Crusader Strategy: Possibilities and Limitations

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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble

CRUSADER STRATEGY

In looking at the possibility of ‘medieval strategy’ and using the crusader states as our case study, we should never exaggerate what was possible.

There was certainly no ‘grand strategy’ in the sense that the Roman Empire or more modern states might use the term. There were never sufficient resources or administrative structures in place to create the luxury of such possibilities. Similarly, given the number and volatility of players in the region, much military activity was inevitably reactive or opportunistic in nature. Pragmatism and opportunism ruled under most circumstances. If the enemy was weak, you took advantage. If you could capture an enemy city and hold it, you probably would.

Opportunism was sometimes a positive alternative to ‘strategy’ (and a very legitimate reason why strategic direction was often overlooked in the short term). But there were plenty of far less positive reasons why planning and strategic implementation were hideously difficult to put into practice. Everywhere one looked, there were limitations.

What ‘We Can’t Do’…Not ‘What We Can’

In this context, strategy was inevitably defined more by what was not possible than what was. The difficulties that faced the crusader states, continually constraining their choices, were profound.

Most fundamentally, there was a chronic lack of manpower. As communities operating on or beyond the extreme fringes of Europe, Frankish manpower was always at a premium. The Middle East had been predominantly Christian at the time of the Muslim invasions in the seventh century, and many localities remained so when the First Crusade arrived in the region; the majority of the local population of what became the Crusader states was still largely Christian even in the twelfth century.

They could be called upon to help, but a thousand years of demilitarisation meant most of them were ill-suited to the task. And, with the inevitable complexity of human nature, religious affiliation did not automatically guarantee either support or opposition.

Continual efforts were made to attract more settlers from the West, but the lack of land and the ever-present dangers of a frontier society made the task extremely difficult.

The lack of money made the situation even worse. Finance was a constraint in any medieval state. For the Franks, the European settlers in the Holy Land, this was, even more, the case: their defence expenditure was always vast relative to the productivity of the communities they sought to protect. Mercenaries were needed to fill the gaps in the army. The militia, however ineffectual, needed to be equipped. And a huge number of castles needed to be built and upgraded, not just on the frontiers but across the whole of the crusader states. Even in the absence of invaders, bandits and nomads posed perennial threats to villagers and other vulnerable civilians.

Getting the money to pay for all these things was a nightmare. Men and money came over from Europe, but this flow was irregular and, as it was increasingly funneled through the military orders, not always under the direct control of the secular authorities even when it arrived. The kings of Jerusalem were poor. They took every available opportunity to try to rectify the situation, but it was never enough.

Losing Control?

The increasing resources, wealth, and professionalism of the military orders were certainly welcome. They took on more and more responsibility for the defence of the frontiers as the twelfth century progressed. Less helpfully, however, their wealth exacerbated already latent tendencies: they became more independent, and their assets were less easily controlled by the local Frankish rulers. The help of military orders was essential but generally needed to be negotiated rather than commanded.

There were other unhelpful forces to contend with as well. The natural tensions between the four crusader states sometimes encouraged Edessa, Tripoli, and Antioch to pursue independent and potentially contradictory foreign policies, regardless of the views of their occasional overlord, the King of Jerusalem. The other side of this equation was the capacity and willingness of the nobility of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to ride north, month after month, year after year, to help the other states when they faced large-scale invasions.

Quite apart from the frequent ingratitude of their northern compatriots (help was often needed but only grudgingly accepted), there were dangers and expenses involved, alongside the risks they incurred in leaving their lands undefended for long periods. It is perhaps surprising that the occasional grumbles and absences from muster were not more frequent.

A Rapid Response Force?

Europe was a long way away, both in terms of distance and, even more importantly, time; help was never close at hand. But poor external communications back to Europe were matched by endemic problems with internal communications within the crusader states. Ensuring a rapid response to enemy threats was always problematic; time was often of the essence, and getting the few available men to the right place at the right time was difficult.

Fast messengers, lots of experience, and ‘customary’ protocols and responses (such as mustering at traditional points) all made this easier. But the issue was perennial and often led to difficulties, as small groups of men racing to danger points might be overrun by enemy raiding parties, or units might arrive far too late to be of use in a siege or battle.

Feudal Barriers

And all of this was on top of the fundamental limitations faced by any feudal society. There was no standing army. The nobility generally had their own small armies, but even the most loyal barons were none too keen on extended foreign excursions. Every decision and every major plan had to be discussed, and an attempt was made to achieve consensus. However much their rulers would have liked them to be, the crusader states were not dictatorships.

The nobility, the military orders, the church, the colonial settlements, and even the townsfolk all had their own opinions and interests and needed to be brought along with any significant strategic ideas. Everywhere one looked, there were barriers to implementing strategy.

The Frankish kings and princes of the Middle East naturally took every opportunity they could to try to manipulate the feudal structures over which they presided. They needed to do so in order to improve their power bases and provide more centralisation of the very limited resources available for military activity. Even so, their assets were always limited and inadequate, though their need was great. But, within the confines of the possible, there was, as we shall see, certainly strategic thinking, long-term planning, and a tenacious pursuit of strategic goals.

Where’s the Email Trail?

There are no surviving ‘strategy’ documents, no memos, or irritating Friday afternoon meeting notes from the crusader states. Probably, in the modern sense at least, there were never any formal strategy documents in the first place. But there is an abundance of evidence to show that planning took place and that the development of long-term strategies was a direct consequence of those plans.

One can adopt a ‘strategy’ naturally, and this is what the crusader states and their leaders did. They did not need to understand or articulate the logic of strategic planning, or the systematic classification that might underpin it. They and their opponents were often just good at it instinctively. They enacted strategy in an intuitive but often surprisingly subtle way.

At the most basic level, deconstructing layers of activity (which we can do through analysing the often sparse commentaries of the chronicles) reveals clear patterns of implementation: how their strategies played out in practice.

Strategy Without Emails

But the underlying evidence for genuinely ‘strategic’ action is far stronger than that. Time and again, we find the crusader states:

  • tenaciously pursuing long-term objectives in a way that transcended reigns, regimes, and changing personalities—they displayed single-minded attention to strategic goals that would shame many modern governments or corporations;

  • gathering resources and marshaling every possible asset in pursuit of strategic goals;

  • coordinating planning, for instance, through extended diplomatic offensives;

  • analysing intelligence, running spy rings, organising frontier patrols, and conducting long-range reconnaissance.

They may have been hairy. They may have been unwashed. But we cannot lightly dismiss their intuitive strategic capabilities.

The potential for catastrophe—the destruction of entire communities—lies at the end of every badly executed campaign. And with limited resources at their disposal, the Crusaders had to work hard to make everything count.

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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2020). The Crusader Strategy. Yale University Press.

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