Post-classical history


On 27 November 1095, in the town of Clermont in central France, Pope Urban II stood up to deliver one of the most electrifying speeches in history. He had spent the previous week presiding over a church council attended by twelve archbishops, eighty bishops and other senior clergy, before announcing that he wanted to give an address of special importance to the faithful. Rather than speak from the pulpit of the church in Clermont, Urban decided to deliver his words in a nearby field so all who had gathered in anticipation could hear him.

Nestled at the heart of a chain of dormant volcanoes, with the mightiest of the lava domes, the Puy-de-Dôme, clearly visible just five miles away, the Pope had chosen a spectacular setting for his sermon. The crowd strained to hear him as he began to speak on a cold winter’s day: ‘Dearest brethren,’ he said, ‘I, Urban, supreme pontiff and by the permission of God prelate of the whole world, have come in this time of urgent necessity to you, the servants of God in these regions, as a messenger for divine admonition.’1

The Pope was about to make a dramatic call to arms, on the point of urging men with military experience to march thousands of miles to the Holy City of Jerusalem. The speech was intended to inform and to provoke, to exhort and to anger; to generate a reaction of unprecedented scale. And it did precisely that. Less than four years later, western knights were camped by the walls of the city where Jesus Christ was crucified, about to take Jerusalem in God’s name. Tens of thousands had left their homes and crossed Europe, spurred on by Urban’s words at Clermont, determined to liberate the Holy City.

‘We want you to know’, the Pope explained in his speech at Clermont, ‘what sad cause has brought us to your land and what emergency of yours and all the faithful it is that has brought us here’. Disturbing news had reached him, he said, both from Jerusalem and from the city of Constantinople: the Muslims, ‘a foreign people and a people rejected by God, had invaded lands belonging to Christians, destroying them and plundering the local population’. Many had been brutally murdered; others had been taken prisoner and carried off into captivity.2

The Pope graphically described the atrocities being committed in the east by the ‘Persians’ – by which he meant the Turks. ‘They throw down altars, after soiling them with their own filth, circumcise Christians, and pour the resulting blood either on the altars or into the baptismal vessels. When they feel like inflicting a truly painful death on some they pierce their navels, pull out the end of their intestines, tie them to a pole and whip them around it until, all their bowels pulled out, they fall lifeless to the ground. They shoot arrows at others tied to stakes; others again they attack having stretched out their necks, unsheathing their swords to see if they can manage to hack off their heads with one blow. And what can I say about the appalling treatment of women, which is better to pass over in silence than to spell out in detail?’3

Urban did not mean to inform the crowd which had gathered, but to galvanise it: ‘Not I but God exhorts you as heralds of Christ to repeatedly urge men of all ranks whatsoever, knights as well as foot soldiers, rich and poor, to hasten to exterminate this vile race from our lands and to aid the Christian inhabitants in time.’4

The knighthood of Europe should rise up and advance boldly as warriors of Christ and rush as quickly as they could to the defence of the Eastern Church. A battle line of Christian knights should form and march to Jerusalem, driving out the Turks on the way. ‘May you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in the city where he died for us.’5 God had blessed the knights of Europe with an outstanding ability in battle, great courage and strength. The time had come, he said, for them to make use of their powers and avenge the sufferings of the Christians in the east and to deliver the Holy Sepulchre to the hands of the faithful.6

The various accounts of what Urban said at Clermont leave little doubt that the Pope’s speech was an oratorical masterpiece, his exhortations carefully weighted, his gruesome examples of Turkish oppression perfectly chosen.7 He went on to describe the rewards awaiting those who took up arms: whoever made the journey east would be eternally blessed. All were encouraged to take up this offer. Crooks and thieves were urged to become ‘soldiers of Christ’, while those who had previously fought against their brothers and kinsmen were told to now join forces and fight lawfully against the barbarians. Whoever went on the journey, inspired by their devotion rather than for the love of money or glory, would receive remission of all their sins. It was, in the words of one observer, ‘a new way to attain salvation’.8

The response to Urban’s speech was rapturous. Up went the cry: ‘Deus vult! Deus vult! Deus vult!’ – ‘God wills it! God wills it! God wills it!’ The crowd listened intently to hear what the Pope would say next. ‘Let that be a war-cry for you in battle because it came from God. When you mass together to attack the enemy, this cry sent by God will be the cry of all – “God wills it! God wills it!”’9

Many who heard the Pope’s speech were gripped by enthusiasm, hurrying home to begin preparations. Clerics dispersed to spread the word, while Urban undertook a gruelling schedule, criss-crossing France to promote the expedition, dispatching stirring letters to regions he did not have time to visit. Soon all of France was abuzz with crusading fever. Leading noblemen and knights hurried to join the expedition. Men like Raymond of Toulouse, one of the richest and most powerful figures in Europe, agreed to participate, as did Godfrey, Duke of Lorraine, who was so eager that before setting out, he minted coins bearing the legend ‘GODEFRIDUS IEROSOLIMITANUS’ – ‘Godfrey the Jerusalem pilgrim’.10 News of the expedition to Jerusalem spread quickly and excitedly.11 The First Crusade was under way.

Four years later, in early July 1099, a battered, bedraggled yet supremely determined force of knights took up position by the walls of Jerusalem. The holiest location in Christendom was about to be attacked and seized from the Muslims. Siege engines had been built and were ready for action. Solemn prayers had been offered. The knights were about to achieve one of the most astonishing feats of endeavour in history.

The ambition of the First Crusade stemmed in part from the scale of the enterprise. In the past, armies had marched long distances and defied the odds to make sweeping conquests. The campaigns of the great generals of antiquity, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Belisarius, showed how vast tracts of territory could be swallowed up by well-led, disciplined soldiers. What made the Crusade different was the fact that the western force was not an army of conquest but of liberation. At Clermont, Urban did not urge the knighthood of Europe to seize places as they journeyed east, benefiting from the resources of newly conquered towns and regions; rather, the aim was to free Jerusalem – and the churches of the east – from the oppression of the so-called pagans.12

Things had not proved quite so simple, however. The journey across thousands of miles had brought terrible suffering and hardship, countless casualties and enormous sacrifice. Of the 70,000–80,000 soldiers of Christ who had responded to the Pope’s call, no more than a third reached Jerusalem. Urban’s envoy, travelling with the main Crusade leaders and writing back to Rome in the autumn of 1099, put the ratio of survivors to those lost in battle and disease well below this, suggesting that fewer than ten per cent of those who set out ever saw the walls of the Holy City.13

Pontius Rainaud and his brother Peter, ‘most noble princes’, for example, were murdered by robbers after travelling from Provence through northern Italy and down the Dalmatian coast; they did not even make it halfway to Jerusalem. Walter of Verva got considerably further when he went out to forage for food one day with a band of fellow knights near Sidon (in modern Lebanon). He never came back. Perhaps he was ambushed and killed; maybe he was taken prisoner and sent as a captive deep into the bowels of the Muslim world, never to be heard of again; or perhaps his end was altogether more mundane: a missed step by a heavily laden horse on mountainous terrain could easily have fatal consequences.14

There was Godevere, a noblewoman who chose to accompany her husband, Count Baldwin of Bouillon, on his journey east. She fell ill near Marash (in modern Turkey) and faded quickly, her condition worsening daily before she slipped away and died. This English-born aristocrat was laid to rest in an obscure and exotic corner of Asia Minor, far away from home, in a place her ancestors and kinsmen would never have heard of.15

Then there were others, like Raimbold Cretons, a young knight from Chartres, who reached Jerusalem and took part in the assault on the city. He was the first knight to scale the ladders that had been placed against the walls, no doubt striving for the kudos heaped on the first man to break into the city. But Raimbold’s ascent had been watched by a defender of the fortifications who was no less eager, and who dealt him a blow that took one arm clean off and severed the other almost completely; Raimbold at least survived to witness the fall of Jerusalem.16

And then there were the men whose mission ended in glory. The great leaders of the First Crusade – Bohemond, Raymond of Toulouse, Godfrey and Baldwin of Bouillon, Tancred and others – became household names all over Europe as a result of the capture of the Holy City. Their achievements were commemorated in countless histories, in verse and song, and in a new form of literature: medieval romance. Their success was to provide the benchmark for all later Crusades. It was a tough act to follow.

The First Crusade is one of the best-known and most written-about events in history. The story of knights taking up arms and crossing Europe to liberate Jerusalem enthralled writers at the time and has thrilled historians and readers ever since. Tales of astounding heroism, of the first encounters with the Muslim Turks, of the hardships suffered by the armed pilgrims on their journey east – ending with the bloody slaughter of the population of Jerusalem in 1099 – have echoed through western culture for nearly a thousand years. Imagery and themes from the Crusade proliferated in the music, literature and art of Europe. Even the word ‘Crusade’ itself – literally, the way of the Cross – came to take on a wider meaning: a dangerous but ultimately successful quest by the forces of good against evil.

The First Crusade captured the popular imagination because of its drama and violence. But it was not just theatre: the expedition has held its grip on the west because it shaped so much of what was to come: the rise of papal power, the confrontation between Christianity and Islam, the evolution of the concepts of holy war, knightly piety and religious devotion, the emergence of the Italian maritime states and the establishment of colonies in the Middle East. All had their roots in the First Crusade.17

Not surprisingly, literature on the subject continues to flourish. Although generations of historians have written about the expedition, a remarkable school of modern scholars has produced outstanding and original work over the last few decades. Subjects such as the marching speed of the Crusader army, its provisioning and the coinage it used have been examined in detail.18 The interrelationship between the main narrative western sources has been looked at, recently provocatively so.19 In the past few years, attention has turned to understanding the apocalyptic backdrop to the expedition to Jerusalem and to the early medieval world in general.20

Innovative approaches to the Crusade have been taken: psychoanalysts have suggested that the knights who went to Jerusalem were looking for an outlet to relieve pent-up sexual tension, while economists have examined supply/demand imbalances in the late eleventh century and explored the expedition in terms of the allocation of resources in early medieval Europe and the Mediterranean.21 Geneticists have assessed mitochondrial evidence from southern Anatolia in an effort to understand population movements in the late eleventh century.22 Others have pointed out that the period around the Crusade was the only time before the end of the twentieth century that GDP outstripped population growth, the implication being that there are parallels to be found between medieval and modern demographics and economic boom.23

And yet, in spite of our perennial fascination with the First Crusade, remarkably little attention has ever been paid to its real origins. For nearly ten centuries, the focus of writers and scholars has been on Pope Urban II, his rousing speech at Clermont and the galvanising of the knighthood of Europe. However, the catalyst for the expedition to Jerusalem was not the Pope, but another figure entirely: the call to arms issued by Urban was the result of a direct appeal for help from the emperor of Constantinople, Alexios I Komnenos, in the east.

Founded in the fourth century as a second capital from which the Roman Empire could govern its sprawling provinces in the eastern Mediterranean, the ‘New Rome’ soon became known as the city of its founder, the emperor Constantine. Constantinople, nestled on the western bank of the Bosphorus, grew to become the largest city in Europe, adorned with triumphal arches, palaces, statues of emperors and countless churches and monasteries built in the centuries after Constantine adopted Christianity.

The Eastern Roman Empire continued to flourish after the western provinces faded and ‘Old Rome’ fell in the fifth century. By 1025, it controlled most of the Balkans, southern Italy, Asia Minor as well as large parts of the Caucasus and northern Syria, and it had expanding ambitions in Sicily. Seventy years later, the picture was rather different. Turkish raiders had swarmed into Anatolia, sacking several important cities and severely disrupting provincial society. The Balkans had been subject to decades of near incessant attack, with much the same consequences. The empire’s territories in Apulia and Calabria, meanwhile, had been lost altogether, taken by Norman adventurers who conquered southern Italy in less than two decades.

The man who stood between the collapse of the empire and its salvation was Alexios Komnenos. An outstanding young general, Alexios had not inherited the throne, but seized it in a military coup in 1081 at the age of around twenty-five. His first years in power were uncomfortable as he struggled to deal with the external threats facing Byzantium while at the same time imposing himself over the empire. As a usurper, lacking the legitimacy of power through succession, Alexios took a pragmatic approach to secure his position, centralising authority and promoting close allies and members of his family to the most important positions in Byzantium. But by the mid-1090s, he was losing his political authority and the Byzantine Empire was reeling from violent incursions on all sides.

In 1095, Alexios sent envoys to Urban II, with an urgent message. Finding the Pope at Piacenza, they ‘implored his lordship and all the faithful of Christ to bring assistance against the heathen for the defence of this holy church, which had now been nearly annihilated in that region by the infidels who had conquered her as far as the walls of Constantinople’.24 Urban reacted immediately, declaring that he would head north, to France, to gather together forces to aid the emperor. It was this appeal from Alexios that triggered the First Crusade.

Although the arrival of Byzantine ambassadors is regularly noted in modern histories of the First Crusade, what the emperor was asking for – and why – has been glossed over. As a result, the Crusade is commonly seen as the Pope’s call to arms; as Christian soldiers fighting their way to Jerusalem in the name of the Lord. This, certainly, is what the story became, almost as soon as the knights stood on the walls of the city in 1099, and it has been almost uniformly adopted by writers, artists, film-makers and others ever since. But the true origins of the First Crusade lie in what was happening in and around Constantinople at the end of the eleventh century. This book will show that the roots of the expedition lay not in the west but in the east.

Why did Alexios request help in 1095? Why did he appeal to the Pope, a religious leader, without significant military resources of his own? Following a poisonous falling-out between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054, why was Urban willing to provide assistance to the emperor in the first place? Why did Alexios wait till 1095 to make his plea for support when the Turks had made themselves masters of Asia Minor in 1071, after the disastrous defeat of the Byzantine army at the battle of Manzikert? In short, why was there a First Crusade?

There are two reasons why the history of the Crusade has been so distorted. First, after the capture of Jerusalem a powerful school of history writing in western Europe, dominated almost exclusively by monks and clerics, went to great lengths to stress the centrality of the role played by the Pope in conceiving the expedition. This was in turn reinforced by the creation of a string of Crusader states in the Levant based on Jerusalem, Edessa, Tripoli, and above all on Antioch. These new states needed stories that explained how they came to be under the control of western knights. In the case of both the origins of the Crusade and its aftermath, the role of Byzantium and of Alexios I Komnenos were extremely inconvenient – not least since many successes of the Crusaders came at the Eastern Roman empire’s expense. It suited western historians to explain the expedition from the perspective of the papacy and the Christian knighthood, and to leave the eastern emperor to one side.

The second reason for the heavy focus on the west stems from the problems of the historical sources. The Latin sources for the First Crusade are well known – and are wonderfully juicy. Narrative accounts such as the anonymous Gesta Francorum provide one-sided reports of the personal bravery of individuals such as the heroic Bohemond on the one hand, and the skulduggery of the ‘wretched’ Emperor Alexios, scheming to outdo the Crusaders with his cunning and fraud on the other. Authors like Raymond of Aguilers, Albert of Aachen and Fulcher of Chartres provide no less lively and opinionated guides to an expedition which saw the competing egos of its leaders clash repeatedly, and where duplicity and treachery were regular features. They record conflicts where success frequently flirted with disaster; they report how morale plunged as the heads of captured knights were catapulted into the Crusaders’ camp during the sieges of towns; they note their horror at priests being suspended upside down over city walls and beaten to antagonise the westerners; they tell of noblemen cavorting with lady-friends in orchards, ambushed and gruesomely executed by Turkish scouts.

The primary sources from the east, by contrast, are more complex. The problem is not the quantity of material, for there are a great many accounts, letters, speeches, reports and other documents written in Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew and Arabic that offer precious glimpses into the prelude of the Crusade. The issue, rather, is that these have been much more poorly exploited than their Latin counterparts.

The most important and difficult of these texts from the east is the Alexiad. Written in the middle of the twelfth century by Alexios’ eldest daughter, Anna Komnene, this account of the emperor’s reign has been both misused and misunderstood. The text, written in florid Greek, is full of nuances, allusions and hidden meanings that are easily overlooked. In particular, the chronological sequence of events provided by the author is often unreliable: events are frequently misplaced, split into two or duplicated.

Writing nearly five decades after the episodes she describes, Anna Komnene can be forgiven for making occasional mistakes about the order in which events happened – a point the author herself acknowledges in the text: ‘As I write these words, it is nearly time to light the lamps; my pen moves slowly over the paper and I feel myself almost too drowsy to write as the words escape me. I have to use barbaric names and I am compelled to describe in detail a mass of events which occurred in rapid succession. The result is that the main body of the history and the continuous narrative are bound to become disjointed because of interruptions. Let those who are enjoying the text not bear me a grudge for this.’25

The image of the historian crouching over a script, working late into the night, is an emotive and charming one; but here it is a literary device, as is the author’s crafted apology about her mistakes, a standard disclaimer used by the writers from classical antiquity whose works provide a template for the Alexiad. In fact, Anna Komnene’s work is extremely well researched, drawing on an impressive archive of letters, official documents, campaign notes, family histories and other written material.26

While some problems of the Alexiad’s chronology have been identified by scholars, a great many have not. This in turn has led to major errors in the commonly accepted sequence of events that took place in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos. The most significant of these concerns the state of Asia Minor on the eve of the Crusade. The picture presented by Anna Komnene’s account is misleading; in fact, careful re-evaluation of the Alexiad – taken together with other source material – reveals startling conclusions that differ radically from long-accepted views. In the past, it has been assumed that the Byzantine emperor sought military assistance from the west to undertake an ambitious and opportunistic reconquest of Asia Minor from a position of strength. The reality was very different. His call for help was a desperate last roll of the dice for a ruler whose regime and empire was teetering on the brink of collapse.

The fact that the situation in Asia Minor on the eve of the First Crusade has not been properly understood in the past is highly significant. The knights were heading east to take on the Turks, a formidable enemy, who had brought the Byzantine Empire to its knees. Originally part of the Oguzz tribal confederation which Arab historians located to the east of the Caspian Sea, the Turks were a steppe people whose military prowess gave them increasing influence over the caliphate in Baghdad as it fragmented in the later tenth century. From the 1030s, not long after their adoption of Islam, the Turks were the dominant force in the region, less than a generation later becoming masters of Baghdad itself after their leader, Tughril Beg, was appointed sultan with full executive powers by the caliph.

Their progress westwards was relentless. Raids soon began on the Caucasus and Asia Minor, causing disruption and provoking panic among the local population. The Turks could move quickly and seemingly without trace on squat central Asian horses whose strength and stamina made them well suited for the mountainous terrain and steep ravines of this region; they were ‘swift as eagles, with hooves as solid as rock’, according to one source. The Turks reportedly attacked those they came across like wolves devouring their food.27

By the time of Urban’s speech at Clermont, the Turks had demolished the provincial and military administration of Anatolia that had stood intact for centuries and captured some of the most important towns of early Christianity: places like Ephesus, home of St John the Evangelist, Nicaea, the location of the famous early church council, and Antioch, the original see of St Peter himself, were all lost to the Turks in the years before the Crusade. Little wonder, then, that the Pope pleaded for the salvation of the church in the east in his speeches and letters in the mid-1090s.

The context of the First Crusade is to be found not in the foothills of Clermont or in the Vatican, but in Asia Minor and in Constantinople. For too long, the narrative of the Crusade has been dominated by western voices. But the knights who set out in high expectation in 1096 were reacting to a developing crisis on the other side of the Mediterranean. Military collapse, civil war and attempted coups had brought the Byzantine Empire to the edge. It was to the west that Alexios I Komnenos was forced to turn, and his appeal to Pope Urban II became the catalyst for all that followed.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!