A History of Violence: Europe and the Conquest of Lisbon

Some 868 years ago today, on 24 October 1147, the city of Lisbon fell to a combined force of besiegers from England, Scotland, Germany, Holland and France. Thanks to a surviving report written by an eyewitness Anglo-Norman cleric, we have an excellent grasp of developments leading up to the siege, the weeks of the siege itself, and its immediate aftermath. From the point of view of a historian, that makes it an absorbing event to study. But it’s also an episode that raises troubling questions about coming to terms with a challenging past, in particular the way that violence has long been intertwined with European history.

At the time of the siege, Lisbon was under the control of a Muslim emir: it was part of Al-Andalus, the Islamic polity created in the eighth century by the invasion and defeat of the Visigothic kingdom. Its capture in 1147 was far from bloodless, as our chronicler, the author of the Conquest of Lisbon, recounts with relish, at least where enemy losses are concerned.[1] Heads are chopped off, ambushes bloodily sprung, and civilians killed (though most of the latter were in the end spared their life, if not their property, in contrast to the massacres commonly reported elsewhere).

Today, this kind of violence is increasingly segregated from general European history and treated separately as part of ‘The Crusades’, an active field of research for which there are specialised courses, journals, conferences, and of course shelves of books in libraries and any local bookshops that happen to survive.[2] In just this vein, the conquest of Lisbon is traditionally considered as part of the Second Crusade, indeed its ‘only success’, after the dismal failure (from a Latin Christian point of view, anyway) of expeditions in the Middle East.

Yet we need to be careful: any notion that there was an entirely distinct compartment of life in the Middle Ages labelled ‘crusading’ is misleading. Holy war or armed pilgrimage were thoroughly interwoven into medieval society, not separated from it. And despite common assumptions to the contrary, there is no convincing evidence that the participants in the siege were following any specific papal orders, or that the attack on Lisbon was pre-planned as part of the ‘Second Crusade‘. It was merely the latest in a series of ad hoc ventures launched by northern sailors (or pirates, depending on your point of view) passing through to the eastern Mediterranean, more or less under their own collective steam.

Viewed from 2015, what makes the violence carried out at Lisbon particularly troubling is precisely its importance in, and for, European history in general terms, beyond the study of ‘The Crusades’. That’s partly because the conquest of the city was a vital moment in the history of a major European state. In 1147, the kingdom of Portugal was just a few years old and was greatly strengthened by the victory at Lisbon. Understandably, the city’s capture resonates to this day in Portuguese culture, for instance in a celebrated (and highly recommended) novel, the History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago, or in modern paintings like this blog’s header image.

More than that, though, the conquest itself was in a sense an example of collective European action, centuries before the European Union was dreamed up. To be sure, the besiegers did not think of it in those terms; they probably did not think of themselves as ‘Europeans’ at all (though the concept of Europe was not quite so unknown in the Middle Ages as is sometimes breezily asserted).[3] Yet the fact remains that the siege was undertaken by a multi-national group of people, or in the words of our eyewitness chronicler, ‘people of so many different tongues’.

What’s more, the besiegers were for the most part not knights, barons and kings, but townsmen from the growing urban communities around the North Sea. These ordinary men came together voluntarily and organised themselves in line with ideas of popular consensus, complete with elected officials. This was not modern democracy, but an arrangement closer to the parliamentary assemblies of medieval Europe – and the popular councils that increasingly ran its towns – than to its royal courts. That was something that the Portuguese king himself found out when negotiating terms with the assisting force:

And when the king inquired who our chiefs were or whose counsels were pre-eminent among us or if we had commissioned anyone to answer for our whole army, he was briefly informed that such and such were our chief men and that their acts and counsels carried especial weight, but that we had not yet decided on anyone on whom authority should be conferred to make answer for all.

In a sense, then, the Conquest of Lisbon was an early and quite remarkable episode of popular and effective international ‘European’ collaboration, undertaken not by heads of state but by ordinary people, giving an institutional form to the trust created through long-term friendly interaction, facilitated by geographic proximity, mutual interests and a broadly shared culture. The kingdom that they helped would go on to play a vital role in European affairs; conversely, so important to Portugal’s future was the siege that we could even say the kingdom was in part created by ‘European’ collaboration.

Yet the fact that this extraordinary and influential collaboration took place in such a terrible context – essentially an act of unprovoked aggression, notwithstanding the crusaders’ lipservice to the Islamic conquest of Spain some three centuries previously – should perhaps give us pause for thought, especially at a time when the European Union, and what Europe means, is once again under scrutiny. How best to deal with the violence inherent in European history is a challenge that isn’t restricted to the recent past, and a problem which hasn’t gone away.

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This was first posted on the History Matters blog.
For a longer study of the siege of Lisbon, see ‘All in the Same Boat? East Anglia, the North Sea World and the 1147 Expedition to Lisbon’ in David Bates and Robert Liddiard (eds.), East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 287–300, or a pre-publication (unpaginated) version at academia.edu

[1] Conveniently available in English facing-page translation, together with a useful preface by Jonathan Phillips, in David, ed. and tr., The Conquest of Lisbon (2001). All quotations are drawn from this translation.

[2] Particularly recommended is Christopher Tyerman’s new How to Plan a Crusade (2015), with some luminous pages on the Lisbon siege.

[3] The most thorough guide is now Klaus Oschema, Bilder von Europa im Mittelalter (2013). For Anglophone readers, the best remains Timothy Reuter, ‘Medieval ideas of Europe’, History Workshop Journal 33 (1992).

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