XLVI. The Crusades and the Age of Papal Dominion

IT is interesting to note that Charlemagne corresponded with the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid, the Haroun-al-Raschid of the Arabian Nights. It is recorded that Haroun-al-Raschid sent ambassadors from Bagdad-which had now replaced Damascus as the Moslem capital-with a splendid tent, a water clock, an elephant and the keys of the Holy Sepulchre. This latter present was admirably calculated to set the Byzantine Empire and this new Holy Roman Empire by the ears as to which was the proper protector of the Christians in Jerusalem.

These presents remind us that while Europe in the ninth century was still a weltering disorder of war and pillage, there flourished a great Arab Empire in Egypt and Mesopotamia, far more civilized than anything Europe could show. Here literature and science still lived; the arts flourished, and the mind of man could move without fear or superstition. And even in Spain and North Africa where the Saracenic dominions were falling into political confusion there was a vigorous intellectual life. Aristotle was read and discussed by these Jews and Arabs during these centuries of European darkness. They guarded the neglected seeds of science and philosophy.

North-east of the Caliph's dominions was a number of Turkish tribes. They had been converted to Islam, and they held the faith much more simply and fiercely than the actively intellectual Arabs and Persians to the south. In the tenth century the Turks were growing strong and vigorous while the Arab power was divided and decaying. The relations of the Turks to the Empire of the Caliphate became very similar to the relations of the Medes to the last Babylonian Empire fourteen centuries before. In the eleventh century a group of Turkish tribes, the Seljuk Turks, came down into Mesopotamia and made the Caliph their nominal ruler but really their captive and tool. They conquered Armenia. Then they struck at the remnants of the Byzantine power in Asia Minor. In 1071 the Byzantine army was utterly smashed at the battle of Melasgird, and the Turks swept forward until not a trace of Byzantine rule remained in Asia. They took the fortress of Nicaea over against Constantinople, and prepared to attempt that city.

The Byzantine emperor, Michael VII, was overcome with terror. He was already heavily engaged in warfare with a band of Norman adventurers who had seized Durazzo, and with a fierce Turkish people, the Petschenegs, who were raiding over the Danube. In his extremity he sought help where he could, and it is notable that he did not appeal to the western emperor but to the Pope of Rome as the head of Latin Christendom. He wrote to Pope Gregory VII, and his successor Alexius Comnenus wrote still more urgently to Urban II.

This was not a quarter of a century from the rupture of the Latin and Greek churches. That controversy was still vividly alive in men's minds, and this disaster to Byzantium must have presented itself to the Pope as a supreme opportunity for reasserting the supremacy of the Latin Church over the dissentient Greeks. Moreover this occasion gave the Pope a chance to deal with two other matters that troubled western Christendom very greatly. One was the custom of "private war" which disordered social life, and the other was the superabundant fighting energy of the Low Germans and Christianized Northmen and particularly of the Franks and Normans. A religious war, the Crusade, the War of the Cross, was preached against the Turkish captors of Jerusalem, and a truce to all warfare amongst Christians (1095). The declared object of this war was the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre from the unbelievers. A man called Peter the Hermit carried on a popular propaganda throughout France and Germany on broadly democratic lines. He went clad in a coarse garment, barefooted on an ass, he carried a huge cross and harangued the crowd in street or market-place or church. He denounced the cruelties practised upon the Christian pilgrims by the Turks, and the shame of the Holy Sepulchre being in any but Christian hands. The fruits of centuries of Christian teaching became apparent in the response. A great wave of enthusiasm swept the western world, and popular Christendom discovered itself.

Such a widespread uprising of the common people in relation to a single idea as now occurred was a new thing in the history of our race. There is nothing to parallel it in the previous history of the Roman Empire or of India or China. On a smaller scale, however, there had been similar movements among the Jewish people after their liberation from the Babylonian captivity, and later on Islam was to display a parallel susceptibility to collective feeling. Such movements were certainly connected with the new spirit that had come into life with the development of the missionary-teaching religions. The Hebrew prophets, Jesus and his disciples, Mani, Muhammad, were all exhorters of men's individual souls. They brought the personal conscience face to face with God. Before that time religion had been much more a business of fetish, of pseudoscience, than of conscience. The old kind of religion turned upon temple, initiated priest and mystical sacrifice, and ruled the common man like a slave by fear. The new kind of religion made a man of him.

The preaching of the First Crusade was the first stirring of the common people in European history. It may be too much to call it the birth of modern democracy, but certainly at that time modern democracy stirred. Before very long we shall find it stirring again, and raising the most disturbing social and religious questions.