Christians and the first crusade (by Douglas James)

Douglas James explains why so many in the Christian West answered Urban II’s call to arms following the Council of Clermont in 1095.

Though Latin Christendom’s response to Pope Urban II’s cry for crusade was nothing akin to Anna Comnena’s hyperbolic assertion that the ‘whole of the West and all of the barbarian races’ converged on her father’s city of Constantinople, it was nothing short of remarkable and certainly unprecedented. Lest we forget the act of ‘crusade’ was a voluntary exercise, that people (sometimes entire peoples) gathered from the geographical fringes of Christendom would suggest that Urban manufactured at Clermont an ideological ‘synthesis’ that culminated in the largest exodus hitherto known to mankind.

The motivations for this mass of humanity to embark on such a journey are manifold. As Hans Mayer has concluded, both spiritual and social motives coalesced to ‘produce a spark of spontaneous success, as well as to light a fire that would burn for two hundred years’. Whilst the letter appealing for help against the Seljuk Turks sent by the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus perhaps encapsulates this spark, contextually, it could be argued that the fire Mayer proposes was an inevitable occurrence. The First Crusade has come to exemplify the religious fervour that enveloped Christendom, the policies of an aggressive Papacy, and the newly spawned concept of Holy War – which was dramatically exploited by the Church in its offer of the (plenary) Indulgence. The crusades were presented as penitential acts of devotion and powerful inducements for the atonement of all worldly sins. The notion of crusade arguably united a series of interlinked ideals, both those inherent within the people and those spawned through an astute and cogent programme of preaching.

One must not, however, discard the socio-economic factors crucial in coercing larger contingents. John France has attached the definite association of crusading with feudal obligation, while Carl Erdmann forged strong links between the papal reforms, the social necessity of violence and the exploitation of this inherent ‘revivialistic’ imagination of the age of the Papacy. Thus I shall be analysing the suggestion that the allure of Jerusalem relied not only upon the spiritual incentives – the expiation of sin and the expression of piety – but also on the secular benefits that could be accrued.

The Sacred Sphere

A crucial factor in determining the response to Urban was the religious fanaticism of the 11th-century laity. Jonathan Riley-Smith accentuates the role of pious idealism – almost hysteric in its ardency – to be fundamental to crusade. Religious enthusiasm had diffused from its heartlands in France, in particular Cluny and Cîteaux, reaching the farthest edges of Christendom; monastic vigour to a similar degree was now being practised in splendour in northern Britain, at Durham, for example. With the dynastic expansion of overtly devout races such as the Normans came the expansion of papal influence across Europe. Christians were keen to demonstrate their faith, and the crusade provided the perfect opportunity to marry the interests of a rejuvenated Papacy to the more mundane aspirations and preoccupations of the lay populi of Christendom.

In arguing for the ardency of religion as the most prevalent factor, there emerge many individual tenets of Christianity as a faith. It was not perhaps simply a question of the yearning to fulfil a religious duty, but also an expression of Christian love and charity. Riley-Smith proposes that a pure love of Christ and the (biblically apposite) neighbours of the Near East were urgent enough factors to warrant crusade. Love not only encapsulates this aforementioned duty, but also extended to the altruistic demonstration of physical correction: murder. As Ivo of Chartres argued in his Decretia et Panormia of 1094, ‘any man who punished evil [via killing] loved’. Urban granted many an indulgence ‘seeing that they [here, the Bolognese] had committed their personae and property out of love of God’. These theories were to be pursued in the preaching not only of the First Crusade by Peter of Blois, but also in the second and third. In 1145, Pope Eugenius declared that the crusaders has been ‘fired by the ardour of charity’, and St Thomas Aquinas’ polemical treatment of the notion in 1256 would both reinforce this (his words mirror almost exactly those used by Blois) and suggest that the influence of love was prevalent and strong as early as 1096.

The overture of one chronicle of the crusades, the Gesta Francorum, explains implicitly that ‘atque post ipsum crucem fideliter baiulare uellet, non pegiataretur Sancti Sepulchri uiam celeries arripere’ (‘If any man with all his heart and all his mind really wanted to follow God, he could make no delay in taking the road’). The tradition of pilgrimage, with which the First Crusade has been widely associated in conjunction with its obvious military function, had long been established. From local shrines of importance that had been sanctified throughout France, to the internationally recognised destinations of St James’ tomb at Compostella, Rome and the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem itself, pilgrimage was regarded as the primary method for the articulation of faith and devotion. Emphasis on the importance of Jerusalem was not confined to sacred texts or shrines; cartographers produced guide maps with the Holy Land at its centre and with disproportionately large settlements surrounding the important shrines. Geo-politically, religious centres became centres for trade, commerce and communication. ‘Jerusalem’ was presented as one of the most important factors in influencing the minds of the people.

Urban was keen to promulgate the sense of dual liberation: liberation of a faith from the infidels’ grip and liberation of a sacred location. Contemporary commentators placed huge emphasis on its defence; protecting this spiritual kingdom’s capital would render any crusader as valiant to his king. James of Vitry, one of the principal recipients of papal encyclicals who peregrinated across Europe hailing the defence of the Cross, stressed this particular display of valour. The Papacy was similarly useful to foster unity among all Christians, argues Jonathan Phillips, such that it both fused the social strata and catalysed a synchronised migration eastward in defence of the Holy Lands – the ultimate pilgrimage. Simply the name provided a ‘glittering and magical splendour’ to all those unable, or unwilling, to differentiate between their religious and social objectives.

As a defence of the faith, Urban and the crusaders harked to the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, who argued that it was fair to kill in a collective capacity, particularly against a heathen enemy. The clerical lawyer Hostiensis was later to proclaim that there were no differences between the religiously disobedient Muslims (who were treated with extreme savagery and little mercy) and the overt heretics or ‘schismatics’ of the day. Christian forbearance, it would seem, simply did not extend to such an obvious common enemy as the Muslims. Evidence in the Charters of Cluny would certainly suggest that there was a ‘great awakening to fight on God’s behalf against the heathen’. Urban also managed to contextualise the Reconquista of the Moor territories of Spain spearheaded by Paschal II. He transferred this ideology in the status quo to the defensive recapture of Jerusalem, in order to curtail the relentless tides of Islam that were flooding both regions. In personal letters to Tarragona, it was revealed that he would offer similar spiritual benefits to those affronting Islam there, as he would to those willing to take up the Cross against the injurious Muslims of Jerusalem. It seems that the vengeance for Christian killings by the Seljuk Turks (later proved to be rather apocryphal allegations created to justify the barbarous actions of the crusaders) was given the guise of spirituality – a Holy War against a domineering religion that was threatening the very integrity of fellow Christians.

Holy War

The concept of Holy War had long been in existence, yet, as Michael Villey has reasoned, 1096 provided the first extension of this notion into the wider-reaching concept of crusade. (It must be noted that no Latin word for ‘crusade’ ever came into usage before the mid-12th century.) Guibert of Nogent, though writing retrospectively in 1108, certainly suggests that a novelty factor of ‘crusade’, in terms of its scale, papal endorsement and means of attaining salvation, was critical. H.E.J. Cowdrey explains that crusade was simply a medium for redirecting the violence of the age toward sacred ends. Whichever definition is sought and decided upon, the relevance it had for the laity who would practise it was that it provided a coterminous tool for the expiation of sin and the venting of natural aggression; Marcus Bull has suggested that medieval communities continually used the prompt of a vendetta to justify their actions. Fear of the unavoidable hells of the afterlife was also constant in the minds of such communities; if the Church did therefore, in its offer of Indulgence, relieve people of the judgement of St Peter, the scale of the response becomes immediately realistic.

Maurice Keen asserts that a crusade would have provided a dual sanctity: the consecration of martial vigour and the channelling of this military vigour into a religious cause (much as the Teutonic knights, themselves renowned for the ‘blessing of the sword’ at Mainz, would do in the Baltic). Such a duality was also fundamental to the doctrines of both the Templars and the Hospitallers upon their foundation in 1119: that ordained and venerated figures should take up arms in the name of Christ. The expression of military tradition is anchored securely in the holy texts, and the Church was keen to be the source of authority that endorsed and galvanised this tradition – capturing the dissipated religious light of Europe and focusing it in a concentrated beam on the Levant.

Moral authority, as mentioned, arrived in the form of the Church itself. And yet Urban’s sermon at Clermont would never alone have been sufficient to prompt such a response. The structure of the Church, as well as its thirst for political authority, allowed for the easy dissemination of Urban’s message across Europe. Urban’s proclamation needed preaching, and thus encyclicals and preachers were sent out, including Peter the Hermit (the notorious leader of the People’s Crusade) and Radulf. (While it is true to say that the majority of the crusaders were French – hence the popularised term ‘Frankish Crusade’ – to view the crusade as an overwhelmingly French exercise would be to ignore the considerable number contributed by Britain, Lombardy and those diverted from Spain.) Many of course have argued the utterly paradoxical messages preached by these critics, particularly in their advocacy of such outright brutality and the lack of ambivalence contained within them. One anonymous commentator has affixed culpability for the slaughters of Dorylaeum in 1097 and Jerusalem in 1099 solely on the ‘floweriness and vagaries’ of such messages. Whilst the amorphousness of the preaching may have indoctrinated an impressionable audience, it must be remembered that these folk then had to commit to the huge undertaking of sacrificing their families, labour and financial income to journey over a thousand miles to a largely unknown destination. It is in assessing this commitment that the offer of an Indulgence and its associated benefits becomes crucial.

The process of crusade turned the armed pilgrimage into an obligatory statement of association to the protection of God and Christendom. While it may be argued that many would have been attracted by the temporary nature of crusade, far more would have been fearful of the spiritual punishments – including excommunication – that lay in waiting. The threat of paper discipline was perhaps important in ensuring that crusade was completed, but in actually advocating it from the outset, the promise of remission of sin perhaps outweighs the former. Though eminent preacher Peter of Blois insisted that it was merely a pardoning of sin (not, as the Indulgence was often confused, a divinely granted mercy), Geoffrey of Villehardouin affirmed that ‘it was owing to the Indulgence that the hearts of men were so big’. The reward could also be granted for the ‘benefaction of the crusading cause’, as explains Riley-Smith – a monetary offering in place of participation. The Papacy’s authority to offer, and indeed grant, such remission was later vociferously defended by Pope Innocent III in his diatribe Novit of 1204.

The Profane

The potential rewards and benefits were not, however, confined to the spiritual sphere. Too few were exposed to the full intensity of the papal evangelism for the First Crusade to be rendered an act of pure devotion. It remains to be argued that Urban himself was skilled enough to unite the parallel influences of the crusaders, but secular aspirations were also effective first in provoking and latterly in facilitating a response; the Reims account of Clermont even makes such goals explicit.

Certainly, one clear link between the spiritual facets of the Indulgence, including the benefit of paper prayer (deemed closer to God) and its social facets would be the offering of the essoin: moratoria on debts and feudal services, as well as certain tax exemptions. The social pride obtained as a result of completing the crusade would have been enormous. As a boost to the thriving concept of chivalry, Urban’s preaching paid homage to the great feudal lords of the past: exploiting for example the encomium Chanson de Roland, an account of the legendary general of Charlemagne’s army at Roncevalles. Many troubadour aristocrats were inspired by the concept, including Aimeric de Belanoi, who proclaimed that ‘the march means hope of/ Joy and deliverance of sin’. The knightly classes were also enthusiastic (on a debatable level) for the acquisition of land, perhaps not owing to a shortage of feudal land but for the maintenance of a family’s position: their frérêche in society. Certainly, having travelled as far as Armenia, Baldwin of Bouillon simply diverted his attentions and seized the territory of Edessa in 1098, with little or no regard for the plight of his fellow crusaders.

Marcus Bull, meanwhile, has also proposed that many of the nominal leaders of the First Crusade (in particular Raymond of Toulouse) broadcast a combination of ‘apocalyptic and eschatological motives’ to the poor in order to encourage them to participate. There had reputedly been a series of devastating famines prior to the crusade – perhaps yet another divine omen to prise the peasant folk from their farmlands and into the pilgrimage routes. George Duby, contrarily, has proposed that the simple love of adventure and the lust for (Muslim) booty would have proved significant enough following preaching of the inequality of wealth that existed between Near East and West. The northern Italian city states were certainly encouraged by hopes of such commercial reward, for they trailed the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, and indeed maintained supplies, in the hope of occupying newly-conquered ports.


While historians seem perennially divided on the issue of motivation for the First Crusade, it seems fair to conclude that the response to Urban II’s call at Clermont was the result of a carefully orchestrated amalgamation of spiritual fanaticism and social realism. Perhaps the seeds of lay enthusiasm lay buried in the deeply-ensconced faith held by all in western Europe toward the end of the 11th century. The manifestation of this in an armed pilgrimage against Muslim forces, however, was the result of persuasive, almost obsessive, preaching and dogmatic manipulation by an aggressive Papacy, as well as the shorter term catalysing effect of Alexius’ letter of appeal. The Papacy’s dichotomy, that of universal guide and cellular organisation, also allowed it to maintain the crucial link between the faith and action of the people of Europe.

Whether one concludes that either the spiritual or social factors were more pervasive and important to the laity in responding to Urban, neither can be dismissed. Indeed I would propose that it was exactly this combination of factors that was paramount in producing such an unprecedented reaction to Urban’s call in November 1095.

Further reading:
Anna Comnena, Alexiad (trans. E.R.A. Sewter, Oxford, 1969)
M.G. Bull, Knightly Piety and the Lay Response to the First Crusade (Oxford, 1993)
M. Keen, Pelican History of Medieval Europe (London, 1968)
T. Madden (ed), The Crusades (Oxford, 2002)
H.W. Mayer, Geschichte der Lreuzzüge (Stuttgart, 1965; English translation by Gillingham Oxford, 1972)
J.P. Phillips, The Crusades, 1095-1197 (London, 2002)
J.S.C. Riley-Smith, Cross-Cultural Consequences in the Crusading Period (New York, 1995)
S. Runciman, The Crusades (3 vols, Cambridge, 1951-54)
Douglas James is the winner of the Julia Wood Prize 2005.


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