Medieval fake news may have sparked off two centuries of the Crusades. Was a letter for help from the East that cause the Pope to rally Christendom actually a fake? Was the whole basis for the Crusades a great big lie?
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II addressed a huge crowd at the town of Clermont in France and urged them to do something new and very exciting – to march east and fight the forces of Islam. Something terrible had happened – he said. It needed an immediate remedy – every fit and able man must go and defend the Christian holy places.
“Let those who, for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights!”
Pope fooled by fake news medieval style?
What he brandished was a begging letter from the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire – Alexios I Komnenos. The Byzantine realm was what had been the eastern half of the Roman empire. After the west was overrun by barbarians, it carried on but shrank and evolved into essentially a Greek speaking, Christian empire. It covered roughly what is Turkey today, Greece and the Balkans.
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It had been under sustained attack for four hundred years since the rise of Islam. Muslim armies had taken Egypt, Palestine and Syria – which had all once been Byzantine territory. Now, the Muslim Seljuk Turks were menacing the capital – Constantinople. Its thick, six-hundred year old walls had never been breached but the Byzantines had suffered a huge military defeat at a place called Manzikert and the Seljuks were emboldened.
In fact, the Seljuks were literally camped outside the walls of Constantinople. When into the city came a western nobleman called Robert of Flanders. He was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Robert engaged in some fighting with the Seljuks and Alexios was so impressed that he gave him a letter to circulate around Europe. It basically said – we Byzantines are in deep trouble, come and rescue us!
Why the letter looks like medieval fake news
Now, Alexios would probably have had to include a financial inducement to get western knights to come and help him. But the letter makes an offer that it’s hard to believe any Byzantine emperor would have made to the west. In the letter, Alexios puts on the table the entire wealth of the gilded churches of the Byzantine empire. He even makes a point of noting that his churches “are overflowing with silver, gold, gems, precious stones and silken cloths or vestments, enough for all the churches in the world”.
He continued that the Hagia Sofia – a huge basilica which still stands today – had more treasure than the biblical Temple of Solomon. Plus there were loads of holy relics he was happy to see being carted off. These included the head of John the Baptist; fragments from the two loaves and five fishes left over after the miracle by Jesus to feed the multitude and the pillar to which Jesus was tied when he was scourged – and the whip!
The daughter of Alexios never mentions the letter – ergo – fake news
The letter is such a greedy, salivating list of things to loot in Constantinople that many have long suspected it was either faked or added to by western knights before it got to the Pope. But more intriguingly, it’s not mentioned in the history of the Byzantine empire written by the daughter of Alexios – Anna Komnena.
In her book – The Alexiad – there isn’t a single mention of her father writing a begging letter to the Christian kingdoms of the west to come and help him.
And there’s two more grounds for smelling something fishy here. The Christian patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope in Rome had refused to recognise each other’s authority over the whole of Christianity. In fact, they’d excommunicated each other forty years before.
Then there’s the son of Robert of Flanders who goes on crusade and plays a leading role in taking the Syrian city of Antioch. Did he hand it over to the Byzantine empire as they were expecting? Did he ever! And he took Antioch with another western noble, Bohemond, who had tried to seize Byzantine territory in modern day Albania – angering Constantinople.
In other words, it starts to look a lot like this letter was concocted by greedy Norman nobles to have an excuse for carving out some land and grabbing some treasure out east. It may even have been written AFTER the speech by Pope Urban rousing everybody to go on crusade. It was a kind of “sexed up” dossier – to use the language of our times – to justify all out war.
So – was the letter from the Byzantine emperor a case of medieval fake news?
Whatever the facts of the matter, it seems most likely that two hundred years of conflict about to commence in the Holy Land was based on a piece of paper filled with baseless fabrications. As Winston Churchill so famously observed, the first casualty of war is truth.