Stained glass window in Brussels cathedral depicting First Crusade commander Godfrey of Bouillon. Shutterstock
Ask pretty much anyone – whether terrorists, politicians (of all camps), dinner party guests, or religious leaders – and the one thing that they will say with confidence about the Crusades is that they were a conflict between two diametrically opposed religions: Christianity and Islam – a clash of civilisations. This is a widely-held judgement – but is it correct?
The First Crusade (1095-1099) – the massive expedition that marched across Europe and the Middle East to capture Jerusalem – underlines some of the difficulties surrounding this toxic assessment. These became evident during research I conducted for two books: Encountering Islam on the First Crusade and The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East (forthcoming).
Problems become clear from the campaign’s outset. The documents produced by crusaders preparing for the journey, known as charters, only occasionally mention any enemy and concentrate their attention on reaching and conquering Jerusalem.
Of course, they knew that achieving this objective would require warfare, but they demonstrated little interest in their enemies’ identity, often labelling them as “pagans” – essentially, “non-Christians”. Jerusalem at this time was steadily moving into the epicentre of contemporary religious culture and it was this goal that galvanised thousands to participate, not the desire to attack an enemy religion.
The pope’s military objectives were more mixed. In addition to Jerusalem, Pope Urban II also wanted crusading knights to defend the distant Byzantine Empire against attack – but this aspiration does not seem to have resonated with his audience in the same way as the thought of reaching the Holy Land.
The crusaders didn’t know a great deal about their ‘enemy’. Shutterstock
By extension, throughout the crusade, the Franks (crusaders) proved both uninformed and uninterested in the Islamic faith (or the “Saracen law” as it was known). They knew “Saracens” to be non-Christians and some were vaguely aware of the division between Sunni and Shia Islam, but rarely more. A few thought erroneously that Muslims were polytheists. Even many years after the crusade, one 12th century Western writer, William of Malmesbury, in his Gesta Regum Anglorum, found it necessary to explain that “Saracens” did not practice the same faith as Baltic pagans.
In short, Jerusalem, not Islam, was the target and they knew little about this religion.
On campaign, the crusaders’ main opponents were the Seljuk Turks. The Turks were originally a largely shamanistic and nomadic people who had migrated from the Central Asian Steppe region to conquer much of the Muslim world during the century preceding the crusade. They had seized Syria and the Holy Land only 20 years previously.
By the 1090s, the Turks had begun to convert to Islam but many retained elements of their former beliefs. During the crusade – and in later decades – observers noted that some Turks still (among other things): buried their dead with grave goods, scalped enemies, and conducted colossal drinking parties. All these customs reflected their former traditions and many of these and other practices conflicted with Islamic teaching. So the Turks – the crusaders’ main opponents – were hardly longstanding adherents of Islam but instead were part of the way through a long-term process of religious transition.