Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Challenging a Millennium of Scholarship

I ran into an interesting article yesterday (via the Medieval News blog) touting a new nonfiction book by historian Peter Frankopan that will be "countering nearly a millennium of scholarship" about the First Crusade. In his new book, The First Crusade: the Call from the East, which is slated to come out in 2012, Dr. Frankopan argues that the focal point of the Crusade's origins was in the Byzantine Empire's desire to regain territory, not in Pope Urban's preaching. The Europeans who came to fight came as mercenaries for the Byzantine emperor Alexios. It was only later that Western propaganda turned the military action into a fight for Jerusalem.

The article (originally published in the newspaper The Australian) doesn't go into too much detail about Dr. Frankopan's new findings, but these paragraphs give a small picture of what his new book will propose:

For Dr Frankopan, the First Crusade was therefore not a religious war, but instead a "very specific, targeted military expedition against the cities of Nicaea and Antioch", two former Byzantine possessions that the crusader army swore an oath to hand over to Alexios. Jerusalem was just a carrot. 
The Crusade mythology that emerged from all this was a result of what happened next, Dr Frankopan claimed. Some of the Norman commanders refused to hand the newly conquered cities over to the Emperor. 
To justify this course of action, and a subsequent attempt to launch an expedition against Constantinople, they embarked on a propaganda war of "horrific vilification" against Alexios and his Empire. Urban successfully used the recapture of Jerusalem to cement the power of his papacy and Alexios was written out of the historical record.
I am very curious to read this book once it is released (my Amazon Wish List has been updated accordingly). Dr. Frankopan's claim is an interesting one, but it seems that he would have to discredit dozens of Western sources which attribute the Crusaders' original motivations to their desire to retake the Holy City. Perhaps Emperor Alexios thought he was getting an army of compliant mercenaries, but Urban, Bohemond, Godfrey, and Tancred thought otherwise....


  1. glad you found it: as soon as I saw it I thought of you and meant to forward it to you, and got stuck in other things to do. Emma

  2. This is an interesting theory. Your post reminds me that I actually read the same thing in the YA historical novel "Anna of Byzantium" by Tracy Barrett. Part of the book focuses on the First Crusade from the Byzantine perspective, and it's mostly about the pope sending troops to help Anna Comnena's father Alexios push back the encroaching infidel Turks.

  3. Emma, thanks for thinking of me!

    Sam, I read that book Anna of Byzantium a long, long time ago, back when I was YA....I remember liking it, but don't remember much else about it. I think everyone agrees that the Byzantine emperor considered the Crusaders to be helping him regain his empire, the question is whether the Crusaders thought that was what they were doing.


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