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

Saint Augustine (354-430) is one of the most influential thinkers of the Western World. His answers to life’s profound questions shaped Western civilization to an unparalleled degree.

Though the popular imagination continued to associate Islam with polytheism, we have seen that some writers and theologians were aware that this was not the case. Indeed, Glaber’s account proves that in at least some monastic circles in the early eleventh century, Muslim veneration of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus was already known to be a fact. That some writers continued to distinguish between the heretics within Christendom and Muslims, whom they branded as pagans, does not detract from this.

In the 1140s, the abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, made a detailed study of Islam, and implored Bernard of Clairvaux to write against the Muslims. His principal concern was that Islam was a heresy that was threatening the unity of the Church. In view of Peter’s concerns, one cannot then suppose that Augustinian ideas simply had no influence on crusading thought, officially or otherwise. If Islam could be regarded as a Christian heresy, then the forced conversion doctrine could be applied to it as well. Whether Peter intended this has been the subject of much debate.

The arguments for and against the use of armed force in the conversion of non-believers, whether “heretics” or “pagans” might have remained forever in the realm of theological speculation, had not a momentous event occurred in 1071. In that year, Jerusalem was wrested from Arab control by the aggressive Turks, specifically by an adventurer named Atsiz ibn-Abaq, a vassal to the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. They adhered to a more strict and orthodox form of Sunni Islam, and so the political climate of the Middle East took a drastic change. There were power struggles for several years after this incident; at one point the Egyptian Fatimids (members of the rival Shi’a sect) succeeded in retaking the city from Atsiz for a short time in 1075. It would be wrong to focus on this incident as the major turning point in Christian relations with the East. Hostilities abounded previously (the incident with Bishop Gunther, for example). However, this Turkish invasion served as a new focal point for Christian indignation and retaliation.

The route for Christian pilgrims now became even more dangerous than before, owing to increased Turkish hostility towards the Christians. The previous Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem had often allowed Christian pilgrims to come and go without much hindrance (the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher notwithstanding), but the new Turkish rulers were not always so favorably inclined, though this may have been due as much to Christian perceptions and prejudices as to any real threat.74 Nevertheless, with so many political and military power struggles between rival Muslim factions, there was bound to be danger to travelers. With the rising threat of Turkish power, Anatolia was now a very dangerous route for a pilgrim to traverse, but it was the only overland route by which they could realistically travel. Indeed, it could only be undertaken by armed escort, owing to the frequent hostile flare-ups in the area. Once in the Middle East proper, Syria was no better. Both regions were plagued with bandits and petty local lords who imposed high levies and tolls. Pilgrims that did manage to make it safely to the Holy Land and back returned with many a harsh tale about their miseries.

With a major pilgrimage route believed to be in danger, a new form of remissio peccatorum began to take shape. Options for the remission of sin included becoming a monk, endowing a monastery, or going on a pilgrimage. The choice of a pilgrimage had traditionally involved the abandonment of all other activities until the pilgrimage was complete, for some a virtually impossible task. The notion of liberating Jerusalem from hostile Muslim hands presented what must have been seen as the perfect solution. It was an option particularly attractive to the knight. He had the opportunity to receive penance for his violent behavior through the exercising of his very reason for being, his martial skills.

It would not be until the 1090s, however, that this connection was fully made, for while Gregory VII was an enthusiastic supporter of an armed venture to liberate the Holy Land from Turkish/Muslim control, he does not seem to have conceived of the combination of a military campaign and a pilgrimage. Nevertheless, much of his correspondence addresses the issue of an armed expedition, and he implores his audiences to be receptive to his ideas. In his letter to “all Christians,” dated March 1, 1074, he states:

[…] we have learned that a people of the pagans have been pressing hard upon the Christian empire, have cruelly laid waste the country almost to the walls of Constantinople and slaughtered like sheep many thousand Christians.

[…] Be it known, therefore, that we […] are preparing in every possible way to carry aid to the Christian empire as soon as may be, with God’s help. We adjure you […] willingly to offer your powerful aid to your brethren in the name of Christ.

Note here that he refers to the enemies as “pagans” when he would soon praise a Muslim ruler in North Africa for being devoted to the same God, but in a different manner. This was the start of a series of missives regarding his conviction to do something about the Turkish situation. Passing reference is made to the venture in a letter addressed to King Philip I of France concerning the church of Beauvais, and at the conclusion of a letter to William, Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitaine, concerning the annulment of his marriage to Hildegard, daughter of King Robert of Burgundy. He praises William for his willingness to offer military support for Gregory’s venture, but then informs him that at that time, good news had arrived and the Christians had succeeded in driving the Turks back:

Your assurance of readiness to act in the service of St. Peter was very welcome to us, but it has not seemed best to write you anything definite at present concerning an expedition, because the report is that the Christians beyond the seas have, by God’s help, driven back the fierce assault of the pagans, and we are waiting for the counsel of divine Providence as to our future course.

This temporary cessation did not last long, however, and by December, Gregory was once again making plans for a full-scale expedition to the east. He wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, putting forth his plans in greater detail:

Further, I call to your attention that the Christians beyond the seas, a great part of whom are being destroyed by the heathen with unheard-of slaughter and are daily being slain like so many sheep, have humbly sent to beg me to succor these our brethren in whatever ways I can, that the religion of Christ may not utterly perish in our time […]

I […] have succeeded in arousing certain Christian men so that they are eager to risk their lives for their brethren in defense of the law of Christ and to show forth more clearly than the day the nobility of the sons of God. This summons has been readily accepted by Italians and northerners, by divine inspiration as I believe—nay as I can absolutely assure you—and already fifty thousand men are preparing, if they can have me for their leader and prelate, to take up arms against the enemies of God and push forward even to the sepulcher of the Lord under his supreme leadership.

There follows a section wherein Gregory discusses the rift between the Eastern and the Western Churches, the recent filioque controversy in the Nicene Creed no doubt still in his mind. The two churches were clearly at odds, and Gregory appears here to be hinting at the chance to reclaim some of the East for the Catholic faith. Indeed, his predecessor, Leo IX, had expressed a desire for a renewal of good ties between West and East, even if he preferred to refer to Rome and Constantinople as “mother” and “daughter” respectively, a designation of which the Greeks would hardly have approved.

He wrote a letter to Countess Matilda of Tuscany on 16 December of 1074 with a similar theme:

There are some whom I blush to tell, lest I should seem to be led by a mere fancy, how firmly my mind and heart are set upon crossing the sea in order that, by Christ’s favor, I may bring help to the Christians who are being slaughtered by the heathen like cattle.

[…] Now, I believe that many knights support us in such a task, also that our empress herself [Agnes of Poitou, widow of Henry III, mother of Henry IV] desires to come with us to distant parts and to bring you with her […]

We can see that Gregory was the first to propose an armed religious expedition, and he actually offered to lead it himself. This was remarkable; the idea that a pope could command an army had until this time been unthinkable. Regardless, even with Gregory’s plans to travel as far as Jerusalem, the idea of mixing a pilgrimage with war was probably not something that he envisioned. In fact, despite the reported 50,000 men waiting to make the journey (certainly an exaggeration), nothing came of these bold plans.

There are several reasons for this, most of which are due to the complex political situations involving the Normans and Byzantine claims to western lands. In 1074, Gregory had found himself embroiled in a battle of wills with the Norman Robert Guiscard, an adventurer-turned-noble, and Gregory had sought to raise forces against him, which would then proceed to the east in the quest to liberate it from Turkish control. This plan fell apart, and Gregory temporarily abandoned his hopes, though they were rekindled later in the year and into 1075, only to be dashed again, the second time mainly by a lack of interest. His disappointment and disgust are evident in a letter written to Abbot Hugh of Cluny on 22 January 1075, wherein he decries the lack of faith in God, and that men seek only their own glory, while even the Italians proved themselves to be worse than the pagans and heretics, and the devil has his way.

Within a year of his proclamations of armed expedition, Gregory was burdened with a problem much closer to home, the Investiture Contest, one of the principal side effects of the Reform movement, the great struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy. In short, the debate raged about whether the Holy Roman Emperor could appoint his own loyal bishops, and even influence the selection of popes. The emperor thought yes, the Church maintained that this duty was relegated to it alone by God. It would not be fully resolved (in the Church’s favor) until 1122.

Gregory’s plans had been important, however. It was the first time that the notion of a Christian holy war to the East, with papal sanction, had been seriously considered. Further, although it was initially conceived to give support to Byzantium (an idea with mixed support at best), Gregory clearly entertained the idea of sending the mission all the way to Jerusalem, thus planting the seed of the idea of a war and pilgrimage combined together. As for the effect this was about to have on Christian/Islamic relations, a pilgrimage with a military element would be the instigation of a new holy war.

Gregory never abandoned the idea, however, and in the early 1080s, he summoned Anselm of Baggio, Bishop of Lucca, to Rome to write on the Church’s right to wage war. In Book XIII of his collection of canonical texts (written at Gregory’s request), he included many ideas which justified the use of violence when willed by God, stressing that it was the intention of the warrior that mattered, and that fighting could be just if engaged in with “goodwill.” Indeed, many of these statements would be found again in Bernard of Clairvaux’s justification for the Knights Templar forty years later.91 In another work, De caritate, Anselm went so far as to proclaim that the use of violence for holy ends could be seen as an act of charity.

Significantly, he was also a supporter of the idea of the Church itself having the authority to use force, without the need to rely on secular permission or enforcement. Such thinking was very near that which was to be espoused by the supporters of the crusade.

The issue of Christian violence as an act of love and charity may seem very odd to the modern reader, but it formed a significant part of what was to become the theology of crusading, and it deserves to be discussed in more detail here. Actions taken to correct a wrong were legitimate in Christian teaching. St. Augustine had commented at length on the use of corrective force for a greater good. While he was not specifically referring to war, his comments were adapted to suit the situations of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Further, since he also discussed the forced conversion of the Manichaeans in this context (a gnostic dualist faith that Augustine himself had been a member of, until his conversion in 387), it was only logical to transfer the same line of thinking to the Muslims. In his extended commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, he states:

A punishment that is designed for the purpose of correction is not hereby forbidden; for that very punishment is an exercise of mercy, and is not incompatible with the firm resolve by which we are ready to suffer even further injuries from a man whose amendment we desire. But no one is fit for the task of inflicting such punishment unless—by the greatness of his love—he has overcome the hate by which those who seek to avenge themselves are usually enraged.

In the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux would echo these words in describing the virtues of the Knights Templar. Essentially, the Christian soldier who divorced himself from hateful intent potentially had the moral authority to inflict punishment and commit violence for the greater good. Augustine continues with the view that the right to commit such acts must come from God:

Nevertheless, noble and saintly men inflicted death as a punishment for many sins, although they knew well that no one ought to fear the death which separates soul and body. But they were acting in conformity with the sentiment of those who do fear it, so that the living would be struck with salutary fear. Those who were put to death did not suffer injury from death itself; rather, they were suffering injury from sin, and it might have become worse if they had continued to live. This authority was not exercised rashly by those to whom God had committed it.

The influence that such a passage would have had in the formulation of the new martial ethic of the Church can clearly be seen. Perhaps the most significant statement was to be found in Augustine’s City of God, chapter 21:

The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice.

While such teachings had been a part of the Church since the time of the fathers, it took the innovations of the eleventh century to adapt them to the situations that Christians faced about the status of Jerusalem and the perceived threat of Islam. Islam, of course, did not exist in Augustine’s time, but this was not an obstacle to the theologians seeking support for crusading.

An important French canonist who continued the thought of Anselm of Lucca was Ivo of Chartres (ca. 1040–1115), who in 1094, shortly before the Council of Clermont (wherein Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade), wrote his Decretum and Panormia. These works contained considerable speculation on the nature of Christian violence and justifiable war, and their relationship to love. In commenting on Augustine, he declared that a war fought by Christians was for the purpose of creating peace, and thus was an acceptable act; it had as its aim a higher good. Those who would punish evil were not persecuting their foes, but in fact loving them, and he distinguished, as Bernard of Clairvaux would, between war for its own sake and for a just cause. Indeed, Christopher Tyerman notes that by his writings, “Augustine had moved the justification of violence from lawbooks to liturgies, from the secular to the religious. His lack of definition in merging holy and just war […] produced a convenient conceptual plasticity that characterized subsequent Christian attitudes to war.”

The concept of Church-sanctioned, holy violence found its full flowering in the First Crusade, preached by Pope Urban II in 1095. In March of 1095, at the Council of Piacenza, ambassadors from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos arrived with an appeal for aid against continuing incursions by the Seljuk Turks. The emperor hoped for some military reinforcements, but what he received was beyond his imagination. Urban’s response at the Council of Clermont in November of that year was to call for a full-scale armed assault on the East. He presented the crusade as a pilgrimage to worship at Jerusalem. However, it was an armed pilgrimage; remission of sins was gained because one was armed, which, for a pilgrim, had been forbidden. This was a ground-breaking move; there was no precedent for such an attitude, regardless of previous Church support for armed campaigns against Muslims in Spain. There, the Church had given its endorsement to the continuing efforts of the reconquista, even offering remission of sins for those who perished fighting Islam on Spain’s soil. The difference was that there was not yet the link with pilgrimage that characterized the whole of the crusading movement for the next 200 years and beyond. The reconquest of Spain was principally a military exercise, not an opportunity for pilgrimage.