Monday, July 03, 2017

Why did Europe lose the Crusades?

A little while ago, I started to wonder about a historical question: Why did Europe lose the Crusades? The conventional wisdom, at least as I've always understood it, is that Europe was simply weaker and less advanced than the Islamic Middle Eastern powers defending the Holy Land. Movies about the Crusades tend to feature the Islamic armies deploying fearsome weapons - titanic trebuchets, or even gunpowder. This is consistent with the broad historical narrative of a civilizational "reversal of fortunes" - the notion that Islamic civilization was much more highly advanced than Europe in the Middle Ages. Also, there's the obvious fact that the Middle East is pretty far from France, Germany, and England, leading to the obvious suspicion that the Middle East was just too far away for medieval power projection.

Anyway, I decided to answer this question by...reading stuff about the Crusades. I read all the Wikipedia pages for the various crusades, and then read a book - Thomas Asbridge's "The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land". Given that even these basic histories contain tons of uncertainty, we'll never really know why the Crusades turned out the way they did. But after reading up a bit, here are my takes on the main candidate explanations for why Europe ultimately lost.

Explanation 1: Technological Inferiority

To my surprise, this probably wasn't that big of a deal. From movies, and from reading Mongol history - the Mongols hired lots of Middle Easterners to improve their siege technology in the 1200s - I had thought that the armies of the Seljuk Turks and other Middle Eastern powers would be far in advance of that of Christian Europe. But apparently they were about equal. The Crusaders built a cool modular siege tower during the siege of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, allowing them to quickly move their tower to the other side of the city where defenses weren't ready for them. Also, during the siege of Acre in the Third Crusade, it was the Crusaders under Richard the Lionheart who built catapults of unprecedented size, not Saladin. Also, catapults were mainly used to fling stuff into cities, not to batter down city walls - only with the invention of cannon did big medieval walls become obsolete.

As for the gunpowder thing, it was probably deployed only very late in the Crusades, after the Mongols had already used it against European armies in their aborted invasion of East Europe.

Muslim civilization probably was technologically superior to Christian Europe at the time of the Crusades, but the differences were nowhere near the enormous sorts of disparities that opened up in the world after the Industrial Revolution. The Middle East had better medicine, but medicine just wasn't that great anywhere. The Middle East also had some stuff like lateen sails, which allowed them to sail the Indian Ocean, but their ships weren't big enough to create really huge sea trade with places like China.

Militarily, the Middle Easterners had one important technology that European armies lacked: Horse archers. I have no idea why Europeans didn't use horse archers, but this lack seemed to put them at a consistent disadvantage relative to Central Asian armies in the Middle Ages. The Mongols, especially, used expert large-scale horse archery to run right over every army that fought them in the field, including European armies. In the Crusades, constant skirmishing by Turkish horse archers often kept European armies on the defensive in open battles.

But for some reason, the Seljuk Turks and other Muslim armies just don't seem to have used horse archery as decisively as the Mongols regularly did. Despite being usually outnumbered and often faced with horse archers, Crusader armies won their fair share of battles. In the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart beat Saladin every time they fought. In the First Crusade and after, the Crusader armies won several pitched battles. Maybe Mongols had perfected the art of horse archer warfare in a way that others hadn't - after all, they also managed to consistently defeat all of their Central Asian enemies, including Turkish armies, in horse archery warfare.

Anyway, it does not seem like the Muslims of the Middle East stomped the Crusaders using superior technology.

Explanation 2: Political Division

The European Crusaders, and the rulers of the Crusader States, were certainly politically divided. There were tensions between the Crusaders and the Byzantines, through whose territory they often traveled to reach the Middle East - in fact, this eventually led to the Crusaders actually sacking the Byzantine capital and effectively ending that empire's power. There was distinct lack of coordination between Crusader leaders on most of the major crusades. The Crusader States were plagued by secession disputes and backstabbing. Rivalries between the Crusader kings in the Third Crusade were one big reason they eventually abandoned that Crusade to go back to Europe and fight each other.

Obviously, this had a very deleterious effect on Crusader effectiveness. But actually, the Muslim world was just as divided as the Christian one, which dramatically weakened Muslim resistance to the Crusades. The Abbasid-Fatimid division probably allowed the First Crusade to seize Jerusalem in the first place, because Jerusalem was on the boundary between those two rival Muslim powers' territories. The main anti-Crusade leaders, Nur ad-Din and Saladin, spent a lot of their time and effort and resources subduing Muslim Syria and/or Muslim Iraq instead of fighting the Crusaders. Saladin came to power by overthrowing the Fatimids in Egypt and rebelling against his Zangid overlords in Syria. In general, the Muslims of the Middle East seemed to spend only sporadic and occasional effort kicking the Crusaders out of the Levant, and a lot more time fighting one another.

So political division was probably a wash here.

Explanation 3: Geographic Distance

This is certainly a big factor. The Mongols could easily gallop across the plains of Central Asia with their herds of animals, but most medieval armies were limited by expensive transport, crappy ships, and the political fragmentation of intervening territories. It's a long way from northern France to Israel. Crusaders had to either beg for help from the Byzantines (with whom they often fought) or buy ships from the Italian city-states. The history of the Crusades is filled with episodes where Crusade expeditions ended up fighting locals on the way over, or got ambushed, or suffered desertions, or had their leaders accidentally die. What's more, even after the First Crusade succeeded and established the Crusader States, they could only receive an intermittent trickle of European reinforcements. As a result, they were chronically outnumbered by their Muslim neighbors by huge margins.

Europeans were much more effective at driving the Muslims out of Spain, where they had the advantage of proximity. In fact, both the Crusader States and the fate of Muslim Spain show how geography led to an enduring, though porous, border between Europe and the Middle East.

So geographic distance has to be a factor. In the Middle Ages, unless you were a Central Asian warlord with a mounted army, you just couldn't conquer a very large swathe of territory, because it was so hard to get your army from Point A to Point B.

But after reading the history of the Crusades, I'm actually reasonably convinced that geography was only the second-biggest reason Europe ultimately lost...

My Explanation: Lack of Motivation

When we modern folks think of war, we tend to think of huge, dramatic, to-the-bitter-end conflicts like the World Wars. We think of FDR saying "The American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory", or French and German armies dying by the millions in the trenches. But I think that for most of history's wars, the question of "why we fight" was just a lot harder to answer, and subject to constant change.

In the Crusades, this is most clearly illustrated by the Third Crusade. Richard the Lionheart handily defeated the main Muslim leader, Saladin, in a series of battles and sieges. He advanced his army to within a short distance of Jerusalem - and then quit without taking the city. He tried to convince the army to attack Egypt instead, but the troops weren't interested in that. Much of his army deserted and everyone ridiculed him, so he gathered another army and again advanced near to Jerusalem. Saladin's army basically ran away, and Saladin was preparing to surrender the city. But again, Richard quit. He worked out a deal with Saladin and headed back to Europe to fight other Europeans.

This lack of will to fight was also in evidence in the later Crusades. The Fourth Crusaders decided they'd rather attack the Byzantines than the Muslims. Enthusiasm for the Crusades steadily fell after the first two, leading to smaller and smaller European armies. The Crusader States struggled to defend themselves, but European armies seemed far more noncommittal.

Why did Europeans prosecute most of the Crusades in such a lackluster fashion? Asbridge suggests that after the first two Crusades, Europe began transitioning from a deeply religious society to one more concerned with worldly politics. There were still spontaneous outpourings of religiously driven crusading fervor from the general populace - for example, the Children's Crusade - but their enthusiasm wasn't generally matched by experienced military types. Only the First Crusade seems to have resulted from a mass outpouring of religious devotion among people who actually knew how to fight wars and lead armies.

While the First Crusade was led by experienced warlords who seemed to genuinely believe that crusading would expunge their sins, later Crusades were mostly led by kings and other nobles whose main aim seems to have been building their prestige in Europe. Richard the Lionheart was a super-effective military leader, but the places he was really interested in conquering and ruling were England and France.

I also suspect that the territories the religious zealots wanted to take - especially Jerusalem - were just not that economically valuable. Acre, Tyre and other Levantine ports were valuable because of trade, but Jerusalem was basically a symbolic prize surrounded by crappy farmland. It's important to remember that pretty much everyone in the Middle Ages, and certainly every country, was desperately poor and frequently on the edge of starvation (except for Sung China, which was enjoying a golden age). Every war therefore had to have an economic dimension as well as a political one - there were just no surplus resources for ideological conflict.

My hunch that Jerusalem was economically worthless comes from the details of the Crusades themselves. Muslim leaders consistently avoided conquering the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, generally focusing their efforts on Syria, Egypt, or Mesopotamia. Richard the Lionheart tried to get his troops to bypass Jerusalem and attack Egypt - which makes economic sense, because Egypt had great riverside farmland and valuable ports. In the Fifth Crusade, the Egyptian Muslim leaders offered to just give Jerusalem to the Crusaders to get them to leave the Muslims alone; the Crusaders said no (and ended up losing on the battlefield). In the Sixth Crusade the Muslim leader actually did just give Jerusalem to the Crusaders (they lost it again later). The troops on both sides of the conflict seem to have been strongly religiously motivated and wanted Jerusalem, but the leaders thought in economic terms and tended not to care about the supposed main objective.

So I think that although geography was a difficult obstacle, if there had really been a long-term point to the Crusades, the Europeans would have put forth a greater effort after the First Crusade. They might not have held Jerusalem forever, but they would have made a much better showing than they did.

The Real Lesson of the Crusades

In fact, despite the incredible wealth of the modern world, I think the question of "Why are we even fighting this war?" still matters crucially. In Vietnam, the U.S. defeated the Viet Cong decisively and could have easily stomped any force North Vietnam threw at us, but we (wisely) decided that there was nothing worth fighting for there. Using massive force of arms to force a country not to go communist when it wants to go communist is just a dead-end objective. We lost the war because not because winning was militarily too difficult, but because there was no such thing as winning.

Iraq was clearly not just a military but also a political victory for the United States - our preferred government still sits in power there, and every opposing army has been crushed. Most people throughout history would label that a "victorious" war, as would Wikipedia. But lots of Americans still think we "lost" in Iraq. My hunch is that what they're really sensing is that there was nothing at all worth fighting for in Iraq (at least up until the appearance of ISIS), and therefore there was no such thing as winning.

The Crusades also bear lessons for modern would-be Crusaders who think the West is locked in an eternal struggle with Islam. They should stop more often to think, in the immortal words of Basil Fawlty: "I mean, what is the bloody point??"


  1. I'd put most of the emphasis on "lack of reinforcements" and "heavily outnumbered". They made very effective use of their forces and technology - witness some of the best castles ever made, such as Kraks de Chevalier - but ultimately they were like the Vandals taking over North Africa in the 5th century. They were either going to be defeated and driven off eventually, or absorbed.

    One note on the Horse Archers - they're good, but they depend heavily on having the pasture and grasslands to support the multiple horses each mounted archer needed. Europeans didn't use them because outside of parts of Hungary and eastern Europe, the European terrain simply didn't support using them en masse in the time period (they were also vulnerable to the rampant build-up of garrison stone castles and fortifications, which is what ultimately crushed the Mongol invasion of Hungary in 1287).

    1. Interesting. Yeah, after Subutai and Genghis' other top guys exited the stage, later Mongols seemed to lose their taste/knack for siege warfare...But Mongols were always good at combining horse archers with heavy cavalry...

    2. Yeah, logistics is a boring answer, but it's probably the overwhelming factor here. Both for why the crusaders failed and for why horse archers were good for the huge Muslim/Mongol empires and less good for the compact European states.

    3. Anonymous4:56 PM

      Stirrups were invented in China.

    4. Anonymous12:04 PM

      Re: Horse Archers. Also worth noting that Europe is not an ideal climate for the sort of compound bows you need to make good use of horse archers.

      Beyond that, yeah, the sheer logistics of sustaining a large number of horse archers is a problem. Most serious analyses I've read of why the Mongols stopped pushing further west chalk it up less to the death of the Khan and more to a combined loss of interest and the inability to keep their armies in the field for long periods of time deeper in Europe.

      A second point regarding the Mongols: Europeans didn't use mounted archers much, but they were no stranger to them, either. What put the Mongols over the top compared to most of their rivals was the professionalism and discipline of their armies. While European armies were not the rabble of peasant levies they are sometimes believed to be, they were generally pretty ad hoc, unmeritocratic, and untrained compared the Mongols.


  2. > Militarily, the Middle Easterners had one important technology that European armies lacked: Horse archers. I have no idea why Europeans didn't use horse archers, but this lack seemed to put them at a consistent disadvantage relative to Central Asian armies in the Middle Ages.

    Europeans did use Turcopolliers in Crusade.

    But in general, Horse Archer isn't all-powerful military tech. Infantry Archer could use bigger bow that have longer range and Lance Cavalry (Knights) is more effective in Melee. horse Archer only could win when battlefield enable them to retreat and re-attack, in all battle when they trapped, European Knights win decisively. horse Archer is useful if you have large flat steppe who could supply large number of nomads and their horse. But once you settle down, like Hungarians, you want troops who could actually defend the ground, so they transitioned to Knights.

    1. Hmm, I don't know. Mongol composite bow is generally believed to have outranged English/Welsh longbow (though accuracy is probably better on foot). And Mongols knew how to combine horse archers, heavy cavalry, and siegecraft...they weren't just a roving mass of horse archers.

    2. I think a lot has to do how medieval armies were recruited and organized. Kings generally did not maintain large standing armies during this period. The knights who went on these fights tended to be second or third sons who were not going to inherit their father's estates and who did not join the clergy.

      Generally, the pattern is the Europeans would put together a large army and engage in a big push, maybe lasting a year or two. After the army made its conquests, the kings who led the armies would go home, taking most of their troops with them. A few opportunistic lords (generally the second or third sons) would stay behind and set up petty fiefdoms.

      After the main army left, the Muslims would slowly retake their land, one petty fiefdom at a time. Sometimes the Europeans would try to put an army together, but it was just as likely such an army would be wiped out, as at Hattin.

      So every fifty years, or so, after the Muslims reconquered most of their territory, the European kings would mount another push. Consider, the First Crusade was in 1196. The second crusade, which really was not that big a deal in the Middle East was c1140. The Third Crusade was c1191. The Fourth Crusade, which never really arrived in the Middle East was 1202. The Fifth Crusade started in 1213, but ended up being defeated in Egypt. The Sixth Crusade was largely a diplomatic effort fifteen years following the failure of the Fifth Crusade. In short we see short periods of intensive fighting followed by years where the Muslims slowly take back what they had lost.

      We see the same pattern today. The U.S. engages in a short push leading to a dramatic victory. Eventually, the U.S. tires of war and leaves, at which point the locals take everything back and run thinks pretty much as they have for the past couple millenia.

    3. The mongols had both light and heavy horse archers, the heavy horse archers were basically hybrid troops that used volleys ahead of their charge to soften up targets and then sabres for slashing. But mostly when it comes to archers it is about the vast amount of training needed to be good. Asian steppe nomads learned archery from early childhood, their bow was a constant companion, and there just wasn't nearly the training available in sedentary agricultural populations where every male asian nomad had the bow as their primary tool in protecting their flock/herd and hunting food. Horse archers just were not a viable option for most armies as the resources required to train and maintain.

      Remember, a trained archer was many times more deadly than any firearm based militia well into the 1800's. Horse archers were superior on the western US frontier until rifled carbines and the revolver became a viable technology after the civil war. The problem has always been it takes 8 to 10 times more training to achieve a similar level of efficacy in troops even if the final efficacy for archers was generally much higher it wasn't enough to devote the resources.

  3. Anonymous6:12 AM

    Perhaps weather/water could be issues as well?
    The heavy armoured knights will probably be not so effective for long at middle east temperatures?

    1. This is probably the most basic issue of all. If you ever experienced a middle eastern summer compared with an English or northern European climate, then add in their heavy armor, more comfortable in cooler climates, they were probably all ready for siesta after very little fighting.

  4. Political division was not a wash. In periods where the Europeans were united and the Muslims divided, the Europeans tended to win. And in periods where the Europeans were divided and the Muslims united, the Muslims tended to win.

  5. The US didn't defeat the Viet Cong. The fact that they couldn't is why the war dragged on for so long. Guerrilla tactics on home turf can stymie any invading army. We saw it in Viet Nam, just as we're seeing it in Afghanistan. We should have taken a lesson from our inability to win in Viet Nam and the Soviet's inability to win in Afghanistan before us.

    1. We crushed them militarily. After the Tet offensive they were done as a real fighting force. But you can't bludgeon an entire population into not wanting communism. So our military victory was for naught.

    2. First, the Vietnamese didn't want "communism", they wanted independence from Western imperial powers. The communists were simply the strongest force offering that, so they went with the communists.

      Second, it's quite easy to bludgeon a population into not wanting something - or, at the very least, not engaging in armed struggle for it. The British did it quite well in India for a hundred years of the formal Raj, and quite a long time of Company Rule as well, with less manpower (British manpower, that is) and without anything like our modern whiz-bang super-technology. The only reason we didn't is that (1) the measures we'd have to take were too brutal for the TV age, especially us being a liberal democracy and all, i.e. we didn't have the stomach for that kind of thing, (2) the really extreme measures might have risked war with the USSR and/or China.

      The irony, of course, is that the threat of really brutal action might have saved lives overall. There was effectively no rebellion against the British Raj (the really big rebellion, the Mutiny of 1857, was before the Raj itself), because (i) the British were much smarter than we or the French were about using local political structures, and (ii) there was an expectation that any rebellion would simply be crushed with maximum force - lent credence by the experience of 1857.

    3. arlie2:32 PM

      So six weeks after the fact, and presumably a dead thread. but the contention of our "military victory" in Viet Nam is remarkable enough to warrant comment.

      ". . . (the US) could have easily stomped any force North Vietnam threw at us."

      Really? After nine years of trying, bombing of supply trails and cities in the North, treating the whole of the South as a free fire zone after burning the homes of the population, and extending the war into Cambodia? Yes, it took some persuading before we "wisely decided that there was nothing worth fighting for there".

    4. Nathanael1:11 PM

      The US had no possibility of winning in Vietnam short of committing genocide and colonizing the way the Americas were colonized. Which wasn't a possibility: Americans weren't eager to move to Vietnam.

      There was an article about this recently.

      The key point is that basically everyone in Vietnam was on the side of Ho Chi Minh (which is unsurprising given that he had been a stalwart patriot supporting Vietnamese independence for a very long time -- originally using the US as his model).

      The "South Vietnamese government" was just a bunch of corrupt guys who were milking cash from first France and then the US -- they had zero loyalty or patriotism, and nobody was loyal to them.

    5. Nathanael1:19 PM

      "There was effectively no rebellion against the British Raj... because (i) the British were much smarter than we or the French were about using local political structures"

      This is correct.

      The threats of brutal repression were in actual fact completely useless and even counterproductive. It was *all about* coopting the local political structures.

      The British Imperial process was to coopt *popular and effective* local kings and slowly turn them into British dependents. It is by far the most effective method of building an empire. When India became independent in 1947 many of those maharajas were still in place.

      If the US had done this in Vietnam, we would have backed Ho Chi Minh when he asked for American help the *first* time during World War II, rejected the French demands to resume their colonial empire, and ended up with a Vietnam loyal to the US. By backing the awful French colonialist enterprise, we guaranteed loss.

      But so far, since the Age of Colonization started, the French, Russian, US, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgian, German, and Chinese empires have all signally failed to follow this model.

      Perhaps there was something unusual about British culture which allowed them to look at things this way -- probably the same thing which causes them to still treat Scotland as a different country.

      Though the Ottoman Empire did work pretty much this way. And Persia/Iran's influence is still operating this way.

  6. Great article Noah. I wonder what the takeaway is for the current tensions with North Korea? They have a large standing army, assumed to be heavily motivated by a constant barrage of propaganda. This alone might be enough to counteract their aging military equipment. Your article perfectly demonstrates that technical superiority does not guarantee victory.

  7. I think Asbridge is mistaken to suggest that Europe went from a deeply religious society around the time of the First Crusade to a society more concerned with worldly, secular matters by the later Crusades. I don't think either side of that equation is quite accurate.

    But there's a better reason for the decreased motivation (aside from the passage of a lot of time): The perceived threat had passed. Don't forget that, as Thomas Madden has long argued, the First Crusade was essentially a defensive counterattack aimed at the perceived threat of Muslim conquest of all of Christendom.

    Over the prior three centuries, about two thirds of the territories that had once been under Christian political power had come under Muslim rule, including the conquest of Spain and Turkish control to within 125 miles of Constantinople. At the start of the First Crusade, there was a real fear in Europe (and Byzantium) that Christendom would soon be further squeezed by the continually growing Muslim threat.

    Thus the First Crusade could be marketed (and mostly prosecuted) as a defense of Christendom and under God's favor. But by the end of the Third Crusade, there had been no significant Islamic expansion into Christian lands for two centuries, and Spain had mostly been reclaimed under Christian political power, making it difficult to maintain any sense of the continued conflicts as a defense of Christendom (and/or Christianity). That lack of urgency in a "they'll get us if we don't get them" sense seems to me to be the best reason for explaining the change in motivation.

    I should also note that, if one major initial aim of the Crusades was to stem the tide of Muslim expansion, Europe didn't entirely lose the Crusades. Instead, the result of the Crusades wound up being a stalemate based on natural geographic borders, with European Christendom retaking Spain and Asian Muslims retaking the temporary Crusader kingdoms in Asia and eventually expanding into the Asian parts of the Byzantine Christian empire.

    1. What you have to say is better than the article, which inter alia ignores Lepanto.

    2. Anonymous1:43 PM

      My thoughts exactly, Unknown.

  8. Anonymous3:53 AM

    This is an interesting take on the Crusades and what's mentioned in the comments is certainly worth consideration. I'm no student of the Crusades, but I have read up on them from time to time and did a fair share where the Templars and the Hospitallers were concerned. I think the decline of those fighting holy orders had a lot to do with the weakening the Franks as the Muslims called them. There's too much history on that to go into it here. I further think that the decline of Byzantium was finisher. That was the great Christian bastion and the Europeans made peace with the Byzantines far too late to do any good.

  9. Now I want to play Crusader Kings

  10. Anonymous7:33 AM

    The English longbow out-ranged any mounted bow and they were train to deal with mounted troops. As was mentioned earlier, Richard the Lionheart beat Saladin every time. Another drawback for mounted archers (Huns, Mongols, etc.) is that they need extensive pastures (5-6 horses per soldier). The only group from the steppes to settle in Europe for any length of time were the Avars, who were in Panonnia (the Hungarian plain).

  11. Anonymous7:41 AM

    Another thing that is overlooked by the article--western Europe was not worth invading (why the Arabs didn't invade France after scouting out Tours) yet. The crusades brought back important cultural information that raised the scientific, economic, cultural and military ability of Europe. Not just from the Arabs but also from the Romans (Byzantines). By the end of the crusades, Europe had risen enough that it was no longer economically worth the effort AND the Arabs were still ahead technologically--witness the constant Ottoman push into Europe until 1600. The discovery of the New World was the game changer for Europe--new sources of wealth, technologies, trade, etc.

    1. Nathanael1:07 PM

      Yes, every historian knows that during the Crusades, the Muslim world was the leading scientific and technological force in the world. The Europeans were basically nobodies. This is not disputable.

      The Crusaders did their best to bring Muslim technology and science back with them (loot!), which actually may have been a motivation.

  12. What if the root motivation were not religious or socio-political, but rather economic. The dominance over the trade routes with Asia was the real question and Venice (and Byzantine) saw its monopoly impacted and hired or convinced the rest of Europe that their wealth would be threatened as well. Viewing it this way might provide different answers as to why they (seemingly) failed.

    1. That's how I always saw the Crusades, more a "shopping trip" than a mission of conquest.
      Moreover, God save you if you were in a Jewish enclave or some other outsider community on the road to Jerusalem. It is speculated that the Crusaders killed more Europeans on the way to the ports in Italy than Crusaders were killed in the Middle east. The Crusaders were hardly noble men, they were more likely ruffians and scoundrels. As such they had no qualms about looting villages and towns along the way.

    2. Nathanael1:05 PM

      Which raises parallels to the Iraq war: many would say it was done to "make the oil business safe for Halliburton", something at which it succeeded. Temporarily.

  13. Regarding the horse archers, could've the European idea of chivalry been a factor?

  14. It was largely a defense of Europe. It can be reasonably argued they didn't loose. See Real Crusades History on YouTube.

  15. Comments on horse archers are right - you need lots of pasture and open terrain. The Mongols were repeatedly halted by the Egyptian Mamelukes in southern Syria for lack of forage. Mounted archery is an affair of light arrows optimised for long-distance shooting, while Crusader crossbows were optimised for penetration. So in close country or castle warfare, crossbows beat horsebows, while the reverse is true in open plains. Mongols mixed horse-archers with medium cavalry, but had little infantry. Arab forces had knight-equivalents, horse-archers and infantry. Europeans were a bit more heavily armoured (both cavalry and infantry), but also used local auxiliaries as light forces.

    Western Europeans had the usual mix of motives. Kings wanted glory, younger sons land, Italian merchants trade and shipping fees and port concessions. The cross-purposes foiled a coherent effort in the Middle East, while greater central direction kept the Spanish crusade more on track. A strong Muslim state was able to keep up constant pressure (bit like France and England - English won battles, then lost ground afterwards to constant French attrition, on castle or town at a time).

    Note that people also went on crusade to the Baltics and Hungary as well as Palestine and Spain.

  16. As a former student of Medieval History with a degree in Islamic Studies, I couldn't help but read this interesting analysis of The Crusades. There are lots of books on this subject. I know. I have many of them in my library as well as a rack of journal articles and primary source documents from both Christian and Muslim writers of the time.

    Initially the Crusades were successful in achieving the objective of "liberating" the Holy Land and Mediterranean littoral from the Muslim states that held hegemony over Palestine and the Levant. The first assault gave the Europeans a technological advantage. Mounted knights were the battle tanks of warfare back then and their opponents had never faced men armed and armored to the hilt. But the ultimate end game that led to the disappearance of the Crusader kingdoms and principalities is really a numbers game. Europe's export of armed warriors slowly dried up once the initial objectives were met. It was a steady decline from the 1st Crusade to those that followed. And when you add the geopolitics of Europe with its many forces and nascent states at cross purposes, the lack of unity of force and objectives killed the enterprise. Crusades were launched against Egypt, against Constantinople, against the Albigensian principalities in France. Crusading became the military arm of secular and religious European rulers with their own axes to grind. That left little in the way of resources for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch and the other principalities carved out by the original conquest.

  17. Anonymous10:47 AM

    Remembering that the professed motivation was religious on both sides, their respective unity should have been without question. This is seen from each of their Holy Books. One is entitled to ask, then, Why wasn't it?
    BTW my name is Doug, not A. Nonymous. I'm registered on Disqus and Wordpress. Disqus is clumsy and problem-ridden, but it is a step better than Wordpress. Can you please add Disqus to your sign-in options?

  18. Anonymous4:54 PM

    Folks, I notice some comments on the English/Welsh long bow. Although correctly called a medieval weapon, my Britannica indicates it was used in the era of the Hundred Years War, much later than the First Crusade. There is no clue as to its date or era of creation, but its legendary effectiveness indicates it would have been viral on the internet, or whatever, soon after. So its lack at Antioch, say, is real - it probably did not exist.
    As a side note, the longbow is well-known to many moderns because of Shakespeare's dramatic use of the Battle of Agincourt. In that one, the arrows famously pierced the armor of the French knights at dustance. That would not have been a factor against the lightly-armored Muslim forces earlier.

    1. There is a reason why (Central) Europe had mainly the classic yew longbow while "the East" made use of the composite bow. Europe is for the most part cool and moist which is good for wooden bows. If the wood is allowed to dry out (as in the warm, dry Middle East) the bows deteriorate quickly. On the other hand the horn and sinew composite bow is extremly sensitive to moisture but works and keeps very well in dry climates. Looking at historical composite bows one notices that they usually show a lot of effort put into protecting them from moisture (wrapping, lacquer etc.). As a rule of thumb longbows shoot heavier arrows that have shorter range but higher penetration while composite bows (with their much shorter draw length) are for lighter arrwows flying farther but less able to go through body armour.
      The Achilles heel of horse archers is supply of arrows. Some famous battles got won simply because the winning side had the arrow supply better organized.

  19. Interesting to note that the Crusaded ended right about at the time of the rise of Protestant Christianity and the splintering of the West, the fall of Constantinople (in 1453), and the beginning of the great Age of Exploration via ship.

  20. Very interesting post and an area that I've always revisited from time to time. I do find Noah's statement on Iraq, "Iraq was clearly not just a military but also a political victory for the United States - our preferred government still sits in power there, and every opposing army has been crushed..." problematic. Iraq still remains unsettled in terms of it's original geographical boundaries with an almost independent Kurdish homeland in the north and the Shia/Sunni issues in the remainder of the country. While the US "preferred" government is in power, one needs to ask for how much longer?

  21. Horse archers were a dominant weapon system in Eurasia for a long time, but you just can't "make" a horse archer if you're not of that culture, no more than you could make an ersatz Roman Legionary comparable with the original. You could recruit them (and Middle Eastern rulers did just that, from among the Caucasus tribes and Central Asia, the mamluks), and they were tough fighters, but the Mongols were on a whole other level.

    And even if you had access to good horse archers, the typical problems associated with the normal decline of empires (decadence, infighting) would tend to outweigh military capability. The military backbone of the Ayyubids and Khwarazm were mamluks, who overthrew the Ayyubids in Egypt and defeated a Mongol force at Ain Jalut, and controlled Egypt until supplanted by another rising power, the Ottomans.

    1. Anonymous2:21 PM

      "Horse archers were a dominant weapon system in Eurasia for a long time, but you just can't "make" a horse archer if you're not of that culture"

      Same as with the longbow. Takes years to train up a good bowman, even though a company of bowman could massacre a company of muskets and even 4 lbs cannon emplacements.

      And you always have to worry that your bowman may start shooting at their lord and his knights instead of the lord's rivals. That could get very expensive.

      The Pale Scot

  22. I never got the impression that military technology was all that important in the Crusades. Most of the battles were sieges of castles / walled towns. The whole area was pretty poor and lacked any strategic sites, so taking over one town didn't help much in taking over the next town.

    The Europeans actually did win on and off, but taking over the place and keeping control were two different things. As with Saladin, an ambitious leader could build his own conquering coalition and win back town after town. Then the coalition would collapse in a generation or two and an ambitious European would form a coalition to re-invade.

    The area was pretty poor, so taking over a lot of towns, or even Jerusalem, wasn't going to make one rich or particularly powerful. The crusades in the north were more lucrative in that the area had more unexploited resources, so one could get rich and build a kingdom in the Baltic.

    The crusades overlap with a period of increasing wealth in western Europe, but that had more to do with the introduction of an improved plow more suited to clay soils and the rise of the universities. There wasn't all that much money in taking over the holy land. There was much more money in the north and back home.

  23. Did Europe lose the Crusades? Europe successfully exported a lot of unwanted violence to the Middle East and the resulting surpluses in Northern Europe helped fuel the the so-called "commercial revolution" that many economic historians (Lopez to Greif) believe fathered the modern economy. If you believe this (it's a stretch, but it isn't absurd), the Crusades are clearly a win, not a loss. The Crusaders may have been fanatic, booty-seeking, bloodthirsty idiots - but Europe made them somebody else's problem.

    In the South, the Crusades helped complete the transformation of, say, the Genoese, from pirates to merchants. Again, a win. No question we should try the same thing with these Somalian speedboaters: give them a real, respectable holy war in which to earn some legitimacy. If they sailed up the Potomac (or, better, captured Mar a Lago) would anyone complain?

  24. As for technology, Frankish knights were clearly unstoppable in 1200, deal ducks by 1300. Mongol bows, yes, but the bolt-firing crossbows used in the Sicilian Vespers, were also devastating. Things change.
    "Time makes ancient good uncouth."

  25. Two observations, admittedly of questionable relevance:

    The Crusades are in most ways utterly opposed to Christion, but not Christendom, values, and

    Many people in the middle east may have preferred to be Muslim.