How to get rich quick in Medieval Europe
Note: I hope I’m not boring everyone with these digressions into the history of the Crusades, but I’ll stick with this example because Erik brought it up originally and because it aptly demonstrates that people fight over issues other than plunder and protection all the time.
Suppose I’m a medieval baron. Suppose I’m looking to make a quick buck (or florin, as it were). Let’s also stipulate I’m not a very forward-thinking fellow. I view wealth as a zero sum game – they have it, I don’t; therefore, I need to take it from them.
What would I do? I could attack and colonize other countries, as the Normans did in England and Italy. I could fight over my neighbors’ land and revenues. I could arrange marriages for my offspring to other wealthy families and hope to acquire their lands through succession.
Or I could sell off my estates, raise a ragtag bunch of retainers, march thousands of miles across two continents few Europeans had mapped, much less traveled, and attempt to conquer territory held by a more advanced, more numerous enemy fighting on their home turf. Oh and by the way, I’d also have to contend with a bunch of other nobles squabbling over the spoils once the natives had been pacified.
Even a particularly dense Frankish knight must have realized there were easier ways to make money than conquering Palestine (and really, I’m understating the logistical difficulties faced by the Crusaders). Why conquer Jerusalem when you can conquer Flanders? What was so special about that particular city? Could the fact that it was the holiest site in Christendom have something to do with the Crusaders’ strange fixation?
Erik also suggests that the Crusades were a defensive war. But traipsing thousands of miles to the Holy Land strikes me as a mighty odd way for a French nobleman to defend himself, particularly when the land you’re planning to conquer hadn’t been held by Christians for centuries and the Crusaders’ Muslim contemporaries were fighting over Spain and Asia Minor, not Galilee and Jerusalem. In fact, the Papacy blessed earlier expeditions against Muslim-held Iberia, a campaign that a) could plausibly be described as a defensive action b) was easier to get to and c) offered plenty of spoils. Why didn’t the great mass of Crusaders head south to fight for Aragon and Navarre? What was so special about Jerusalem? Is it possible that many of these plundering barbarians were genuinely pious men, eager to seek salvation in the Holy Land?
Jamming conflicts into a pillage/protection binary smacks of Marxist reductionism. Moreover, the historical gymnastics Erik is forced to perform to “prove” each and every war was motivated by plunder or protection demonstrates the folly of this line of thinking. Humans fight for all sorts of complicated reasons. Arguing otherwise does a grave disservice to history.