A new History: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity & Islam

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The First Crusade

A New History: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity & Islam

By Thomas Asbridge

1: Holy War Proclaimed

  • “This titanic expedition, known to history as the First Crusade, marked a watershed in relations between Islam and the West. This was not the first war between Christians and Muslims, but it was the conflict that set these two world religions on a course towards deep seated animosity and enduring enmity. Between 1000 and 1300 CE Catholic Europe and Islam went from being occasional combatants to avowed and entrenched opponents, and the chilling reverberations of this seismic shift still echo in the world today. (2)

  • In autumn of 1095, while Pope Urban II did a preaching tour of France, he launched the First Crusade. “He called upon the warriors of the Latin West to avenge a range of ghastly ‘crimes’ committed against Christendom by the followers of Islam, urging them to bring aid to their eastern brethren and to reconquer the most sacred site on earth, the city of Jerusalem.” (16)

  • “Throughout this period indigenous Christians actually living under Islamic law, be it in Iberia or the Holy Land, were generally treated with remarkable clemency. The Muslim faith acknowledged and respected Judaism and Christianity, creeds with which it enjoyed a common devotional tradition and a mutual reliance upon authoritative scripture. Christian subjects may not have been able to share power with their Muslim masters, but they were given freedom to worship. All around the Mediterranean basin Christian faith and society survived and even thrived under the watchful but tolerant eye of Islam. “ (18)

  • “With the preaching of the First Crusade the Latin Church went far beyond simply condoning violence; it energetically encouraged military conflict and promoted carnage as an expression of pious devotion. This sanctification of warfare, in which two seemingly immiscible elements – violence and Christianity – were fused, now stands as the defining characteristic of the First Crusade, the feature which has catapulted this expedition into the popular imagination and aroused generations of scholarly attention.” (21)

  • “Christianity does, at first glance, appear to be an unquestionably pacifist faith. The gospels of the New Testament record numerous occasions when Jesus seemed to reject or prohibit violence…….At the same time, the Old testament appears to offer incontrovertible guidance on the question of violence when Moses reveals the divine law “thou shall not kill” in the Ten Commandments.” (23)

  • “From the fourth century onwards, Christianity underwent a gradual but deep-seated transformation as it fused with a Roman ‘state’ for which warfare was an essential feature of existence.” (23)

  • “St. Augustine’s work on Christian violence laid the foundation upon which Pope Urban II eventually erected the crusading ideal. St. Augustine argued that a war could be both legal and justified if fought under strictly controlled conditions. His complex theories were later simplified and consolidated to produce three prerequisites of a Just War: it must be proclaimed by a ‘legitimate authority’…..; it ought to have a ‘just cause’….;and it should be fought with the ‘right intention’.” (24)

  • “A central feature of Urban’s doctrine was the denigration and dehumanization of Islam. He set out from the start to launch a holy war against what he called ‘the savagery of the Saracens’, a ‘barbarian’ people capable of incomprehensible levels of cruelty and brutality.” (33)

  • “By expounding upon the alleged crimes of Islam, he (Urban) sought to ignite an explosion of vengeful passion among his Latin audience, while his attempts to degrade Muslims as ‘sub-human’ opened the floodgates of extreme, brutal reciprocity. This, the pope argued, was to be no shameful war of equals, between God’s children, but a ‘just’ and ‘holy’ struggle in which an ‘alien’ people could be punished without remorse and with utter ruthlessness.” (34)

2: Afire with Crusading Fever

3: The Journey to Byzantium

  • Before leaving on their crusade the crusaders “turned their weapons against an ‘enemy’ near at hand” in their homelands: the Jews of Europe. “This flood of anti-Semitism spread like a contagion from the crusaders to the local Christians of central and eastern Europe. Together they conspired to perpetrate a series of murderous attacks upon the Jews, as people who had for generations lived in peace among them, in what has been called ‘the first holocaust.’ (84)

    • Pogroms began Dec 1095 – anti-Semitic riots in Rouen

    • May - July 1096 – the Rhineland Jews fell victim to sadistic persecution as a tide of anti-Jewish sentiment swept eastwards through Germany and beyond. Incidents in Speyer, Trier, Metz, Regensburg, Cologne, Worms and Mainz.

  • Why did an expedition preached as a war of reconquest against Islam result in the murder of Jews? “Two forces seem to have been at work, stimulated by the crusading message that Urban shaped. Characterizing Muslims, the expedition’s projected enemies, as a sub-human species, the pope harnessed society’s inclination to define itself in contrast to an alien ‘other’.” The First Crusade was also styled…as a war of retribution to avenge injuries supposedly meted out against Christendom by Islam. (85)

    • Followers of Judaism were subjected to a ruthless program of violence, extortion and forced conversion. (86)

    • May 18 1096 in the city of Worms: Jews sought protection from the bishop, but their safety was short lived. Those who did not seek sanctuary were “killed like oxen and dragged through the market places and streets like sheep to the slaughter” (87) Only those who accepted forced conversion to the Christian faith were spared. “It is at Worms that we first hear reports of entire Jewish families committing suicide in order to avoid the Latin’ swords or the noose of Christianity. By May 20 the Jews of Worms had been all but eradicated. “ (88)

    • The city of Mainz was attacked in May 25. “They killed the Jews, about 700 in number, who in vain resisted the force and attack of so many thousands. They killed them women, also, and with their swords pierced children of whatever age and sex…Horrible to say, mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands.” (88)

  • Due to the prince’s lack of planning and not wanting to carry supplies, the armies survived through subsistence. In enemy lands this equated to scavenging and rampant pillage. “This process of living off the land, often hand to mouth, helps explain why the crusaders developed an increasingly voracious appetite for plunder as the expedition progressed.” (92)

  • “The First Crusaders reached the borders of the ancient Byzantine Empire in the summer of 1096, less than a year after Pope Urban’s speech at Clermont.” (95)

  • “Less than two days’ march to the east stood the major Turkish stronghold of Nicea, a powerful Muslim enemy, of whom these inexperienced and ill-prepared crusaders had little knowledge or comprehension. Rather than maintain a sensibly discreet profile, ravening Latin mobs soon began to trawl the surrounding countryside in search of plunder, allegedly subjecting the region to savage rapine: ‘acting with horrible cruelty to the whole population, they cut in pieces some of their babies, impaled others on wooden spits and roasted them over a fire while the elderly were subjected to every kind of torture.” (101)

  • Civetot: “The crusaders first steps into Islamic territory had ended in utter catastrophe.” Winning a battle at Civetot, the Turks immediately followed up this bloody victory by falling upon the crusaders’ camp with merciless brutality. There they found the feeble and crippled, clerics, monks, aged women, boys at the breast, and put them all to the sword, regardless of age. They took away only the young girls and nuns, whose faces and figures seemed pleasing to their eyes, and beardless and beautiful young men.” (103)

  • By the eleventh century Islamic powers were more likely to prosecute internal holy wars against their fellow Muslims, Sunni versus Shi’ite, than they were to turn the ideal of jihad outwards towards Christendom. The suggestion that Islam should engage in an unending battle to enlarge its borders and subjugate non-Muslims held little appeal; nor did the idea of unifying in defense of the Islamic faith and its territories.

4: The First Storm of War

  • At Nicea, having won a battle against Muslim forces the “Christians cut off the heads of the dead and wounded and as a sign of victory they brought them back to their tents with them tied to the girths of their saddles. Some were stuck on the ends of spears and paraded before the city walls, others were actually catapulted into the city ‘in order to cause more terror among the Turkish garrison’.” (126)

  • The battle near Dorylaeum was a bloody affair, leaving some 3,000 Muslims and 4,000 Christians dead. (137) (Franks won) “The crusaders spent three days camped by the battle field, burying their dead and recovering their strength.

5: Before the Walls of Antioch

  • The crusade stalled in northern Syria (Antioch) for one and a half years. Crusaders arrived there in late summer of 1097. (population 300,000) (153)

  • “These acts may appear to be utterly barbaric by modern standards, but they were a staple feature of medieval warfare and become a consistent theme of the siege of Antioch. Within the context of a holy war, in which the Franks were conditioned to see their enemy as sub-human, Christian piety prompted not clemency but, rather, an atmosphere of extreme brutality and heightened savagery.” (168)

  • “If they were fighting a holy war in the name of God, why was their Lord allowing them to suffer and die? Their answer… sin…We believed that these misfortunes befell the franks, and that they were not able for so long a time to take the city, because of their sins. Not only dissipation, but also avarice, or pride, or rapaciousness corrupted them.” “To advocate a return to righteousness through extreme austerity and Christian ritual, urging people to fast three days, to pray, to give alms, and to form a procession.” (176)

6: Tightening the Screw

  • “At dawn on March 8 the Antiochene garrison stole out of the city to bury their dead in the grounds of the very mosque that the crusaders were planning to fortify. The Franks responded with chilling barbarity: Together with them the Muslims buried cloaks, gold bezants (coins), bows and arrows, and other tools the names of which we do not know. When our men heard this they came in haste to that devil’s chapel, and ordered the bodies to be dug up and the tombs destroyed, and the dead men dragged out of their graves. They threw all the corpses into a pit, and cut off their heads and brought them to our tents so that they could count the number exactly, except those that they loaded on to four horses belonging to the ambassadors of the emir of Cairo and sent to the sea-coast.” (193)

7: To the Edge of Annihilation

  • The significance of the Great battle of Antioch cannot be overstressed. It was, without doubt, the single most important military engagement of the entire expedition. (239)

8: Descent into Discord

  • Like the programs in Europe, a Muslim – manned fortress near Damascus was assaulted and looted, and the inhabitants forcibly converted, or they were killed. (248)This was the first occasion since the programs when the crusade edged towards becoming a war of conversion.

  • In Marrat on December 12th, the knights were frustrated that they had been beaten to the best booty and with thus unleashed their anger on the town’s populace in a mad scramble to gather up what was left: “Our men all entered the city, and each seized his own share of whatever goods he found in houses or cellars, and when it was dawn they killed everyone, man or woman, whom they met in any place whatsoever. No corner of the town was clear of Saracen corpses, and one could scarcely go about the streets except by treading on their dead bodies.” (268) (estimated dead:10,000 an exaggeration but indicates the perceived severity of the slaughter)

9: The Faltering Path

  • “Here our men suffered from excessive hunger. I shudder o say that many of our men, terribly tormented by the madness of starvation, cut pieces of flesh from the buttocks of Saracens lying there dead. These pieces they cooked and ate, savagely devouring flesh while it was insufficiently roasted.” (274) (Marrat)

10: The Holy City

  • Jerusalem came into view on June 7th 1099. (after a 3 year march)

  • “After a very great and cruel slaughter of Saracens, of whom 10,000 fell in that same place, they put to the sword great numbers of gentiles who were running about the quarters of the city, fleeing in all direction on account of their fear of death; they were stabbing women who had fled into palaces and dwellings; seizing infants by the soles od their feet from their moethers’ laps or their cradles and dashing them against the walls and breaking their necks; they were slaughtering some with weapons, or striking them down with stones; they were sparing weapons, or striking them down with stones; they were sparing absolutely no gentile of any place or kind.” (317)

11: Aftermath


  • The First Crusade’s impact upon the relationship between western Christendom and Islam proved the most insidious and destructive. At Clermont, Urban sought to mobilize the armies of the West by creating a grossly distorted image of the Islamic world. Latins were encouraged to believe that Muslims were sadistic, sub-human savages – their natural enemy. In the campaign that followed, the Franks prosecuted an appallingly vicious war against Islam, peppered with unspeakable horrors such as the sack of Antioch and the massacre at Jerusalem. This was extreme violence, even by medieval standards…(3rd to last page)

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