God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

J.L. Nelson writes:

On 15 July 1099, a Christian army perhaps 14,000 strong captured Jerusalem after a five-week siege and three years’ campaigning. A contemporary witness reported slaughter on such a scale that ‘crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses.’ Christopher Tyerman quotes this twice, in full and slightly abbreviated forms, noting that the chronicler was inspired by Revelation 14.20: ‘And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even to the horse bridles.’ Another contemporary witness whom Tyerman cites recalled the area of the Temple Mount ‘“streaming with blood” that reached to the killers’ ankles’. The height of the bloody torrent was disputed by contemporaries: modern historians debate the number of victims. ‘Certainly fewer than the 70,000 trumpeted in early 13th-century Arabic chronicles,’ Tyerman believes, cautiously settling for ‘some thousands’. The victims were, without any doubt, Muslims and Jews. The slaughter provoked ‘retrospective shock and outrage among Muslim intellectuals’, yet ‘immediate contemporary Muslim reactions appeared muted when contrasted to later polemics.’ Horror has to be put in context: ‘when it suited, Muslim victors could behave as bestially as any Christian’ (Tyerman cites several examples), while ‘massacres as well as atrocity stories were – and are – an inescapable part of war.’ Such sober reflections notwithstanding, Tyerman, a few lines later, calls the capture of Jerusalem ‘remarkable . . . a crowning achievement’, which of course it was, from a medieval western European viewpoint.

(LRB 29 November 2007)

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