I’m not kidding.


«Byzantium learned about Normans the hard way. In the ninth and tenth centuries Byzantine strength had revived somewhat as Muslims turned to fighting one another, and in 975 a Byzantine army even came within sight of Jerusalem (it failed to take the holy city but did liberate Jesus’ sandals and John the Baptist’s hair). But within a century the Byzantines became dangerously dependent on Norman mercenaries, whose unreliability (for all their ferocity, they regularly ran away) contributed to a catastrophic defeat at Turkish hands in 1071. Twenty years later, with Constantinople under Turkish siege, the Byzantine emperor wrote to the pope in Rome, apparently hoping for help in hiring more mercenaries. The pope, though, had other ideas. Seeking to strengthen his own position in his struggles with Europe’s kings, he called a summit in 1095 and pitched the idea of an expedition—a crusade—to throw the Turks out of Jerusalem.

There was wild enthusiasm; rather more, in fact, than either the pope or the Byzantines wanted. Tens of thousands of villagers started walking east, plundering central Europe and massacring Jews as they went. Only a few reached Anatolia, where the Turks slaughtered them. None made it to the Holy Land, except as slaves.

Of more practical use were the three armies of French and Norman knights, backed by Genoese merchants, which converged on Jerusalem in 1099. Their timing was impeccable: the Seljuks were too busy fighting one another to offer much resistance, and after heart-stopping feats of bravado the crusaders breached the holy city’s walls. For twelve hours they plundered and killed on a scale that shocked even the Normans among them, burning Jews alive and chopping Muslims into pieces (though at least, a Jewish woman observed, the Christians did not follow the Turkish practice of raping their victims first). Finally, at dusk, the conquerors splashed through ankle-deep gore to thank God at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Yet spectacular though it was, this direct assault on the core never seriously threatened Islam. The Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was steadily rolled back until in 1187 the Muslims recaptured the city. More crusades followed, most failing dismally; in 1204 the fourth, unable to afford ships, ended up renting itself out as muscle to Venetian financiers and sacking not Jerusalem but Constantinople. Neither the crusading movement nor the Byzantine Empire recovered from this disgrace.»

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