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Who kicked off the Crusades?

15 February 2012

A startling new theory does not wholly convince Alan Borg


The First Crusade: The call from the East
Peter Frankopan
Bodley Head £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

CAN there be anything more to say about the First Crusade? It is the subject of hundreds of books and articles, numerous television docu­mentaries, and several feature films; so it would seem that every angle has been thoroughly invest­igated. But Peter Frankopan does not think so.

In this book, he sets out to show that not only is there evidence that has been largely ignored, but that this evidence leads to the conclusion that all previous histories have gravely distorted the truth. The Crusade was not an enterprise dreamed up in the West; rather, it was the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I who “put in motion the chain of events that introduced the Crusades to the world”.

This is a bold claim. In brief, the argument is that the Byzantine Empire was under attack from the Turks, and in danger of total col­lapse. Alexios, therefore, dis­patched ambassadors to Pope Urban II, ask­ing him to send help. This persuaded the Pope to call the Coun­cil of Clermont, which issued a call to arms that led, four years later, to the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders.

The story of the Byzantine em­bassy is well known. What is new is Frankopan’s view that this (and related developments in Byzantium) was the single spark that lit the whole Crusade movement. It is not possible to do justice to a long and complex argument in a short review, and the author clearly shows that Byzantine politics played a signifi­cant part in the formulation of Western attitudes.

But by seeing this as the most important factor in the launch of the First Crusade, the author is in danger of distorting the story in the way that he suggests previous historians have done. There had been many other embassies from Byzantium to the West (notably one from Emperor Michael VII to Pope Gregory VII in 1073) which did not lead to a Crusade.

It is true that the situation in the East was worse by 1095, but it is not clear why or how Alexios’s ambas­sadors influenced the Pope so dramatically. One explanation could be that both Urban II and those who heard him were already pre­disposed to take action. The motives of those who sponsored the Crusade and those who took part in it were many and various. Alexios I was a player in the game, but there were many others. While this book is a valuable addition to the literature, it does not replace the interpretation of generations of historians from Runciman to Riley-Smith.

Dr Alan Borg is chairman of the Foundling Museum in London.

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