A Flippant History of the Crusades – Prelude

Welcome to my new series exploring history in a fairly lighthearted way! A detailed treatise this is not, but rather a general gloss of the periods and events covered with a (hopefully) humorous twist. My aim is to give you enough of an introduction to peak your interest enough to delve deeper into the serious stuff and look into the fascinating details that make up the history, if you so wish.

My interests tend not to lie with modern history (though that may change in future), so I suspect most of these will end up being pre-20th Century periods. This also helps avoid the tricky line between humour and respect when dealing with recent history and those who lived it, or have loved ones who did. While time and distance should not lessen the human experience or suffering, as people we will always be more affected by those we can identify with than those we cannot and I have no desire to make light of such matters while there are still those around in living memory to be hurt by it. Apologies to any erstwhile time travellers who feel I have disrespected your time period, I promise it comes only from a good place. I mean if we can’t laugh at ourselves as a species what are we even doing here?

The first series I’m beginning is covering the Crusades, unsurprising given the topic matter on this blog thus far! To begin with, I thought I’d provide a little context to the world before the initiation of the First Crusade. This will be a fairly rapid march through a few centuries of history, future entries will be a bit more focused on shorter time spans. I suspect this will have a somewhat western-centric approach, mostly due to the fact that that most of the resources available to me in English will have a western perspective. Anyway…

Islam exploded out of middle east in the 7th century and quickly rampaged its way across the Mediterranean, conquering everything from Morocco to Afghanistan before butting up against the Byzantines in the East and switching direction towards Spain and Italy. An Umayyad Caliphate commander called Tariq led a raid into Iberia that accidentally turned into a full-blown conquest. They named a mountain after him, Gibraltar in modern parlance.

The Franks suddenly realised they had some new neighbours that weren’t particularly friendly towards them when the Moors (as they were calling them, because Muslims was too hard to say) came knocking on their door with twenty thousand armed men. Thankfully the Franks had a secret weapon in the shape of Charlie Hammer, who crushed the invaders at the Battle of Tours. A generation later, his Great1 grandson took the fight to Spain, got nowhere fast and turned around to go home. There’s a famous song about the last stand of one of his knights, Roland, and how the entire army got badly bloodied by some Basque hill tribes during the retrea….backwards advance.

Meanwhile, other Islamic forces started scooping up islands in the Mediterranean and into southern Italy, because… why not? The Italian island of Sicily became a major Islamic stronghold from which Western Europe could be threatened. The Europeans as a whole were not fans of this.

Eventually, the Islamic invaders got into difficulties with the Germans (calling themselves the Holy Roman Empire) in the north and the Byzantine Greeks (calling themselves the Romans to add to the confusion) in the east. Some Norman mercenaries, fresh from conquering everything they laid eyes on (it wasn’t just Billy the Bastard2 you know), realised that there were some fine pickings to be had in Italy. They called in their buddies, mostly from the Hauteville family under the leadership of Bobby the Weasel and went on to build the Italo-Norman Kingdom in Southern Italy and Sicily. From here, they were able to start fighting those pesky Greeks to the east who dared to think they had claims over lands that the Normans could see just because they’d ruled them for a few centuries. Fools.

Back in the east, the nomadic Turks, gradually coalescing into a single force known as the Seljuks, turned up in a weakened and fractured Anatolia asking “Where’s the Rum3?”

They found it

The Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, feeling the Turks eyeballing him from their newly conquered capital of Nicaea, went to the Pope for help. “Papa, old buddy, old pal, how are things in the West these days? I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye but you’re an urbane4 fellow and we’re all good Christian brothers so I don’t suppose you could ask your western barbar…good Christian knights to come and fight the Turks for us? I mean, help us fight them, because we obviously have a great and powerful army, we just need a little help from our friends to take back Nicaea. Now I’m not saying we’ll give up our Orthodox ways and turn Catholic or anything but…you never know…”.

Pappy Urbanus thought this a marvellously good idea and went straight to his old stomping ground of France to preach to the feisty Franks, whipping them up into a frenzy by suggesting they take up an armed pilgrimage against the infidels who were polluting the Holy Land with their heathen presence. Oh and Nicaea, they had to take back Nicaea for the Greeks, then ONWARDS TO JERUSALEM! GOD WILLS IT! DEUS VULT! And other such stirring incitements to mass violence.

There were a few mutterings of approval from the crowd, but someone chirped up with the ever present question in any call to action… “What’s in it for us?”. The Pope thought for a moment, then with a smile and an expansive gesture declared “Why you’ll be forgiven all of your sins of course…even those you haven’t committed yet!”. The crowd went silent for a moment while the implications of this sank in then erupted in roars of approval.5

The Pope began handing out cloth crosses to be sewn to the clothes of all those who swore to bear arms to the Holy Lands and so many took the cross that the priests in attendance had to tear up their own vestments to make sure there were enough to go around. A little free sinning was too good an offer to pass up. Word started to spread across western europe and more and more took up the cross in a mass outpouring of religious fervour.

This fervour spread out like wildfire amongst the less noble sorts of the Frankish and Germanic peasantry, helped along by a couple of popular preachers known as Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, who whipped up a storm among the populace. These peasants led by preachers set off in different groups on their own pre-crusades armed with more faith than sense or weapons. They had a merry old time raping and pillaging their way across (Christian) Central/Eastern Europe and slaughtering a few thousand innocent Jews for good measure. After a bit of a minor war with the (Christian) Hungarians over the price of a pair of shoes6, they arrived at the gates of Constantinople (not Byzantium), and ate the Emperor out of house and home until he managed to ship them off in the direction of the enemy.

After the French peasants had a bit of a laugh pillaging the outskirts of Nicea, though not making any real effort to conquer it, the Germans took a side track to the castle of Xerigordos, which they promptly seized, got counter-sieged by the Turks and were reduced to drinking donkey blood and urine before giving themselves to conversion or slaughter at the hands of the Turks. The remaining forces marched on through northern Anatolia until at the Battle of Civetot they came up against a force of Turks with horses and bows and weapons that haven’t previously been farming implements. The pre-Crusaders quickly realised that faith isn’t much help against a face full of arrows. Sadly, they came to this conclusion much too late to avoid the inevitable bloodshed. A handful of survivors limped home, but the People’s Crusade was finished.

Over the next year, the minor nobility of Western Europe mortgaged their holdings, sold what they could and raised the funds to mount a mighty expedition to the Holy Lands. The upper echelons of nobility, being too busy with the business of fighting each other and looking after their kingdoms and duchies, took a rain check on the armed pilgrimage and left it to their lesser Barons and knights to do the heavy lifting.

Among those nobles a few clear leaders emerged at the heads of four different armies. It was August 1096 and the First Crusade had begun7 .


1Charles the Great, or Charlemagne,  was Charles Martel’s (the Hammer) grandson, not his great grandson.

2Or William the Conqueror as he’s sometimes known.

3Cause the Rumans…eh Romans? Greeks? Byzantines? lived there. So it must be Rum/Rome right?

4Pope Urban II

5It probably didn’t actually happen like this. There were likely many genuinely devout people who felt it was a holy calling, and the theology of remittance of sins through action had been building up in the background for a while. On the other hand, human nature doesn’t ever really change…

6I’m not even making this up.

7They weren’t known as Crusaders, those marked with the cross, until much later. At this time they were just pilgrims…with swords.

Images from http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/asmin/xanatolia10711517.html, https://sites.google.com/a/ehschools.org/global-9/unit-2/11-islamic-world/11-1-rise-of-islam, http://www.crusadesandcrusaders.com/2013/01/16/prominent-figures-of-the-first-crusade/, general image googling and Wikipedia.

3 thoughts on “A Flippant History of the Crusades – Prelude

  1. Very enjoyable read, you seemed to hit all the high (and low) notes based on my own very very fractured recollections. Like your ebullient style.


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