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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Poor Prisoner -- The Fate of Those Not Ransomed

The custom of ransom ensured that medieval battlefields were not as deadly as they might otherwise have been. Because a vanquished enemy could be held for ransom, killing the defeated ran counter to the self-interest of the victors. The prospect of turning a captive into gold by selling him back to his family curbed the swords of many a medieval fighting man -- but only as long as the defeated was likely to possess sufficient wealth to make it worth the trouble of keeping him around and negotiating the ransom. Today Dr. Schrader looks at the fate of those not able to command ransom.
Not everyone one who fell into the hands of an enemy was in a position to pay a ransom. Members of the militant orders, for example, were prohibited from offering ransom as they were expected to die a martyr's death for their faith. This, as much as hatred and fear of them, explains why Saladin ordered the execution of all Templar and Hospitaller prisoners after his victory at Hattin. Likewise, archers and other infantry were generally considered too poor to pay and were therefore not given the option. In the West they were either killed on the battlefield or mutilated to make them unfit to fight again -- which, of course, also had the effect of making them unemployable and so condemned them to a life of beggary. During the Hundred Years War, for example, it became customary for the French to cut off captive the bow finger(s) of captive English archers -- leading allegedly to the modern custom of "showing the middle finger" (bow finger) as a gesture of defiance and contempt. 

In the East, however, where slave-holding societies dominated the landscape, captives not deemed worthy of ransom were more likely to be sold into slavery than killed or mutilated. The custom of selling prisoners-of-war as slaves gave even men of no means a monetary value that discouraged their victors from executing them outright. In slave-owning societies, furthermore, there were many uses for the kind of able-bodied, young men, who made up the largest portion of manpower in medieval armies. Slaves have been used since antiquity particularly in construction, stone-quarrying, and mining, for example, but also in agriculture and industry. We should not forget that almost all of Athens' magnificent pottery was made by slaves. 

For civilians captured when a city fell to siege or when the rural countryside was over-run, the fate was death or slavery. Elderly or sick people, who could not be expected to become productive slaves, were usually slaughtered immediately. Very small infants, who required care and feeding before they could become productive, were likewise butchered at once. Generally, only children over the age of five or six were deemed capable of working and so worth sparing. The uses for child-slaves were diverse. Because of their small hands, for example, they are considered particularly good at basket weaving and carpet making.

Women, of course, were primarily used in sexual slavery. The following passage from Imad ad-Din, one of Salah ad-Din's secretaries and author of a biography of Salah ad-Din describes the fate of the civilians unable to pay a ransom after the surrender of Jerusalem in 1187.
There were more than 100,000 persons in the city, men, women and children. The gates were closed upon them all, and representatives appointed to make a census and demand the sum due. ... About 15,000 were unable to pay the tax, and slavery was their lot; there were about 7,000 men who had to accustom themselves to an unaccustomed humiliation, and ... dispersed as their buyers scattered through the hills and valleys. Women and children together came to 8,000 and were quickly divided up among us, bringing a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations. How many well-guarded women were profaned, how many queens were ruled, and nubile girls married, and noble women given away, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept in private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered, and lovely women's red lips kissed and dark women prostrated, and untamed ones tamed, and happy ones made to weep! How many noblemen took them as concubines, how many ardent men blazed for one of them, and celibates were satisfied by them, and thirsty men sated by them, and turbulent men able to give vent to their passion. How many lovely women were the exclusive property of one man, how many great ladies were sold at low prices, and close ones set at a distance, and lofty ones abase, and savage ones captured, and those accustomed to thrones dragged down!
As this passage makes clear, female prisoners would be raped at capture and then either pimped by the men to whose lot they fell or sold to a slave trader for cash, who could sell them again to an individual master as a sex slave or to a brothel for the use of thousands. The practice is still the norm in ISIS controlled territory.

Older and ugly women and worn-out sex slaves could then be re-cycled for other uses such as serving in houses, cooking, cleaning, looking after the children, the sick or aging, or could even be employed in heavy labor such as construction and industry until they collapsed and died.

The appalling fate of Christian captives in Saracen slavery is a major theme in Envoy of Jerusalem.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ransoms - A Essential Feature of Medieval Warfare

Following the battle of Hattin, the knights and noblemen who had surrendered to Saladin’s forces were held for ransom and would later be released.  The idea is quite alien to many modern readers, so today Dr. Schrader steps back to examine the tradition and its impact on medieval warfare.

The concept of ransom dates back to classical times, but during the Early Middle Ages it fell into disuse and we hear little about ransoms. By the mid-11th century, however, they were back in fashion, and from the mid-12th century to the end of the 15th they were a dominant feature of warfare.  Although they have since disappeared from Western warfare, the criminal custom of capturing people for ransom still persists in some parts of the world such as Latin America and Nigeria. In Western Europe, the age of ransoms was the High Middle Ages, when ransoms constituted a fundamental aspect of warfare. Without them, the very course of European history would have been different.  Without them, captured kings like Richard I of England and John “the Good” of France might have been killed rather than held for ransom. Indeed, the custom of allowing a captive to buy his freedom altered many aspects of warfare itself.

It worth noting, however, that the tradition of ransom was strongest in France. It spread with French influence to England and the Holy Land, but was not so well established in the Holy Roman Empire or Iberia. Interestingly, the Saracens either had an independent tradition of ransom (and if someone knows about this please leave a comment!) or rapidly adopted the “Frankish” custom because it was so highly lucrative. The Arabs were, after all, very good businessmen and traders, and ransoms were first and foremost a financial transaction.

In the French/English tradition, ransoms were a means of enriching oneself, and the rules of tournaments reflected this by dictating that a captured knight had to surrender his horse and armor to his captor. It was the lure of loot as much as the hope for fame and honor that produced the “tournament circuits” of the 12th to 14th centuries, where knights traveled from tournament to tournament like modern-day professional athletes. But the fortunes made on the tournament fields were a pale imitation of what “real” ransoms could bring.

A man taken in battle by his enemy was completely at the mercy of the victor, and the stakes were impossibly high; the victor was within his right to slaughter or (if non-Christian) enslave his opponent. The custom of ransom dramatically decreased casualties, because the prospect of financial gain greatly increased the proclivity of victorious fighting men to show mercy toward those who surrendered to them. This had the unfortunate side-effect, of course, of making the lives of wealthy men more valuable than the lives of the poor. As a result, throughout the High Middle Ages there was a tendency for those of a class deemed good for ransom to escape death, while their less fortunate followers paid the price of defeat with their lives.

But ransoms were not fixed and so not immutably tied to rank and title. They were always negotiable, and a rich merchant’s son — assuming he had enough time to describe the size of his father’s purse to his erstwhile murderer — stood as good if not a better chance of being granted the privilege of ransom than a poor knight. Ransoms were always based on what a man (or his family) could pay quite simply because there was no point in setting a price that one could not hope to collect — unless the real intent was to ensure the captive could never again raise arms against you.  

Every castle had its gloomy, windowless places...
Had Philip II of France, for example, held Richard the Lionheart captive instead of the Holy Roman Emperor, it is probable that he would have set demands intended to keep Richard in a dungeon for the rest of his life.  Likewise, the ransom set for John “the Good” of France after he was captured at the Battle of Poitiers was dictated far more by the political advantage of denying the French a rival king to Edward III than by thoughts of monetary gain. Except where kings and important nobles were at stake, however, ransoms were generally dictated by a captive’s ability to pay.

By which, of course, I do not mean the captive himself, for he was just that — held captive. Ransoms were usually raised by a captive’s relatives — parents, wives, siblings, children. If they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) scrape together the funds needed, then the appeal would go to cousins and in-laws, anyone who might have money and care enough for the captive to contribute to the cause. Lucky men, who enjoyed the respect of those more powerful and wealthy than themselves, might also be ransomed by their feudal overlord. Examples of this were the payment of Aimery de Lusignan’s ransom by King Amalric, or William Marshal’s ransom by Queen Eleanor. In the case of captive kings and barons, of course, they did not have to rely on the generosity of those that loved or respected them. They could demand contributions from their subjects, vassals and tenants.

Usually a man was held in captivity until the ransom was paid, and conditions varied. Some men enjoyed comfortable “house arrest,” able to interact with the household and even family of the man to whom they had surrendered. Others were kept locked in a single room, even a dungeon. In the worse cases, prisoners were kept chained to the walls of their prison until the ransom was paid.  On rare occasions, a man (of high rank generally) might be freed on parole in order to enable him to better collect the sum owed. Famous cases of this were Baldwin of Ramla, who was released by Saladin after payment of only a small portion of the enormous ransom set, and Bertrand du Guesclin, who the Black Prince paroled so he could raise his ransom. The former talked the Byzantine Emperor into paying the outstanding portion of his ransom, and the latter raised his ransom from the King of France, Louis d’Anjou and Henry of Trastamare.   

While the payment of a ransom could financially ruin a man and his family, ransoms could make the fortune of those fortunate enough to take a valuable prize.  At the Battle of Poitiers, English and Gascons almost tore the French king apart in their eagerness to lay claim to his ransom. Desmond Seward describes the situation like this in his history of the Hundred Years War ( The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1445, Macmillan, New York, 1978): 

[King John] was recognized and surrounded by a great crowd of soldiers anxious to take so fabulous a ransom. Although he surrendered to a knight of Artois, he was still in peril, for the brawling mob of Gascons and English began to fight for him. Finally he was rescued by the Earl of Warwick and Lord Cobham, who took him to the Prince [of Wales].

Few men had a share of a king’s ransom, but as long as a man was on the winning side, it was possible to accumulate a small fortune from the ransoms of lesser men. Ransoms more than plunder was what made the Hundred Years War so lucrative for England — and impoverished France. The latter was in part due to the fact that because a ransom was a reflection of a man’s ability to pay, it was also indirectly a reflection of his “worth.” The English soon learned that it was to their advantage to let French captives name their own ransoms because pride often induced the prisoners to name ransoms suited more to their self-image than the size of their pocketbook.  Even the Black Prince used this tactic when setting the ransom for Guesclin; the latter named the huge sum of 100,000 francs, something he could not possibly have raised from his own resources, hence the resort to the King of France et. al. 

Yet common as ransoms were throughout the High Middle Ages, they remained a privilege not a right. The Knights Templar, for example, explicitly prohibited their members from paying ransoms. A Knight Templar was expected to die for Christ and find salvation for his soul in that act of martyrdom. This may have contributed to the Saracen tendency to slaughter captured Templars and Hospitallers; they had no monetary value and so eliminating them sooner rather than latter made sense.

Normally, however, it was the circumstances in which the victor found himself, not the ideology of the captive, that determined whether a ransom would be accepted or not. In the heat of battle, many soldiers were overcome by “blood lust” that utterly obliterated their greed for gold. Or, when the battle was not one between mercenaries but between true adversaries, fighting men might simply hate their opponents too much to be willing to grant mercy. There were also times when commanders made a strategic decision to kill prisoners. A famous case in point here was Henry V’s order to kill the French prisoners taken at Agincourt. Underestimating the demoralizing effect of his initial successes, Henry V felt he needed every Englishman on the frontline, ready to repel the next attack by the still numerically superior French, making him unwilling to spare men to guard the prisoners.

Even more significant, however, is that by the Wars of the Roses commanders were beginning to prefer annihilation of the enemy’s ability to fight over the profit gained from ransoms. It is a clear indicator of the increasing hatred between the rival factions for the English throne that Edward IV allegedly told his soldiers to “kill the lords and spare the commons.” Edward IV recognized that the commons might not pay monetary ransoms, but they were his subjects and he gained nothing by killing them. The rebellious lords, on the other hand, were the threat to his throne.

In the subsequent century, as warfare became increasingly tied to religion and kings became increasingly despotic, the notion that an opponent might be allowed to live in exchange for a payment of money became discredited. Ransoms became anachronistic and eventually disappeared from the customs of Western warfare altogether.   

Ransoms feature in a number of episodes in Dr. Schrader's award-winning trilogy set in the late 12th century as well as in The Last Crusader Kingdom.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Battle of Hattin: A Crushing Defeat of Christendom

 On July 4, 1187, the feudal army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was defeated by the forces of Saladin.  It was one of the most significant disasters in medieval military history.  Christian casualties at the battle were so enormous that the defense of the rest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem became impossible. In consequence, the defeat at Hattin led directly to the loss of the entire kingdom including the city of Jerusalem itself. Today Dr. Schrader provides a short analysis of the battle and its significance.

Medieval Depiction of the Battle of Hattin, July 4, 1187

The importance of Hattin to contemporaries was not just the magnitude of the defeat, but the unexpectedness of it.  In retrospect, the Muslim victory seems inevitable. Muslim states had always surrounded the crusader kingdom (as they hem in Israel today) and the Muslim rulers had always been able to call on much larger military forces than their Christian opponents.  In the early years of Latin presence in the Holy Land, the divisions among the Muslim leaders, most especially the rivalry and hatred between Shiite Caliphate of Cairo and the Sunni Caliphate of Baghdad, had played into Christian hands.  However, once Saladin had managed to unite Syria and Egypt under a single, charismatic leader the balance of power clearly tipped to the Muslims. 

However, Christian armies under Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and Richard I of England defeated Saladin on the battlefield more than once.  Saladin was a powerful, charismatic and clever commander, who knew how to deploy his forces effectively and use terrain to his advantage — but he was not invincible. Indeed, he was dealt a defeat every bit as devastating as Hattin in November 1177 at the Battle of Montgisard. His invading army was annihilated, and he himself had to flee on the back of a pack-camel. In July 1182, the Christian army under Baldwin IV stopped another full-scale invasion by Saladin, forcing him to withdraw across the Jordan with comparatively few Christian losses. In June the following year, 1183, the Christian army confronted yet another invasion on an even larger force and again forced Saladin to withdraw — this time without even engaging in an all-out battle.

Despite these apparent successes, it was clear to the King of Jerusalem that Saladin was getting stronger with each new invasion attempt.  Saladin had increased his own power base from Cairo and Damascus to Aleppo, Homs, and Mosul, while the Christians had no new infusions of blood, territory or income. In consequence, in 1184 Baldwin IV sent a frantic plea to the West, begging for a new crusade and offering the Western leader — whoever he might be — the keys to the kingdom. The lack of response reflected Western complacency about the threat to Jerusalem and implicit confidence in the ability of Baldwin and his barons to continue to defeat Saladin’s attempts to push the Christian kingdom into the sea.

It was because of Baldwin’s earlier successes against Saladin, that the news of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem shocked the West, allegedly causing the immediate death of Pope Urban III. How was it possible that a young and vigorous king, Guy I, could lead the same army to defeat that a youth suffering from leprosy (and only commanding his armies from a liter) had led to victory again and again?  

Rarely in human history has a defeat been so wholly attributable to poor generalship on the losing side as at Hattin. To be sure, Saladin set a trap for the Christian armies. The bait was the citizens and garrison of Tiberius under the command of the Countess of Tripoli, who were besieged in the citadel after the fall of the city on July 2. 

The Christian army was mustered at Sephorie, only some 15 miles to the west. The pleas for help from the Countess and Tiberius naturally evoked a response from the Christian army, most notably her four grown sons.  But the Count of Tripoli himself warned that it was a trap and opposed the decision to go to the aid of his wife and Tiberius. Tripoli’s reasoning convinced the majority of his peers and the council of war composed of the leading barons agreed to stay where they were and force Saladin to come to them. However, the Grand Master of the Temple went separately and secretly to King Guy after the council dispersed and convinced him to order the advance for the following day. In short, although warned, King Guy took the bait.

To relieve Tiberius, the Christian army had to cross territory that was at this time of year devoid of fodder for the horses and where water sources were widely dispersed. With Saladin’s forces already occupying the springs at Cafarsset on the southern route from Sephorie to Tiberias, the Christian had no choice but to follow the northern track. Intense heat and harassment by the enemy slowed the Christian march to a crawl, and by noon on July 3, the Christian army had advanced only six miles to the springs of Turan.  With nine miles more to go, it was clear the army could not reach Tiberius before nightfall and prudence alone should have dictated a halt at Turan, where men and horses could rest and drink. Instead, King Guy, against all reason, ordered the advance to continue. Immediately, Saladin sent his troops to occupy Turan, thereby not-only blocking the Christian retreat but harassing the Christian rear-guard and further slowing the rate of advance.

A depiction of the Christian army advancing toward Hattin carrying the “True Cross”
from the film “The Kingdom of Heaven”

When darkness fell on July 3, the Christian army was still six miles short of its objective and forced to camp in an open field completely surrounded by enemy forces.  The Christians had been marching and fighting for hours without water in the intense heat of a Palestinian summer. Men and horses were exhausted and further demoralized by the sound of Saracen drums surrounding them and the countless campfires advertising the enemy’s strength.

By morning, those fires were brush-fires intentionally set ablaze to windward of the Christian army in a maneuver that dried their already parched throats further while half-blinding them with smoke. Out of the smoke came volleys of arrows, and again “some of the Christian lords” urged King Guy to charge Saladin’s position at once, in an attempt to win the battle by killing the Sultan.  King Guy instead chose to try to march the entire army toward the springs of Hattin, still some three miles away and cut off by one wing of Saladin’s army.

While the Frankish cavalry tried to drive off the Saracens in a series of charges, the infantry stumbled forward until, half-blinded by smoke, constantly attacked by the enemy and near dying of thirst, their morale broke.  As casualties mounted, some of the infantry retreated up the slopes of the “horns” of Hattin, two steep hills that flanked the plane on which the army had camped and now marched. They refused to fight any more. 

Meanwhile, the Count of Tripoli with his knights and Lord Reginald of Sidon finally broke-through the surrounding enemy, charging east toward the Lake of Tiberius.  The Christian infantry that had not fled up the slopes tried to follow in the wake of the cavalry, but the Saracens under the command of one of Saladin’s nephews stepped aside to let the armored knights through and then closed ranks again, cutting off the Christian infantry that was cut down or taken captive.

By now it was late afternoon, and with the infantry either already slaughtered or refusing to come down from the hilltop, King Guy ordered his knights to retreat up the slope as well. At this stage, many of the knights were fighting on foot because their horses had been killed after the infantry cover was withdrawn.  It was probably at this point in the battle that the relic, believed to be a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified, was lost. The Bishop of Acre, who had been carrying it, was killed. The loss of this most precious relic — believed to have brought victory in dozens of earlier battles was devastating to Christian morale.

The final stages of the Battle of Hattin as depicted in the film “The Kingdom of Heaven”

But still, King Guy did not surrender.  The few knights who were still mounted made one (or two) last desperate charge(s) to try to kill Saladin, who was mounted and clearly identifiable among his troops.  One of these charges was probably lead by Balian d’Ibelin. One charge came close enough to Saladin for him to have to shout encouragement to his men.  While Ibelin and his knights were able to cut through the enemy, like Tripoli before them, they enemy rapidly closed ranks behind them.  They found they had no means of fighting their way back up-hill to relieve the infantry. Within minutes, King Guy’s last position was over-run and he along with most of his barons were taken prisoner.

Of the roughly 20,000 Christian soldiers who had set out from Sephorie, only an estimated 3,000 infantry managed somehow to escape into the surrounding countryside and eventually take refuge in the castles and walled towns then still in Frankish hands. Of the 1,200 knights and barons that mustered for the battle, only four barons, Tripoli, Sidon, Edessa, and Ibelin, escaped capture along with maybe 100 - 200 knights. The remainder including the King of Jerusalem, the Masters of the Temple and Hospital, the Constable Aimery de Lusignan, the Lords of Oultrajourdain, Toron, Gibelet, and others — effectively the entire nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were taken captive. While the majority of these lords and knights were held for ransom, the 230 Templars and Hospitallers that survived the battle were executed at Saladin’s orders. 

Medieval painting of prisoners being led away (here by a Christian king)

Hattin is a major episode in the second book of my Balian d'Ibelin trilogy, "Defender of Jerusalem." The ebook is on sale for just $4.99 through July 4, 2016Buy Now!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Review: Ronnie Ellenblum's Seminal Work on Crusader Society

At the start of each month, Real Crusades History brings you a review of a book relevant to the crusades and crusader states.  Today, Dr. Schrader presents one of the most important academic studies of the last half-century. 
Sadly hidden behind a prosaic title and colorless cover (both of which probably discourage many readers) is one of the most important books on crusader society available today.
In this seminal work, Ronnie Ellenblum, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, challenges the assumptions of prominent 20th-century scholars concerning the composition and character of crusader settlement and society.  He bases his startling conclusions on meticulous (indeed tedious) study of legal documents recording the demarcation and/or sale and settlement of disputes over landed property combined with an intensive archaeological survey of the region north of Jerusalem. 
The insights provided here about settlement patterns, the degree of integration with the local Christian inhabitants and segregation from the Muslim population, the sophistication of the agricultural techniques employed, and the levels of conversion to Islam are all invaluable insights that no one interested in the crusades or the Holy Land in the Middle Ages can afford to ignore.

Ellenblum’s research enabled the “reconstruction” of entire villages ― property by property ― identifying in the process the origins and vocations of many of the inhabitants. This survey turned up roughly 200 Frankish settlements, most of which had never been heard of before either because the settlements themselves had since been abandoned, ruined and overgrown, or because their Frankish origins were hidden behind modern Arabic names and more recent construction.

One of Ellenblum’s chief theses is that: “The Franks…were very successful settlers and were not only fighters and builders of fortifications.  The migrants who settled in the Kingdom of Jerusalem established a network of well-developed settlements…includ[ing] the construction of developed castra [towns], of ‘rural burgi,’ and monasteries, of castles that served as centers for seigniorial estates, of smaller castles, manor houses, farmhouses, unfortified villages, parochial systems etc.”

Even more important, Ellenblum proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the claim of earlier historians such as Prawer and Smail “that the Franks were completely unaware of what went on in their fields (save when it came to collecting their share of the crops), and had no contact with the local inhabitants, is not based on written or archeological sources and is certainly not accurate.” (Emphasis added.)

Although the level of detail and the cataloging of findings can make at times somewhat turgid text and slow reading, it is the level of detail that leaves no doubt that Ellenblum’s findings are based on incontrovertible facts. This book makes all previous conclusions about Frankish society obsolete, and any depiction of Frankish Palestine that does not take Ellenblum’s conclusions into account can be dismissed as inaccurate.

Ellenblum's findings are reflected in Dr. Schrader's novels set in Outremer.

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Jerusalem Forgotten? The Struggle for Jerusalem 638 - 1099, Part II

Jerusalem fell to invading Muslim forces in 638 AD. It was conquered by force of arms after a year-long siege -- NOT (as some modern commentators would have you believe) by gentle persuasion and enlightened preaching. It would be 1099 AD or 461 years before it was returned to Christian hands. 

That over four hundred year gap between the Muslim conquest and the Christian liberation has led  many to argue that 1) Christianity didn't really care all that much about Jerusalem, 2) after so  much time it has become a Muslim city, anyways, and so conclude  that 3) the First Crusade was not defensive or liberating but rather offensive and aggressive. 

Continuing with her two-part series, Dr. Schrader looks at that  "461-year gap" between the Muslim conquest and the Christian re-conquest of Jerusalem. Today's entry looks at the West in the period from 800 to 1099 AD.

In the West, the set-backs had started sooner than for the Eastern Empire. In 827 the Muslim conquest of Sicily commenced and although it would take until 902 to complete it would eventually be successful. Meanwhile, in 837 a Muslim army had landed on the Italian mainland, ironically at the request of the Duke of Napes who wanted help in his squabbles with his local enemies. Throughout the rest of the century, the various Italian cities remained divided among themselves and all too ready to accept Muslim assistance, which in turn opened the doorway to Muslim mercenaries sacking, pillaging and pirating from bases in Italy. In 846 Rome itself was attacked by a Muslim raiding force and the basilica of St. Peter was looted but not destroyed.  

When three years later a larger Muslim fleet set out to attack Rome again, however, it was met by a combined Christian fleet that defeated it. What followed, however, was not peace but rather a long struggle for control of the Italian mainland. Indeed, the Muslims succeeded in establishing a base for raiding on the coast of Provence at La Garde-Freinet in about 888. While neither the raids from Italy or the base in Provence were comparable to the great Muslim conquests of the 7th century, they posed a menace to travel and trade and kept Western Christendom on the defense.

This did not end until 915 when an alliance of Roman and Byzantine forces drove the last Muslim strongholds off the Italian mainland. For a time, however, the Muslims continued to raid the Italian coastal cities. In 934/35 Genoa was sacked, its male population massacred and the women and children carried off into slavery. Pisa beat off attacks in 1004, 1011, and 1012. Four years later, Salerno came under siege and was only rescued by a band of Normans -- notably on an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

It was only now, at the start of the 11th century, that the tide began to turn in favor of the Christians in the West. The Italian city-states were gaining sufficient wealth to finance stronger defenses. In 1034, the Pisans launched an attack on Muslim North Africa. A generation later the Pisans again raided Muslim territory, this time Palermo in 1062 and 1063. Finally, in 1087, a combined force raised from Pisa, Genoa, Rome, and Amalfi struck at the main base for many Muslim pirate attacks on Italian ships and cities: Mahdia in what is now Tunisia. The expedition was so successful that it enabled the victors to free prisoners, obtain huge reparations payments, and gain trading privileges. Most importantly, after the raid on Mahdia, Muslim attacks on Italy ceased almost entirely.

But just as the Western Christians were gaining strength again, the Eastern Roman Empire underwent a new crisis. The Seljuk Turks had converted to Islam and with the passion of the newly converted and the skills of nomadic warriors they set about establishing their domination over Syria and then turned on Armenia, Cilicia, and the Levant, driving the Byzantines out, before striking at Anatolia. The Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes assembled his forces and rushed to the defense of this vital heartland -- only to be decisively defeated on August 26, 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert. Shortly afterward the embattled Byzantines started sending appeals for help to the apparently now stronger West. That aid would, a quarter century later, materialize in the form of what we have come to call the First Crusade.

In summary, Christendom did not "wait" four hundred years to respond to the loss of Jerusalem. On the contrary, throughout the four hundred years between the fall of Jerusalem in 638 and the First Crusade in 1095, Christendom had been fighting perpetually -- and often desperately -- for its very survival. The First Crusade was not "late" response to the fall of Jerusalem, but rather the first viable -- and even so highly risky and audacious -- attempt to retake the city of Christ's passion that had never, for a single day, been forgotten by Christendom.

Knowing the history of Jerusalem is useful in understanding the thinking and attitudes of people in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem -- the context of my "Jerusalem" trilogy.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Jerusalem Forgotten? The Struggle for the Holy Land 638 - 1099. Part I

Jerusalem fell to invading Muslim forces in 638 AD. It was conquered by force of arms after a year-long siege, not by gentle persuasion and enlightened preaching (as some modern commentators would have you believe). It would be 1099 AD or 461 years before it was returned to Christian hands. 

That over four hundred year gap between the Muslim conquest and the Christian liberation has led  many to argue that 1) Christianity didn't really care all that much about Jerusalem, 2) after so  much time it has become a Muslim city, and so conclude 3) the First Crusade was not defensive or liberating but rather offensive and aggressive. 

In a two-part series, Dr. Schrader will look at that  "461 year gap" and see what happened between the Muslim conquest and the Christian re-conquest of Jerusalem. Today's entry looks at Jerusalem before the Muslim conquest and continues the story to ca. 1000 AD in the Holy Land itself

But first, let us recall just how Christian Jerusalem was.  First and foremost, of course, it was the site of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, and a small Christian population lived in the city from the time of Christ onwards. Admittedly, it remained a predominantly Jewish city, despite the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, until the Romans expelled the entire Jewish population after a renewed insurrection in 135. 

Jerusalem was then rebuilt by Hadrian, given a new name (Aelia Capitolina) and Roman temples were built on the site of the old Jewish Temple and on the sites sacred to Christians. The objective was to humiliate Jews and Christians alike and, in the case of the Christians, to wipe out the memory of Christ's association with certain sites. Furthermore, both Jews and Christians were expelled from Jerusalem and persecuted. Aelia Capitolina was a pagan city, and as such, it was nothing more than a provincial backwater of little importance to the Roman Empire.

All that changed after Emperor Constantine came to the Imperial throne. His mother, Helena, was Christian, and she is credited with helping persuade him to end the persecution of Christians in 313.  Despite her already advanced age, she undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and attempted to locate the sites of Christ's nativity, execution and resurrection. By building temples on the sites sacred to Christ, the Romans actually helped to mark the location, while the local Christian community and ecclesiastical hierarchy were also supportive. (See St. Helena

Little more than a decade later, a massive construction project was undertaken to turn Jerusalem into a major Christian capital. In 326 work began on two magnificent basilicas: one in Bethlehem over the site of the nativity and the other in Jerusalem over the site of Christ's grave (the Holy Sepulcher).

For nearly 300 years thereafter, Jerusalem was one of the most important cities of the Eastern Roman Empire. Although unable to compete with Constantinople and Alexandria in terms of trade and industry, it was revered for its sacred traditions. Pilgrims flooded to the sacred sites providing a strong economic base that was reflected in the construction of churches, monasteries, shops, inns, and residences. The inhabitants of this revitalized city were primarily Christian, although Jews were allowed to return as well. The population exceeded 60,000 -- a very substantial population for this period.

In 614 disaster struck. A Persian army surrounded Jerusalem and took it after a 21-day siege. Aided by Jewish allies, the Persians slaughtered an estimated 26,500 Christian inhabitants and enslaved an additional 35,000. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was raised to the ground. In an ironic twist, the Church of the Nativity in nearby Bethlehem escaped destruction because the mosaic Adoration of the Magi over the portal depicted the Magi as Persian kings; the Persian troops stayed their hand out of respect for the "Persian" kings.

Thirteen years later in 627, Emperor Herakleios wrested control of Jerusalem back from the Persians after defeating them decisively at the Battle of Nineveh. The treaty following the battle required the Persians to withdraw from all conquered territories, including Palestine and so Jerusalem. Yet while Byzantine control over Jerusalem was restored, the destruction of the city's sacred monuments and the slaughter or enslavement of the inhabitants could not be so easily overcome. All the Emperor could do was start a rebuilding and resettlement program. In punishment for their role in the slaughter and destruction of the Christian population thirteen years earlier, however, the Jews were again expelled from Jerusalem and prohibited from entering.

Thus at the time of the Muslim conquest, the city was exclusively Christian. Furthermore, the fact that despite the terrible losses and destruction, the city held out for a whole year before surrendering to the armies of Caliph Omar I is a testimony to how vigorously the Christian defenders resisted the Muslim attack. In the end, they were too weak -- as was the entire Eastern Roman Empire. 
For the next three hundred years, Islam continued to expand -- by the sword. Indeed, within the next fifteen years alone Syria, Persia, Anatolia, Egypt and Libya fell. These losses crippled the economy of the Eastern Roman Empire, and in 655 the Byzantine navy was also effectively destroyed in a major engagement that left Constantinople incapable of providing support to the far-flung outposts of the Eastern Empire.  

The following year, however, the Shia-Sunni split led to the first civil war within the Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) lasting from 656-661. At roughly the same time, Arab invaders encountered serious resistance from the Berbers in North Africa.  

By 678, however, the forces of Islam were again so powerful that they launched an assault on Constantinople itself. The Byzantines fought off the assault with the aid of their massive walls and the use of a new weapon which became known as "Greek fire" - a napalm-based substance that was delivered in pottery vessels that broke on impact resulting in fires that could not be extinguished by water. The attacking Arabs suffered such severe losses that they agreed to a thirty-year truce in the wake of defeat. Constantinople was temporarily saved, but the Eastern Roman Empire was in no position to defend its remaining Mediterranean territories, much less undertake an offensive to regain what had been lost. In 698, the mighty (Christian) city of Carthage fell to the advancing Muslim forces and by 700 Islam was ready to turn its violent tactics of "conversion" on Western Europe. 

A Crusade-Era container for "Greek Fire." Photographic credit: Amir Gorzalczany, Israel Antiquities Authority
Attacks on Sicily and Sardinia are recorded as early as 704 and Corsica fell in 713. More important, of course, the invasion of the Iberian peninsula began in 711. By 720 the Muslims had forced the Christian defenders into the mountains of the northwest and, dismissing them as a no longer viable fighting force, crossed the Pyrenees to start subjecting the land of the Franks

In 732, outside of Tours, a Frankish army decisively defeated the invading Muslims in a desperate defensive battle. The Franks furthermore continued fighting the invaders, finally driving them back across the Pyrenees a generation later in 769. By 795 Charlemagne had taken his forces over the Pyrenees to assist the Spanish Christians in regaining their territories as well. The Reconquista had begun. In short, in the 8th century, Western Christians joined Eastern Christians in opposing the brutal invasions conducted against them in the name of Islam. 

Meanwhile, Constantinople as still fighting for its very survival. In 717 a new Muslim force by land and sea appeared outside of Constantinople and a year-long siege ensued. After a desperate fight, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire fought off the besiegers, but it remained mired in a struggle for survival. There could be no thought of freeing something as distant as Jerusalem when Anatolia was constantly raided and plundered. It was not until 740 that the Byzantine victory at Acroinon provided the Eastern Roman Empire with a degree of security in the Anatolian heartland. 

The Byzantine victory at Acroinon notably coincided with a general decline in the power and strength of the Umayyad dynasty, which was also beset with problems on its eastern frontiers. This allowed the Eastern Roman Empire to at last start a "Reconquista" of its own. In 746, Constantinople regained control of Syria and Armenia, but already by 781, the Byzantines were again on the defensive. For the next half-century, the Byzantine Empire was locked in yet another bitter struggle in Anatolia

Meanwhile, Arab rule of the conquered Christian territories from Syria to Spain was characterized by brutality, oppression, and humiliation for their majority Christian subjects.  (See The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.) The small Arab elite ruled initially over populations that were overwhelmingly Christian. Due to the burdensome taxes, humiliations, and oppression, however, more and more people chose to abandon their faith for the sake of economic gain. Yet conversion is a far slower process than invasion and occupation. To this day, even after 1,400 years of Muslim rule, there are significant Christian minorities in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Historians now generally accept that after four hundred years of occupation the inhabitants of formerly Christian territories was still roughly half Christian, but as Ellenblum argues in her seminal work Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge University Press, 1998) even that estimate may be too low.

The plight of the oppressed Christians population (whether majority or large minority) remained, therefore a motivation for the recovery of lost territory and by the mid-9th century, the Eastern Roman Empire had recovered sufficient strength to launch a sustained "Reconquista." In 853 Constantinople sent a fleet to attack Damietta in the Nile Delta. Thereafter, despite some setbacks, the Byzantines continued to regain lost territory right through the middle of the next century. In 943 they liberated Mesopotamia with its overwhelmingly Christian Armenian population. In 961 they recovered Crete and in 965 Cyprus. In 969 Antioch was at last freed from Muslim rule and Aleppo offered tribute to Constantinople to avoid a similar fate. 

The recovery of Jerusalem now seemed possible, and Constantinople was determined to regain this most sacred of all Christian cities. A series of campaigns were launched that systematically recovered the coast of the Levant including Beirut, Sidon, Tiberias, and Nazareth. Acre and even Caesarea were returned to the Eastern Empire, but Jerusalem remained just out of reach. As the tenth century came to a close, the Byzantines lost momentum and their attempt to regain their lost territories faltered.

What followed was the worst phase yet for subject Christians in Palestine. The new and powerful Shia Fatimid Caliphate pushed back their Sunni rivals and took control of Palestine, including Jerusalem. The Caliph al-Hakim, who ruled from 996-1021, persecuted Christians and Jews and destroyed what was left of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com