At the time the Templars were formed, THE city – the most important metropolis in Europe – was still Constantinople. It may no longer have dominated the Mediterranean as it had done in the late Roman period and under Justinian and his immediate successors, but it remained a wealthy and prospering entrepot.
The armies of Islam – against whom the crusaders and Templars would fight throughout the 12th and 13th centuries might have taken north Africa and the Levant from the Christian emperor in Constantinople – but it still exerted a huge political, cultural and occasionally military pull on the region. It was, after all, an appeal from the emperor that led the pope to call for the First Crusade.
Constantinople survived because it sat behind huge, thick walls built in the 5th century AD to withstand attacks from Huns and other barbarians. It saw off the Arabs, Bulgars, Avars and Turks in succession. By the year 1200, the population believed their mighty city could see off any invader and yet, four years later, fellow Christians would attack and devastate the city, breaching its walls, in the Fourth Crusade.
There have been several attempts to recapture the glory of Constantinople through simulation and I share a couple here.
Ending a siege as quickly as possible was always a good idea with both those inside and outside the castle needing to maintain supplies and fend off disease. The weapons employed to wear down your enemy were as much psychological as physical. What you wanted to do to your enemy was to destroy their morale, their will to fight.
Lobbing the severed heads of captured soldiers over the castle wall – in either direction – was a favoured tactic. This might include the hapless messenger who might have his head send back with the enemy response written on a piece of parchment and nailed to his head. In 1344, the English were fighting to hold on to Gascony and one of their soldiers tried to break through the French lines with a request for more assistance. He was captured and the poor man was catapulted alive back in to the castle he had sneaked out of.
At the siege of Nicaea in the First Crusade, the heads of Saracens were impaled before the city walls by the crusaders and others catapulted over the battlements. It was quite common to execute prisoners in front of the enemy with a mass hanging calculated to dent morale. Louis VI castrated and disemboweled captives and floated them down the river on barges to be met by their former comrades in besieged Rouen.
One Byzantine emperor blinded a captured Bulgar army save for one in every ten men – who kept a single eye, to lead the others back. When this appalling spectacle returned to the Bulgar king, he apparently dropped dead on the spot (according to the Byzantine telling of it of course). A similar tactic was used by De Montfort in the crusade against the Albigensian heresy. He cut off the upper lips and noses of a captured garrison and blinded them – leaving some with an eye to lead them to the next castle as a warning of what happened if you resisted De Montfort.
If the enemy began to ram the walls, then they might be discouraged if captured prisoners were dangled – alive – in front of the attacking army. One medieval king attempted to protect his siege towers from attack by mangonels on the city walls by tying live prisoners to the front of the machines. We talk about ‘human shields’ now in warfare but in the Middle Ages, they were very, very literal. Apparently, this ruse did not work and the siege towers came under renewed attack. One account says that the youths tied to the siege towers died very slowly and “miserably, struck by the stones”.
Those throwing the stones at their captured comrades did so with tears in their eyes. They were horrified at having to attack these young soldiers being used as a human shield. “They crushed their chests, their stomachs and their heads and bone and mushy brain were mixed together”. One can imagine that the defenders might have even tried to hurry the deaths of their comrades by taking special aim at them.
A properly provisioned walled city or castle complex could hold out for up to a year. Day after day they could rain down rocks, boiling oil and arrows on the besiegers. With proper preparation and weapons to hand, it could be the army outside the walls who suffered disease and hunger first and not those holed up behind the battlements.
Life for the besieged might get uncomfortable but with a stiff upper lip (providing you still had one!), you could see off the enemy.
Here is a medieval battle re-enactment in the Czech Republic:
The First Crusade saw motley bands of peasants, opportunists, criminals and the medieval equivalent of gangsters flock together and go on crusade in search of riches. On the way to the Holy Land, they often targeted Jews in Europe treating them as if they were de facto Saracens – infidels in their midst. A chronicler called Solomon bar Samson wrote of a massacre in 1096 in the German city of Mainz, which was clearly horrific even by the standards of the time. It was led by a noble called Emico who forced his way in to the city with armed men and sought out the Jewish population.
Terrified, the Jews of Mainz headed towards the Archbishop’s palace and took refuge, prepared to fight to the last against the thugs approaching them.
“The bishop’s men, who had promised to help them, were the very first to flee, thus delivering the Jews into the hands of the enemy. They were indeed a poor support; even the bishop himself fled from his church for it was thought to kill him also because he had spoken good things of the Jews.”
In spite of all their efforts, the Jews within the palace could not stop Emico breaking in and men, women and children faced up to the inevitable. They were going to die. They would either die at the hands of the crusader gang or at their own hand.
“Then all of them, to a man, cried out with a loud voice: ‘Now we must delay no longer for the enemy are already upon us. Let us hasten and offer ourselves as a sacrifice to the Lord. Let him who has a knife examine it that it not be nicked, and let him come and slaughter us for the sanctification of the Only One, the Everlasting and then let him cut his own throat or plunge the knife into his own body.'”
As Emico and his men stormed the courtyard, the Jewish leader Isaac ben Moses stretched out his neck and one of the gang duly cut his head off.
“The others, wrapped by their fringed prayingshawls, sat by themselves in the courtyard, eager to do the will of their Creator. They did not care to flee into the chamber to save themselves for this temporal life, but out of love they received upon themselves the sentence of God. The enemy showered stones and arrows upon them, but they did not care to flee, and [Esther 9:5] “with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter, and destruction” the foe killed all of those whom they found there. When those in the chambers saw the deed of these righteous ones, how the enemy had already come upon them, they then cried out, all of them: “There is nothing better than for us to offer our lives as a sacrifice.”
Emico had arrived with 12,000 men and the Jews were hopelessly outnumbered and inadequately armed. The Jewish women killed their own sons and daughters and then themselves.
“Many men, too, plucked up courage and killed their wives, their sons, their infants. The tender and delicate mother slaughtered the babe she had played with, all of them, men and women arose and slaughtered one another.”
The tales of suicide and murder go on depressingly and unfortunately this kind of pogrom would be repeated several times over the next hundred years in northern Europe.