On Coming to Terms with Realities
Updated: Feb 14
My mother, thin and frail in her old age, though never frail of mind, passed away at the age of 89, after a brief but painful battle with intestinal cancer. By the time of her death she no longer had the ability to take food or drink and she was in extreme pain that was only partly relieved by morphine. On the morning of her death it was something of a relief to find that during the night she had fallen into a coma. Her death towards midday was a release for her, though for me, my younger brother and her sister who were with her, an immense sorrow. But it was to be briefly followed by an additional, unexpected trauma. Paramedics arrived, lifted her weightless, pale body from the bed onto the floor, and removing her wedding ring proceeded in making a violent attempt at reviving her. They were of course merely doing their job, but it was not only a pointless endeavour, but for us, a cruel one that has remained in my mind as an indelible memory of that day. For everything there is a season... a time to be born, and a time to die.
In 1271 the crusader states were in an advanced state of decay. That year the Mamluk sultan, Baybars occupied two of the great military order fortresses that provided a critical defensive line for Tripoli; Templar Chastel Blanc and the great Hospitaller fortress, Crac des Chevaliers, and shortly after, the principal Teutonic fortress of Montfort, north of Acre. The remaining coastal cities of the rapidly disintegrating crusader states were exposed and the last of them, including the capital and principal port city, Acre, would fall two decades later. The archdeacon of Liege, Teobaldo Visconti, participating in the Ninth Crusade, had accompanied the prince of Wales, Edward (later Edward I of England) to Acre that year. On 1 September, in his absence, he was elected pope by the College of Cardinals meeting in Viterbo. His close acquaintance with the situation in the Holy Land led the new pope, now Pope Gregory X, as one of his first acts to send out an appeal for aid for the crusaders. The response was one of apathy. The Crusading movement had run out of steam. It was coming under increasing criticism for having abandoned spiritual motivation for financial gain. A council held by the pope at Lyon in 1274 and other efforts at stirring up renewed enthusiasm among European leaders and the heads of the military orders came to nothing and the French ambassador to the papal court is said to have compared the plans of a renewed crusade to a small puppy barking at a large dog.*
Two decades after Gregory's election it was all over. But some people found that hard to accept. One of these was a Venetian named Marino Sanudo Torsello (c.1270-c.1334). He had an ambitious plan for a renewed crusade to recover the mainland crusader states. Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith coined for it the title - A Crusade that Never Was.** Writing just a few years after the crusader states were overrun by the Mamluks in 1291, Sanudo carefully thought out a comprehensive, highly detailed proposal that involved sending an advance naval expeditionary force to Egypt to blockade it, followed by a traditional, large crusading army. Through the combination of military force and an economic embargo he hoped to weaken and neutralise the Mamluks. It was a feasible idea. Had it not been for the fact that no one was interested any more, it might have come to something.
Sanudo, son of a patrician of Venice, had in 1285 visited Acre where his family had commercial interests, just six years before its fall. After the loss of the Holy Land he travelled extensively through the parts of the eastern Mediterranean still under Christian rule. He composed his treatise, and at Avignon in September 1321 he presented the Liber Secretorum Fidelium Crucis (The Book of the Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross) to Pope John XXII. The pope was an exceptional administrator who had taken great strides in reorganizing the Church, but sadly for Sanudo, he was no Urban II and this was not 1095. The pope appointed a commission to deliberate on Sanudo's proposal, but it was probably merely a charade. Sanudo was paid a handsome gratuity and was warmly praised, but his plan was shelved, to gather dust in the archives of the Vatican. Sanudo, however did not give up on his idea. For the remaining years of his life he continued to push his plan in correspondence with Western leaders. It didn't help. The vitality had dropped out of the crusading movement. Western leaders were too deeply involved in domestic matters and were reluctant to support the vast cost of the project, estimated by Sanudo at 210,000 gold florins. Interest in a new crusade was dead and buried and even before Sanudo had written his treatise. By the time the Hospitallers occupied Rhodes (1306-10) it had been replaced by reduced and more realistic enterprises. In the words of historian Anthony Luttrell:
The move to Rhodes almost suggests that the Hospitallers, having acknowledged the general renunciation of Jerusalem as a practical goal, had shrewdly anticipated the transformation of the crusade into a defensive struggle against the Turks. Latin society, in which an esprit laïque was increasingly strong, was turning not only against the papacy but also against the crusade which too often seemed to be a papal instrument exploited largely for political ends.***
The time had come to stop beating a dead horse.
* Hans E. Mayer, The Crusades, Oxford, 1988, pp. 282-83.
** Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Atlas of the Crusades, London, 1991, pp. 122-23.
*** Anthony Luttrell, “The Hospitallers of Rhodes: Prospectives, Problems, Possibilities”, in Antony T. Luttrell, Latin Greece, the Hospitallers and the Crusades, 1291-1440, London, 1982, p. 252.