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The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 99, Number 3, July 2013
pp. 544-545 | 10.1353/cat.2013.0149

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

There are today so many histories of the First Crusade jostling for shelf space that new authors are forced to find ways to differentiate theirs from all of the others. In some cases this has led to genuinely innovative approaches; in others, rather awkward attempts at novelty have resulted. This is one of the latter.

To be fair, this book is only partially concerned with the subject of its title. The first half offers instead a narrative of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. Frankopan argues that matters in Asia Minor did not continue to deteriorate for the Byzantines in the years after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Instead, he sees solid improvements across the region after the accession of Alexius in 1081. Discounting the testimony of Anna Comnena, Frankopan believes that Alexius forged a working relationship with Sultan Malik-Shah that stabilized the area despite the latter's capture of Antioch and his campaigns deep into Anatolia. For proof, Frankopan points to a sermon delivered to the emperor in early 1088 that fails to mention any problems in the East. Thus, he concludes, "In the late 1080s, there was no need for a Crusade" (p. 56).A few years later, however, new attacks from Abu 'l-Kasim in Nicaea and Çaka along the Aegean coast caused real problems. The death of Malik-Shah in November 1092, deprived Byzantium of its protector, and the subsequent chaos gave Turkish warlords free reign to carve up Byzantine territory.

This is perhaps the most important part of the book. Frankopan rejects the oft-made assertion that there were no immediate events in the east that gave rise to the First Crusade. He convincingly demonstrates that matters had indeed become desperate in Asia Minor and that Alexius was actively seeking aid from the West. A letter from the emperor to Count Robert of Flanders, which is generally thought to be a forgery, spelled out the disaster and called for a Latin response. Frankopan argues that the letter is genuine and, indeed, that it fits into a wider Byzantine plan to bring the West into the struggle. It is possible, though, to believe that the letter, which is very Latin in tone, is indeed a forgery while still accepting that the Byzantines suffered serious defeats in the early 1090s.

What differentiates this history of the First Crusade from all others is the author's contention that it was Alexius Comnenus who conceived, initiated, planned, and remained at the center of the entire event. "Generations of scholars" have missed this fact because Alexius was "airbrushed from history" and "deliberately set to one side by Latin historians at the time" (pp. 60, 199). This apparent conspiracy was hatched to justify the crusaders' refusal to turn Antioch over to Alexius, as they had sworn to do (p. 193). Frankopan believes that information was rather easily managed in the Middle Ages. Not only were scattered writers able to coordinate their "savage attacks" on the Byzantine emperor but also Alexius himself orchestrated a public relations campaign in Western Europe "managed from the center" by which he pulled "the emotional triggers of western Christians" (pp. 92-95).

There is a certain amount of windmill tilting in all of this. Every current history of the First Crusade gives significant attention to Alexius Comnenus. But Frankopan is not content for the emperor to play a major part. Rather, he "should take centre stage in the history of the First Crusade" (p. 206).That means demoting Pope Urban II, who Frankopan believes was written into his starring role by later Latin authors. Thus, Urban "filled the void left by the expurgation of Emperor Alexios; the central figure behind the mobilization of western knights was cast into the shadows in the decade that followed the Crusade, and has remained there ever since" (p. 201). To correct this, Frankopan forcefully inserts Alexius into every nook and cranny of the crusade, even when there is no evidence he took action or was even aware of events.

At its best, this study follows the tradition of Charles Brand's excellent Byzantium Confronts the West (Cambridge, MA, 1968), providing a Byzantine context for a western...



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