Thursday 24 March 2016

INVADERS FROM THE STEPPES: Elizabeth Chadwick's notes on a talk by Professor Nicholas Morton about the origins of the Crusades

It's interesting how one things leads to another when researching.

Last month while trawling for information on TEMPLAR SILKS,  my work in progress concerning William Marshal's pilgrimage to the Holy Land,  I came across a paper on the attitudes of the Templar and Hospitaller orders toward the Islamic faith in the 12th century.  Access to the paper was by application to its author, professor Nicholas Morton, senior lecturer in history at Nottingham Trent University.  I duly requested the paper and he was kind enough to reply and agree to my request.  We had an e-mail chat and he was also very helpful in recommending several books that I might find useful to put on my reading pile.
Dr. Nicholas Morton 
Around the same time as this, I picked up a leaflet detailing talks at Bromley House Library - a wonderful subscription library in the centre of Nottingham of which I'm a member. Click here for details.  Bromley House  It was founded in 1816 and this year marks its 200th anniversary.  In celebration there are numerous talks and events taking place.  By sheer serendipity, March's talk was by Nicholas Morton and promised an overview of the Crusades which would 'demonstrate many of the widely held truths that we think we know about the Crusades, and which shape the way that those events are remembered today, are either distorted or wrong.' 

Bromley House Programme cover 

Having made first contact and the subject matter being close to my research at the moment, I went along to meet Nicholas, attend the talk, and see what he had to say.  The below is a very condensed precis of his talk  - and all very interesting because many of the details had not crossed my radar before.  The talk is not a university lecture but one aimed at giving an overview to the switched on general public.


Nicholas began by asking the question 'What do people know about the crusades?'  
The answer in very broad brush strokes is:

1. It was a war against Islam
2. It involved the Holy Grail (raised eyebrows and a smile here) 
3. All crusaders were insincere barbarians motivated by greed.

The above are all highly problematical for various reasons.

Nicholas went on to say that way back, the beating heart of Christianity was not Europe but the Middle East, North Africa and Egypt.  One can follow the rise of Christianity by following the trade routes.  By 900 Western Europe had been Christianised and a key moment for Christianity was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD.

Coming up alongside Christianity was the rise of Islam, starting in the 7th century.  It was a fast conquest and had soon spread from Kabul to the Eastern seaboard.  For the most part it was a religion of the ruling elite. The Islamic top rank were a veneer over numerous other tolerated religions - providing the people of those religions paid their taxes. During the days of their rule in Jerusalem, only 40% of the population was Muslim.  The other 60% were of assorted religeous denominations.  For the most part, the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem in the centuries before the Crusades were accepting of Christians and allowed them to worship and make pilgrimages to their holy places in Jerusalem and round about.  It was in their financial interests to do so.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

But then it all changed.
Professor Morton believes that the crucial moment leading to the first crusade happened in Central Asia. The region was populated by nomadic tribes who depended on its vast sea of grass - The Steppes - for their livelihood.  Mostly the Steppes poeples wandered their prairies with their horses and yurts and didn't cause much trouble to anyone else - that was until they unified.  That was why China built the Great Wall.  The Muslim rulers of the Middle East built large fortresses on their borders to keep the nomads out.  The Huns who brought down Rome were Steppe people.  The Nomads were feared throughout the rest of the world. So what brought them out of their territory and knocking on the world's door? The trigger was a drop in temperature of about 3 degrees in the 11th century and over a period of several seasons.  It meant that the grass on the Steppe stopped growing. The winter grazing was frozen and the nomads had to look elsewhere.  Tens of thousands of them headed south for better grazing.  Among these peoples, their culture meant that every male was raised to fight - 100% of males were warriors,  whereas in other societies it was around 25%. Collectively they became known as the Turks and their religion was shamanistic.

At the time of the Turkish invasion, the Muslim world was in no position to resist because of political wrangles and death and destruction followed the Turkish army in a vast wave. Baghdad fell in 1055 and the Abasid Caliphate was destroyed.  Most of the Muslim world fell to the Turks; only Egypt held out, and Christian Constantinople.  The shamanic Turks adopted the Muslim religon but it was a low and gradual conversion with good evidence for shamanic elements remaining strong in the decades after the conquest and again, the religion had to filter through from the top to the bottom.

Europe began to grow concerned about the new kid on the block when the Turks threatened the pilgrim route to Jerusalem and turned their attention to Constantinople. With the Turks at their gates in 1074, the Emperor sent to ask the Pope for help against their aggressive neighbours.  The Greeks (often called Byzantines)  weren't keen to ask the Pope, but had little choice.  However, the Pope was frying other fish at the time and the pleas fell on deaf ears. The Greeks held out but by 1195 the situation was too dire to be ignored and another plea was sent.  This time, the situation was more favourable in Europe and the response was collossal.  Two crusading armies were raised.  One of 100,000, another twice that size, and this when armies in the Middle Ages were usually around 8,000 people. 
The first army was wiped out en route but the second achieved its goal.

So, why go on crusade?  Why the massive numbers?
Various reasons are suggested in the department of popular notion.

1. People were told there was an enemy out there they had to go and fight because that enemy was dangerous  (politics and self interest).
2.  Lots of lovely wealth and loot.  Get rich quick! (Greed and self interest)
3.  For piety and remission of sins.  (Doing it for God and salvation)

Professor Morton remarked that many of his students plump for ideas one and two and yawn a bit when 3 gets brought into the equation.  The modern mindset has difficult getting its head around religious fire.

The popular view that they were in it for the money re the first crusade doesn't hold water, even if it's promulgated by TV documentaries and films.  If you do a cost assessment you find out that to go on crusade, a man of the knightly class would have to find four times his annual income to go there.  NO ONE came home richer than they set out and only one in four returned at all.  Anyone wanting a quick buck and an easier time of it would be much safer invading Muslim held Spain than marching 2,000 miles without a chain of supply.

So: Why did they go?  Was this a war between Christianity and Islam?

Once the crusade was called there was an upsurge in religious feeling certainly and the first to suffer were the Jews in various pogroms in Europe. Always a popular and easy target - and there on the doorstep.
When the first Christian army reached Constantinople, the Emperor Alexius, who had expected trained fighters and was confronted by a mob, was horrified and forced them out.  Most of them died in Anatolia. The second, more military wave of crusaders with professional fighters and led by princes fared better. That army moved into modern Turkey and took Nicea before moving on to Antioch.  The latter took 9 months to fall.  Eventually the Christian army would go on to take Jerusalem (killing its 3,000 inhabitants)  and create four Christian principalities - Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli and Jerusalem.

During the battles for supremacy in the Middle East of the First Crusade, the locals were at most pleased to see the crusaders, and at the least, indifferent.  They deeply disliked their Turkish rulers and saw it as an opportunity to unseat them.  The Turks meanwhile were undergoing a period of in-fighting and so were not effective in resisting the Christian drive forward.

Only the Turkish leaders followed Islam. The rest as aforementioned were shamanistic as revealed by carved heads on cups, enemy scalps thrust onto spear points, and burials with grave goods.  Although the Turks converted to Islam eventually, it was a long, gradual process. The word 'Muslim' for members of the Islamist religion was not coined until the 17th century. A medieval person would have blanketed the indigenous folk as 'saracens' and would not have made them a specific target.  Professor Morton remarked that the First Crusade is the last in a series of reactions against nomadic invasion from the Steppes. The Crusaders,  like those of the Muslim world and those of the Hindu world or the Chinese were all trying to keep the Turks out.

So, how did the crusaders view the Turks?
They saw fighting the Turkish army as a pragmatic thing they had to do in order to get to Jerusalem. That was all the average Christian crusader needed to know.  Clearing the path to the Holy City was the goal.

Once Jerusalem was in Christian hands another battle for survival began.  All the Europeans had left when everyone went home was about 900 knights for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and around 2,000 up in Antioch.  The Turks had 15,000 at their command, but luckily for the Europeans, the Turks had to deal with rebellions in their own areas - uprisings of non Turkish peoples against their overlords.  The Turks had to spend several decades getting a grip on the situation.

Another reason for the survival of the Crusader kingdom was that they had access to the coast and some great maritime ports with massive incomes in taxes on the export of goods. The income for the city of Tyre was more than the income of France for example.  The crusaders built enormous castles to protect their interests - such as Krak de Chevaliers  which cost more to build than twenty times the annual income of King John.

Sugar, a tremendous luxury item was produced exported to Europe and the Italian merchant cities such as Genoa and Venice grew rich on the trade as they became the umbilical cord between Europe and the Crusader states.  The same for glass and silk. (which still didn't mean the individual who had come to fight got rich!).

Religious military institutions sprang up such as the Templars and the Hospitallers.  Formed initially to minister to the needs of pilgrims, they soon became mighty military and financial institutions with a huge and effective network throughout the Middle East and Europe, especially the Templars whose monetary clout became one of the forerunners of modern banking.  The Templars had over 1,000 houses across Western Europe - receiving centres for alms, gifts and supplies.
Interior of the Temple Church London.

Was called in response to the fall of the Principality of Edessa.  Islamification of the general populace had been continuing gradually, and was gathering momentum, as well as the notion of Jihad and military attention was being increasingly brought to bear on the Crusader states.
However the 2nd Crusade proved to be a military disaster and very little came of the effort.

Continued to harness Jihad aggressively but as much against branches of his own religion as Crusaders.  He invaded and took over Egypt where the population followed Islam in the Shia tradition as opposed to Saladin's Sunni.  He spent 33 months in war against his fellow Muslims and 11 months fighting the Christians.  By taking Egypt and by conquests elsewhere he was able to make the Turks the legitimate leaders of the Islamic world and encircle the Crusader states. His first attempt to do so in 1177 saw him very nearly wiped out in battle by the young leper King of Jerusalem Baldwin IV, but ten years later, with Baldwin dead, Saladin succeeded in destroying the armies of the Crusader kingdom at the Battle of Hattin and soon after that Jerusalem fell - leading to the call for the third Crusade.

This is where Professor Morton's lecture ended as he only had an hour to cover the ground and had to leave question time too.  Although told in very broad brushstrokes, the talk covered new areas for me, especially in the origins of the First Crusade.  It was also a reminder not to take anything at face value and that even when ground has been covered several times, a fresh turning of the soil will always reveal hitherto hidden seeds that if nurtured will grow into plentiful food for thought.  I shall certainly be buying Nicholas Morton's monograph on the above subject when it comes out.

 Nicholas Morton's  page from Nottingham Trent University.

History Girl Elizabeth Chadwick is a best-selling author of historical fiction set in the Medieval period and a member of the Royal Historical Society.  Her next novel detailing the later years of Eleanor of Aquitaine and titled The Autumn Throne will be published in September.


Sue Purkiss said...

This is fascinating, and it makes me realise how little I know about the Crusades. I had no idea about the origin of the Turks, for instance. The version of the Crusades I learnt about as a child was that the heroic Christians went to drive out the wicked infidels: since then, it's swung round and I had the impression of a mob of thugs going off to attack the wise and cultured Saracens.

One thing - I'm a bit confused about the Saracens. Were they the same as the Turks? I think I could do with a map, and a nice simple children's book!

Sally Zigmond said...

Absolutely fascinating, Elizabeth. In view of the current situation in Europe, it'd about time we had clear information about the early origins of Islam and some common sense all round. Time and time again. misinformation and ignorance fuel warfare and prejudice.

Thank you so much for letting some fresh air flow into the history I thought I understood.

Jean Gill said...

Really interesting. Such a clear presentation of the swing in presentation of the goodies/baddies in the Crusades. Now we can have the Christians AND the Saracens (and the Jews) as the goodies, and the Turks as the baddies :)

I had no idea that the Turks were shamanistic, nor about the climate change. I did know they were a thorn in everybody's side but the (Christian) Byzantine Emperor used them nicely to get rid of much of the (Christian) German army en route to the 2nd Crusade. Emperor Komemnos was not happy with the damage done by the crusader armies (Franks and Germans) when they crossed his lands and encouraged the Holy Roman Emperor to take his Germans directly into Turkish ambushes. Rumour says he might even have paid the Turks...