Nicholas Morton’s account of the Crusaders’ battle for Aleppo adds poignancy nine centuries on
Book review: The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo a history of the crusades
At the outset of his new book The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East, historian Nicholas Morton lays the ideological groundwork for his contention that the “Ager Sanguinis”, the battle called “the Field of Blood” in 1119, was a key moment on which the history of the Crusades pivoted. He argues that all such moments have two parts: first, there are the discreet pivotal events that mark a watershed when the seemingly unstoppable conqueror’s momentum is checked. And second, still later, points in time when the whole operation of the conquest itself finally starts to teeter and fall apart.
Morton’s focus is the Crusader states, the principalities of Edessa, Antioch, Jerusalem and later Tripoli, that were established in the wake of the First Crusade and the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The Frankish victors who stayed behind to establish their foothold in the Levant were settlers in an alien land, surrounded by vastly greater numbers of potential enemies, but they were zealously optimistic. “They displayed a forceful energy in all they did, not least in their building work: producing huge numbers of strongholds, city defences, churches, mills, houses, shops, and harbours,” Morton writes. “These were young, arrogant, devout conquerors constructing new countries for themselves from scratch.”
As Morton points out, historians of this period have tended to concentrate on the failure of the Crusader states (which were overthrown first in 1187 and then again in 1291) rather than on how close they came to permanent success, and he identifies the struggle for Aleppo, which raged from 1118 to 1128, and more specifically the Ager Sanguinis, as the hinge on which that failure turned. The heavily-armoured and well-disciplined Franks approached the battle confident of victory against the many forces fighting under the banner of their enemies.
For a book of only 200 pages, The Field of Blood is a remarkably comprehensive study. It uses a wide variety of sources to reconstruct the most fine-grained and persuasive picture of the Crusader states at war that any western historian has yet written, easily upending the too-easy shorthand that’s usually applied to the whole subject of the Crusades. It shares this gently but insistently revisionist completeness with, for instance, Christopher Tyerman’s landmark 2006 book, God’s War.
Morton reminds his readers that the rival commanders at the Field of Blood had only recently been friends fighting on the same side in earlier battles, and he is quick to complicate the easy reductions of who was fighting who that day in the summer of 1119. “The campaigns of the First Crusade and the wars of the early 12th century,” he writes, “include examples of Turks fighting Turks, Christians fighting Christians, Christians and Turks fighting other Christians and Turks, Christians and Turks fighting Arabs and Turks, and the list goes on.”
The Field of Blood was a disaster for the Franks. Virtually all of their knights were either killed on the field or taken prisoner, including their leader, Roger of Salerno, whose head was split in two by a sword stroke, and fell at the foot of his crucifix battle standard. The Turkish forces, led by their worldly warlord Ilghazi (Morton notes that Ilghazi was fond of lengthy drinking binges and that his ally Tughtakin had a penchant for “turning the skulls of his fallen enemies into drinking vessels”) won an enormous victory that was also hugely symbolic: never before had such a decisive blow been dealt to the seemingly inexorable progress made by the Crusader states in northern Syria.
As Morton makes clear, the battle also transformed the legacy of Ilghazi himself, a hard-drinking and entirely pragmatic, seasoned campaigner who now “stepped into the halls of legend”. Even beginning with contemporary accounts, Ilghazi’s story began to take on broader implications that would have surprised the man himself. “Irrespective of his deeds in life,” Morton writes, “his memory would now be a potent symbol encapsulating the notion of defending Islam against the Franks, a symbol that could be used by Muslim scholars and courtiers to guide their partially converted Turkish masters to fully embrace and internalise an Islamic identity.”
Morton teases apart the separate and often varying strands of evidence to come as close as possible to recreating not only the specifics of the battle itself but also the wider backdrop against which it played out.
Through a lean, fast-paced prose line, he distills a large amount of background context into a smooth reading experience. A particular strength of the book is the multifaceted look it gives readers at the polyglot Turkish forces involved and the fractious internal sultanate politics that frequently derailed Turkish progress against the western invasion.
Thanks to those broiling internal conflicts, Morton notes, the arrival of the First Crusade was barely noticed; “in fact”, he writes, “some Arabic historians of the Seljuk dynasty recorded the events of this period without even mentioning the Franks”.
The book tells in lively detail a story of personalities and rivalries and battles that in 2019 will be a full nine centuries in the past. That’s all the book intends to do, and it does that very well. And yet sitting alongside the author’s plan – and occasionally, unavoidably overshadowing it – is the present-day reality of ongoing, grinding war in Syria … and the tragic place of Aleppo once more at the centre of a storm of violence carried out, again, by a heterogenous mixture of parties on both sides. The city, under siege for years, was a broken, nearly-razed ruin when it was finally liberated in December 2016.
It is not Morton’s purpose to address such modern-day events, but he can scarcely avoid it. In his perceptive afterword, he identifies what he sees as the only viably traceable connection between the warfare tearing Syria apart in medieval times and that of 2018 – what he calls “weaponised history”, that is “the use of the past to create a narrative that drives violence in the present”. Morton sees this weaponised history on all sides of the ongoing conflict engulfing Aleppo.
As he puts it, “the Crusades remain all around us”.
The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East was published last month by Basic Books