The Hattin Campaign and the Triumph of Saladin in 1187

Medieval politics make modern politics look like child’s play.  If any act from medieval times highlights this it is the Hattin Campaign of 1187 in which the entire military might of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was destroyed because the Christians themselves collectively acted stupidly due to internal political factors in the face of an existential external threat.  The final campaign of the Kingdom of Jerusalem is best seen as an object lesson of what happens when you let internal politics direct external actions. In 1186 Guy de Lusignan became king of Jerusalem through his wife Sibylla after the death of Baldwin V while in his minority.  The coronation was … Read more…

Book Review: Holy Wars: 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land by Gary Rashba

HOLY WARS: 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land is one of the better primers about conflict in the Holy Land to appear within the last few years.  It consists of 17 chapters covering the initial Israelite conquest of Canaan in 1400 B.C. to the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 1982.  The more recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict is covered in the epilogue.  The work is 288 pages and includes extensive notes at the end of each chapter as well as a well sourced bibliography and index.  The Kindle edition, which is what I have, was mostly free of editing errors and the only complaint I have is … Read more…

Book Review: The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle by Michael Stephenson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own] Michael Stephenson’s work The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle follows somewhat in the tradition of classics such a Keegan’s The Face of Battle and Victor David Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Where it differs from these two works as that while Keegan and Hanson focus on specific battles or time periods this book aims to be a more general description of the experience of combat throughout recorded history.  In that, the book is amazingly … Read more…

The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade

The Cathars were a radical religious sect that had taken root in southern France and by the early thirteenth century a good part of the population of the area were Cathars.  The Cathars held radically different beliefs from Christianity and are properly considered a different religion entirely, rather than a perversion of Christianity itself.[1] They believed that there were two worlds the spiritual and the material, only the spiritual was clean of sin while the material world was inherently sinful.  In order to escape the inherent sinfulness of their human existence the Cathars underwent a ritual known as the consolamentum.  This ritual was a kind of combination Baptism, Penance, and … Read more…

The Preparedness of the First Crusade

The First Crusade was arguably the most successful of the various numbered crusades; however, they were not particularly well equipped for a campaign in Asia Minor.  It is no surprise that they were not, as the climate in Anatolia is completely different from Europe.  What is amazing is the way in which the crusaders persevered in spite of the hardships they had to endure throughout the march across Asia Minor. The main crusader army seems to have had an appreciation for the difficulties involved in a march across Anatolia; no doubt; the counsel of the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118) was helpful in their choice of march route.  Prior … Read more…

Europe and the Crusading Impulse

Europe in the tenth and eleventh centuries was a continent in transition.  The states of Europe were still in flux and the kings of Europe had limited authority outside their own personal demesne.  Although individual French kings did wield considerable power, they waged a constant struggle to have their authority recognized by the great magnates in France, especially after the fall of the Carolingian dynasty in the ninth century[1].  The rest of Europe was no exception, in England the king was engaged in a great struggle with his leading barons and the Pope that would not be settled until the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215[2]. The deciding factor … Read more…

Book Review: Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, The Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley

I am planning a vacation trip to Malta this summer with my family and like all vacations I take there will be an element of historical tourism involved.  I have always wanted to visit Malta and I am finally getting a chance.  As preparation for that I am reading a few books with accounts of The Great Siege of 1565, the last battle of the Medieval Crusades.  The first book is Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley. Crowley does an excellent job of bringing the siege to life and paints a very … Read more…

The Wendish Crusade

            The people of Northern Germany known as the Wends were not one homogenous people but rather organized themselves in a tribal structure.  The tribes from the Saxon border west were the Wagrians, Polabians, Abotrites, Rugians, Liutizians, and Pomeranians.[1]  These tribes were loosely organized under local princes and there was no overall king or authority figure.  The Wends were polytheistic nature worshipers who had many shrines and temples throughout their lands.  The priestly class was the most influential next to the secular lords and the Wends were deeply superstitious even going so far as to avoid battle if the auguries were unfavorable.

            The Wendish Crusades were Crusades in name only, the Danes and Saxons used the Crusading name to mask a naked grab of the territory of the pagan Wends.  The Danes and Saxons had been encroaching on Wendish territory prior to the start of the Wendish crusades in 1147, but their gains had only been short-lived and limited to forcing some of the Wendish nobility to pay tribute.[2]  The Danes and Saxons who had only come to Christianity in the eighth and ninth centuries took wholeheartedly to the message preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) to fight the pagans “until such a time as, by God’s help, they be either converted or deleted.”[3]

Read more…

The Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade started in 1202, when Pope Innocent III (p.1198-1216), seeking to build on the success of the Third Crusade preached a new Crusade to recover the Holy city of Jerusalem.  The kings of Europe were too involved in personal quarrels to participate, so the mantle was taken up by a group of the lesser, mostly French, nobility.

At first, the Crusade appeared to be going nowhere with the major monarchs of Europe either at war, as England and France were, or in flux as was the Holy Roman Empire, with rival claimants to the throne.  Thibault of Champagne (d. 24 May 1201) persuaded several members of the minor French nobility to take the cross, the most notable of whom, were Louis of Blois and Baldwin of Flanders.  These three lords decided at a council in early 1200 to send a delegation to Venice seeking transport to the Holy Land.  The Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo (1192-1205) agreed to transport the Crusaders and provide a fleet of fifty Venetian manned ships for the sum of 85,000 marks.[1]

Read more…

The Medieval Siege – Part 2

The weapons and techniques used throughout most of siege warfare are remarkably consistent with few innovations.  The notable new weapons were the trebuchet, Greek fire, and Cannons.

            Siege towers or belfries were common if unwieldy weapons used at sieges throughout the medieval period.  They were often made of wood and were built taller than the walls they would be used to assault.  Sometimes towers were wheeled or they could also be built on sleds so that they could be pushed up against the walls.  The most difficult part of using a tower was getting it up to the walls in the first place as most towns and castles were protected by ditches or moats.  These would have to filled in and leveled out before a tower could be moved into position.

Read more…

The Medieval Siege

The siege was the most common type of battle fought during the Middle Ages.  Medieval armies and commanders tended to avoid pitched battles unless forced into them by circumstances.  Medieval warfare and its concentration on sieges can thus be considered the ultimate in positional warfare as success usually lay with control of castles and strong points and the terrain they dominated.

In the early medieval period, there was not much in the way of new construction of fortifications and therefore not many examples of siege warfare.  As the peoples of Europe began to organize themselves and nations and strongmen emerged there was a renewed focus on defensive fortifications that led to the castellation of Europe beginning in the tenth century, which was substantially completed by the end of the twelfth century. 

Read more…

The Third Crusade

The Third Crusade (1189-1192) was launched as a direct result of the loss of Jerusalem to the Muslims in October 1187.  The loss of Jerusalem was occasioned by the destruction of the crusaders at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187.[1]  Hattin was a disaster for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, most of the army was destroyed with only a small party led by Raymond of Tripoli escaping.  The king Guy of Lusignan (b.1150-d.1194) was captured as well the masters of the Templars and Hospitallers.  All the military monks were executed and most of the prisoners were sold into slavery.

Read more…

Medieval Weaponry

While weapon archetypes used during the feudal period were the same as that used throughout most of recorded history there were changes and developments in the different weapons and armor.  The spear and all its variants were the most widely used weapon of medieval armies.  The spear was the primary weapon used by the barbarian armies’ that conquered the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century.  As the lance, the spear continued to be used the most even after cavalry became the decisive military arm in Europe.

Read more…

The Spanish Reconquista: The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

            The capture of Salvatierra by the Almohad’s in 1210 provided the impetus for Pope Innocent III (p.1198-1216) to issue a general call for crusade in Spain and grant the remission of sins for those who would go to Spain and fight for Christendom.[1]  For several reasons including hostility between the Christian monarchs of Spain, a council was not convened until the spring of 1212 in Toledo; even so, the kings of Portugal and Navarre did not attend.  When the council met a plan of campaign was discussed and agreed on as well as timing for the campaign to begin.

            The main nobles that met at Toledo were Alfonso VIII of Castile (r.1158-1214), Pedro II of Aragon (r.1196-1213), Archbishops Amaury of Narbonne and Guillaume of Bordeaux, some minor nobility from southern France, and the masters of the Spanish military orders with representatives from the Temple and Hospital as well.  Alfonso VIII agreed to bankroll the Aragonese contingent because of the king’s debt, and he also provided mounts and money to some of the French contingents due to their poverty.[2]

Read more…

The First Crusade

            The First Crusade was arguably the most successful of the various numbered Crusades; however, they were not particularly well equipped for a campaign in Asia Minor.  It is no surprise that they were not, as the climate in Anatolia is completely different from Europe.  What is amazing is the way in which the Crusaders persevered in spite of the hardships they had to endure throughout the march across Asia Minor. 

            The main Crusader army seems to have had an appreciation for the difficulties involved in a march across Anatolia; no doubt; the counsel of the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118) was helpful in their choice of march route.  Prior to leaving the region of Nicaea to continue the Crusade, the leaders held a council at Pelekanum where the Frankish leaders and the Alexius discussed further plans for the Crusade.[1]  It was decided that the Crusader army would move as a series rather than together so that there would be more flexibility in deployment, and to simplify logistics.

Read more…