Seminar CXVI: beware of Greeks starting Crusades

This particular backlogged seminar report has more history behind it than usual. You very nearly got a post on this subject a while back, when a story appeared on News for Medievalists, recycled as is their wont from the Australian,1 entitled “Historian Peter Frankopan is challenging a millennium of scholarship in his view of the First Crusade”. This caught my attention straight away, partly because I’m interested in the First Crusade as we know but mainly because I do a lot of copy-editing and this headline struck me as being in need of modification, in the light of the fact that it has not yet been a millennium since the First Crusade occurred, for example. However, on inspection, it turned out that the press release they were running from, about this Frankopan character’s new book, had only claimed, “nearly a millennium of scholarship”, which is probably still contestable depending on whether we count the Crusade chronicles as scholarship, but let’s move on. What was the challenge? Well, briefly put, he was reported as arguing that the First Crusade was provoked not by Pope Urban II’s brilliant speech at Clermont (though that helped) but by the political situation of the Byzantine Empire being so desperate that they had had to ask the West for aid.

1490 manuscript illustration of the Council of  Clermont, 1095

1490 manuscript illustration of the Council of Clermont, earliest I can find, from Wikimedia Commons.

Now, in some sense this is news, yes, because the conventional version of the history of the First Crusade almost always does start with the Council of Clermont, but it struck me immediately that it was not exactly new news. I mean, not least, you could find me saying that the Greek appeal must have counted for a lot here in 2007, but I only got to say it because of a long chain of people arguing similarly, Paul Magdalino and Jonathan Shephard most recently but this really starts, in the Anglophone scholarship, with the translation endeavours of Dana Munro in the USA around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the work of his generation.2 So, you know, not new exactly. And I was all set to write a post about this, which might well have employed snark, when I discovered two things: firstly that Dr Frankopan is somewhat local to me, being a Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, and secondly that he was addressing the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies Seminar in Oxford on 24th January 2012 on the very subject, and so I thought I’d postpone judgement until I’d heard him make his pitch, and off I duly went, and somehow it is now August. So, leaving that aside, how was it?

12th-century miniature portrait of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos

12th-century miniature portrait of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, from Wikimedia Commons

Well, the seminar was a lecture on this occasion, in fairly splendid surroundings in St John’s College, and the lecture was more or less a book launch, being entitled the same as the book, “The First Crusade: the call from the East”. It addressed the whole question of crusading briefly, and the interest it continues to generate (Thomas Asbridge’s TV series was screening at this time and that helped make that point), but then dug into the question of why it happened when it did, and maintained that the only answer to this is Emperor Alexius I Komnenos, the ruler of Byzantium, and his 1095 appeal to Pope Urban and the West at large at the Council of Piacenza in that year. So far, so much like the newspaper story, but the extra depth came from the fact that, presumably as part of the same work that allowed him to renew the translation of Anna Komnena’s biography of her father, that same Alexius, in 2009, Dr Frankopan really does know the Byzantine material covering the Crusades well.3 He argued that Anna’s subtleties and strategies of concealment of awkward facts (like, single successful campaigns that she refers to again and again at different points inthe narrative, disregarding chronology) have not been fully recognised and that by reading her more carefully we get a much more serious idea of the Empire’s plight in the early 1090s than we have previously done, helping to explain why such desperate measures as Western help were on the table. This helped ease my mind somewhat: though the fact that Alexius’s appeal was well-known in the scholarship was not mentioned, and though I thought he talked down Urban II’s importance (which while certainly not as great as one would expect from the word `pope’, since he was but one of two and not the one who could get into Rome, was still more widely recognised than the casual listener might have gathered from this), Dr Frankopan certainly has some extra pieces to add to the story and I learnt a lot from listening. I have now relearnt most of it and more from his book, which I borrowed a quid in order to buy that same evening, so you can tell I was at least decently impressed.4

Cover of Peter Frankopan's book, The First Crusade: the call from the East

Alexius’s part in the Crusade, for Dr Frankopan, continued at full strength right up to the point when, in order to prevent the force dissolving at the siege of Antioch, the Crusader leaders had to finally break from the Byzantine strategy and start working for themselves, and thereafter we return to the conventional narrative. That narrative is well dealt with, though: the book is stylishly written and well-referenced (endnotes, but what can you do) and I found it pleasant but erudite reading. I do feel, admittedly, that one would benefit from reading it with Dr Frankopan’s translation of the Alexiad open as well, so that one had some means of seeing what Anna was actually saying and why, on this occasion, we should not believe here when elsewhere in the narrative she is used uncritically. Obviously, if he’d made that argument every time he cited her the book would have been three times the size and half as readable, and wherever alternative sources are available he does use them too, but he does ask for a lot of trust in his judgement of her veracity, given how important to his theory her alleged lack of it can sometimes get.

So: one should not go mistaking this for a full new scholarly history of the First Crusade but it certainly is a good and learned book on it, and even if some of its supposed novelty kind of rubs off in the wider scholarship, there is still a need for it. It is possible, as I say above, that there are places where Dr Frankopan’s emphasis on the Byzantine role and deprecation of the Western initiation of the Crusade goes too far, but on the other hand, one could, for example, compare it to Thomas Asbridge’s likewise recent book on the Crusade and notice how really, Alexius is just wheeled on there when dramatically necessary, as the real story is about Westerners versus Easterners, and not in a simplistic way but the Byzantines confuse the binary by being between the poles.5 So there is room for a take from the ‘third side’, for sure. Of course, Dr Asbridge managed to build on that book with a much larger one about the Crusades as a whole and then successfully managed to take it to TV.6 I didn’t see much of that, sadly, but what I did see had quite a lot of Syrian buildings of about the right period, a great deal of sunshine and Dr Asbridge almost mercilessly walking towards the camera, hands flying, and talking at it with great emphasis. I kind of think Dr Frankopan would like a TV series too, but I can’t help feeling his would involve a lot more indoor scenes, dark decisions being made by half-light, measured and careful delivery and an actress playing Anna scribbling away and crossing out ill-temperedly between every few scenes. I’d quite like to see that programme. Till then, the book will have to do…


1. Why do stories about Oxford University keep appearing in this paper, anyone? They were the only media coverage at all I saw of the ongoing sell-off of the History Faculty’s library building, and as with this story got most of the details wrong while still being remarkable for thinking it worth reporting in the first place.

2. J. Shepard, “Aspects of Byzantine Attitudes and Policy towards the West in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in J. D. Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West, c. 850-c. 1200: proceedings of the XVIII Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford 30th March-1st April 1984, Byzantinische Forschungen: internationale Zeitschrift für Byzantinistik Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 67-118; Paul Magdalino, The Byzantine Background to the First Crusade (Toronto 1996), online here; previously Dana Carleton Munro, “Did the Emperor Alexius I. Ask for Aid to the Council of Piacenza, 1095?” in American Historical Review Vol. 27 (Washington 1922), at pp. 731-733; E. Joranson, “The Problem of the Spurious Letter of Emperor Alexius to the Count of Flanders” in American Historical Review Vol. 55 (Washington 1950), pp. 811-832.

3. Anna Komnena, Alexiad, transl. E. R A. Sewter, rev. with intro. by Peter Frankopan, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth 2009).

4. Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), a damn cheap hardback considering how nicely made it is. I note also that even Dr Frankopan feels that he cannot avoid starting with the Council of Clermont even if it is followed with five surprisingly readable chapters on Byzantine politics.

5. Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: a new history (London 2004, repr. 2005).

6. Idem, The Crusades: the war for the Holy Land (London 2010), now translated into four languages.

7 responses to “Seminar CXVI: beware of Greeks starting Crusades

  1. In response to your question, I point out that The Oz: (1) is the main national ‘conservative’ broadsheet and no doubt has a (proportionately-speaking) large readership with Oxbridge connections; (2) takes syndicated news from ‘The Times’ (including this piece on the Bod); (3) counts a variety of Oxonians among its news staff, past and present, including Rupert Murdoch’s godson, and one Mr. T. Abbott, alumnus of your college and current leader of the federal opposition… Enough to be going on with?

  2. I love your little vignette of Anna at the end. Her status as female historian (and I think you could also describe her as a diplomat) working in a male- dominated political culture makes her an intriguing character in her own right as well as being an important ‘source’ for the First Crusade. It is interesting to me how her work has been interpreted by mainly Western and male historians of the Crusades over the last 50-odd years. (I seem to recall some of the older ‘standard’ accounts either overlooked her altogether or dismissed her as quite unreliable.) On another note, I was so sad to see the recent reports on the destruction of Syria’s medieval architecture in the civil war.

    • Well, I have said to students that the nice thing about Anna as a source is that, while like every person motivated to set pen to parchment for page after page, she naturally had an axe to grind, but at least with her it’s pretty obvious what it was (‘my father never did anything wrong and my husband should have been emperor’) and so you can allow for it. However, a reading of Dr Frankopan’s work suggests that the various ways this plays out are in fact pretty darned fiendish, shuffled chronology, glossed-over defeats, elided silences, and so on, and of course this is where my sense of tension about his use of Anna as evidence is coming from. It’s obviously tricky enough to interpret her that to an extent, in this kind of book, he can only say, “trust me it’s so, she’s solid on this fact but dissimulating with this one”, without showing his working. I now want to get hold of his version of the translation and see how well the notes supply that missing explanation, and given as it’s a Penguin Classic I can probably even do this without significant expenditure. (Some of the Penguin Classics are much-underrated scholarly resources: Richard Sharpe’s translation of Adomnán’s Life of Columba could until recently have had its commentary edited and reordered so as to make the most useful and careful book out there on early Scottish history. Now we have a couple of more dedicated attempts but it’s still a masterwork.)

  3. Pingback: What are you reading? v.2 - Page 33 - Historum - History Forums

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s