Christians, Muslims and Conflicts Up to the First Crusade Part II

However, such an institution did not exist at this time, and there were no strict guidelines for the protection of pilgrims. The way to the holy city had become easier at the beginning of the eleventh century. With victories over pagans in Hungary, Stephen I had set himself up as that land’s first Christian king, and had opened the way for Western Europeans to attempt the long and arduous journey; it was not necessarily easier, but it was at least somewhat safer. The fact that this had occurred at the time of the first millennium was not lost on those who undertook the pilgrimage. Regardless of the hazards of travel, pilgrims were not expected to engage in armed resistance themselves, and this was especially true for the clergy. If this story is to be believed, Gunther’s act of desperation, the response of anyone in a life-threatening situation, served to inspire his fellow pilgrims to an unexpected level of aggression and violence. Lambert records that they bound their captives so tightly that blood burst from their fingernails, and that they threatened them all with decapitation, swords being held over their heads. If true, this episode shows how quickly those weakened by thirst, hunger, and fear can resort to violent acts in the name of self-preservation. Later aggressions were often preceded by just such a “miracle,” which would rouse the sagging morale of a group of pilgrims or crusaders, and inspire them to use their remaining strength to inflict a terrible retribution on their assailants. The violence would then be justified as the will of God. It was a situation that was to be repeated time and time again over the long history of the crusades.

The spontaneous quality of the whole affair is not completely convincing. One can note with suspicion that the effect of Gunther’s bravery was a bit too inspiring. Given how quickly the party of pilgrims was roused and carried out his orders for a counter-attack, it has the air of something planned in advance, and not just an act of faith in desperation. Was this move conceived beforehand by the desperate bishop to look like a moment of divine inspiration, needing only the proper provocation from his captors? If so, it succeeded remarkably well. We cannot know for sure, but such a scenario makes sense in view of the dangerous circumstances. Despite claims of divine support, it may just have been a daring gamble that paid off.

Regardless of the truth, this little episode showed that relations between the two faiths were becoming increasingly hostile, the Fatimid rescue notwithstanding. Indeed, the pilgrims were not grateful to them, viewing it merely as Satan defeating Satan. Christians were growing far less tolerant of Islam and the Islamic presence in the Holy Land. This may even have sprung from the Reform’s new ideas about Christian unity. It is easy to see from such actions how an aggressive, military attitude toward Islam was developing.

The most dramatic changes in this attitude came during the papacy of Gregory VII. He made use of Christ’s words, compelle intrare (“compel them to enter,” found in the Augustinian theology of just war and acceptable killing, and developed later by Pope Gregory I) to justify conversion to Christianity by force, if necessary, in order to secure the peace. Gregory stated that the militia Christi, previously defined as the community of monks engaged in spiritual battle with the devil (and which would always take priority, regardless of changes), could also include the militia secularis, the knights who fought with weapons, a concept previously unthinkable.

Nevertheless, prominent theologians such as the Italian Peter Damian (1007–72) rejected all war, allowing for no justification, regardless of the circumstances. Though an associate of Gregory VII, a Benedictine monk, a cardinal, and otherwise a supporter of the Reform, Damian denounced the use of force in relation to the conversion of non–Christians.

If such opposition existed, what then was the official Church policy? It is important here to discuss briefly the issue of canon law and the precedents for just war as set forth by the early Church writers such as Augustine. One standard view on the Church’s perceived change in policy was argued by Carl Erdmann in 1935, in his classic Die Entstehung des Kreuzzugsgedankens. This work, though dated, is a key reference. Erdmann saw a fundamental shift in Church thought, one that involved the modifying of canon law to suit the new ideas being discussed. Essentially, Augustinian theology was reworked and interpreted in the eleventh century to suit the concept of the holy war against the infidel.

Decades later, however, this notion was challenged.There were many objections, and various scholarly efforts have dispelled some popular notions about the changes that took place in theological thought in the eleventh century. Augustinian influence in the formulation of the crusading idea was not a given; in actuality, Augustine’s doctrine of conversion denounced the use of violence and was thus in opposition to the attitude being developed by crusading advocates. Nowhere in canonical literature is there mention of the Augustinian doctrine in support of crusading. In fact, canon law collections remain curiously silent about the crusades until the thirteenth century, and say nothing about the usual components of the crusade.54 So, there was a conflict between what the Church was beginning to preach, and what it held to in its own law books. Canon law still adhered to the older teachings regarding just war, and did not incorporate the newer ideas. And yet despite all of this, Augustinian concepts of just war certainly had a popular influence on crusading thought, even if the law did not specifically mention them.

Gilchrist argues that Augustine’s original intentions regarding conversion tended to be followed and this had little, if anything, to do with the crusading movement. His doctrine allowed for the use of violence, but it was still grounded in a notion of love, something that we might find curious and contradictory today. Indeed, his writings were the most important of those studied on the subject of war during the time of the First Crusade, so naturally, his ideas would appear in later commentary. However, Augustine was primarily concerned with heresies and schisms, and applied his notion of loving violence to them. For him, keeping the Church unified was of prime importance, in a time when breakaway sects were common.

The fact is that Gregory VII did employ the phrase compelle intrare, which was first commented on at length by Augustine, and reappeared many times throughout Christian history in different situations. Gregory was surely aware of the context within which Augustine had used the phrase, namely the forceful conversion of heretics (the Donatists in this case, who denied the validity of sacraments administered by priests who had renounced their faith under persecution, and later recanted and were reinstated). The fact that compulsion was to be undertaken with “love” for the misguided soul, and by avoiding violence if possible, did not prevent Gregory from using it. There was not only one method of interpretation of canonical texts. That the official interpretation of the phrase remained did not preclude other interpretations from being made, particularly in view of such radical ideas as an armed expedition to the East, one led by the pope. This was surely a concept never envisioned by Augustine, and while Gregory’s plans were not the same as those of the crusade preached twenty years later, they did have an influence and effect on the theological thought of the 1090s. Thus, while Augustine could not be invoked as a direct advocate of a military expedition for the purpose of conversion (which in the reality of the crusades rarely occurred anyway), the spirit of the just war must surely have been in the minds of those who formulated the plans for the First Crusade. Put simply, some supported the new ideas and others opposed them.

In addition, one can question Gilchrist’s argument, since it refers to the formative years of the crusading idea, specifically the latter part of the eleventh century, though he frequently brings in other accounts and writers from the first part of the twelfth century. Even if the focus is mainly on events prior to and including Clermont, it neglects to mention a point about Christian/Islamic relations, in the years before and after the First Crusade: certain western Christians increasingly regarded Islam as a Christian heresy (or at least a mixture of heresy and paganism), as faint understandings about Muslim belief filtered into European circles. Indeed, as we have seen, this perception began well before the later 1090s, among a small group of learned theologians and writers, including Gregory VII. Alberto Ferreiro notes, “whereas in earlier Middle Ages heresiologists defined Islam as pagan, in the high Middle Ages the prevailing opinion emerged that it was instead a heresy […] medieval writers were intent on demonstrating the heretical nature of Islamic doctrines and the perversity of Islamic morality.”

The perception of heresy as a grave danger in the Western Church seemed for many centuries to be of little concern following the demise of Arianism, a heretical movement from the fourth century which held that Christ had not always existed, but had been created by God. It had a wide-spread following, but died out by the seventh century. Later, Islam would be likened not only to Simon Magus’ trickery (discussed below), but also to Arian beliefs, for its rejection of the divinity of Christ. Certainly religious texts between the fifth and tenth centuries have little to say on the matter, being more focused on disagreements of doctrine. Glaber brought the issue to light again in the eleventh century, and from that time, it continued to grow, even coinciding with the Reform movement, and becoming an integral part of its objective to purify the Church.

It is very interesting to note that Church concern about the spread of heresy among the common people seems to have taken on new force in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but before that, it was less worrying, and this is not just due to a paucity of surviving sources. Indeed, in 1002, Burchard of Worms put together a collection of ecclesiastical law, the most comprehensive yet assembled to that date. He included no provisions for dealing with heresy, and did not even discuss how to address it in the popular sense; there is no mention of it even being a problem. The reasons that concern about the spread of heretical ideas seem to become more prominent from this point onward are not completely clear.

Heresies in the eleventh century were often popular movements among the illiterate, who sought a life of complete simplicity, adhering to the Gospels without attaching importance to Church teachings or sacraments. Indeed, the sacraments were often denounced and considered unnecessary for true salvation. Other beliefs might include denial of the virgin birth of Christ, or his divinity, or the veneration of the cross. In these more particular aspects, one sees how Christian perceptions of Islam began to focus on accusations of heresy as well, since certain Islamic tenets seemed to have much in common with the beliefs of heretical movements.

Around the year 1100, a writer named Embrico of Mainz (about whom nothing is known) wrote the Vita Mahumeti, based on earlier Byzantine accounts. It is one of the earliest lives of Muhammad in Latin, and goes to great lengths to link Muhammad with the Antichrist, via the hated figure of Simon Magus, the arch-heretic of classical Christian lore. An apocryphal account (though widely believed) told that Simon Magus, after performing many false miracles with demonic help, challenged St. Peter and failed, falling to his death when the invisible demons carrying him (allowing him to falsely proclaim he could fly) were overcome by Peter’s prayer. Embrico embellished the story to have “the Magus” act as a mentor to Muhammad, who fell under his spell and never recovered (the mingling of conflicting timelines was common feature of medieval writing). Indeed, the legend of Muhammad’s nighttime flight to Jerusalem was seen as proof of the diabolical, since flight was long associated with demonic help (and would later be invoked in the condemnation of witches’ supposed aerial activities). Magus and Muhammad thus conspired to deceive the masses. By associating them, Embrico put Muhammad in the same company as all past heretics. While both heretics and pagans were approached by missionaries, views about the two were different; heretics could be seen as having had the truth but having fallen into error, while pagans had never known the truth.

Gregory VII probably embodied an early example of this shifting attitude. He, along with abbot Hugh of Cluny, was known to be eager to convert the Muslim ruler of Saragossa, Ahmad al-Muqtadir (1046–81), and the Spanish Muslims of the region. It seems that the word used for these attempts at conversion was “repentance,” which certainly implies a falling away from the truth, in the manner of a heretic. There may also have been a fear that if al-Muqtadir were to accept Christianity, he might adopt the Mozarabic rite (a form of liturgy used by Spanish Christians, many under Muslim rule; their first language was often Arabic), rather than the Gregorian, and so there was a desire to persuade him into joining the latter.

A remarkable letter from Gregory VII was addressed in 1076 to “Anzir,” or An-Nasir ibn Alnas, the Hammadid ruler of Maghreb (Western North Africa) from 1062–88 or 89. This conciliatory missive is among the earliest surviving missionary-style communications between a pope and a Muslim ruler. It is a response to actions of friendship on the part of ibn Alnas, along with a promise to send papal messengers to his court. Gregory acknowledges that they both serve the same God:

This affection we and you owe to each other in a more peculiar way than to people of other races because we worship and confess the same God though in diverse forms and daily praise and adore him as the creator and ruler of this world. For, in the words of the Apostle, “He is our peace who hath made both one.”

[…] For God knows our true regard for you […] and how earnestly we pray both with our lips and with our heart that God himself, after the long journey of this life, may lead you into the bosom of the most holy patriarch Abraham.

Regardless of the intention behind the letter, this is not the language that would be used to address a polytheistic pagan. Though knowledge of Islam was still limited at this time, there is nevertheless clear evidence in these statements that, at least in the immediate papal sphere of influence, the knowledge existed that Christians and Muslims worshipped the same deity, and that there was a desire to show Muslims their error. This exact sentiment would be reflected, at least in words, in the translation project of Peter the Venerable more than sixty years later.

Another notable letter from Gregory is his address “to all the faithful,” dated 1084. This work is concerned about the threats to Christianity, from other nations, who do not let Christians practice freely. This could refer to the Turkish situation in the Holy Land, though he does not say so specifically. He specifically notes, however, that the rulers of these lands practice heresy, and seek to spread it.

He then makes an important distinction. Having addressed the issue of heretics, he laments that the Christian faith has fallen, that the Church fathers are no longer honored, and are now a laughing-stock, not only to the devil, but also to Jews, Saracens, and pagans, who at least observe their own laws. Jews and Muslims are classified as something different from pagans here, though he does not indicate that one group is better than another, but rather that none of their laws can save their souls. Again, these are views that would be shared by Peter the Venerable, and the anti–Islamic polemicists of the thirteenth century.