9th Grade: Everything Falls Apart


This week we focused on what is known as the First Crusade, the only Crusade to actually reach Jerusalem and conquer the city.  Perhaps more than other crusades, it was this first one that concentrated all that is admirable, strange, and horrifying about this period in the past.

We discussed last week the reasons and motivations for the Crusades, and whether or not one agrees with their reasons, we cannot deny the enormous difficulty of the proposed enterprise.  Capturing Jerusalem meant a journey of several hundred miles on foot without an established supply line, having to take at least one fortified city (Antioch) before even reaching Jerusalem, which would have thousands of defenders behind the large walls of the city.  Even today, parts of the the “old” city of Jerusalem still stands, and we can see what the Crusaders saw themselves 1000 years ago.

Old City Gate

The "Tower of David"

South (?) Wall of Jerusalem

As anyone can see, taking the city would be a formidable task.

From Antioch, the  Crusaders approached the city barefoot, the standard mode of travel for all medieval pilgrims.  This fact alone shows that the Crusaders saw themselves not so much as warriors first and foremost, but on a spiritual quest.  Like Joshua they marched around the city.  This was no standard military operation.

Understandably, they were anxious to get inside the city and claim victory.  They had heard many stories of atrocities perpetrated against Christians in Jerusalem.  They saw with their own own Moslem defenders taunting them, smashing crosses and other relics in front of their eyes.  Moslems also apparently killed pages sent by the knights to get water, which horrified and enraged the Crusaders all the more.  Finally, they broke through and entered the city. One eyewitness described it this way. . .

When the morning came, our men eagerly rushed to be walls and dragged the [seige towers] forward, but the Saracens had constructed so many machines that for each one of ours they now had nine or ten. Thus they greatly interfered with our efforts. This was the ninth day, on which the priest had said that we would capture the city. But why do I delay so long? Our machines were now shaken apart by the blows of many stones, and our men lagged because they were very weary. However, there remained the mercy of the Lord which is never overcome nor conquered, but is always a source of support in times of adversity. One incident must not be omitted. Two women tried to bewitch one of the hurling machines, but a stone struck and crushed them, as well as three slaves, so that their lives were extinguished and the evil incantations averted.

By noon our men were greatly discouraged. They were weary and at the end of their resources. There were still many of the enemy opposing each one of our men; the walls were very high and strong, and the great resources and skill that the enemy exhibited in repairing their defenses seemed too great for us to overcome. But, while we hesitated, irresolute, and the enemy exulted in our discomfiture, the healing mercy of God inspired us and turned our sorrow into joy, for the Lord did not forsake us. While a council was being held to decide whether or not our [seige engines] should be withdrawn, for some were burned and the rest badly shaken to pieces, a knight on the Mount of Olives began to wave his shield to those who were with the Count and others, signalling them to advance. Who this knight was we have been unable to find out. At this signal our men began to take heart, and some began to batter down the wall, while others began to ascend by means of scaling ladders and ropes. Our archers shot burning firebrands, and in this way checked the attack that the Saracens were making upon the wooden towers of the Duke and the two Counts. These firebrands, moreover, were wrapped in cotton. This shower of fire drove the defenders from the walls. Then the Count quickly released the long drawbridge which had protected the side of the wooden tower next to the wall, and it swung down from the top, being fastened to the middle of the tower, making a bridge over which the men began to enter Jerusalem bravely and fearlessly. Among those who entered first were Tancred and the Duke of Lorraine, and the amount of blood that they shed on that day is incredible. All ascended after them, and the Saracens now began to suffer.

They took the city, but then tragically took it one step further, for most of the men went to and fro, killing any Moslem they could find, be they men, women, or children.  The information about this horrifying massacre came not from Moslem sources but directly from the Christians themselves.  One wrote that,

Strange to relate, however, at this very time when the city was practically captured by the Franks, the Saracens were still fighting on the other side, where the Count was attacking the wall as though the city should never be captured. But now that our men had possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood. Some of the enemy took refuge in the Tower of David, and, petitioning Count Raymond for protection, surrendered the Tower into his hands.

 Another account confirmed this, writing,

Many fled to the roof of the temple of Solomon, and were shot with arrows, so that they fell to the ground dead. In this temple almost ten thousand were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.

When the pagans had been overcome, our men seized great numbers, both men and women, either killing them or keeping them captive, as they wished.

Both Moslems and Christians committed atrocities during the Crusades, but none would equal the shocking scale and brutality of the massacre at Jerusalem.  And yet, the Crusaders at the time interpreted their actions in almost strictly religious terms.  The account continues,

Now that the city was taken, it was well worth all our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulchre. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang a new song to the Lord! For their hearts offered prayers of praise to God, victorious and triumphant, which cannot be told in words. A new day, new joy, new and perpetual gladness, the consummation of our labor and devotion, drew forth from all new words and new songs. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity, the humiliation of paganism, and the renewal of our faith. “This is the day which the Lord bath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” for on this day the Lord revealed Himself to His people and blessed them.

On this day, the Ides of July, Lord Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, was seen in the city by many people. Many also testified that he was the first to scale the wall, and that he summoned the knights and people to follow him. On this day, moreover, the apostles were cast forth from Jerusalem and scattered over the whole world. On this same day, the children of the apostles regained the city and fatherland for God and the fathers. This day, the Ides of July, shall be celebrated to the praise and glory of the name of God, who, answering the prayers of His Church, gave in trust and benediction to His children the city and fatherland which He bad promised to the fathers. On this day we chanted the Office of the Resurrection, since on that day He, who by His virtue arose from the dead, revived us through His grace. So much is to be said of this.

 The “Jersusalem” crosses they etched inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can still be seen today.

While we do know that some of the crusaders risked their lives to protect civilians, most joined in the carnage and plunder.  The stain left by this atrocity lingers to this day in minds of many Moslems.  This may seem strange to Americans, but Americans in general have very, very short historical memories.  This is probably because we are a new nation, and an immigrant nation.  Many who came here wanted to make a clean break with the past.  Also, Americans tend not to be rooted in the past with tradition, but look forward to the “next” thing.  Most other societies, and perhaps especially the Mid-East have a much deeper sense of the past, a sense only exacerbated by the significant decline of Moslem power since the mid 16th century.

I related to the students that, in most of the “mountain disaster” books I have read that the problems occur when the climbers descend.  We psychologically ramp ourselves up to reach the summit, and don’t always give as much thought to what comes next.

The crusaders faced a similar problem.  They took vows to liberate Jerusalem, but not to stay and defend it.  Many had been away from home for more then two years, and understandably wanted to return, having fulfilled their purpose.  The west simply could not rally the manpower needed to hold the city, and in 1187 the Moslems retook it.  Several more attempts to retake the city would again be made, the subject of our study next week.