, whether or not Eastern Christians genuinely needed or wanted defending, and the technical nature of armies of the First Crusade as an expeditionary army. When historians discuss this issue, they are often careful to offer considerable nuance and various qualifications when giving an opinion on this matter. Those who have written or commented on the issue, often for popular publications rather than scholarly ones, mostly (although certainly not always) seem to find it acceptable to view the First Crusade in the context of a “defensive war,” for a variety of reasons that can be reviewed here.

Related to this issue, I was recently reading a piece by Prof. Matthew Gabriele, now a columnist for Forbes, who addressed this topic in his July 14 (2018) essay titled “Why The History of Medieval Studies Haunts How We Study the Past.” In it, he briefly touched on the crusades, at one point noting “the idea that they [the Crusades] were “defensive” against an aggressively expansionistic Islam has been disproven.” Naturally, I was intrigued. If such a claim has been disproven, many of his fellow crusade historians seem unaware. Gabriele has made similar claims in the past, but this time he linked to a source as the basis for his argument. In this case Gabriele cited a 2011 article on the Huffington Post, written by respected crusade historian Jay Rubenstein. Whatever one thinks of the Huffington Post, Rubenstein is a serious crusade historian and so his comments are worth reading with care. In the Huffington Post piece, Rubenstein seems to agree that the 1070s and 1080s were dangerous times for Eastern Christians, noting the Turkish victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071 and the capture of the city of Antioch in 1084, among others. But Rubenstein then notes that by the 1090s the Greek [Byzantine] frontier had “largely stabilized,” further noting that “reports of Byzantium’s demise proved greatly exaggerated.” Thus, it is implied that the calling of the First Crusade for the protection of Byzantine Christians was unnecessary, as they were in no real danger by the time the crusade was called at the Council of Clermont in 1095.

I wish that Rubenstein’s article had been published in another forum that would have likely allowed him more length to develop his argument, as well as to cite references in footnotes. This was because his claims about the 1090s as a period of Byzantine stability, were quite different than what I had been reading and thinking about on these issues recently. It concerned me a little bit as Forbes and Huffington Post both have major followings online, and several thousand people will read these accounts whereas largely unknown blogs like my own only very rarely reach such high numbers. My concern was that, rather than Byzantine stability, there were instead many Turkish conquests of Eastern Christian towns, cities, or regions in the 1090s just prior to the calling of the First Crusade. Moreover, some of them were quite threatening to the Byzantine Empire, resulting in increased alarm and an intensification of Byzantine efforts to secure western military aid.

One of the best recent works to detail the situation of the Byzantine Empire in the 1090s is Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East, which focuses on the situation in the Byzantine Empire leading up to the calling of the First Crusade and the extensive efforts of Byzantine rulers like Alexius I Comnenus to secure western military aid in his dealings with the Turks. Frankopan’s work details various Turkish threats to Byzantium in the 1090s prior to the First Crusade, to include the conquests of Philadelphia, Ephesus, Nicomedia, and other Byzantine cities or regions. The most worrisome of these losses was Nicomedia, which was conquered by the Turks in 1091 and was only fifty miles from the capital city of Constantinople.

The fall of Nicomedia came at a time when Alexius I was distracted by extensive efforts to beat back other enemies, such as the Normans and Pechenegs, which required great sacrifices on the part of the Empire. The most notable of those sacrifices was the inability to deal with the encroachment of the Turks in Asia-Minor, resulting in the loss of Nicomedia and other Byzantine cities or territories. Commercially prosperous Nicomedia held an important place in the empire as it had served as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire under Diocletian before Constantine had built up the city of Constantinople to replace it. Alarmed by such threats to Byzantine security, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus pushed hard to restore Nicomedia to Byzantine control, even securing aid from the European nobleman Robert of Flanders who provided hundreds of western knights to assist in the cause. Correspondingly, Alexius I also began an intensified campaign to win further western military aid in the 1090s.

1Frankopan

Concerning Alexius I’s efforts to win western military support, Frankopan notes:

“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)

Frankopan further notes how disturbing Byzantine depictions of the suffering of Eastern Christians were widely shared in the West and effective in stirring outrage among western Christians.

 “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)….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)

Such efforts on the part of the Byzantines seem to have had a powerful effect in the West, as western leaders widely shared such news. Some accounts of Pope’s Urban II’s speech calling for the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095, for example, claim he emphasized the abuse of Eastern Christians by the Turks. According to the version by Robert the Monk, the pope graphically described the murder, torture, rape, and enslavement of Eastern Christians by the Turks, and that the clergy in the era of the First Crusade was emphasizing such stories to stir the anger and sympathy of western knights seems confirmed in the charters of those who participated in the First Crusade. Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, for example, in his highly regarded book The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, highlights the charter of two brothers written shortly before they embarked on the First Crusade. They noted that they were going on the crusade, in part, “…to wipe out the defilement of the pagans and the immoderate madness through which innumerable Christians have already been oppressed, made captive and killed with barbaric fury.” (p. 23-24)

Historian Jonathan Phillips has also addressed the circumstances of the Byzantine Empire in the 1090s in his book The Crusades, 1095-1204, 2nd Edition. Citing Frankopan, Phillips refers to “the resurgent threat from the Turks” during the 1090s and the alarm this caused for Alexius I. Moreover, rather than suggesting the Byzantine frontier had stabilized by the 1090s, Phillips refers to the loss of Nicomedia to argue that “Alexios really did need help…” (p. 20) which led to the emperor’s intensified efforts to win western military support from the West that would eventually result in the calling of the First Crusade.

1Phillips

I should highlight that Rubenstein did not have access to Frankopan’s work at the time of his Huffington Post essay in 2011, as Frankopan’s work was not published until 2012. Even if he had, it is far from certain Frankopan’s work would have changed Rubenstein’s opinion about the nature of the First Crusade as a type of “defensive war” as his original essay was more complex and certainly not based solely on the circumstances of the Byzantines in the 1090s. Yet on this narrower issue, whether or not the Byzantines were still under threat from the Turks in the 1090s, in the years immediately prior to the calling of the First Crusade, Frankopan has, I think, convincingly argued that they were.

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