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Medieval Geopolitics: The Counterfactual History of the Third Crusade

By Andrew Latham

In my last column I argued that by January 1192 the “correlation of forces” in the Holy Land were such that, had he continued his advance on Jerusalem, Richard the Lionheart would surely have taken the city from Saladin. The obvious counter-claim to this argument is the view that “well, yes, Richard could probably have captured the Holy City, but he certainly couldn’t have held it for very long.” In this column, I explore that counter-claim, asking the following question: what would have happened if Richard had defeated Saladin and taken Jerusalem in early 1192?

The argument I develop in answer to that question is that had the crusaders under Richard taken Jerusalem in 1192 they would have set in motion the unraveling of Saladin’s Ayyubid empire, thus creating the strategic conditions necessary to secure the crusader kingdoms (including the city of Jerusalem) for a very long time indeed.

The Argument: The Pilgrims, Having Completed Their Pilgrimage, Would Depart The Holy Land

Much of the literature dealing with the Third Crusade assumes, asserts or argues that even if Richard had taken Jerusalem he could not have held it for long.  Indeed, Richard himself seems to have believed this, as apparently did the Grand Masters of the military orders. But what, precisely, are the grounds for this view? And, with the benefit of hindsight, does it still appear as persuasive as it did in the late 12th century?

Richard’s crusade host consisted of three basic types of warrior. First, there were those native to the crusader kingdoms. Sometimes derisively referred to as poulains, these were the descendants of the original Christian inhabitants of the Holy Land or of those Europeans who put down roots in the Latin East after the First Crusade.  Second, there were the members of the military orders (the Templars, Hospitallers, etc.). These men were recruited throughout Latin Christendom, but served long stretches (sometimes their whole careers) in the Holy Land.  Finally, there were the “pilgrims” – those Europeans who had taken vows to complete a pilgrimage to the Holy Sites, either as an imposed act of penance or an un-imposed act of devotion and piety.

The argument that Jerusalem, even if taken by Richard, could not be held by him turns largely on the assumption that once they had performed their respective acts of penance, the pilgrims (the largest part of Richard’s host) would simply depart the Holy Land and return to their lands in France or England or wherever.  This would, or so the argument goes, effectively denude the crusader kingdoms of fighting men, leaving only a rump force (the poulains and the military orders) utterly incapable of holding the Holy Land (and perhaps especially the exposed, inland city of Jerusalem) against the inevitable Ayyubid counter-attack.

Image by MapMaster / Wikimedia Commons

Counter-Argument #1:  What About the Historical Precedent of the First Crusade?

What are we to make of this argument?  On the surface, of course, it seems plausible enough.  The pilgrims, having completed their pilgrimages, would return home to Europe to resume their lives.  Saladin would regain his footing, call in reserves from across his empire and perhaps the wider Muslim world, retake Jerusalem and perhaps even continue on to completely extinguish the Christian principalities once and for all.  Ultimately, though, the argument fails to persuade (me at least) for one simple reason: it flies in the face of actual historical experience.

The same arguments could easily have been made (and probably were) during the First Crusade (which was carried out exclusively by pilgrims, the poulains still under Muslim rule and the military orders having yet to be invented).  And yet in the aftermath of that first “armed pilgrimage” four huge Christian principalities were created, three of which survived, flourished even, for nearly a century.  To be sure, fighting men were always in short supply. But a combination of fighting effectiveness, capable leadership, deft diplomacy, and periodic influxes of new blood from Europe proved sufficient to maintain the Latin East against everything that Saladin and his predecessors could throw at them until the disastrous battle of Hattin (which, I will mention only in passing, need neither have been fought nor lost.  Defeat was a result of contingency – it was not inevitable. Imagine the course of history had king Guy not stupidly ordered his army to march against Saladin at Tiberias).

Ultimately, my point is that somehow or other the original crusaders managed to find enough manpower both to create viable political-economic units and to defend them against all comers. If this were possible in 1099 why not in 1192? We don’t have to imagine the energies that would have been released in Christendom had Richard taken the Holy City in the 12th century.  We have only to look at the historical precedent at the end of the 11th to see what would have happened: massive waves of settlers and warriors would have flocked to the region, providing the fighting manpower needed to secure the Latin East.  Assuming Saladin could be kept on his back foot for even one campaigning season (a reasonable assumption, as I will discuss below), not only would the city of Jerusalem have been held, but the kingdom too. (And let’s not forget: by 1193 Saladin was dead and his empire in pieces.  All that would have been necessary was to hold the city until the winter of 1192).

Counter-Argument #2:  If Saladin Were To Lose Jerusalem, His Empire – and Thus the Threat To Jerusalem – Would Evanesce

OK – let’s assume that in the medium- to long-term, a successful attack on Jerusalem would have unleashed (not unprecedented) social dynamics in Europe that would have put the crusader kingdoms on a secure strategic footing and thus ensured that Jerusalem would remain in Christian hands.  The problem, according to those who argue that Jerusalem could not be held, was that this is a moot point as Saladin would have re-taken the city in the short-term, thereby short-circuiting any longer term dynamic.  On this view, once the next campaign season began in the Spring of 1192 Saladin would have reassembled his army, maneuvered it first to invest Jerusalem (severing the city’s lifeline to Jaffa), then to besiege it, and then finally re-taken the city – all before any wave of settlers and soldiers could arrive from Europe to consolidate the Christian position.  Moreover, in retaking the Holy City Saladin would have regained the strategic initiative, placing him a strong position to decisively defeat the crusaders once and for all.

Again, a plausible argument – at least on the surface.  But this line of reasoning is ultimately based on a flawed understanding of Saladin’s grip on power and an implausible account of the likely consequences of his losing Jerusalem.  Let’s start with the foundations and nature of Saladin’s power and influence in the Muslim world. By the time of the Third Crusade, the sultan had managed to unite Egypt and Syria into a single Ayyubid empire. It is important to note, however, that this empire (and the network of alliances radiating out from it) was always only a precarious thing. Saladin had to devote lots of time and energy to managing his vassals and allies, using force, generosity or some combination of the two to hold the whole ramshackle system together. In an effort to provide a kind of ideological glue that would help him keep the empire from collapsing into its various parts the Sultan initially raised the banner of jihad.

This, however, was only partly successful: many Muslim leaders, both within the empire and beyond, were not persuaded that Saladin was motivated by piety, for they knew from personal experience that everything he did was driven first and foremost by personal and dynastic ambition.  Far more successful in solidifying his suzerainty over the empire was his personal reputation as a leader who could decisively defeat the Christians on the field of battle (Hattin, 1187), and as the leader who had delivered almost all of Palestine – and especially the holy city of Jerusalem – from the infidels.  Nothing succeeds like success and Saladin had proven to be a very successful general indeed.

Jerusalem depicted in the Liber Chronicarum by Schedel, 1493

By the time Richard began his first advance on Jerusalem in 1191, however, Saladin’s military reputation had already begun to fray. First, there was his failure to take the city of Tyre in the aftermath of his victory at Hattin. Next there was his failure to relieve the besieged city of Acre (and to prevent the slaughter of its garrison, which many blamed on the sultan). Finally, there was the disastrous near-rout at the hands of Richard’s forces outside Arsuf in September 1191. Given all this, what would be the most likely consequence of Jerusalem falling to Richard in 1192?

In my judgment, the outcome would not have involved Saladin prudently retiring to Damascus to lick his wounds and re-build his army. Nor would it have involved him returning with his re-built army in the spring to besiege and re-take Jerusalem. Rather, the more likely outcome would have been Saladin’s personal disgrace (he would have come to be seen as not only an incompetent general, but as the man who had lost Jerusalem). Allies would have deserted him; vassals would have broken with him; rivals (even within his own family) would have turned on him. Simply put, with the fall of Jerusalem the ideological glue holding Saladin’s empire together would have been dissolved.

Almost certainly, this would have gravely weakened, perhaps even shattered the empire, as the inter-Muslim conflicts and rivalries that had created such propitious conditions for the Christians before, during and after the First Crusade would have re-emerged in earnest.  The bottom line: no massive Ayyubid army would have appeared outside the gates of the Holy City in the spring of 1192. Indeed, it is unlikely that any serious threat to the city would be posed for several years. In the meantime, waves of European settlers and soldiers would have flooded the Holy Land (as they did following the capture of Jerusalem in 1099), putting the Latin East and its capital Jerusalem on a secure strategic footing for decades to come.

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image: Saladin and Richard the Lionheart face off in this scene from a 15th century manuscript. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS. 12559, fol 127r



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