[Marxism] The Crusades

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 25 06:55:34 MST 2006

God's Willing Executioners


[from the December 11, 2006 issue]

There are many ways to describe Pope Benedict 
XVI's remarks at the University of Regensburg 
last September concerning the "evil and inhuman" 
nature of Muhammad's teachings. Impolitic is one 
way, maladroit another. They can also be 
described as deeply ignorant concerning Islam's 
role in preserving, transmitting and enhancing 
classical culture at a time when most Europeans 
were still snuggling up to their oxen for warmth. 
But the most striking thing about the comments 
was the way they reflected a view that was 
alarmingly one-sided and unreflective. The 
religious zeal of the proto-Muslim forces that 
erupted out of Arabia in the seventh century has 
been much exaggerated on both sides of the 
Muslim-Christian divide. Far from forcing 
subjects to adopt their faith (which at that 
point was no more than embryonic), they 
discouraged conversion if only because it would 
have undermined the poll tax on Jews and 
Christians on which their revenue depended. But 
the religious zeal of Catholic armies that have 
periodically erupted out of Western Europe has 
not been exaggerated. Beginning with Charlemagne, 
who is said to have beheaded 4,500 Saxons for the 
crime of lapsing into paganism, they repeatedly 
engaged in conversion by the sword along with 
mass murder of all those who refused. If forced 
conversion is "contrary to God's nature," as the 
Pope asserted at Regensburg, then no institution 
has behaved in a more ungodly fashion than his own church.

On the other hand, considering that Exodus 15:3 
plainly states that "Yahweh is a warrior" and 
that slaughtering unbelievers is one of the 
things that warrior-god worshipers do, perhaps no 
institution has behaved in a more godly fashion 
either. Were it not for the fact that he has been 
working on it since at least 1998, Christopher 
Tyerman's massive new history of the Crusades 
could be read as a rejoinder to the Benedictine 
doctrine that forced conversion is something the 
other side practices, never our own. Rather than 
beginning with Charlemagne, God's War opens a 
couple of centuries later, when, following an 
extended period of punishment at the hands of 
Viking, Magyar and Saracen raiders, the Catholic 
West turned the tables on its tormenters and 
began striking back with startling vigor. In 
1015-16, Pisan and Genoese raiders were attacking 
Arab pirate bases in Sardinia. A few decades 
after that, Christian rulers in the north of 
Spain were hitting back at Muslim rulers to the 
south. By 1060 Norman adventurers were 
campaigning to take Sicily from the Arabs, who 
had taken it two centuries earlier from the 
Byzantines. Then, in 1095, came the climax, an 
immense human tide that poured out of France, 
Flanders and other provinces and began making its 
way east with the purpose of liberating, so to 
speak, the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks.

This was the opening salvo in the Crusades, a 
century and a quarter of invasions and assaults 
not only against Palestine but Egypt, Lebanon, 
Syria and even Constantinople, the Byzantine 
capital that was the Latin West's supposed ally. 
Tyerman does not limit his account to those 
expeditions, however, but also throws in the 
Albigensian crusade of 1209-29 against a 
heretical group of "dualists" in the South of 
France known as the Cathars; the campaigns by 
Teutonic Knights against pagan tribes in the 
eastern Baltic; and the Christian reconquest of 
Spain, which was largely complete with the fall 
of Seville in 1248 even though a Muslim outpost 
in Granada managed to hold on until 1492.

All were of a piece, which is to say that all 
flowed from a Western resurgence that had its 
first stirrings in the tenth century and had 
reached high gear by the late eleventh. Two 
things about this resurgence stand out. One is 
its multidimensionality. Weak, depopulated and 
culturally impoverished, Western Europe was on 
everyone's list as the most unlikely candidate 
for resurgence. Yet it was soon racing ahead not 
just militarily but religiously, politically, 
economically and even intellectually. The 
Parisian student of dialectics was one aspect of 
the Western European takeoff, the powerful growth 
of shipping and trade was another, while the 
crusading knight and the fiery cleric 
proclaiming, "Kill them. The Lord knows who are 
his own"--as the Abbot Arnaud Aimery reportedly 
did in urging on the indiscriminate slaughter of 
the people of Béziers, a Cathari stronghold--were 
a third. All were products of an increasingly 
aggressive and energetic society bent on 
strengthening politico-religious authority at 
home and extending its reach abroad.

The other thing that stands out about this 
small-r renaissance is its roughness and 
brutality. The elegant Byzantine court was 
appalled by the barbaric hordes that landed on 
its doorstep at the tail end of the eleventh 
century. Anna Comnena, daughter of Emperor 
Alexius I, was contemptuous of Norman soldiers 
who "ravaged the outskirts of Nicaea"--located 
across the Sea of Marmara from 
Constantinople--"acting with horrible cruelty to 
the whole population." Not only were these 
Catholic brutes greedy, arrogant and hotheaded, 
she wrote, but even their battlefield skills were 
overrated. They were "indomitable in the opening 
cavalry charge," but "afterwards, because of the 
weight of their armor and their own passionate 
nature and recklessness, it is actually very easy to beat them."

Still, barbaric enthusiasm carried the Crusaders 
a long way. Although (or perhaps because) they 
were headstrong and impulsive, their military 
exploits, at the outset at least, were little 
short of astounding. Traveling some 2,000 miles 
from their home base, they quickly adapted to the 
unfamiliar terrain and novel tactics they 
encountered on crossing into Seljuk territory. 
They mastered the fighting march and learned to 
counter the rapid attack, feint and ambush that 
were standard in the Middle East. Anna Comnena 
was right about at least one thing, moreover: 
Provided he kept his seat, the Western mounted 
knight was well-nigh invincible. He was the 
armored tank of the day, "maneuverable [and] 
impervious to most of the fire power available to 
the opposing infantry," as Tyerman puts it. 
"Mounted on increasingly well-bred, specially 
trained and larger horses, protected by armor and 
wielding heavy lances, maces and swords, a few 
knights could hold their own against scores of 
infantry. The repeated accounts of seemingly 
miraculous victories or escapes by hopelessly 
outnumbered bands of knights, while likely to be 
exaggerated, preserved a truth."

Staggering from the heat and thirst, the 
chevaliers and their followers fought their way 
across Anatolia and then somehow marshaled the 
resources to mount an eight-month siege of the 
city of Antioch in what is now southern Turkey. 
Buoyed by the supposed discovery of the Holy 
Lance that had pierced Christ's side--in reality 
a piece of metal dug up from beneath the floor of 
an Antiochene cathedral--the exhausted Crusaders 
then turned around and defeated a far larger 
Turkish force sent to relieve the city in June 
1098. They celebrated their triumph in good 
Christian fashion by slaughtering every Muslim 
male within reach and driving lances into the bellies of the women as well.

But Antioch was merely a warm-up. Making their 
way down the coast of present-day Syria, Lebanon 
and Israel, the Crusaders turned inland at the 
town of Arsuf, a few miles north of Jaffa, and 
headed for Jerusalem. After setting up camp, they 
proclaimed a three-day fast and, led by a priest, 
marched barefoot around the city in imitation of 
Joshua at the battle of Jericho. Once the 
fighting began on June 13, 1099, they used mobile 
siege towers constructed by Genoese engineers to 
edge closer and closer to the city walls. After a 
month of dodging arrows and bolts, they finally 
got near enough to throw down planks and leap 
across. Swarming down the ramparts, they 
overwhelmed the city's Jewish and Muslim 
defenders. "The scale of the slaughter," writes 
Tyerman, "impressed even hardened veterans of the 
campaign, who recalled the area [around the 
Temple Mount] 'streaming with blood' that reached 
to the killers' ankles." Jews who fled into a 
synagogue were set ablaze, while "Muslims were 
indiscriminately cut to pieces, decapitated or 
slowly tortured by fire." A few days later, the 
Crusaders ordered Muslim survivors to remove the 
dead bodies clogging the narrow streets and carry 
them outside to be burned. When the Muslims had 
done as they were told, the Christians massacred 
them as well. On July 15, 1099, the victors 
gathered in a local church to give thanks for 
their triumph. "With the fall of the city," one 
participant noted, "it was rewarding to see the 
worship of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulcher, 
the clapping of hands, the rejoicing and singing 
of a new song to the Lord. Their souls offered to 
the victorious and triumphant God prayers of 
praise which they could not express in words."

Turning the other cheek this was not. But, 
contrary to a long tradition of romanticizing the 
Other, Tyerman argues that the slaughter in 
Jerusalem was consistent with the prevailing 
regional standard. "The recent Turkish conquests 
in the Near East had been accompanied by carnage 
and enslavement on a grand scale," he observes. 
"When it suited, Muslim victors could behave as 
bestially as any Christian." A Jewish observer 
noted that, unlike Muslims, Christians at least 
did not rape enemy women before killing them. On 
the other hand, there was nothing in the Islamic 
camp that quite compared with what God's War 
describes as "a daredevil but starving group" of 
Christian warriors known as the Tafurs, who not 
only killed their Muslim opponents but reportedly ate them, too.

One side engaged in mass rape, while the other 
preferred a dash of cannibalism to liven things 
up. Despite wading through blood, both others' 
and their own, the Crusaders were able to 
maintain a grip on Jerusalem a scant eighty-eight 
years before being dislodged by a Kurdish warlord 
named Saladin (who, according to Tyerman, does 
not quite merit the accolades heaped upon him by 
Western xenophiles). Decades of economic decline 
followed in the Crusaders' remaining territories 
up and down the coast. With it came deepening 
disorder marked by, among other things, a vicious 
civil war that erupted in 1256 between Venetians, 
Pisans, Provençals, Templars and Teutonic Knights 
on one side and Genoese, Hospitallers and 
Catalans on the other. Peace was mostly restored 
in 1258, but then Crusader possessions began 
toppling under growing Muslim pressure--Jaffa in 
1268, followed by Tripoli in 1289 and then, in 
one fell swoop, Acre, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, 
Tortosa and Athlit in 1291. Western knights 
continued to gain ground in Spain and Portugal. 
They created a short-lived Latin republic in 
Constantinople in 1204, while participating a 
century later in lavish campaigns against 
Prussian, Livonian and Lithuanian pagans 
complete, according to Tyerman, with "special 
feasts, displays of heraldry, souvenirs and even 
prizes." Yet in the eastern Mediterranean, they 
clearly overshot themselves, traveling too far to 
wrest too little from an enemy that ultimately proved too strong.

What did it all add up to? Not much, according to 
Francis Bacon, who jeered at the Crusades as a 
"rendezvous of cracked brains that wore their 
feather in their head instead of their hat." 
David Hume agreed, calling the campaign to take 
back the Holy Land "the most signal and most 
durable monument of human folly that has yet 
appeared in any age or nation." Despite efforts 
by economic determinists to describe the Crusades 
as a trade war in religious guise, the French 
medievalist Jacques Le Goff once wisecracked that 
the sole economic benefit to derive from them was 
the introduction of the apricot. In fact, 
according to Tyerman, Westerners did not need the 
Crusades to insinuate themselves into the 
economic life of the eastern Mediterranean; the 
region, he writes, was "crawling" with Western 
pilgrims, mercenaries, merchants and pirates 
before they even began. There is simply no 
evidence that the Western economic position was 
any stronger than it would otherwise have been.

So what is the explanation? The Crusades should 
be understood not as a clash between two systems 
but as the product of a Christian-Islamic system 
from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf that was by 
turns competitive and symbiotic. The two halves 
of this system thrusted and parried, advanced and 
withdrew, but also borrowed from each other, 
traded and stole. Inter alia, they used the 
extended warfare between them to reorganize 
themselves politically. Both underwent a process 
of convergence as those at the top tightened the 
controls and marshaled social resources. European 
society grew increasingly uniform from one end of 
the continent to the other with the result, 
according to Fernand Braudel, that a traveler 
would feel "as much at home in Lübeck as in 
Paris, in London as in Bruges, in Cologne as in 
Burgos, Milan, or Venice. Moral, religious and 
cultural values, and the rules of war, love, life 
and death were the same everywhere, from one tier 
to another, whatever their quarrels, their 
revolts or their conflicts." Similarly, growing 
Turkish hegemony in the Middle East led to the 
imposition of a Sunni orthodoxy that was just as 
uniform. In the West, the popes had tried to 
solve the problem of endemic warfare among the 
nobility by "externalizing" it onto the Muslims. 
In the East, Islamic rulers also had to put a 
stop to endemic infighting before dealing with 
Turkish freebooters known as the Khwarazmians, 
and they checked the Mongols at the Battle of 
Homs in 1281 before finishing off the remaining 
Crusaders. By the fourteenth century, they were 
ready to turn the table on the Christians and 
begin marching up the Balkans under Ottoman leadership.

God's War is a long but highly readable account 
of this extensive back-and-forth struggle. It is 
an impressive achievement, a work that manages to 
tie together an extraordinary number of threads 
across nearly half a millennium of European 
history. Although it can be taken as a response 
to Pope Benedict XVI's comments at Regensburg, it 
is more properly read as an extended rejoinder to 
Steven Runciman's classic three-volume History of 
the Crusades, published in the early 1950s, a 
long and colorful account that is nonetheless 
studded with judgments that now seem prejudiced 
and amateurish. Tyerman, by contrast, is never 
amateurish. His knowledge of the period is 
encyclopedic, and his judgments are sharp, astute 
and fair--which is to say unsparing--to both 
camps. He neither vilifies Islam nor engages in 
the easy Euro-bashing that is the obverse of 
Islamophobia. With so many people succumbing to 
subjectivism these days, it is bracing to come 
across a historian who remains resolutely above 
the fray, who insists on viewing the conflict as 
a whole and who always has the broader context in mind.

Not that God's War is entirely free of faults. 
The writing is clear, although on one or two 
occasions it gets bogged down in details. More 
significant is the near absence of anything by 
way of a social or economic dimension. Tyerman 
tells us little about what it was about Western 
Europe that enabled it to project so much force 
at so great a distance. The Third Crusade, 
launched in 1189, for instance, was heavily 
dependent on sea transport, and although Tyerman 
informs us that "the variety of vessels 
available, the certainty of planning and routes, 
the awareness of naval logistics, the distances 
covered and the accurate predictions of timing 
reflected the exponential growth in maritime 
activity and exchange around the coasts of Europe 
in the twelfth century," he doesn't say where 
this exponential growth came from or what 
socioeconomic innovations allowed it to occur. He 
is silent about the uniquely European blend of 
fragmentation and cohesion that led to endless 
political infighting but also to the formation of 
highly effective fighting orders such as the 
Templars and Hospitallers. Thanks to an emerging 
body of corporate law that granted a high degree 
of autonomy and self-governance to such groups, 
Europe was able to create new sources of economic 
and political power that other societies over the long haul could not match.

The same goes for economic productivity, the 
ultimate reason for all those bigger knights, 
bigger horses and weightier armor--Tyerman tells 
us nothing about that either. His discussion of 
the evolution of the Christian doctrine of holy 
war similarly stops short. The problem, 
admittedly, is a difficult one. Despite the 
pacific tone of the Gospels, the Christian 
society that emerged in the Latin West, as 
historian William McNeill once noted, was the 
most heavily militarized on earth, with the 
possible exception of shogun Japan. Indeed, God's 
War recounts the tale of the abbot of St. Germain 
during the Viking siege of Paris in 885-86 who, 
rather than loving his enemies, was said to be 
"capable of piercing seven men with a single 
arrow [and] in jest he commanded some of them to 
be taken to the kitchen." Tyerman trots out the 
usual suspects in explaining where this sort of 
Christian bloodlust came from--not only the 
compromises that church fathers made with state 
power following the conversion of Constantine in 
the early fourth century but also the sacred 
texts that seem to urge more and more, such as 
the Book of Revelation, with its vision of a 
world drowning in blood, and the Old Testament 
tales of murder and mayhem that make the Koran 
seem positively Gandhian. He is quite correct in 
all this, although he might have pointed out that 
Christ had his militant side as well, one he 
revealed when denouncing the rich, or proclaiming 
that he had "not come to bring peace but a sword" 
or, in an especially curious incident outside 
Jerusalem, blasting a fig tree merely because he 
was hungry and it was bare of fruit.

But even if Christ hadn't caused that fig tree to 
wither, it wouldn't have mattered. Even at its 
purest, Christian pacifism reflects a kind of 
inward-directed violence that can all too easily 
be turned in the opposite direction. Given 
Christ's command that "if your right hand causes 
you to sin, cut it off," what is a good Christian 
to do with a sinner causing an entire community 
to go astray? Excommunicate him or burn him at 
the stake? Even more fundamental is the issue of 
revelation itself. Revelation in the Western 
monotheistic tradition is a form of divine 
intervention in which the supreme being makes 
himself known to ordinary mortals. Because such 
visitations are miraculous and hence outside the 
realm of nature, they can't be proven according 
to the normal rules of evidence. Instead, they 
must be taken on faith. What's more, because they 
constitute the greatest events in history, belief 
in them becomes the greatest of virtues while 
disbelief becomes the basest of sins. For that 
reason, the people in the next valley who believe 
in a different revelation can't simply be ignored 
or laughed off--they must be ruthlessly 
suppressed, if not exterminated. Revelation, no 
matter how benign, thus becomes the basis for ceaseless warfare.

This was the ideology at the heart of the 
Crusades. Reason and evidence are forces for 
convergence since they lead to conclusions on 
which most thoughtful people can agree--that the 
earth is round, for instance, that it circles the 
sun, that E=mc² and so on. Faith, by contrast, is 
a force for divergence--or, more precisely, a 
force for convergence and divergence, as entire 
societies are forced to believe in one "truth" 
and then to launch a holy war against those 
believing in another that is equally 
unverifiable. In his talk at Regensburg, Pope 
Benedict XVI complained about "reason which is 
deaf to the divine." God's War is about what 
happens when people are all too alert to voices 
that no one else can hear and are all too 
determined to carry out what they believe to be 
those voices' instructions. The results were 
appalling during the Crusades. It is even more 
appalling that the same habits are now making a comeback. 

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