Friday, 11 November 2011

The Dangers of Division

If there is one lesson to learn from my experiences on the Crusade, it is that armies win when they stick together with their allies, and they lose when they fragment.
I remember so well the concern of Emperor Alexios to prevent those of us under Godfrey’s banner from uniting with the Provencals of Raymond of Toulouse and the Normans under Bohemond of Taranto. After all, I, not Bagrat, overheard his words in the Emperor’s fine Ionian columned throne room overlooking the Bosphorus.  Had it not been for Baldwin’s impetuous pride in provoking the Emperor’s wrath, the Byzantines might not have been able to shepherd us over that narrow neck of water before the Provencals and Normans arrived. Who knows, perhaps the proud Eastern Empire would have been toppled there and then.
A few months later the lesson was forgotten. For it was the squabble between black Baldwin and red Tancred over Tarsus and Mamistra that perhaps prevented the foundation of a Crusader fiefdom in Cilicia. I remember how dismayed I was at the time by the violence of Christian on Christian. How naive I was then.
But Antioch illustrated the lesson most clearly. I saw the dangerous variety in Kerbogha’s vast host on my journey there before they encircled the city and reported this vulnerability. Bohemond and Raymond’s bitter rivalry had sparked into life by then, it is true, but we were all united by desperation and by the fanaticism fuelled by the Holy Lance. And with Raymond confined to his sickbed by illness or fear, Bohemond was our undisputed leader. So like a mailed fisted striking a heap of sand, our bedraggled force was able to scatter the disunited Saracens, though they outnumbered us at least three to one and were well-fed while we were starving.
And if the Seljuks and the Fatimids had combined to defend Jerusalem itself the outcome of that extraordinary siege might have been very different. Indeed, we might never have made it to those famous walls. Instead, the Fatimids weakened themselves by throwing out the Seljuks barely six months before.
What a shame our unity was in such an unworthy cause.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Why does intolerance always win?

Fuelled by my own fanaticism and Pope Urban II's rhetoric, I set off to Outremer in a mood of religious fervour. I ignored my mentor Abbot Hugh's concerns about the validity of this 'holy crusade' and took refuge in Saint Augustine's twisted arguments justifying religious war as an act of love.

Was the Holy Father's offer to us of eternal salvation one of spiritual sincerity or practical politics? Did he hope to secure a place in Heaven for himself by starting the campaign that won back the Holy Places, or was it more a place in history that he sought? Did he want most to regain political power over the Eastern Church by sending us to Emperor Alexios's aid, and to solve the problems in his French homeland caused by restless barons and knights with nothing to do except fight each other? How can I really tell? I only saw him briefly in that autumn of 1095.

Our leaders I observed for longer. Their brutal actions speak louder than their pious words. After all, Black Baldwin broke off long before reaching Jerusalem, and found himself a fiefdom for the taking from the poor Armenians - Christian Armenians - around Edessa. How ironic that the throne of Jerusalem was offered to him of all people after the death of his brother, my poor master Godfrey.

Bohemond of Taranto chose to make himself a Prince by remaining in Antioch after he won the struggle for what had once been the second city of Byzantium - the struggle against the Moslem host of Kerbogha, yes, but also against his Christian comrade Raymond of Toulouse. Maybe he had never intended to go to Jerusalem. Raymond continued on to the Holy City, it is true, but he had little choice if he was to redeem his reputation after the cannibalistic outrages of his Provencal followers in Marrat al-Numan. As soon as Jerusalem fell he was back off North to try to seize Tripoli - after all I met him nearby just after his 300 knights had routed an Arab force twenty times larger. If Tancred had been able to build a fiefdom in Cilicia - if his co-religionist Baldwin had not tricked him out of Tarsus - he would have surely stayed instead of travelling to Jerusalem. And Godfrey, who won the Holy City for us? He was no saint. If any man knew him well enough to judge, I am that man.

As I learned the Moslem faith, and came to understand Jesus' real meaning, the inexcusable evil of our Crusade became clear. Jesus and Mohammed preached near identical messages. One said 'turn the other cheek'; the other said 'fight only in self-defence if you have no alternative'. Both urged tolerance of others' beliefs, and both practised forgiveness of their enemies. Some of their followers heard this message. I well remember the Christian cathedral and the Moslem mosque side by side in Ridwan's Aleppo, and the mosque cheek by jowl with the church in the Monastery of St Katherine at Sinai. Saint Basil taught the Byzantines that even for a soldier to kill in battle was a sin, to be washed away by the sacrament of confession. Perhaps that was one reason why the Byzantines were more civilised than us, and scorned for it by the Baldwins and Bohemonds. In Damascus, in the great Umayyad Mosque, there was room for Sunni and Shi'a to worship.

But the fanatics, like my enemies Hassan-i Sabbah and his Nizari Assassins, always seem to poison the others' minds and conquer tolerance. We founded the Templars to protect pilgrims against intolerance, and look what became of them. Why are the disciples always more fanatical than those that they follow? Why does their belief have to be more certain than their teachers'? Why do they not understand that what is right for one may not be right for another? Why should one man's right be another's wrong? If all the prophets had known what would be wrought by their followers, would they have taught them as they did?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


It's never easy to estimate the numbers in an army. But when they started, Bohemond of Taranto must have had 20,000, and Raymond of Toulouse 50,000. With us, there were another 50,000 directly under my friend Godfrey de Bouillon, of that I can be pretty sure, and another 30,000 reporting to the other nobles from France and the lands on the edge of the Holy Roman Empire. 150,000 in all, I'd guess, and that is ignoring the poor rabble that went first under Peter the Hermit and were massacred to the last man outside Nicaea before we'd even crossed the Hellespont.

Three years later there were just 15,000 of us left outside Jerusalem, exhausted, famished and ferocious. 15,000 left from 150,000. Nine out of every ten had fallen by the wayside. All right, I will allow that some went with black Baldwin to grab an easy billet in Edessa, and that many of the Normans from Apulia stuck with Bohemond in Antioch. A few just could not stomach it and trickled home with their tails between their legs - like that coward Stephen of Blois. Much good it did him, for his wife Adela bullied him until he returned to Outremer. She really did nag him to death, for he perished in 1102 against the Egyptians outside Ramlah.

Let's say 30,000 peeled off before completing the journey. That's still seven out of ten that died - a 70% casualty rate, as I think you'd put it today. Would any of your modern armies take that?

Where did they all fall? Our first encounter with the Saracens, at Dorylaeum, maybe accounted for 10,000. Perhaps the same number did not even make it that far. But it was that journey south across the Turkish desert that took our numbers down below 100,000 for the first time. What a time the vultures had!

And then Antioch, I suppose. I missed the siege, and although I certainly did not think so at the time, maybe I was better off where I was. By the time I reached what was once Byzantium's second city, there were only 45,000, maybe 50,000 left to face Kerbogha's hordes. They had died fighting off the Saracen relief army, or from famine and disease through that long winter of 1097/8. Kerbogha's divided host accounted for a few thousand more, and then the plague did its worst, taking 25,000 or 30,000 souls.

Not that they were too bothered of course - for those souls had been promised their places in the Kingdom of Heaven whether they made it to Jerusalem or perished on the way. Pope Urban made them an offer that they could not refuse - poor foolish believers. I know the truth of it, and now the irony is that I am the only one left.