The First Crusade: The Call from the East

I first encountered Peter Frankopan’s work a few years ago when I read his global history The Silk Roads, which aimed to understand the world along an axis unfamiliar to most people: the pathways of exchange that linked Europe and East Asia known collectively as the Silk Road. While reading that book I came across a reference to this one, Frankopan’s first, and made a note to read it at some point. Preparing to teach a survey of world history before 1500, it seemed like an appropriate time to pick it up.

The First Crusade hinges on a simple conceit: historians of the crusades get swept away by the stirring oratory of Urban II at Claremont and the remarkable victories of the western knights that established crusader kingdoms and so miss the forest for the trees.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus (r.1081–1118) sits at the center of Frankopan’s retelling. When Pope Urban II issued his call for crusade and began preaching across most of Europe, he fired up his audiences with stories about the collapse of the Byzantine frontier and the horrors that the Turks visited upon their Christian brethren. Byzantium, the great Christian empire and one-time protector of Jerusalem, he said, was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, a Seljuk army under the command of Alp Arslan had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV in 1071. The empire had suffered additional setbacks in the two succeeding decades, including invasions by Norman knights who would go on to be Crusaders, and by the early 1090s a sudden turn for the worse in Anatolia that included the loss of Nicaea, a strategically-located and heavily-fortified city, prompted Alexios to make his appeal to Urban.

But neither was the Byzantine Empire decaying anachronism. Frankopan contextualizes Alexios’ actions in the institutional and diplomatic traditions of the Byzantine Empire. In this light, the beleaguered empire of the 1070s had recovered under Alexios’ careful hand in the 1080s, thwarting repeated invasions of the Balkans from both Norman knights and nomads from the north, while also choosing careful marriage alliances at Constantinople and stabilizing the situation in Anatolia through careful diplomacy that brought the Turkish leader Malik Shah into the imperial orbit. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 unravelled Alexios’ hard work and ultimately led to a attempted coup in the capitol.

These conditions, Frankopan argues, prompted Alexios to again turn to Byzantine diplomacy for a solution: the call from the east. In Urban II, he found an ally quarreling with the German Emperor Henry IV, who had installed his own Pope, Clement III, in Rome. Alexios’ appeal presented Urban an opportunity to claim legitimacy as the true pope. Urban’s call to arms promised knights wealth and the forgiveness of sin, thereby completing the necessary conditions for the crusade. In short order, thousands of soldiers gathered for war.

Compared to explanation of these machinations, Frankopan’s account of the campaign itself is almost perfunctory. He mentions the preparations in passing, offers explanations for the near-defeats turned spectacular victories won by the Crusaders, and duly mentions the thousands of crusaders who died along the way, but only briefly mentions People’s Crusade and does not explore the social or cultural sides of the campaign.

Instead, Frankopan keeps the focus on the Crusader leadership because that allows him to keep focus on their relationship with Alexios, who had hoped to regain Byzantine possessions in the East. All of the Crusader leaders swore oaths of fealty to the Emperor throwing their support behind his cause, but as the campaign surged forward they began to feel betrayed––because Alexios continued to negotiate with the Turks and, particularly, because they believed he was deliberately late with supplies––which ultimately led to the creation of independent Crusader States in the Levant. That is, with the exception of Baldwin, who spent two years ruling Edessa as Alexios’ delegate.

The First Crusade is a slim monograph, coming in at just over 200 pages before notes, meaning that it is not a new synthesis or a magnum opus. It is a relatively narrow thesis that achieves its aim, showing that the Byzantine context is the key to understanding the crusade. This diplomatic focus means that it is at times dry and the fact that the prose is rife with passive voice made certain chapters read like running into a stiff wind, but these are both superficial concerns. I already understood the legacies of the crusades (both the traditionally-numbered ones, as well as the Northern and Spanish crusades) in a global context in terms of trade, diplomacy, culture and religion, and I went into The First Crusade looking for a way to understand the start of the Crusades in the same light. Frankopan offers just that.


I have since finished The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and begun Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla, a pop-science bestseller about how intuition and memory can deceive us.

The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads is an ambitious project, to offer a new global history that offers The Silk Road (the lines of communication and transit between China and Europe) as the spine of the world, not just in the premodern era, but also going forward. He is largely successful in this dizzying, weighty tome.

The book begins with the formation of the Silk Road in the years before and around 100 BCE and each chapter, usually described as a road with a description (e.g. “The Road to Catastrophe”), moves progressively forward until the book reaches the twenty-first century. Topically, The Silk Roads may be divided into the movement of three things: ideas, goods, and influence, the last in terms of geopolitical jockeying. All three types of movement feature throughout the book, but there is a progression such that the movement of ideas are most prominent in the early portions and the strategic concerns toward the end. At times The Silk Roads can be unbalanced, frequently losing one pole or the other in favor of showing how central Asia remained pivotal for developments that are usually considered to be centered elsewhere.

This imbalance is frustrating, but nevertheless understandable given the enormous and unwieldy scope of the book. Likewise, Frankopan necessarily glosses over some particularly heated scholarly controversies, sign-posting his position and moving on. Again, this is a necessary feature of a book of this scope, but in at least one case the decision was abrupt enough that I was led to ask someone more versed in the period in question about whether the scholar being cited was respected. She confirmed that Frankopan was indeed basing his narrative (in this instance) on a respected scholar even if not everyone agrees with the stance. This is to say Frankopan did his homework, but he also picks his fights, which makes The Silk Roads an entertaining read filled with a bevy of observations and declarations (always with citations if one wishes to know more).

As far as a new “global history,” The Silk Roads admirably demonstrates the interconnected world and shows how the roads influenced developments that had consequences far beyond its own narrow confines. Australia, Africa, and the Americas even make cameo appearances, but one might still quibble that this approach is biased, if necessarily, toward the northern hemisphere and has no time to spend on issues of social history. In fairness, these are not what Frankopan is trying to show and this is one of the best global histories I have yet come across, but they nevertheless remain a limit, particularly in the breathless rush through the twentieth century where much ink is spilt (yet again) on strategic concerns.

In sum, The Silk Roads has much to recommend it, being lively and readable despite its ambitious scope and hefty word count. Some inconsistency could have been ironed out and I would have liked to see more inclusion of India and China in the main narrative, though he showed himself attuned to modern developments initiated by the latter in the conclusion, so I can only assume that it was a deliberate choice to exclude these actors. These quibbles should not detract from the overall success of the book.


I am now caught up on books I finished last week. Up next is Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, which I am about halfway through.

Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science fiction novel Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, but nonetheless elicits controversy and it is easy to see why. On some levels there is very little to this slim book–few rounded characters, almost no plot—and can be seen as a jingoistic pro-military piece of ideologically-infused drivel. On another, there are sentiments about the world and how bootcamp changes a person.

Juan (Johnnie) Rico comes from a wealthy family and his father has determined his life: Harvard business school and then join his company. They don’t get to vote, of course, because that can only happen through military service, but they have money and that is what matters. Then, right after high school, Juan joins the military while trying to show off for a girl. She has the aptitude and intelligence to be a pilot and another friend has the chops to be an engineer. Johnnie is only cut out for the Mobile Infantry—-a grunt in a highly-advanced suit who drops from space sows destruction.

Most of the novel follows Juan’s travails through first bootcamp and early missions, and then officer training school. The narrative unfolds from his point of view, and between grueling exercises the characters touch upon issues of punishment, discipline, responsibility, and violence, but is not uniformly positive or negative on any one position except perhaps on the necessity of citizenship being a right that needs to be earned. It represents issues as genuine problems and for war as an opportunity to make people into the best versions of themselves. And yet Juan is a shining example of this phenomenon, many other characters standing in stark contrast.

I don’t have too many specific observations about this book, in part because I finished it more than a week ago, but while I did appreciate reading it, it did not live up to some of the more well-rounded science fiction I have recently read. Starship Troopers just came across as flatter and more like a philosophical dialogue than a story. However, I cannot help but wonder if some of the controversy about the militarism Heinlein infused in the story comes not from the context of its initial publication, but from the experience of Vietnam in the next decade. In particular, one of the plot hooks later in the story comes from a sudden, forced mobilization of the human race to fight off aliens and how Juan’s father comes to be proud of his son rather than becoming resentful.


I fell a bit behind on reviews, so I’ll soon be posting discussions of Naguib Mahfouz’s Autumn Quail, a story about the downward spiral of a fired politician told through three relationships, and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history that was quite good. This afternoon I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, the ninth Aubrey-Maturin novel.