During a hot and humid June in 1202, nearly twelve thousand Crusaders camped on the Lido of Venice, preparing to board a fleet of some four hundred major vessels bound for Egypt. They had taken the vow of the Cross many months earlier and had traveled from their homes across Western Europe to the city of the lagoons. Enthusiasm for their mission helped the warriors endure the heat and mosquitoes, for they had high hopes that they would soon disrupt Muslim power in Egypt and thereby restore Jerusalem to Christian control. But there was a rather large problem. During the preparations, the leaders of the Fourth Crusade (as it would come to be known) had contracted for a fleet and provisions sufficient for 33,500 Crusaders. Those hundreds of vessels and tons of foodstuffs now stood ready for departure. But the army that assembled in Venice was only a third of that projected size, which meant that the Crusaders lacked the funds to fulfill their contract with the Venetians. It was this colossal error in planning that would force the Fourth Crusade hopelessly off course. Rather than ejecting the Muslim rulers of Egypt and the Holy Land, the Crusaders ultimately sailed to Constantinople, the greatest Christian city in the world, and destroyed it.
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Few scholars today could match Tyerman’s knowledge of the Crusades.
Perhaps the leaders of the Fourth Crusade should have read Christopher Tyerman’s new book, How to Plan a Crusade,and thus avoided their many problems. Actually, strike that. For despite its tongue-in-cheek title, this book is not a how-to, but a how-it-was. Spanning four centuries of crusading, it attempts to lay out the methods and practices that Europeans employed to prepare for their holy wars. With so broad a topic, the book is naturally thematically arranged, taking up the justification, propaganda, recruitment, finance, and logistics of crusading. It is, of course, a massive undertaking. Yet Tyerman is thoroughly equipped to tackle it, for there are few scholars today who could match his breadth of knowledge regarding the Crusades.
The book begins, however, by introducing a few straw men. The Crusades, it claims,
have been portrayed as inept, failures of conception and implementation, hare-brained, feckless, extravagant mirages built on wishful thinking, not strategic reality, inspired by solipsistic cultural nostrums, not military or logistic common sense, and cheered on by self-serving religious sophistry. Crusade armies may have comprised men accustomed to war but, the legend insists, they were led by commanders whose self-regarding vanity, meretricious ideology, or greed were matched only by the absence of sound military intelligence or technological competence, the blind leading the deluded. What follows argues that in almost all respects this image is false.
The modern manifestations of this “legend” are unclear, and Tyerman offers no guidance for his reader. It is certainly true that the Crusades are frequently mischaracterized today. In popular media they are generally described as brutal wars of colonialism and religious zealotry waged by cynical connivers and pious thieves. Yet, it is difficult to conjure many modern works that describe the main body of Crusaders as loopy or careless idealists, marching off to the East without a thought for preparations.
In any case, a study of this caliber really needs no foil. It is filled to the brim with rich descriptions of the intricate planning and preparations that Europeans conducted before their Crusades. Every page teems with medieval rulers, warriors, saints, and sinners. The sheer weight of the events and the swarms of examples found in this work are astonishing. But a book such as this could also pose a problem. From its first pages it assumes a deep familiarity with medieval Europe in general and the Crusades in particular. For those who can meet that entrance requirement, a rich experience awaits. Others, however, may quickly find themselves cast adrift upon a sea of exacting prose sloshing noisily with vibrant erudition. Names, events, and concepts come and go with little exposition. Medieval Crusade enthusiasm, for example, is compared to “the ‘terror’ of 1064 that inspired mass pilgrimages towards Jerusalem or the revivalist ‘Great Alleluia’ in Lombardy in 1233 down to la GrandePeur in France in the summer of 1789.” Readers who nod their heads knowingly at these examples will be right at home in this study. Others may wish to master the main events, people, and chronology of medieval Europe before attempting this dense book.
A banquet of information about the complex nature of Crusade preparations is laid out before the reader in successive courses. Tyreman energetically (and rightly) argues that medieval people were just as rational as modern people, albeit with less access to information. Medieval military leaders used reason and experience to raise funds, collect provisions, and muster troops. As one of the first major works on the logistics of crusading, this study carves out an important place in the historiography of the movement. It is an extremely solid piece of scholarship, serving as a capstone to decades of research by scholars worldwide into the practical side of religious warfare. In that regard, it is a real achievement.
One of the first major works on the logistics of crusading.
Given its temporal and topical scope, the thematic structure of the book also makes good sense. Yet it has some drawbacks. Events from the eleventh and twelfth centuries are often pureed with those in the fourteenth and fifteenth. The centuries that separated the First Crusade, though, from the Crusade of Varna, brought enormous changes in the European political, military, and cultural landscapes—changes that often disappear in this work. This homogenization of periods is particularly surprising for Tyerman, who in an earlier piece of scholarship, The Invention of the Crusades (1998), argued that Crusades before 1200 were so unlike those that came after that these earlier iterations could not be considered crusades at all. The other bane of thematic approaches is repetition, although Tyerman largely avoids this by the sheer number of historical examples he offers. We do, of course, see rather a lot of Gerald of Wales. And Bernard of Clairvaux’s contrast between malitia and militia Dei is punned repeatedly, with diminishing returns.
In the book’s last section, “Grand Strategy,” Tyerman seeks a wider plan for the Crusades and, ultimately, finds none. For a time the conquest of Egypt filled that need, yet it proved impossible to capture and was valued by Europeans only for its assurance of safe passage to Jerusalem. Tyerman wisely concludes: “Western Europeans seeking Jerusalem represented a strategic nonsense. Only as a religious exercise could it be justified.” This could not be more correct. The Crusades must be the only movement in history that witnessed many thousands of warriors marching thousands of miles deep into enemy territory for no good strategic reason. Although most Crusaders hoped for plunder, it was not the impetus for the war. Plunder was available in abundance much closer to home. They marched because they believed that God called them to right terrible wrongs against His people, and that he would reward them for their service both in this life and in the next.
It is all the more surprising, then, that the religious preparations for the Crusades are only occasionally considered here. Tyerman explores crusader motivations and the techniques of crusade preaching, yet has little to say about the prayers, fasting, processions, and liturgies that supported the holy wars. Some of the most exciting new scholarship on Crusades today has mined the copious medieval devotional literature to better understand how prayers were organized to promote success in God’s wars. From a medieval perspective, it was the prayers of Christians that brought victory to the Crusaders, for it was only God who could bestow that victory upon them. While Tyerman is right to point out the rational practicality of Crusade planners, it would be a mistake to conclude that they did not believe their successes lay within the providence of God. This strong, very medieval belief fills virtually all the Crusade chronicles and memoirs. When Crusaders won, it was always God’s doing. When they lost, it was divine punishment for their sins. How Crusaders planned to acquire divine support is, therefore, a vitally important part of the story.
Tyerman is a virtuoso with the English language. He marshals his expansive vocabulary to paint a rich picture of the backstage activities of the crusading endeavor. There are a few discordant genuflections to modern pieties. For example, St. Bernard’s support for a crusade against Baltic pagans is described as “racism,” while Crusade preachers are regarded as “misogynist” for noticing that women occasionally opposed their husbands’ decisions to crusade. Yet these are the exception, not the rule. Tyerman rejects the anachronistic modern characterizations of the Middle Ages as a time of irrationality, and offers up the Crusades—the longest and most ambitious project of medieval Europe—as proof of his thesis. It is utterly convincing.
And so, despite the title, this book will not help readers plan a Crusade—which is a good thing. For those with a firm grasp on medieval history, though, this erudite book will reveal some of the extraordinary preparations undertaken by western Christians in the Middle Ages to support their many Crusades. And that too is a very good thing.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 63
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