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Historiography of Antioch and the First Crusade, part 2

Updated on May 19, 2020
Map of Antiochia - Capital of Roman Palestine
Map of Antiochia - Capital of Roman Palestine | Source

On Antioch, the City and Siege

The city of Antioch itself has been a wide subject for writers and historians, more so in modern times than in early historiography. While there has been much to say on the subject in recent years, eighteenth and nineteenth research was slim. The explosion of information in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is likely due more to the excavations of ancient Antioch in the 1930s than the rediscovery of the Chanson d’Antioche in 1848, but the latter should not be overlooked as a possible instigator. Prior to these events, there is little information from early modern scholars on the Siege of Antioch. Voltaire’s Histoire des croisades only makes mention of Antioch a handful of times. His concise outline, and the term concise is used here to mean lacking in detail, is just that. An outline, surprisingly dry of opinion and bias for the most part and certainly not what many philosophers and biographers would expect of Voltaire. Of the Siege of Antioch, Voltaire writes, “Bohemond (1098) skillfully made the crusaders yield the rich land of Antioch.”[1] A single sentence covering the entire event from the beginning of the Siege, through the Battle of Iron Bridge, to when the walls fell to Bohemond and his men, and finally when Bohemond took control of the city. Voltaire mentions briefly the crusaders placing Jerusalem under siege, but never Antioch. He later writes, “here already three small Christian States suddenly formed in Asia; Antioch, Jerusalem, and Edessa.”[2] It is not clear whether Voltaire’s lack of attention to this event marks it as unimportant, but it is likely the case. Even if Voltaire were attempting to condense his history, such a major event should have warranted more information. Either he personally did not see the importance, or he had little knowledge of its importance. During Voltaire’s time, however, there is no reason to believe he was without access to information about the extent of the Siege of Antioch. Compared to his English contemporary Edward Gibbon, Voltaire speaks little on the subject.

As mentioned, Gibbon writes more detail about the Siege. His language is more elaborate than Voltaire’s and gives more specific dates of events. Whereas Voltaire simply mentions the year of events, Gibbon makes note of both the start and end of the siege (Oct 21, 1097 and June 3, 1098). Gibbon also takes the time to describe the geography of Antioch: “The capital of Syria was protected by the river Orontes; and the iron bridge, of nine arches, derived its name from the massy gates of the two towers which are constructed at either end. They were opened by the sword of the duke of Normandy…”[3] Gibbon describes Antioch as magnificent and great but appears to criticize other accounts of the city. He argues the size and descriptions of the city, in reality, “are not perfectly consistent with the five gates, so often mentioned in the history of the siege.”[4] Which sources Gibbon uses to make his argument are unclear. His account of the siege is given more detail, but still is lacking compared to what historians now know of the event. “The nocturnal surprise,” as Gibbon eloquently writes, “was executed by the French and Norman princes, who ascended in person the scaling-ladders that were thrown from the walls…”[5] One of the more interesting aspects of Gibbon’s History is how he then explains the second battle against Kerbogha. Gibbon shows his knowledge of the primary sources, but disputes the chronicles’ veracity. Lastly, he makes note of his own opinion on the victory at Antioch. He considers it to be due to “the fearless despair of the Franks; and the surprise, the discord, perhaps the errors, of their unskilful and presumptuous adversaries.”[6]

Michaud names Antioch “the Queen of the East,” citing it as a long-established epithet for the city.[7] Physically and geographically, Michaud’s description of Antioch is no different than other accounts, yet still without clear detail. He does, however, mention the tumultuous history of Antioch’s almost constant change of ruling authority. “Antioch had been several times taken,” Michaud observes, “it fell at once into the power of the Saracens…afterwards retaken by the Greeks…and, fourteen years before, the Turks had rendered themselves masters of it.”[8] Michaud describes the siege in the same short manner he describes other aspects of the crusades. He lists the leaders of the siege and how they took their positions at each of the gates. The tone which Michaud uses to describe the crusaders here is almost one of disgust, however, but not for the same reasons as Voltaire or Gibbon. He believed the crusaders to be reckless and did not take the siege seriously. “The abundance of provisions, the beautiful sky of Syria…made them lose sight of the holy war, and spread license and corruption among the soldiers of Christ.”[9]

The Siege of Antioch was closely examined in Randall Rogers’ Latin Siege Warfare in the Twelfth Century. Rogers wrote one of the most extensive analyses on the siege without going into other aspects of the crusades. In his book, Rogers argues how the capture of the city “was one of the greatest sieges of the age and occupies a central place in the history of the First Crusade.”[10] Here, Rogers explains the significance of the Siege of Antioch not as an ecclesiastical goal or as a stepping stone for the crusaders, but as a unique aspect of military history. He notes the differences in how this event was carried out compared to others; specifically the use of small fortifications, or counter-forts, which were a “basic feature of medieval siege technique before and after the First Crusade…”[11] Rogers praises the crusaders’ ability to construct and maintain these forts, but recognizes the often desperate defensive measures necessitated by the problems they faced. In fact, the besiegers were, as he writes, often worse off than the besieged.[12]

What Rogers fails to do in his analysis of the city’s fortifications is explain the history of the city. This is understandable considering the purpose of Rogers’ work is to compare siege warfare, not provide a history of each incident or why the events unfolded the way they did. Rogers examines what the crusaders faced and how they overcame it, nothing more. It is from other modern scholars where such explanations are made clear, such as Asbridge and Albu, and of course Downey. Yuval Harari, for example, attributes the grand fortifications at Antioch not to the Turks or Arabs, but to the Byzantines. “Antioch was potentially an excellent power base,” he writes, “Though by 1097 natural and man-made disasters had rendered it a shadow of its past grandeur, it was still a very formidable shadow.”[13] According to Harari, the Byzantines were some of the most accomplished architects, and it was they who built Antioch’s fortifications first in the sixth century, then again in the late 900s. From here, Antioch became “the most formidable stronghold on the Byzantine-Muslim frontier.”[14] Therefore, by the time the crusaders arrived at Antioch, they were up against Byzantine handiwork, not Turkish or Arabic.

Earlier than Rogers, in 1963, Glanville Downey published one of the first full histories of Antioch; the city, not the siege. Downey was a historian present during the excavations of Antioch in the 1930s and his research provides a significant amount of information on the city though fails to note its central role during the crusades. Ancient Antioch is somewhat unique in the historiography of the city because it examines the importance of Antioch as a contained place, rather than as the site of a major historical event. This is not itself an unusual task, as many historians might construct a similar history for any major city in the world, only that Antioch had only ever, before this, been viewed for its importance in the crusades and Christianity. To give, therefore, an analysis of Antioch’s role in the crusades without making note of Downey’s book would be a terrible mishap. His passion and appreciation for Antioch is obvious from his writing. Downey’s book is focused on the history of the city prior to the crusades and Arabic rule. Even still it is a valuable resource in learning about the turbulent history of the city, which is important in order to gain a deeper understanding of what had created Antioch at the time of the First Crusade. Downey’s book furthers the argument surrounding Antioch’s importance, not just of the crusades but of all time. “Antioch had a mission not quite like the mission of any other city in the Graeco-Roman world. Founded as an outpost of Greek civilization in Semitic lands, it was destined from the beginning to bring together and amalgamate diverse threads of religion and culture.”[15]

This diversity of religion and culture is something which, in 1999, T.S. Asbridge commented on as well. The goal of his research, he states, was “to define the nature of the community”[16] at Antioch. Asbridge views Antioch as a culturally significant principality, rather than focusing on the historical, military, or religious significance. He argues that the culture at Antioch was shaped by the beginnings of the religious conflict between the East and West, but then went on to see a cross-culturalization between Islam and Christianity which created a Latin principality that was not wholly Latin in nature. Asbridge’s argument shows how, despite an uneven class system developed within the city, Antioch was largely thought of as an independent and cohesive society. It was the outside threat which Antioch had to face, and this was likely always the case for the city, even after the Siege of 1097/98. Asbridge is one of the first in the last two decades to write so thoroughly on Antioch, and his work is extensive. In 2000, he published a history of Antioch- more focused on the crusades than Glanville Downey’s research. Asbridge’s research proves how the importance of Antioch became more apparent in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than before. Emily Albu notes how the city was “a city of legendary antiquity and splendor.”[17]


[1] Voltaire, Histoire des croisades, 33. “Bohemond (1098) eut l’adresse de se faire céder par les Croisés le fertile Pays d’Antioche.”

[2] Voltaire, Histoire des croisades, 37. “Voilà déjà trois petits Etats Chrétiens formées tout d’un coup en Asie ; Antioche, Jérusalem, et Edesse.”

[3] Edward Gibbon, The Crusades A.D. 1095-1261 (London: Alex Murray and Son, 1869), 35.

[4] Gibbon, Crusades, 35.

[5] Gibbon, Crusades, 37.

[6] Gibbon, Crusades, 37.

[7] Michaud, History of the Crusades, chapter 3.

[8] Michaud, History of the Crusades, chapter 3.

[9] Michaud, History of the Crusades, chapter 3.

[10] Randall Rogers, Latin Siege Warfare in the Twelfth Century (New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 1997), 25.

[11] Rogers, Siege Warfare, 30-31.

[12] Rogers, Siege Warfare, 25.

[13] Yuval Harari, Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550 (Rochester: Boydell & Brewer Inc, 2007), 54.

[14] Harari, Special Operations, 54.

[15] Glanville Downey, Ancient Antioch (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963), 273.

[16] T.S. Asbridge, “The ‘Crusader’ Community at Antioch: The Impact of Interaction with Byzantium and Islam,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 9 (1999), 306, doi: 10.2307/3679407.

[17] Albu, “Antioch and the Normans,” 160.

Conclusion

Although commentary and critique of the crusades extends far back to the actual events, interpretations and understandings of the Siege of Antioch are more recent. Furthermore, those understandings have changed drastically through the decades. From the beginnings of the crusade chronicles, there is a justification of actions undertaken by the crusaders. A distaste for the crusades grows from the Enlightenment, and shortly after a renewed religious and patriotic vigor, particularly, among French writers appears. Finally, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries a deeper, more methodical approach comes about. It is no doubt thanks to Glanville Downey that so much modern research has been done on the city and siege of Antioch, and it could be suggested that the rediscovery of the Chanson d’Antioche and the rest of the Old French Crusade Cycle helped spur a new interest in the city of Antioch and the siege of 1097. This is evidenced by the fact that writers and historians of the crusades, Voltaire, Gibbon, and Choiseul-Daillecourt specifically, wrote very little to nothing on the Siege, as if they felt there was no importance to be had, that the Siege of Antioch was just one more battle in the chain of events. In the course of this research, it is unknown what other factors might have led to the renewed interest in Antioch, but the relative absence of detailed information and interest prior to 1848, and the slow growth of writing concerning it afterwards indicates the poem had more influence on historiography and historical research than might be otherwise thought. Regardless, modern scholarship on both the Siege of Antioch and the poem increased in the first decade of the twenty-first century. It should also be noted that the research presented in this paper is by no means exhaustive; what has hopefully been accomplished here is a sampling of the trends and extent of historiography surrounding Antioch the city, siege, and chanson. With the continuing translations and critique of the Old French Crusade Cycle, as well as further commentary on the primary sources, more information will inevitably become available and an even deeper understanding of the events of the crusades and the place of crusade literature may be possible.

Bibliography

Albu, Emily. “Antioch and the Normans.” In Crusading and Pilgrimage in the Norman World, edited by

Kathryn Hurlock and Paul Oldfield, 159-175. Rochester: The Boydell Press, 2015.

Emily Albu takes Antioch as the central focus of this chapter, establishing herself within the realm of research surrounding the city and its occupiers. She, like many other historians, recognizes the overwhelming majority of the Normans during this time period. She describes Antioch’s splendor as a city, drawing much from the visuals of the Gesta Francorum. Albu also provides her readers with a detailed history of the city prior to the First Crusade, further indicating its importance in the East and in both Islam and Christianity. Albu uses concise language, allowing for straightforward arguments and observations.

Asbridge, T.S. “The ‘Crusader’ Community at Antioch: The Impact of Interaction with Byzantium

and Islam.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Vol 9 (1999): 305-325.

DOI: 10.2307/3679407.

Asbridge provides a more practical and direct approach to Antioch. His research lies more within the context of the community and culture fostered at Antioch than of the battle, siege, or any theological or political importance of the city. Asbridge takes the culture established at Antioch and compares it to other states and cities in the vicinity, explaining the differences and how Antioch became a unique entity in the Middle East.

Asbridge, T.S. The Creation of the Principality of Antioch, 1098-1130. Rochester: The Boydell Press, 2000.

In this book, Asbridge expands upon much of what he had observed in his earlier article on the subject. He notes the small amount of scholarship involving Antioch during the First Crusade and seeks to rectify the problem, and his book is highly informative and one of the most thorough single volumes on the subject of the city of Antioch’s creation as a Christian crusader state.

Bull, Marcus. “The Historiographical Construction of a Northern French First Crusade.” In Studies

in Medieval History, edited by Laura L. Gathagan and William North, 35-55. Rochester:

Boydell & Brewer Inc, 2014.

Like many historians, Bull focuses on the idea of an inherent “Frenchness” to the First Crusade. He presents this question as the core of his research. Not only were the majority of European sources from Northern French chroniclers, the crusading movement itself was largely made up of Northern Frenchmen. ‘Normans’ can extend to include more than just French or Northern French, such as with the case of Bohemond, but the crusades had such an impact on France in particular that it is difficult to avoid the central nature. Marcus Bull takes into consideration all the aspects of the crusade, analyzing them from an outside perspective while clearly understanding the forces which created the First Crusade.

Choiseul-Daillecourt, Maxime. “De l’influence des croisades sur l’état des peoples de l’Europe.” Paris: Chez

Tilliard frères, 1809. https://archive.org/details/delinfluencedesc00choi/page/n3.

Choiseul-Daillecourt is one of the earliest writers on the topic of the influence of the Crusades on Europe. In general, his essay praises the Crusades and what they brought to the Middle East and to Europe. He criticizes previous philosophers who condemned the Crusades and their effects, and states how it is thanks to the Crusades that so many political and social advances were made. This essay reflects the general perceptions of the Crusades during this time.

Downey, Glanville. Ancient Antioch. New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1963.

Glanville Downey was a historian at the excavation of Antioch in the 1930s, so while this book has little research of the city during the crusades, it is a valuable resource. Downey is clearly smitten with the ancient city and it shows in his writing. Downey offers a somewhat unique perspective as a historian as well, since few historians writing of the crusades can claim their having traveled to Antioch themselves. His book combines an archeological perspective with that of a historical one.

Flori, Jean. Chroniquers et propagandistes: introduction critique aux sources de la premiere croisade. Paris:

Erudist, 2010.

Jean Flori’s book is a thorough overview of the primary sources from the First Crusade. In his research here, he provides a lot of information in a concise format. He also offers his own observations on the history of the crusades, and of course this includes descriptions and information on Antioch and the siege.

Gibbon, Edward. The Crusades, A.D. 1095-1261. London: Alex Murray and Son, 1869. Google

books.

Gibbon’s view of the crusades is generally dry and concise, providing little more than the historical facts as he knows them. While he does provide commentary and his own point of view on the crusades at times, he is otherwise fair and equal in his treatment, and without embellishment. He does not hesitate to critique medieval sources but does so without over-the-top emotion or exclamation. On Antioch he provides more detail as well, but like many others in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, does not seem to place any more importance on the Siege of Antioch than on other events.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer

Inc, 2007.

Harari’s book delves into a wide overview of interesting and unique events throughout the medieval period, not just on the crusades. He chooses the Siege of Antioch as one grand example of this, and therefore provides a valuable perspective, similar to Randall Rogers, of the siege as a military operation. Like other historians, Harari also considers the long and tumultuous past of Antioch.

Mabie, Hamilton W. Preface to History of the Crusades: Complete in three volumes, by Joseph François

Michaud. Lex De Leon Publishing, 2015. Kindle.

Hamilton W. Mabie was a prolific essayist and writer in the nineteenth century. He provides the preface to the 1882 edition English translation of Michaud’s History of the Crusades and is another example of nineteenth century philosophy concerning the crusades. He, like many contemporaries, praises the crusades and the impact they had on Western civilization.

Michaud, Joseph François. History of the Crusades: Complete in three volumes. Translated by William

Robson. Lex De Leon Publishing, 2015. Kindle.

Michaud writes with a ‘Frenchness’ which rivals that of the earlier medieval chroniclers and proves the general mindset of nineteenth century thought surrounding the crusades. There is a surprising amount of information on Antioch in Michaud’s work, but it is hardly the focus of his writing. His mentions of the siege are also kept short and concise, with very little historical detail and flavored with his own bias.

Munro, Dana C. “War and History.” American Historical Review 32, no. 2 (January 1927): 219-31.

https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-

archives/presidential-addresses/dana-c-munro.

Dana Munro’s address takes into consideration the historiographical changes in perceptions of the Crusades. He asks the same questions which many historians face, and that is how can we understand the influence of the Crusades on our social, political, and theological culture? He also analyses how historiography was influenced, particularly in France but by extension Western Europe. He separates the Crusades from other wars of religion while explaining the similarities.

Paviot, Jacques. “La croisade: guerre juste, guerre sainte?.” In Guerre juste Juste guerre: Les justifications de

la guerre religieuses et profanes de l’Antiquite au XXIe siecle, edited by Marie-Francoise Baslez,

Andre Encreve, Remi Fabre, and Corinne Peneau, 81-91. Pompignac: Biere, 2013.

http://www.academia.edu/8864288/La_croisade_guerre_juste_guerre_sainte.

Jacques Paviot presents the argument of how the crusades were and are perceived. He takes into consideration primary sources and researches the historiography of the crusades as well, seeking to understand the crusades as holy wars. He analyzes the words “holy war” and establishes a timeline of exactly when the phrase was used to describe the crusades.

Rogers, Randall. Latin Siege Warfare in the Twelfth Century. New York: Oxford University Press Inc,

1997.

Rogers’ work encompasses a long history and analysis of siege warfare, spanning decades and not focusing on any specific aspect or event. He writes extensively on the Siege of Antioch 1098, however, due to its relatively unique situation. He notes the differences in how this particular siege was carried out compared to others. Rogers examines the way the siege was established, and praises the crusaders’ ability at constructing and maintaining the siege despite often desperate defensive measures they were forced to undertake.

Voltaire. Essai sur l’histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’a nos jours.

Paris: 1757. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/012476135.

As with much of Voltaire’s work, this long history is the result of Enlightenment thinking and showcases Voltaire’s beliefs on the rejection of superstition and religion. It is as much a philosophical work as a historical work, and probably more so, as the history which he writes here is colored by philosophical ideas and thoughts instead of a straight examination of history and events. In this work there is very little to do with the Crusades within the scope of his writing, but it does provide supplemental insight on his views concerning holy wars and the Crusades in general.

Voltaire. Histoire des croisades avec la critique. Berlin: 1751.

One of Voltaire’s earlier and lesser known histories, the History of the Crusades is an extensive work spanning the sequence of events from beginning to end. Like his other historical essays and volumes, Voltaire’s philosophy and Enlightenment way of thinking is foremost in his writing. Here he condemns the Crusades, a common perception during the Enlightenment which he shares with some contemporaries. His actual historical analysis is slim and he breezes through some events, giving them hardly more than one or two short sentences.

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