The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance

The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance

The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance

The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance


In the wake of Jerusalem's fall in 1099, the crusading armies of western Christians known as the Franks found themselves governing not only Muslims and Jews but also local Christians, whose culture and traditions were a world apart from their own. The crusader-occupied swaths of Syria and Palestine were home to many separate Christian communities: Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Armenians, and other sects with sharp doctrinal differences. How did these disparate groups live together under Frankish rule?

In The Crusades and the Christian World of the East, Christopher MacEvitt marshals an impressive array of literary, legal, artistic, and archeological evidence to demonstrate how crusader ideology and religious difference gave rise to a mode of coexistence he calls "rough tolerance." The twelfth-century Frankish rulers of the Levant and their Christian subjects were separated by language, religious practices, and beliefs. Yet western Christians showed little interest in such differences. Franks intermarried with local Christians and shared shrines and churches, but they did not hesitate to use military force against Christian communities. Rough tolerance was unlike other medieval modes of dealing with religious difference, and MacEvitt illuminates the factors that led to this striking divergence.

"It is commonplace to discuss the diversity of the Middle East in terms of Muslims, Jews, and Christians," MacEvitt writes, "yet even this simplifies its religious complexity." While most crusade history has focused on Christian-Muslim encounters, MacEvitt offers an often surprising account by examining the intersection of the Middle Eastern and Frankish Christian worlds during the century of the First Crusade.


A few months after the capture of Antioch (3 June 1098), the leaders of the First Crusade wrote a letter to Pope Urban II, on whose urging they had embarked on their long, strange journey across Europe and Byzantium. The rigors of nearly two years on the march, the exhausting eight-month siege of Antioch, the euphoria of its capture, the miraculous discovery of the relic of the Holy Lance, and the astonishing victory over yet another Turkish army had left the crusaders dazed and overwhelmed. The last straw came on 1 August with the death of Adhemar of LePuy, the papal representative accompanying the crusaders. His passing left the crusaders without a guiding and unifying voice. Confused and lacking direction, the crusaders hoped a letter to Urban might elicit further guidance. After summarizing the recent events of the crusade, the letter-writers urged that Urban himself come to Antioch, which was, as they noted, the first seat of St. Peter, and that the pope then lead the crusaders on to Jerusalem. Why? The crusaders confessed that they had found some challenges beyond their military skills: “we have subdued the Turks and the pagans,” they wrote to Urban, “but the heretics, Greeks and Armenians, Syrians and Jacobites, we have not been able to overcome (expugnare).” What the crusaders wanted to do to the “heretics” is unclear: kill them as they had the Turkish inhabitants of Antioch? Expel them from the lands the crusaders had conquered? Or perhaps the crusaders’ frustration arose because they did not know how to confront an issue as complex and unexpected as eastern Christianity.

For the modern historian, the letter is a glimpse at a moment of possibility, as the army’s leaders gathered in Antioch on that late summer’s day to consider the direction of their journey. At Antioch, the crusaders stood at the edge of the Byzantine world, a world different from their own yet more familiar than the great sweep of Islamic lands that lay open to the south and east of them. The letter from Antioch hints at their anxiety on leaving the fa-

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