Read an Excerpt
The First Crusade and the Capture of Jerusalem, 1095-99
"'A grave report has come from the lands around Jerusalem...that a race absolutely alien to God...has invaded the land of the Christians....They have either razed the churches of God to the ground or enslaved them to their own rites....They cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment...drag them around and flog them before killing them as they lie on the ground with all their entrails out....What can I say of the appalling violation of women? On whom does the task lie of avenging this, if not on you?...Take the road to the Holy Sepulchre, rescue that land and rule over it yourselves, for that land, as scripture says, floweth with milk and honey....Take this road for the remission of your sins, assured of the unfading glory of the kingdom of heaven.' When Pope Urban had said these things...everyone shouted in unison: 'Deus vult! Deus vult!,' 'God wills it! God wills it!' "
In this vivid-and hugely exaggerated-language, as reported by Robert of Rheims, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade at Clermont in central France in November 1095. Four years later, having endured a journey of astounding hardship, the self-proclaimed "Knights of Christ" arrived at Jerusalem. On July 15, 1099, the crusaders stormed the walls and put its defenders to the sword to reclaim Christ's city from Islam
Pope Urban II and the Call to Crusade
While nine hundred years later a distant descendant of Pope Urban's creation continues to cast its shadow on Christian-Muslim relations across the world, it is an irony that crusading was primarily intended to remedy problems within western Europe. As the head of the Catholic Church, Urban was responsible for the spiritual well-being of everyone in Latin Christendom. Yet Europe was beset by a variety of evils: violence and lawlessness were rife and Emperor Henry IV of Germany, the most powerful secular ruler, was, at times, an excommunicate, cast out of the Church because he had challenged papal authority.2 In Urban's mind, the fundamental cause of such chaos was a diminution of faith; it was his role to restore peace and stability. If this was to be achieved, spiritual concern would have to be blended with canny political calculation; perhaps to a modern audience the second of these elements sits a little uneasily on a man in his position, but to Urban the two were indivisible; as pope he did everything that was necessary to further God's work
It was Urban's genius that he conceived of a plan that offered benefits to the pope and to all of his flock. Perhaps he achieved this partly because of his family background: he was from the county of Champagne in northern France and was a man of noble blood. The combination of this high-born lineage and a successful career in the Church gave him a direct insight into the hopes and fears of the knightly classes, and this, in part, explains why crusading satisfied the aspirations of so many. He linked several ingredients familiar to medieval society, such as pilgrimage and the idea of a holy war against the enemies of God, with an unprecedented offer of salvation, a combination almost guaranteed to enthuse the warriors of western Europe
To persuade people-in any age-to leave their homes and loved ones and to venture into the unknown, it is usually necessary to convince them that the cause is worthwhile. As many modern conflicts reveal, propaganda can play a vital part in a buildup to war. Pope Urban II's address at Clermont used highly inflammatory images to provoke moral outrage in his audience. The Muslims were described in language that emphasized their "otherness" and their barbarity toward innocent Christians. In reality, while it is true that pilgrims were occasionally maltreated, it was also the case that there had been no systematic persecution of Christians by the Muslims of the Holy Land for decades. Yet Urban's impassioned rhetoric demanded a response from the knights of France. He called for vengeance, a concept that was second nature to knights accustomed to correcting an injustice through force, supported by the weight of moral right. Through references to authorities on Church law, such as Saint Augustine, Urban and his circle of advisers constructed a case whereby violence could, in certain circumstances, be seen as a morally positive act.3 This required a just cause-usually it was a reaction to the aggression of another party, in this case the alleged atrocities committed by the Muslims. It needed proper authority to proclaim the war; and also right intention-that is, pure motives in a conflict of proportional, but not excessive, force. To these "just war" principles, crusading added the taking of a vow and an association with pilgrimage. Thus, because it was judged to be morally positive the crusade became an act of penance that merited a spiritual reward. Earlier attempts to restrict the violence that plagued eleventh-century Europe included the Peace of God movement in which the Church forbade fighting for a specific period of time under pain of ecclesiastical penalties. At Clermont, however, Urban urged the knights of France to cease their private wars and to begin a battle worthy of their noble status; to fight for God was to take service with the ultimate Lord, and to win forgiveness for their wicked lives was a prize immeasurably greater than any earthly riches could offer.
Without doubt the violent warriors of the West had committed many acts displeasing to God and here Urban offered them a chance to avoid a terrible fate. Practically every church in the land had a sculpture or a fresco of hell: savage devils gouged out the eyes of screaming sinners; others were skinned or tortured with spears and pitchforks; impaled humans were roasted for eternity. The message from the Church was terrifyingly simple: there was no avoiding the consequences of sin; a knight, therefore, needed an escape route from Satan's fires. These same frescoes also showed heaven-a place of peace, tranquillity, and everlasting safety. Making pilgrimages and giving donations to monastic houses could help to avoid hell, but Urban brilliantly presented what one contemporary described as "a new way to attain salvation." The pope judged-correctly-that the crusade would be a sufficiently arduous experience to deserve the remission of all penance; in effect it would wipe the slate clean and all the vicious, violent misdeeds of the medieval warrior-or anyone who took part-would be cleared. As far as the knightly classes were concerned, the neatest aspect of all was that they could continue fighting-only now their energies were directed toward the enemies of God, rather than their fellow Christians. Thus, the cause in which they fought meant the Church now blessed their activities, rather than condemned them.
Those who wished to take part in the crusade had to make a public statement of their commitment in the form of a vow and being marked with the sign of the cross. Often amidst hugely emotional scenes, enthusiastic recruits would surge forward and demand to have a cloth cross pinned to their shoulder, desperate to bear the symbol that represented Christ's sacrifice and their own imitation of his suffering. Preachers adopted the words of Christ himself: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me." If a crusader deserted his vows then he deserved eternal opprobrium; Urban "commanded that...he should forever be regarded as an outlaw, unless he came to his senses and undertook to complete whatever of his obligation was left undone."7 As an aside, the crusade also had the effect, temporarily at least, of bringing huge numbers of people under the control of the Church. Once again, we can see how Urban had found a way to enhance the standing of the papacy while offering something attractive to others.
The call to free the Holy Sepulchre and the Christians of the East was shaped in a familiar form, namely, a pilgrimage. This was a fundamental feature of medieval life; the notion of turning to a saint for help was an everyday experience and people sought the assistance of these heavenly beings in health, harvests, fertility, protection, and forgiveness for sins. The presence of a saint was manifested by relics, parts of a saint's body, or objects associated with his or her life, that were believed to retain their holy power and to offer a conduit to divine help. The veneration of relics often required a journey and some saints became associated with particular causes: Saint Leonard of Noblat, for example, was the patron saint of prisoners. People in captivity prayed to him and when their incarceration ended they made a pilgrimage to Noblat (in central France) and, as a mark of gratitude, placed their chains on the church altar. While many pilgrimages were simply processions or visits to local churches, longer journeys to important shrines, such as that of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, grew in popularity during the eleventh century. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was the Holy Land-the place where Christ had lived and died. Because He had ascended to heaven, there was no body to venerate and so the focus was on places touched by His presence and His death, most particularly His tomb, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Holy Land, and this particular site above all, became the principal goal of the First Crusade. For the crusaders, a journey there deserved the greatest reward of all-the remission of all sins. This was integral to the hearts and minds of medieval man and the notion of regaining Christ's land for Christianity lay at the core of Urban's appeal.
Even though the papacy advanced spiritual motives as the prime reason for the crusade it is clear that more worldly factors also played their part. Robert of Rheims's account (written c.1106-7) of Urban's speech pointed this up when he claimed the pope spoke of a land of milk and honey-an alluring prospect for people troubled by poor harvests and in search of a change from the drudgery of village life. While the desire to liberate Christ's city had to be paramount-otherwise God would not favor the expedition-some crusaders would need to remain in the Levant to hold the territory; there was very little point in taking Jerusalem if everyone then returned home. The First Crusade was in part, therefore, a war of Christian colonization, as well as Christian liberation. For those prepared to take a chance it offered a new life. However, as it turned out, while huge numbers were willing to become crusaders, relatively few chose to stay in the East afterward. If the hope of plunder and riches helped to draw people toward this great adventure, in the event, the acquisition of wealth proved far harder than it had appeared beforehand.
Notwithstanding Urban's desire to restore the spiritual well-being of western Europe it was an external trigger that prompted him to launch the crusade. In March 1095 envoys arrived from Emperor Alexius of Constantinople to appeal for help against the Muslims of Asia Minor. Alexius ruled the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the old Roman Empire, and had, until recent years, controlled territories that stretched across Asia Minor to Antioch in northern Syria, as well as modern-day Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania. By 1095, much of Asia Minor had been lost, although ongoing troubles within the Muslim world gave him an opportunity to fight back.8 For many years he had sent requests for groups of well-armed knights to help his cause, and there was, by now, a strong tradition of western mercenaries serving in the imperial army. In 1095, however, Alexius, understandably, failed to anticipate that Pope Urban would use this opportunity to make a far wider appeal to the people of Latin Christendom and launch the crusade. Pope Urban himself also had an agenda with regard to Alexius. In 1054, disputes over doctrinal matters and, more pertinently, the relative authority of the pope to the patriarch of Constantinople had provoked a schism between the Catholics and the Orthodox Church: a situation that still exists today. In spite of this split, the two camps maintained contact and Urban saw the crusade as an opportunity to foster better relations-although from his perspective Rome was the senior partner because the Catholics were the people offering help to their Orthodox brothers. In fact, Urban cast himself in the role of a father to his "son" the Byzantine emperor, and saw Rome as a mother to Constantinople.
Recruitment, Pogroms, and Preparations for the Crusade
Urban and his circle considered how best to broadcast the crusade appeal. In an era before mass communications it was vital to make as big a visual impact as possible. This meant staging numerous public ceremonies: the Council of Clermont was carefully publicized with invitations sent to churchmen across France, Spain, and parts of Germany. Urban chose Clermont for its central location and the meeting attracted thirteen archbishops, eighty bishops and cardinals, and over ninety abbots. For about a fortnight the pope laid down a legislative program for the spiritual recovery of Christendom. On the penultimate day he unveiled the centerpiece of his agenda: the crusade. Urban knew that his own presence was crucial and to this end he then embarked upon a huge tour that took him hundreds of miles northward to Le Mans and Angers, down to Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Montpelier in the south. This was no casually arranged ramble, however; no pope had been north of the Alps for fifty years. Even in today's Internet age the appearance of a celebrity-be it at a supermarket opening or a major political rally-attracts crowds of people eager to see or hear a famous individual for themselves. The arrival of such a powerful figure was bound to excite attention and Urban did his utmost to exploit this. Time and again, for example, at Saint-Gilles, Le Puy, Chaise-Dieu, Limoges, Tours, and Poitiers, the pope would appear on the feast day of the local saint, or else he would consecrate a new building or attend an important festival. In other words, he was careful to choose an opportunity that allowed him to address the biggest crowd possible. The arrival of the papal entourage was a truly splendid sight; the wealth and splendor of Pope Urban and his court were dominated by this successor of Saint Peter who wore a conical white cap with a circlet of gold and gems around the base.
It was not just through his personal appearances that Urban recruited crusaders. The audience at Clermont carried the call back to their homes and, even though the response to his speech had been rapturous, the pope had little sense of the extraordinary zeal with which his words would be taken up. News of the expedition surged across Europe and saturated the Latin West with crusading fervor. The pope's appeal to the knights of France soon spread to encompass parts of Spain and Germany as well.
From the Hardcover edition.