The Crusades were a series of wars instigated by a Pope (Urban II), fought by nobility and peasants alike, and were ended by a combination of apathy and the Black Death (plague). Within these three events lies enough stupidity to furnish an entire solar system with enough contradictions that not even the Laws of Nature could control the resultant damage.
In order to understand the impact of stupidity on the series of Christian jihads known as The Crusades it will first be necessary to understand the impact of stupidity on the events that would lead to developments in Medieval Europe.
Europe had become a relatively tranquil place following the collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire as the previously vassal French states became independent countries with reasonably stable borders; along with the conversions of the Vikings (north) and the Magyars (east) to Christianity. This meant that the warrior class, which had been a vital asset in more unstable times, now had nothing better to than to fight among themselves or to raid (read “rape and pillage”) the inhabitants of the territories controlled by neighboring kingdoms. In regards to the latter outlet for the aggressive tendencies of the otherwise unemployed knights and their hangers-on, campaigns against non-Christians in general and Jews in particular were always in vogue, with occasional forays against the Muslim-occupied areas of Spain running a close second in popularity.
Things, however, were not quite as pleasant in the Christian Byzantine Empire to the east. On that side of the Mediterranean Sea the last remaining outpost of Christianity, the city of Constantinople, was in danger of being overrun by the Moslems after an ill-advised move against and a spectacular defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikurt in 1071 AD. The Orthodox Christian Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius I Comnenus, upon realizing the he was in danger of being used for target practice by the Turks sent an urgent message to his arch-rival in the west, Pope Alexander VII, asking that a number of milites Christi (Knights of Christ) be sent to 1) protect the western flank of Christianity from the Infidel Moslems and 2) keep his royal ass out of the Islamic frying pan.
Pope Gregory forwarded this plea for assistance, with his half-hearted endorsement, to the various kingdoms of Europe where it went largely ignored for several years; until his successor in the Shoes of Saint Peter, Urban II, revived the idea of chasing the Moslems from the Holy Land in general and Jerusalem in particular by declaring a military campaign dedicated to that purpose with the justification for said military campaign being “Deus Le Volt!” (“God wills it!”) Far from being the organized military operation envisioned by Urban II, what became historically known as the First Crusade promptly degenerated into mass confusion throughout Europe as not just the knights and nobility prepared to head east to do battle with the Turk but so did just about everyone else. As a result, the First Crusade was composed of several “mini-crusades” that led to “maxi-disasters.”
The first of these “mini-max” Crusades was led by a charismatic (although none too smart) orator known to history as Peter the Hermit who, at the head of an “army” of some 100,000 men, women, and children (none of which knew the slightest thing about fighting a war) set off across Eastern Europe in the summer of 1096 in the general direction of Constantinople. Being unfamiliar with the logistics of a military campaign they, of course, had forgotten that would have to eat and find food for their families. When the “host” countries refused to feed this large band of transients, the “crusaders” looted the landscape in the name of the Pope and Jesus Christ. This invocation of divine authority went unrecognized by the Hungarians, the Bulgarians, and even the Byzantines. As result of such raiding followed by reprisal, Peter lost about 25 % of his followers but did manage to reach Constantinople by the end of that summer.
To the north, in , a long-standing anti-Semitic feeling exploded as an army of about 10,000 German knights marched into the RhineRiverValley (which happens to be in the opposite direction as Constantinople) and began a series of pogroms against Jews and anyone else that did not fit the currently accepted definition of Christian. The resultant bloodbath has been called the “First Holocaust” by some historians in recognition of its near-decimation of the Jewish population of the Holy Roman Empire. Having taken care of the “non-Christians” with their “Northern Crusade,” the Germans then headed south to investigate rumors of even larger populations of Jews and Moslems needing to be massacred in order to preserve the One True Faith.
Meanwhile, back at the gates of Constantinople the Emperor Alexius, who had asked for a few knights to bolster his defensive forces, was not at all happy to see 75,000 essentially useless people who were being joined by armies composed of a few more of his traditional enemies such as the Normans, French, and Italians. Alexius, knowing that the mob had its collective heart set on defeating the Seljuk Turks, ferried the armies of Peter the Hermit and the other foreign commanders across the Bosporus, pointed them south, wished them luck, and promptly retired to the safety of his castle. The Peoples’ Crusade ended with the wholesale slaughter of its participants by the Seljuk Turks.
Now, lest you think that all this was nothing more than a full-blown disaster led by a bunch of incompetents, let us now observe the third major army to get become involved in the First Crusade, a composite army of Normans, Frenchmen, Burgundies, and a few Italians that came to be known as the Princes’ Crusade. This relatively well-led army arrived at Alexius’ doorstep in December, 1096. And, if Alexius I had been wary of the first mob that had shown up expecting to be hailed as heroes, he was mortified that such a large and competent army was now encamped outside the city gates. But, with this new army, Alexius had a bargaining chip: at least his army knew the territory and the route to Jerusalem while the visiting team didn’t.
Alexius, as his part of the subsequent bargain, agreed to send a Byzantine Army to accompany the Europeans and the combined armies set out for Jerusalem by way of a few minor cities that were to be taken by siege.
The first intended siege victim was to be Nicaea, of Nicaean Creed fame. The planned siege proved to be impractical in that Nicaea sat on a lake by which it could easily be reprovisoned. Fearing that the European Christians would sack the city (and thus deprive the Byzantine Christians of their “fair share” of any wealth plundered), Alexius cut a secret deal with the Seljuk defenders, who allowed his forces into the city under cover of darkness. The following morning the Europeans awoke to find Byzantine banners flying from the city’s battlements and themselves barred from entering the city itself (except in small groups and only then when escorted by Byzantine soldiers). With a firm distrust, and general disliking for each other, the combined Byzantine and European forces set out for Jerusalem once again.
After a few near-disastrous run-ins with the various Muslim armies that were usually fighting among themselves when not slaughtering aimlessly wandering bands of idiots calling themselves Crusaders, the combined Byzantine and European armies finally made it to Jerusalem in May of the year 1099, approximately some 3 years after leaving Constantinople.
In typical Crusader fashion, they promptly laid siege to the walled city in an attempt to starve the inhabitants (which were composed of essentially equal numbers of Moslems, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox Christians) into surrender, a situation with which the inhabitants were already familiar, having surrendered to the Seljuk Turks only the year before. And, also in typical Crusader fashion, there were more casualties among those outside the city walls than among those within. Things were looking rather bad for the visiting team when, for some reason or another, a monk named Peter Desiderius claimed that if the Crusader army were to march barefoot around the city walls that Jerusalem would fall on the 9th day following.
The Crusaders, having been unable to come up with a more viable strategy of their own, took Peter’s advice and stirred up the dust with their bare feet. But, not wanting to inconvenience God with such a petty matter as razing the walls of Jerusalem, the Crusaders built a few siege towers with which they managed to breech the walls on the afternoon of July 15, 1099 and spent the next few days celebrating their victory by slaughtering practically the entire population of the city.
In purely military terms, the capture of Jerusalem should have put an end to the matter but, since stupidity grows geometrically and common sense increases only arithmetically, this is not even close to what eventually happened.
The conquering Crusaders, being Europeans, began to argue among themselves about such matters as who had possession of which holy sites and under what conditions and the ever-popular dispute about who had shown the greatest amount of valor and/or the least amount of cowardice in the previous campaigns. This led the Seljuks to bide their time while waiting for the almost guaranteed breakup of the already tenuous alliances within the Christian ranks. When this alliance did break down, the Seljuks wasted no time in recapturing the city. News of this event, of course, was not well-received back in Rome and caused another Pope (Eugenius III) to put the pressure on the rulers of France (Louis VII) and the Holy Roman Empire which, by that time was neither Roman or Holy, to stop fighting among themselves long enough to bring Jerusalem back into the Papal fold.
The French and German kings took personal command of their armies and headed east, where they were also regarded with a high degree of distrust by the new Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I. The European armies entered Seljuk territory by different routes and were soundly defeated by the Muslims. The kings, and the few surviving knights, managed to make it to Jerusalem where they promptly proclaimed a great victory before vanishing from the scene. The Seljuks, having perfected the technique of waiting for the Christian alliances to self-destruct, sat back and watched while the Holy City degenerated into anarchy before moving back into control again. This, of course, led to the call for yet another Crusade, which we now call the Third Crusade and the temporary rise to prominence of one of the most overrated figures of medieval history in the person of King Richard .
Largely due to the efforts of Sir Walter Scott to endear himself to the English book reading snobs of the early 19th century with his 1819 publication of Ivanhoe and the subsequent inability of Hollywood scriptwriters to distinguish fact from fiction, our picture of “Richard the Lion-Hearted” is totally opposite of what the historical record reveals. We think of Richard as the young and daring King Richard, champion of the True Faith, friend of Robin Hood (another fictional person), and leader of the Third Crusade. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Richard was an overtly homosexual French (Norman) snob that never bothered to learn to read or speak English, got his royal butt kicked by Saladin during the Third Crusade and, while hurrying home with his tail between his legs managed to get himself kidnapped by the Germans and held for a huge ransom. This is where it starts to get really interesting, because Richard’s antics would have an effect on English (and American) law until well into the 20th century.
Richard had left his brother, Prince John, in charge of what had been a pretty prosperous England before heading off to Jerusalem and figured that it would remain in that state of prosperity until he got back home. The problem was that John was a bigger disaster at ruling than Richard was at being a disaster of a military commander and had partied the country into insolvency and was unable to raise the money needed to get his brother out of the German’s hands. So Prince John, having learned at least one thing about running a country, started taxing everything in sight. And if that wasn’t enough, he appointed a new round of officials whose duty was to make sure that everyone was doing more than their fair share. These tax collectors were installed in every town in the country and were known as shire-reeves. Then John had an even more brilliant idea: he would impose a harsh tax on any village in which a Norman had been slain (this is less than a century after William the Conqueror had defeated the Saxons at Hastings, so there was still a fair bit of Norman-killing going on). Once this tax had been imposed, villagers were not above knocking off a Norman and dragging his body off to be dumped in another village that would, in turn, get hit with the tax. This tax was called a murdrum. And just to make sure that his shire-reeves weren’t getting too greedy and keeping the taxes for themselves, he appointed supervisors, known as “Keepers of the Royal Pleas,” or koroners.
And to this day, the murder is assumed to have occurred where the body is found and, in many states, the coroner is the only person with the legal authority to arrest the sheriff.
And now, back to our Crusades.
With idiots like Richard I running loose in the Holy Land, the Moslem recapture of Jerusalem was pretty much a guaranteed thing which in turn, you guessed it, led to the Fourth Crusade some 10 years later.
The Fourth Crusade has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the textbook model of how not to win a war. Someone, no one is really sure who, had decided that since the first three crusades had been ineffective and since the first three crusades had passed through Constantinople, thing to do was avoid the obvious jinx that was being placed on the European armies by avoiding Constantinople and first attacking Egypt before sweeping to the northeast and recapturing Jerusalem.
It is a fundamental fact of warfare that stupid plans are invariably carried out by stupid commanders, something the Europeans had in abundance. And when you throw in a Pope that thinks he’s a commander you have all the necessary ingredients for yet another crusade that was doomed from the outset. In fact, Pope Innocent III’s call for yet another crusade went largely ignored at first because the French and the English had decided that it was much more cost effective to fight each other at home than halfway around the then-known world and the Germans were fighting with the Pope. But eventually enough minor rulers and their equally minor knights signed onto the plan to hit first. The only snag in the plan was how to get to .
The Europeans, in a rare moment of insight, figured that the only way around the problem of crossing the Mediterranean Sea was by ship. And, at this point in history, the only place with the resources to build and man a fleet big enough to transport 35,000 men and 5,000 horses was the city-state of Venice. The Venetians agreed to this gigantic project by shutting down the city’s commercial activities for the year required to build such a fleet but made one minor error in the process: they didn’t get the money first. When the crusader army couldn’t pay the bill presented for the Venetian’s service, the Venetians simply held them hostages on the island of Lido. But the Doge of Venice had come up with a plan that would satisfy everyone. All the crusaders had to do was attack and defeat the city of Zara, which had once been under Venetian control but was now beginning to make itself known as a commercial rival. Now enters Pope Innocent III.
Innocent, being from a family that was not particularly fond of Venetians to begin with, made his displeasure with the Doge’s plan known in a letter in which he threatened to excommunicate anyone who participated in an attack on Zara. The Doge’s henchmen intercepted the letter and managed to keep it from the crusaders until after they had taken Zara. Innocent kept his word on the matter by excommunicating the crusaders and the entire city of Venice.
While all this was going on Alexius, the recently deposed crown prince of Constantinople had cut a deal with Venetians under which he would pay the crusader’s bills with the Venetians in exchange for the crusaders reinstalling his father and himself to their former positions in Constantinople. The crusaders were understandably reluctant to attack another city of fellow Christians but their clergymen managed to convince them that, since they were Eastern Orthodox Christians, they were just as good a target as any and the fleet diverted to Constantinople. The problem with this plan was that the residents of Constantinople didn’t particularly want Alexius or his father back on the throne, a fact that was not known to the crusaders and Venetians until they arrived at the city gates.
The crusaders were now mad as Hell and decided that, since they had come this far, they would put Alexius back on the throne whether the citizens wanted him there or not. This they promptly did and, as a bonus, sacked and burned Constantinople. Thus came and end to the Fourth Crusade in particular and the sport of crusading in general. There would be other crusades, but they would be directed by minor league players while the Europeans elected to stay home, fight each other, and persecute Jews.
The Crusades are a perfect example of why going to war over religious doctrines are the ultimate example of “Stupidity of Biblical Proportions.” The Moslem government was perfectly happy to allow an unlimited number of pilgrims into the Holy Land as long as those pilgrims paid a small tax. Then along comes a Pope with more prayers than common sense and calls for a Holy War because his chief competition in the religious disputes (the Orthodox Christian Emperor of Constantinople) wants a little help in dealing with a local dispute.
The ensuing carnage manages to accomplish nothing of any value to the Christians, creates unrelenting hatreds that have yet to be fully resolved, and alters the course of history in Europe.
And still no one is willing to admit it was a really stupid idea in the first place.