The Byzantine Background to the First Crusade
Canadian Institute of Balkan Studies (1996)
Just over nine hundred years ago, Pope Urban II closed a provincial church council at Clermont Ferrand with a rousing call to arms that launched the First Crusade. Every day from November 1995 to August 1999 will have marked the nine-hundredth anniversary of one of the extraordinary series of events that led huge companies of men from France and Germany to Constantinople, then on to Nicaea, Edessa, Antioch and Jerusalem, suffering great losses from dehydration, starvation, disease and ambush, yet managing to capture three formidably defended cities and to defeat three massive counter-attacks by the local Muslim powers who seemed to have all the advantages. However we look at the First Crusade – whether we look at the causes of a mass movement that defies rational explanation; whether we look at the gripping story of incredible success against seemingly impossible odds; or whether we focus on the consequences of an enterprise that was surely the most decisive moment in western civilization’s long rise towards global hegemony – however we look at it, whatever we make of it, and whether we like it or not, the crusade is important to all of us who deal with the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean and the Near East, and the arrival of this symbolic anniversary invites us to reflect on its relevance for us.
Fortunately for those of us who are not historians of the crusades, there is no lack of up-to-date literature to help us concentrate our minds. Indeed, the last thirty-five years have seen a remarkable flowering of crusade scholarship in North America, in Israel, in Germany, and above all in Britain, where a generation of productive and dedicated scholars, mainly under the leadership of Jonathan Riley-Smith, is rewriting the whole history of the crusading movement, in practice and in theory, from beginning. to end. They have already published significant contributions to the re-interpretation of the First Crusade – I mention Riley-Smith’s own book on the subject, published in 1986,1 John France’s military history of the crusade, and Marcus Bull’s study of lay piety in south western France in the eleventh century - and we can no doubt look forward to the appearance of more volumes occasioned by the ninth centenary celebrations. The day is hopefully not far off when we will know all that can be known, or at least will have heard all that can usefully be said, about what was in Pope Urban’s mind when he preached at Clermont, and what was in the minds of the laymen who answered, or did not answer, his call to arms. What is certain is that the labours of so many energetic milites Christi make it unnecessary, and indeed impertinent, for a Byzantinist to pronounce on such matters. We have come a long way since the 1950s, when a Byzantinist, Sir Steven Runciman, could write an authoritative, best-selling history of the crusades.
And yet, in moving on from Runciman, we have lost as well as gained. We have lost not only the combination of scholarly erudition and narrative ease which still make Runciman an unbeatable first introduction to the subject; we have also lost the sense of Byzantium as something integral to the crusading movement. Whereas Runciman stressed the role of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I (1081-1118) in initiating the crusade, directing the crusaders and helping them on their way, the two recent monographs by Jonathan Riley-Smith and John France have cast him as a much more marginal player. Riley-Smith suggests that relations with Byzantium were not uppermost in Urban II’s calculations, and France, after dismissing the evidence of the main Byzantine source, the biography of Alexios I by his daughter Anna Comnena, argues that Alexios did little to help the crusade and was indifferent to its fate once he had used it to recapture Nicaea. Neither of these judgements is highly momentous in itself, but taken together and in the context of the general drift of modern crusade scholarship, they can be regarded as symptomatic of a tendency to write Byzantium out of the script, or, to choose a metaphor appropriate to our small academic world of conferences and symposia, not to invite Byzantium to the party. Byzantium is barely mentioned in the Oxford History of the Crusades, edited by Jonathan Riley-Smith and published in 1995. Byzantium thus comes to be seen as an unwilling, passive and even obstructive channel that the crusade had to pass through in order to get from Western Europe to the Holy Land: the place that happened to be on the way, or in the way. To use another metaphor, Byzantium was the temporary conductor of an electrical charge which the empire played no part in creating and had no interest in retaining. The implications of the fact that it received the current because its own battery needed recharging are not even considered.