Sunday, January 25, 2015

Frankopan offers a view from the East

It is often said that you cannot understand the politics, acrimony, and wars of Asia Minor and the Middle East without understanding the place of the Crusades in the region's history.  In a marvelous pairing with that thought, Peter Frankopan has written a book that suggests that you cannot understand why the First Crusade occurred without an understanding of what was happening in the Byzantine Empire, and especially the region extending east from Constantinople.

I met Peter after he gave a marvelous talk at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival.  Now I've finished the book and am pleased to highly recommend it.

It is hard to imagine how a reconciliation between the two major factions of the Catholic Church could occur after this event:

On 16 July 1054, the papal legate, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, along with other envoys from Rome, strode into the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as the Eucharist was being celebrated. In a moment of high drama, they walked directly up to the front of the chuch, not pausing to pray. Before the clergy and the congregation, they produced a document and brazenly placed it on the high altar.  The patriarch of Constantinople, it read, had abused his office and was guilty of many errors in his beliefs and teaching.  He was forthwith excommunicated, to suffer with all the worst heretics in hell, who were listed carefully.

And yet, within 40 years, Pope Urban II joined forces with the eastern church and, in a notable address at Clermont, "drew careful attention to the suffering of Christians in Asia Minor [at the hands of the Turks] and to the persecution of the churches in the east--that is to say the churches following the Greek rite."  His call for aid stimulated the First Crusade, an invasion by 80,000 European knights, soldiers, and others.  But why then?  The Holy Land had been in the hands of "the infidels" for centuries.  Why did it take until 1095 for this call to arms?

Frankopan, using established sources but also other primary sources previously ignored, tells the story of how the confluence of two geopolitical struggles led to an alliance between Urban and the Byzantine emperor, Alexios.  One part of the story is Urban's attempt to reestablish his authority within the Roman Church, where he was in danger of being made irrelevant by Clement III and his protector Henry IV.  "He was forced to build bridges wherever he could," notes Frankopan, including a conciliation with Constantinople.

Meanwhile, the Byzantine emperor was facing military attacks from all sides and was increasingly vulnerable to the Turks from his east.  He had insufficient forces to hold them off and needed an infusion of arms and men.  He saw the potential for an alliance and worked with the local religious leaders, including the patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch.  "These steps reopened dialogue with Rome and paved the way for a major realignment of the Byzantine Empire on the eve of the First Crusade." When Alexios later appealed for military help:

The Pope immediately recognized the opening. He had already been intending to visit France. He reacted quickly and decisively to the appeals from the emperor's envoys. Rather than sending out letters that talked about the principles of an expedition without providing detail, structure, or purpose, Urban decided to devise and put in place personally an expedition to transform the eastern Mediteranean.

They worked closely on the narrative:

Urban's words were chosen to speak to his western audience but his appeal was shaped by an agenda that was to a large extent set by Alexios in Constantinople . . . rousing mass enthusiasm to raise an efficient, controllable military force that could meet very particular Byzantine military objectives.

But it was one thing to provoke a military invasion of "the faithful" to free Jerusalem, and it was another altogether for Alexios to maintain control of his own empire as the Europeans passed through it overtaking the Turkish towns and fortifications.  He needed some way to assure that the Crusaders would not immediately turn on him and grab his territory for themselves.  It was here that he exercised his own form of genius--based on his excellent understanding of the cultural mores of the West.  He went beyond offering the leaders of the Crusades the highest in diplomatic courtesies; gifts of jewels, gold, and other treasures; and logistical support in the form of food and other supplies for thousands of soldiers.  Meeting with each leader individually and "adopting them as his sons," Alexios also asked each to swear an oath of fealty to the emperor.

Fealty was a key element in the feudal structure and well established in Western Europe by the time of the First Crusade.  It created a relationship with specific legal implications between a vassal on the one hand and a master on the other.  Paying homage, the vassal committed to serve his lord and not harm him by swearing an oath over the Bible or another suitable religous object, such as a sacred relic, in front of a cleric.

I'll end the summary here, leaving the rest for interested readers.  You can already imagine the difficulty--for both the Pope and the emperor--in maintaining the holy alliance in the face of strong-willed political and military leaders from Europe.  Particularly after the Crusaders captured Antioch and Jersualem.  You can also imagine the ongoing internal struggles faced by Alexios from his local allies and enemies.  Can oaths of fealty survive in this environment?

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