Byzantium and the Early Crusades I


The Battle of Manzikert was fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuq Turks on August 26, 1071 near Manzikert (modern Malazgirt in Muş Province, Turkey). The decisive defeat of the Byzantine army and the capture of the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes played an important role in undermining Byzantine authority in Anatolia and Armenia, and allowed for the gradual Turkification of Anatolia.


As well as seeking out and killing as many Jews as they could find in Cologne, Mainz, Speyer and Worms, those who had taken the cross also destroyed synagogues and burned the Torah. Similar violence occurred in Hungary, where pilgrims quarrelled with local Christians. Albert of Aachen, who wrote his history fifty years after the crusade, records that they behaved badly towards the Hungarians: ‘Like a rough people, rude in manners, undisciplined and haughty, they committed very many other crimes.’ Such disorders in the passage of the pilgrims created difficulties for those who followed. They also established a negative pattern in western attitudes to the unfamiliar inhabitants of eastern Europe, including the Byzantines.

Although Anna Komnene may exaggerate when she claims that 100,000 knights and 80,000 foot soldiers participated in the great pilgrimage, modern historians reckon upwards of 30,000 knights and many more pilgrims descended on the Byzantine capital. The movement therefore took on a very different form from that requested by the Byzantine emperor of a compact body of disciplined soldiers. Although it is now known as the First Crusade, at the time its participants identified themselves as pilgrims, travelling to Jerusalem in the company of armed and mounted contingents, who would fight to regain the Holy Places. Those led by Peter the Hermit arrived at Constantinople first, intent on completing the pilgrimage on foot but seriously in need of rest before they undertook the most dangerous part of the route across Asia Minor. Markets were set up so that they could purchase food and they were ferried across the Bosphoros. When the fighting forces eventually arrived, the emperor insisted that the leaders should swear an oath to return to his rule any previously Byzantine territory they conquered from the Seljuks, which some were loath to perform. Despite many difficulties in their cooperation, the combined Christian forces followed the pilgrims into Asia Minor and succeeded in recapturing Nicaea (June 1097). The city was returned to Byzantine control and the crusading forces then set out across the Anatolian plateau in the extreme heat of summer.

Numerous accounts of the progress of the First Crusade, by western, Byzantine and Arab authors reflect dissensions between the crusaders and Alexios I, among the crusaders and within the different Muslim authorities. These came to a head outside the walls of Antioch, which was strongly defended by local Muslims. After a siege of seven months, the crusaders finally broke in and occupied the city (June 1098). But they were immediately confronted by a powerful Turkish army, raised by emirs and smaller tribes, which came to the city’s relief. Some westerners who fled the city dissuaded Alexios I from sending Byzantine forces to assist the crusaders, claiming that Antioch was bound to fall to the Turks. His decision was later denounced as treachery. The final Christian victory, attributed in part to the miraculous discovery of the Holy Lance (a relic of the Passion of Christ), established Bohemond, son of the Norman ruler Robert Guiscard, as ruler of Antioch, in clear opposition to his oath to the Byzantine emperor.

The chequered history of Antioch during the crusades illustrates the contradictory aims of the participants. In Byzantine eyes, although the city had passed under Arab control in 636/7, it remained the target of Byzantine campaigns and had been regained in 969. But just over a century later, the Seljuks occupied it on their march south to Jerusalem. This symbolic loss was to be rectified by a Christian holy war, which would return Antioch to Byzantine rule. But to Bohemond and many of the leading knights on the campaign, who were actively seeking to found their own principalities in the East, the capture of Antioch was the first occasion to combine pilgrimage with territorial occupation. The Normans had already demonstrated their ambitions in this regard with Guiscard’s occupation of the Byzantine provinces of southern Italy and the conquest of England by Duke William in 1066. Bohemond himself only managed to avoid Byzantine reprisals against his claim to Antioch by declaring himself dead and leaving the region in a smelly coffin, as Anna Komnene recounted.

By 1098, when the crusaders set out from Antioch to capture Jerusalem, they learned that the city had been retaken by the Fatimids. Since the Seljuk and other Turkish tribes had adopted the Sunni definition of Islam, and thus opposed the Shi’ite dynasty ruling in Egypt, Muslim forces in the Near East were divided. Thanks in part to this disunity, the First Crusade proved amazingly successful. After a six-week siege of Jerusalem (June–July 1099), the Latins overcame the defenders and slaughtered the entire population. The western knights then elected Godfrey of Bouillon, one of their leaders, as king and thus established a Christian enclave in the Holy Land. The triumph provoked a deep sense of loss among Muslims and Jews, to whom Jerusalem was a particularly holy city. Their exclusion from the city that had been under Islamic rule since 638 was particularly resented.

Jerusalem remained the central focus of rival claims throughout the twelfth century. As Muslim forces renewed their efforts to regain the city, the Latin kingdom required additional support from western knights. The Second Crusade failed to capture Damascus, and never reached Jerusalem, but additional forces got through by sea. Despite considerable success in establishing an efficient colony, with an exuberant artistic production patronized by Queen Melisende, who ruled Jerusalem from 1131 to 1153, the Christian enclave was constantly threatened. Crusader castles such as Krak des Chevaliers were constructed to guard the kingdom, while the church of the Holy Sepulchre, dedicated in 1149, symbolized the mixture of early Christian, Arab, Romanesque and Byzantine elements in crusader architecture. Eventually, in 1187 Saladin, a Kurdish general who had made himself Sultan of Egypt, recaptured the holy city for Islam, and his merciful treatment of its non-Muslim population was widely praised. Nonetheless, the shift back to Islamic control triggered a reaction in the West, where Church leaders again called for further crusades. The Third, from 1189 to 1192, and Fourth, from 1202 to 1204, were the result.

In all these meetings of East and West, language was a basic problem: few Greeks knew Latin, and even fewer westerners knew Greek. During the twelfth century, Emperor Manuel I (1143–80) increased the number of westerners employed at the imperial court, where they served as translators and ambassadors. Growing western influence in Byzantium was also clear from the emperor’s delight in the sport of jousting, wearing trousers and selecting western princesses to marry into the imperial family. While this policy was sometimes denounced, there was a grudging appreciation of the Latins’ fighting capacity and bravery. Whether mounted or on foot, these ‘Franks’ – as all westerners were called – were admired for their strength. Anna Komnene concedes that Bohemond, her father’s Norman enemy, was a tall handsome man, and Niketas Choniates, the late twelfth-century historian appreciated Conrad of Montferrat, ally and son-in-law of Manuel I. Choniates even makes an unflattering comparison between the effeminate, cowardly Byzantines and their broad-shouldered, brave and daring Latin counterparts.

In addition to linguistic difficulties, Italian merchants generated a certain amount of tension within the empire. As we have seen, in Constantinople the Venetians controlled an entire quarter with its own church and warehouses along the Golden Horn, while Genoese and Pisan traders also maintained a presence in ports along the Adriatic, Mediterranean and Aegean coastlands. Despite the importance of international trade for Byzantium, political relations were not always good and local merchants resented the Italians’ advantageous trading terms. Tensions became inflamed in 1171 and again in 1182, when Manuel I and his successor Andronikos I (1182–5) ordered attacks on Venetian merchants, their property and ships. The losses sustained were so great that the republic made a claim for compensation: this long list of houses, ships and goods destroyed was still not settled in 1203, which probably exacerbated antagonism.

Linguistic, social and economic grounds for mutual hostility between Christians were augmented by liturgical differences. The filioque clause, ‘and from the Son’, recited in the Latin creed might have passed unnoticed by local Greeks until 1054, but thereafter it became a major divider, while differences over leavened or unleavened bread, the number of genuflections and the days and degrees of fasting were obvious and visible to all. The Byzantines were shocked that western bishops and clergy fought on horseback like knights, and the Latins thought it improper for orthodox priests and lower clergy to marry. For the Patriarch of Constantinople and his staff, the claim of papal primacy was particularly threatening as it gave Rome, the see founded by St Peter, superior power over all the churches.

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