If history were a strictly chronological affair, we should naturally have to put the Norman Conquest behind us before moving on to the Crusades. The Norman Conquest, however, is part of the history of England, which will soon become the focus of history per se; and it would be a shame to break up that long series of murders and betrayals by the insertion of a series of only peripherally related murders and betrayals. Let us therefore set the Norman Conquest aside for now, leaving it somewhere safe so that it will still be there when we want to come back to it.

So let us begin by taking a look at the papacy, which would be the engine that drove many of the important events of the later Middle Ages.

We shall find that the papacy was a little degraded from the days of Gregory the Great. By the year 1000, it was a job for wastrel nephews of noble Roman families. If your profligate habits and general lack of self-discipline made you an unsuitable candidate for a career in the fast-food industry, you were a good prospect for a position as pope. Noble Roman families fought gang wars in the streets for the right to put their wastrel nephews on the chair of Peter.

Being pope was a good job with a generous benefits package, but it was no longer a position of great respect in the world. The pope had a nice palace and all the mistresses money could buy, but outside of the city of Rome no one much cared who he was.

Most of the decline in the papacy had to do with the method of choosing popes. The theory was that the pope was chosen by the clergy and people of Rome. But there was no election process, so usually the pope was chosen by the gang of noble thugs that was best armed and most violent.

The most notable pope of this era, and the last, was Benedict IX. He is, to this day, the only man who has ever been pope three times. At least so historians commonly say, but to assign a definite count to his papacies is to oversimplify the story, and to make a very sloppy bit of history unnaturally tidy. Since Roman street gangs controlled the papacy, it would be most accurate to say that Benedict was pope whenever his gang had the upper hand. That meant he might go from pope to not-pope and back again several times a day, depending on how the brawls were going.

Benedict was a young man—some sources say twenty, some say twelve—when, in 1032, his family plunked him in Peter’s chair. (Two of his uncles had already been pope, so you might say it was the family business.) Once he was there, he enjoyed himself for a while with a round of frat parties in the Lateran. He was thrown out of Rome by angry mobs a couple of times, and in 1044 the clergy and people—which is to say the rival gang—picked another pope, Sylvester III, to replace him. After a few months Benedict gathered enough of his gang together to storm Rome and take back the papacy, but he quickly tired of it and sold it like an old Buick to a man who, by all accounts, actually deserved to be pope. The purchaser took the name Gregory VI. But then Benedict spent all the money and decided that not being pope was even more tiring than being pope. He missed the Lateran social life, with all its ceremonies and orgies, so he said he had just been kidding about selling the position, stormed into Rome again, and took back the throne. He was soon tossed out again. Meanwhile Sylvester III started reminding people that he was actually supposed to be pope, so there were three popes running around. The Holy Roman Emperor sorted everything out by declaring that absolutely nobody was pope, and installing his own pet Clement II as pope. But Clement II promptly died, and Benedict IX came rolling back with his gang. The Holy Roman Emperor had to send an army to throw him out again.

You see why we said that any attempt to count Benedict’s terms ends in oversimplification.

Many of Benedict’s contemporaries accuse him of every crime, but it is important to remember that he was primarily a gang leader, and only secondarily pope. The “foul murders” of which they accuse him were probably only the ordinary enforcement activities necessary to keep a street gang running smoothly. Quite possibly he didn’t even enjoy them.

Some readers may suppose that we have spent so much time on the sordid career of Benedict IX simply because historians enjoy spitting on popes whenever they get the chance. It is not so. Benedict was the most important pope of his time, because his legacy was a complete reform of the papacy. Other popes had been venal and worldly, but Benedict carried venality to such a peak of perfection that everyone finally agreed something would have to be done. The election process was changed, so that the pope would be chosen by the most prominent or “cardinal” priests of Rome. For the first time in years the Church started choosing popes on merit rather than nepotism.

The swiftness of the change was dizzying. In Benedict’s time, the pope was simply the most successful thug in the city. A generation later, the pope could order the emperor to kneel before him in the snow, and the emperor would smile a frozen smile and do it. The pope rocketed from town thug to most powerful man in the world—and it would never have happened without Benedict IX.

That pope before whom the emperor abased himself was Gregory VII, who had lived through the reign of Benedict IX and decided that the papacy needed a bit of spiffing up. In his view, the office ought to be the most powerful in the world. Was not the Pope the representative of Christ on earth? And had not Constantine given the popes all temporal power in the West?

You may be asking why this History did not mention that little incident back in the reign of Constantine. No histories from the time of Constantine mention it, but a document called the Donation of Constantine popped up in the time of Charlemagne or thereabouts. In it Constantine mentions that he is tired of the daily grind and is going to retire to Constantinople, so he gives the Pope authority over all the eastern bishops, the temporal rule of the Western Empire, and the keys to his Bentley.

Not everyone accepted the Donation of Constantine at face value. Even in the Middle Ages, some scholars pointed out certain evidence that suggested the document might be a forgery. Some wondered, for example, why Constantine’s original autograph manuscript was written in ballpoint pen on a sheet torn out of a wirebound notebook. Others suggested that the Emperor of Rome should have been able to make his adjectives agree with his nouns in gender, case, and number. Still, were any of these doubting Thomases the infallible Pope of the whole wide world? We didn’t think so. So shut up.

Armed with the Donation of Constantine, Gregory VII rubbed his hands together and declared he was going to get a few things done around here. If anyone could sort out what was wrong with Europe, Gregory was the man to do it. But Europe was in too much of a mess to be sorted out. Europe is always in too much of a mess to be sorted out: that is the legacy of Honorius. Nevertheless, Gregory did put himself and his successors in a position where emperors thought it would be a good idea to dress in rags and kneel in the snow before the pope. And if that isn’t an accomplishment, what is?

Now, what should the Church do with all that power and influence? Well, here’s an idea: why not start a perpetual war with the Islamic East that will provide full employment forever for people who like that sort of thing? It’s what Jesus would have done.

This is probably the way you remember the story of how the Crusades began, because it is the way the story is usually told in our modern histories. But, as usual, our modern histories are written by people who have mostly read other modern histories. The Crusades actually began with a bunch of Muslims fighting other Muslims.

There are two schools of thought regarding the causes of the Crusades. One school attributes them to the fanaticism of bigoted European Christians who invaded the Holy Land without provocation. The other school attributes the Crusades to the fanaticism of bigoted Muslim rulers who made life so unbearable for their Christian subjects that they finally cried out for help.

Both schools miss the mark rather widely. It is true that the Crusades were touched off by roughly equal doses of fanaticism on both sides, but almost immediately the whole enterprise was taken over by people who just liked to fight a lot. In every age there are certain people who believe that war is the noblest profession for a man, and peace is the worst calamity that can befall the nations. War is the natural state of things for them, and peace is an unfortunate interruption of business as usual. It happened that the Middle Ages had produced a bumper crop of such professional warriors, both in Christian Europe and in the Islamic East. They were unspeakably delighted to have an excuse for drawing the sword again. “Thank you very much,” they told the fanatics. “We’ll take it from here. No, we won’t be needing any of your ‘principles,’ but we’ll be sure to call you if we happen to have need of them in the future.”

So today, when you hear propagandists portraying the Crusades as unprovoked invasions that brought heartless destruction and misery upon the innocent citizens of Palestine, remember that the Muslim knights in shining armor of those days were having just as much of a jolly good time as their Christian counterparts. They loved a good war. Of course, the ordinary peasant or tradesman did tend to suffer quite a bit, but nobody cares about him. The important thing—the only thing that matters in any war—is whether the warriors are having fun. By this standard, the Crusades were a great success for both sides.

How did the Crusades get started? Well, as our story begins, there were these Turks, and there were these other Turks, and there were these Muslims who were not Turks at all, and, what with one thing and another and this and that, they all kind of hated each other. So anyway, two really important things happened. First, one bunch of Turks conquered half the Eastern Roman Empire—remember the Roman Empire? It was still there, believe it or not—and things looked pretty grim for Constantinople. Second, that bunch of Turks and another bunch of Turks and a bunch of not-Turks got to fighting over Palestine, and in the process the Christian population there got trampled under foot, as usual.

So, on the one hand, Christian pilgrims were bringing back stories of atrocities from the Holy Land, and, on the other, the Roman Emperor Alexius decided to ask for help from the West, which was perhaps the worst idea any Roman emperor since Honorius had ever had.

One of those pilgrims was a monk with a mad gleam in his eye, whom history remembers as Peter the Hermit. Peter was very probably crazy. But the world likes its madmen when they tell it what it already wants to hear. The madder the better, as long as you stay on message. The fact is that the world itself is crazy more often than not, and an individual madman is likely to go places, if he has ambition and the good luck to be mad in the right way for the time. Peter definitely had ambition, and he had a way of working a crowd that made them think Jesus would like nothing better than for them to go off right now and kill some infidels.

So when the pope declared that there would be indulgences all round for people who went off to help the Emperor Alexius get back his territory from the Turks, suddenly everybody wanted to go crusading. Peter the Hermit whipped the crowds into a frenzy of holy enthusiasm, and they just couldn’t wait to kill somebody. First they crusaded some local Jews to death, because it was a good way to get in practice, and because it was always a safe bet that, whatever was wrong with the world, the Jews were behind it, and also just maybe because many of the Crusaders had borrowed huge amounts of money from Jewish lenders to finance their crusading, and they may have concluded that, from a strictly business point of view, it made more sense to murder their creditors than to pay back their debts.

The mobs went crusading across Europe this way, murdering each other when the supply of Jews ran low, until eventually they were set upon and massacred by good pious Christians who had had just about enough of this crusading nonsense.

After that experience, it was quite obvious that it would take some experienced soldiers to get any real crusading done, and the First Crusade did not begin in earnest until they were rounded up.

Historians have traditionally numbered the Crusades, but there are so many smaller and subsidiary Crusades that the historians apparently ran out of numbers and started naming them, which probably explains why these historians went into the history business, rather than, say, math. Most historians lump Peter the Hermit’s “People’s Crusade” in with the First Crusade; but let us borrow our terminology from open-source software programmers and call it Crusade 0.9, the Crusade Not Quite Ready for General Release.

At any rate, the First Crusade gathered in Constantinople, and Alexius very quickly realized that he had opened up a can of worms whose lid would never go back on again. All these barbarian Franks, as he called them, were camped out in the suburbs, loitering in strip-mall parking lots and blocking traffic on the boulevards. And then when they did go off crusading, they went to Palestine instead of reconquering his Anatolian possessions from the Turks. And when they did conquer bits of Palestine, they set up their own little principalities there, instead of turning their conquests over to Alexius as they ought to have done. Alexius felt awfully foolish.

Meanwhile, the Crusaders, having taken Jerusalem and much of the rest of the Holy Land, celebrated with a round of indiscriminate massacres. Then they ran up against an unexpected embarrassment that made them feel awfully silly for a while. It was true that the population they had rescued (which is to say, the remainder whom they had not massacred) was mostly Christian, but—now that the dust had settled and there was time to take a look around—these Easterners turned out to be entirely the wrong kind of Christian. Yes, their religion was similar in superficial things, like believing that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who had died on the cross to redeem us from bondage to sin and death. But when it came to the really important questions, like what language the liturgy was in or whether the words “and the Son” belonged in the Creed, these people had ludicrously mistaken opinions.

Thus the Crusaders found it a little more difficult than they thought to hold on to their conquests, because the people they had liberated didn’t like them very much. Who would have thought that Middle Easterners liberated from tyrants by Westerners would be such ingrates?

For the next two hundred years, the little Crusader states were periodically overrun by Muslim armies, and then another crusade would be called, and more wars would have to be fought. It was great fun, but the Crusaders liked the fighting a great deal better than the actual governing. Every once in a while, through sheer indifference, one of the crusader princes would accidentally establish a liberal and tolerant society where people of all religions were treated equally, and it would take him years to recognize his mistake. Wasn’t his face red when he figured it out!

By Crusade number 4, we begin to see a subtle shift in the crusading business. The Fourth Crusade made it as far as Constantinople, which suddenly appeared to be a much better target than Jerusalem or Antioch. It was a much wealthier city, and it had never really been properly pillaged yet. The sheer number of portable objects of value made Constantinople an obviously wicked city which God must certainly intend to punish by means of his servants the Crusaders. Then, of course, there was the fact that Constantinople was actually wicked, with a habit of indulging in amusing little massacres of Westerners when things got a bit boring. And Constantinople was just sitting here right now, whereas the Holy Land was way over there, where it would take an arduous journey to get to it. As long as they were there, why should the Crusaders not make the most of their opportunity? So they conquered Constantinople instead, guaranteeing that Muslim Turks would eventually pour into Europe.

Meanwhile, western Europe was beginning to discover that it was not necessary to leave home to go on a Crusade. There were people right next door who desperately needed killing. For example, there were the Albigenses, a group of heretics who believed that all worldly pleasure was immoral, and who stood around in airports handing out fliers preaching vegetarianism and suicide by starvation. When one of their sympathizers murdered a papal legate, a crusade was declared against these infidels, and it was just about the most convenient crusade ever.

We should not allow our natural sympathy with the underdog to blind us to the fact that the Albigenses were kind of creepy. If your daughter came home today, in the twenty-first century, and announced that she had joined a cult with beliefs like those of the Albigenses, you would pay good money to have her kidnapped and deprogrammed. Nevertheless, there are those who contend that it is perhaps not quite Christian to massacre cultists for their strange beliefs; we historians, however, leave such matters to the theologians.

In the mean time, there were plenty of other Crusades, now that crusading had been established as a proper hobby for every class of citizen. We have now come to the point where we run out of numbers and are forced to name the Crusades.

The Children’s Crusade seemed as if it ought to be jolly good fun. The wicked Muslims would take one look at the army of children marching toward them, say, “Awww, how cute,” and turn from their wicked ways. It might well have worked, but the children never got near any wicked Muslims. Instead, the good, kind Christians through whose lands they marched took one look at them and said, “Awww, how cute! These kids have got to be worth something on the open market.” So the children were all sold as slaves and lived happily ever after, except for the ones who died.

We should note that some recent scholarship has cast doubt on the historicity of the Children’s Crusade. If he has attributed to the human race one enormity which it did not actually commit, Dr. Boli is heartily sorry. He promises to make up for it by leaving out several thousand atrocities for which there simply is not room in this History.

And we have still not run out of Crusades. There was the Tavern Crusade, which began in London and made it as far as Southwark before stopping in for a drink at the Knave’s Foot Tavern, where it devolved into a bar fight. And of course there was the Pease Porridge Crusade, which came to such a tragic end before it ever left Mrs. Whortle’s wayside inn at Dumpcester Regis.

And what was the end result of all this crusading? After two centuries of nearly incessant war, the Holy Land was in pretty much the same state as before. The temporary Crusader kingdoms vanished, and the Christian population was as oppressed as ever. In other words, the Crusades were some of the most successful wars in history. They provided full employment for generations of warriors. They helped a long line of popes hold on to the greatest concentration of temporal power in Europe since Theodosius the Great. They deepened already deep-set hatreds that have continued to generate profitable wars up to the present day. And they did it all without making any permanent changes that threatened to bring about lasting peace, thus putting an end to all the fun.

If you have ever felt nostalgic for the colorful days of the Middle Ages—if you have ever wished that you might have lived in the days of knights in shining armor—then rejoice. The Crusades, at least, are still going on. The armor does not shine quite the way it used to shine; but Westerners are still invading the East to carve out their own kingdoms there; Islamic fanatics are still harassing and murdering Christians; and everyone is still having a jolly good time fighting the same old endless battles. Even the peasants and tradesmen are still being trampled by the warriors, just as in the good old days. How much more medieval could you get?

The chapters previously published:

Chapter 1.


Chapter 2.


Chapter 3.


Chapter 4.


Chapter 5.


Chapter 6.


Chapter 7.


Chapter 8.


Chapter 9.


Chapter 10.


Chapter 11.


Chapter 12.


Chapter 13.


Chapter 14.


Chapter 15.


Chapter 16.


Chapter 17.



  1. Yay! More of this excellent series! And one of the best summaries of the Crusades since the great Terry Jones.

    But it’s not quite true that, as you say, the Crusades are still going on. The pre-Crusade war amongst the Turks and other Turks and Muslims that aren’t quite Turks is the war we’re still fighting.

    See, as you mentioned in Chapter 14, the Arab Muslims had conquered Persia, exhausted from being beaten by Byzantium in a war 15 minutes earlier, as well as half of Byzantium, exhausted from beating up on the aforementioned Persians. The tough, barbarian Arabs, hardened by a desert-nomad lifestyle and endless internecine clan warfare, found themselves suddenly in control of a bunch of sophisticated city-dwelling civilized subjects who were quite capable of administrating themselves, thank you very much. So the Arabs settled down to write poetry, leaf through all those old books of Greco-Roman philosophy and science that were lying around everywhere in the wreckage of Roman-Byzantine civilization, and have an enormous amount of fun competing to see who could have the biggest harem full of the hottest concubines. In short, they got soft. After a couple uncharacteristically semi-competent Byzantine Emperors hired themselves some Vikings and Steppe Nomad mercenaries and started pushing back against the Arabs, the Arabs realized they needed some tough barbarian mercs of their own. So they hired themselves a bunch of Turkic-speaking Steppe Nomad horse archers from Central Asia, and sent them off to batter the Byzantines back into retreat.

    And it worked. Too well. The Turkish tribesmen who had been hired had an enormous amount of fun fighting and pillaging their way across Anatolia, and decided this was a lot better way to make a living than herding goats across the vast dusty plains northeast of the Caspian, so they invited all their friends and relatives from back home to join them. With these familial reinforcements, they turned on both the Byzantines and Arabs and took over for themselves. As the Saxon kinglings over in England were finding about the same time, once you pay the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane. And once you hire Turkish mercenaries to do your fighting for you, they realize that they’re better fighters than you are, and they tend to kind of take over. Various branches of the Turkish tribes soon fell to squabbling amongst themselves over who got to rule over which Arabs and which Greek and Armenian Christians, as well as fighting some of the Arabs who hadn’t yet been overthrown by their own mercenaries because these Egyptians had instead employed slave-soldiers known as Mamluks. Eventually, the Mamluks would overthrow the Egyptians and take over there as well, and the family of a minor Turkish warlord named Osman would eventually bring order to the Turks and create the Ottoman Empire, but those were both centuries in the future when the first Crusaders arrived on the scene.

    Today, of course, one would think we’d have learned our lesson, but nope. Our present wars in the mideast are full of mercenaries and foreign “volunteers” being brought in to fight for one side or another, then realizing that they were the ones with the guns and the training and the ruthlessness to kill, and ending up turning on their sponsors and taking over for themselves. Mostly this has afflicted the Muslim sides, what with foreign Jihadis hijacking the Syrian and Libyan and Afghan civil wars, as well as the Iraqi insurgency. But to judge by our video games, at least, the West is about due for Blackwater and the other Private Military Contractors to try and take over here as well.

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