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Anna Comnena and the First Crusade

By Kelly DeVries and Michael Livingston

The number of people who responded to Pope Urban II’s Call to Crusade at Claremont in 1099 surely exceeded his wildest expectations. It also likely surpassed the hopes of Alexios I Komnenos, the Byzantine emperor who’d asked for support against the Seljuk Turks: he knew full well that an earlier call by Pope Gregory VII in 1074 had fallen on deaf ears, and it may have been that he anticipated at best a small unit of European soldiers, imitative of the declining Varangian Guard.

Instead, Crusaders appeared in larger numbers than the total number of soldiers then serving in the Byzantine army. First to flood into Constantinople was the ‘Peasants’ Crusade’: mostly farmers, townspeople, laborers, and other poor people who were bound together by religious zeal and little else. They were little more than a mob. The Byzantines fed them and quickly sent them across the Bosporus. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were destroyed when they encountered Turkish armies outside Nicaea.

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One of those who watched these first crusaders go was Anna Comnena, the daughter of Emperor Alexios, who from her palace abode she wrote the story of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. She didn’t think much of the initial rabble, but she was clearly impressed with the next group of Crusaders to arrive below her windows after the Peasant Crusade was gone: the Frankish knights of the First Crusade.

Manuscript of the Alexiad by Anna Comnena -photo by Sailko / Wikimedia Commons

It is difficult to know how much Anna knew about soldiers of her own Empire. She marvels at the Crusaders’ crossbows, for instance, when Byzantine arsenals were filled with them at the time. But even if her wonder was in part based on her inexperience — she was also only in her mid-teens when they arrived — her impressions are nevertheless an enormously valuable view into how others saw the Crusaders. These Western soldiers, especially the knights, were kept out of the city on Alexios’ order, but Anna seems to have been permitted to visit the Crusader encampments and to have watched their training. She was particularly taken with the knights in shining armor – and their mail and helmets did shine at this point in the Crusades – tiding on strong stallions, bred and trained for war. Her imperial father, though, was less impressed than worried. He planned his own tactics should Bohemond or any other Crusader leader attack the Byzantines. Anna writes:

The Emperor . . . directed them [his army] as to the number of soldiers they were to send . . . to fight against Bohemond, and the order of battle in which they were to arrange their men for the fight. Most of them were to make an attack on horseback and then ride back again, and to do this repeatedly and use their bows and arrows; the soldiers carrying spears were to advance at slow march behind them, so that if by chance the archers were forced back too far, these soldiers could receive them and also strike at any Franks that came to blows with them.

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He furnished them abundantly with arrows and exhorted them not to use them sparingly, but to shoot at the horses rather than at the Franks. For he knew that the Franks were difficult to wound, or rather, practically invulnerable, thanks to their breastplates and coats of mail. Therefore he considered shooting at them useless and quite senseless. For the Frankish weapon of defence is this coat of mail, ring plaited into ring, and the iron fabric is such excellent iron that it repels arrows and keeps the wearer’s skin unhurt. An additional weapon of defence is a shield which is not round, but a long shield, very broad at the top and running out to a point, hollowed out slightly inside, but externally smooth and gleaming with a brilliant boss of molten brass. Consequently any arrow, be it Scythian or Persian, or even discharged by the arms of a giant, would glint off such a shield and hark back to the sender.

For this reason, as he was cognizant both of Frankish armour and our archery, the Emperor advised our men to attack the horses chiefly and ‘wing’ them with their arrows so that when the Franks had dismounted, they could easily be captured. For a Frank on horseback is invincible, and would even make a hole in the walls of Babylon, but directly he gets off his horse, anyone who likes can make sport of him. (Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, ed. and trans. Elizabeth A. Dawes [Routledge, Kegan, Paul, 1928], pp. 341-42.)

Fortunately for Alexios, the Crusaders had no interest in fighting the Byzantines. Their goal was Jerusalem, and Constantinople was merely a gathering place for the many armies to unite and resupply. After promising to give whatever they captured to the emperor – in what Anna admits was a strange concession – the Crusaders were ferried across the Bosporus and into Asia. Alexios even sent a contingent of Byzantine soldiers with them. It was quite ironic that while Alexios probably anticipated a small contingent of Western European soldiers to serve in his Byzantine army, the opposite had occurred. These men would stay with the Crusaders until the campaign slogged to a halt outside of Antioch, at which point they returned home thinking that this was where it would all end.

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However, Anna’s borers of ‘the walls of Babylon’ were not yet defeated. They would take Antioch and march onto Jerusalem, capturing it as well.

Kelly DeVries and Michael Livingston weren’t able to fit all the sources they wanted into their award-winning Medieval Warfare: A Reader (Toronto University Press, 2019). Here is one of these sources, to which they’ve supplied a contextualizing introduction.

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