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

Indeed, medieval writers referred to crusaders and pilgrims with exactly the same word, peregrinus. As a result, it is not always clear whether the individual described in a given manuscript account is on crusade, or whether he is a traditional, non-armed pilgrim.

The reason for the novelty lay in its unique fusion, because, “its whole point seems to be rather that pilgrimage and war are fused together with the deliberate emphasis that remission of penance is not the automatic reward for waging this war, but that only he qualifies who ‘pro sola devotione, non pro honoris vel pecuniae adeptione, ad liberandam ecclesiam Dei Hierusalem profectus fuerit.’ The moral discipline associated with pilgrimage is written into the qualification […].” In other words, devotion to the crusade as its own reward, and not to gain riches or honor, was the method by which salvation was attained. There is a clear distinction between war for its own sake and the necessity to complete the pilgrimage. The remission is gained for completing the pilgrimage; the fighting necessary to this end is not the means by which salvation is gained, but rather a useful tool. The intention must not be for personal glory, but rather only to glorify God and Christ. Once again, this was a theme which was to be invoked by Bernard of Clairvaux in his support of the Knights Templar.

Therefore, the crusade was a new idea, and perhaps Urban felt the need to keep the concept out of the traditional boundaries of Church law. He was in uncharted territory with his proposals, and could have been unsure of how they would be received. It is not surprising therefore, that no attempt was made immediately to fit the idea of armed pilgrimage into existing Church statutes. However, at about the same time, an encyclical was circulating, purporting to be from Pope Sergius IV (d. 1012), calling for the expulsion of the Muslims from Jerusalem for Caliph Hakim’s crime of the Holy Sepulcher’s destruction. The general consensus is that this document is a forgery, and was probably created for the purpose of giving Urban some historical precedent for his proposal. It provides a prime example of how history was being manipulated to bring the new theology in line with existing beliefs.

Was the Holy Sepulcher the main goal? Erdmann put forth the argument that Pope Urban II’s principal concern was aid to Byzantium and Alexios I, with the hope that such a venture would allow for the possibility of reuniting the Church (i.e., extending Latin rule in the East). E. O. Blake has asked if Urban’s intention was “not to convert the military venture into a pilgrimage, but merely to divert the benefits of pilgrimage to reward an act of war?”

This is a possibility, and may have some truth, but it is also reliant on Erdmann’s thesis of the crusade just being the logical extension of just war theology. Erdmann adheres to the idea that the crusade was primarily about the practice of “legitimate” war, whereas later writers have argued that canon law was not invoked in crusading literature, and therefore the pilgrimage theme must be given more attention. Most likely, however, Urban held Jerusalem to be an important component of the expedition, and probably the primary reason. Baldric of Bourgueil recorded that Urban made use of Psalm 78:1–4 as part of his justification for the taking up of arms, since it proclaims that the heathen had defiled the holy places. Indeed, with Jerusalem as the main goal, the whole idea could be more related to such areas as theology and apocalypticism, rather than simply just war.

While the general assumption is that Alexios’ letter was the principal spur to the crusade, Andrew Jotischky has recently suggested that pleas from the Jerusalem church may have played a role. Indeed, stories about the popular preacher Peter the Hermit (whom we shall meet presently) said that he was in possession of just such a plea, and that this was what gave rise to the whole crusade. This is an exaggeration, but contacts between Jerusalem and the West had been ongoing, and reports of turmoil and difficulties between Eastern Christians and various Muslim rulers (not just Hakim) had existed for centuries.

Regardless of the ultimate aim, the idea became very popular. Part of the appeal of Urban’s new proposition was because it was in the form of a sermon. Odd as this may sound, the growing popularity of sermons outside of the monastic community was certainly a factor in Urban’s favor. Prior to the eleventh century, preaching was largely a monastic practice, and the focus of such sermons was on the patristic texts and scriptural exegesis. There was a good amount of theological contemplation, aimed at directing the minds of the monks toward heaven and spiritual concerns. Before the twelfth century, there was no real effort to bring such elevated spiritual ideas to the common people; indeed, it may have been only periodic. For example, the Council of Clovesho in 747 recommended preaching on Sundays, but did not require it as a part of the mass. In any case, it was assumed that the laity was not educated and intelligent enough to understand the complex ideas that monastic thinkers pondered. Instead, sermons were to concentrate on such topics as instruction in the faith, the meaning of the Creed, and how to be a good Christian.

However, by the time of the Reform, there had appeared a new phenomenon, or at least a surge in popularity of an old one: the itinerant preacher. As the Reform movement took hold, there began to appear a large number of itinerant and lay preachers (particularly in France), who had no formal training or Church affiliation. These individuals most often called on the laity to adopt a life of poverty and humility, imitating Christ, and were wanderers who were often rough in appearance and hygiene, but their messages resonated with lay audiences far and wide. They had an immediate appeal, being commoners like those they preached to, far different from the distant, upper-class Church officials.

The chicken-and-egg question is, of course, whether they generated the popular spiritual movements, or were responding to them. This cannot be answered with certainty, but there is no doubt that their words were well-received by many. Such a situation could not help but pose serious challenges for those officials within the Church, especially as many of these preachers did not extoll the formal Church structures as the way to salvation. Given this popular yearning for spiritual meaning, Urban’s Clermont sermon must have had tremendous power, being addressed not only to clergy, nobles, and knights, but to the common people, as well.

The Clermont sermon was an inspired work, for it answered the spiritual needs of the laity by including them in its preaching. Here was a sermon from the pope himself, and one that spoke to all Christians, not just the privileged few. Urban must have been aware of the effect that his words would have; indeed, he meant to reach the people in just the way that he did. It may have even been a kind of official response to the popular preachers, one which gave the people hope in the same manner that the words of the wanderers did, but one with papal authority.

There were unexpected and unfortunate events concerning one of those wanderers, Peter of Amiens, a priest known as the Hermit, who preached his own brand of the crusade. Peter was one of those “eccentric, unkempt” individuals, who exerted a strong charisma despite (or perhaps because of) his unwashed state, and he obtained many followers on his disastrous journey to the East in 1096. Whether or not he carried a plea for help from Jerusalem’s patriarch, his was the dark side of popular religious fervor. It led to some of his followers slaughtering groups of Jews living in the Rhineland, under the assumption that it was just as easy to kill the “enemies of God” near to home as to journey all the way to far-off Jerusalem. His vision of crusading differed dramatically from that of Urban’s, “as unlike as reasonably clean water and a muddy pool covered with weeds.” Thousands followed Peter as far as Constantinople, where the Emperor Alexios, eager to be rid of them, arranged for their transport into Turkish territory. He told them to wait for him to send guards as an escort, but they set off, thus sealing their fate. Shortly afterward, they were massacred by the Turks. Peter had escaped and returned to Constantinople with few followers left, but he remained a part of the crusade, and was given much credit for his later involvement by contemporary chroniclers.

In spite of such a tragic and even embarrassing setback, preparations for the true crusade continued, and the idea spread very quickly throughout Europe. The notion of holy and just war gained popularity rapidly, and seemed to answer some great spiritual need of the common people, with its promise of liberation of the sacred sites, and remission of all sins.

Indeed, the idea of the crusaders engaged in the imitatio Christi, imitating the life of Christ, seems to have taken hold and been popular. William Purkis focuses on the imitation of Christ’s life and passion as a major motivating force for those first crusaders. The idea of “taking the cross,” that is, the sewing of a cloth cross onto one’s clothing as a symbol of one’s crusading vow, could be compared to the act of Christ shouldering his own cross on his final walk to Calvary: a heavy burden that led to an eternal reward. This was seen as a living embodiment of Christ’s admonition in Matthew 16:24 that all who would come after him must take up their crosses and follow him. The crusaders were abandoning their homes and families, as Christ had commanded, to answer a higher calling. Upon reaching Jerusalem, they would literally be walking in the footsteps of Christ. Those that did so and died in this holy endeavor could be seen as martyrs. Even the ranks of the crusaders were seen in terms of the followers of Christ, with accounts that some contingents were numbered at 12 (the number of the apostles), that those who abandoned the crusade were akin to Judas, among other comparisons.

The adversary that they would face was the quintessential enemy. Though the people knew little or nothing about Islam, Urban and his successors had succeeded in defining it as the greatest of all threats. Over time, the term Saracen would designate all of the enemies of Christendom, and their supposed practices would be assigned to all such enemies. In a ridiculous example, a twelfth-century English monk mentioned that the pagan Saxons worshipped “maumets,” a reference to Muhammad and the belief that Muslims worshipped him. Islam was thus antithetical to Christianity; it was everything that Christians were not, or perhaps that they feared they might be. The excessive hatred and violence that could grow out of such a belief is obvious. Muslims were seen as a lost cause, inconvertible and fit only to be driven out or killed.

The result of this change in attitude toward war was a completely new outlook for the Church, one which was to have dramatic repercussions for hundreds of years. By the end of the eleventh century, the idea of a Church-sanctioned holy war had fully taken shape, a new and important belief in Western history. It went far beyond Augustinian notions of what constituted a just war. War of a certain kind was now pleasing to God, whereas previously, it required penance, no matter how just its cause. Fighting in a war was not only permitted, it was divinely-sanctioned, and it earned the remittance of all sins, guaranteed by a papal proclamation.

An important question that naturally arises from all of this activity is how sincere these various writers and theologians were in their beliefs. This is not always answerable, but it deserves some attention. As we have seen, there existed a curious double attitude toward Byzantium, which on the one hand condemned the Greeks for supposed treachery (a theme that would recur throughout the crusading period; indeed it was invoked by Peter the Venerable as a principal reason for the failure of the Second Crusade), and on the other considered it important to render assistance to the Byzantine army in repelling the Turks (though it must be pointed out that in no surviving account of Urban’s Clermont sermon is Byzantium mentioned). For the Church writers, perhaps it was a belief in the lesser of two evils, that it was better to have a schismatic Christian empire in the East than one controlled by the Turks. Or, the Byzantine appeal for help simply could have provided a timely and ideal opportunity to put the papacy’s hopes and plans into action, with little regard for the safety of the Eastern Empire at all. It is clear that Alexios certainly did not anticipate the unruly mobs that descended on his lands a few years after his appeal.

Were these crusading sentiments merely shrewd political manipulations from a Church desperate to obtain complete power over the secular rulers of Europe? Sources cannot confirm this, and there were undoubtedly many (if not most) among the laity who felt a genuine sense of religious duty to engage in the perceived defense of Christendom. The possibility of undertaking a true imitatio Christi must have been irresistible to those who had no idea what was ahead of them. Still, human nature has shown throughout history that the prospect of attaining such total power must have held great appeal for those in charge. The Church, of course, did achieve a great victory through all of these new movements, both in the spiritual and political sense. The misery, brutality, and death wrought by the crusades and their earlier models in Spain had little impact on those in Europe who did not participate in the fighting, and the troubles experienced by the crusaders were completely overshadowed by the retaking of Jerusalem, which more than redressed the suffering. A more perfect example of divine reward for Christian humility, obedience and suffering could not have been envisioned.

Though Gregory VII offered to lead the first such expedition, his sincerity in this proposal will never be known. The rapidity with which the whole plan was dropped indicates either a lack of conviction or, just as likely, a preoccupation with events closer to home. Indeed, the Investiture Contest allowed the opportunity for the pope to exert the Church’s worldly and spiritual authority without having to journey all the way to Jerusalem. The West probably was simply not yet ready for Gregory’s call to arms. The knights and fighting men of Europe were not initially interested in Gregory’s plan; in fact, it may have seemed quite odd to them. Long-standing conflicts and general mistrust among warring factions were enough to resist a call to fight under a papal banner in a militia Christi. In fact, the papacy could well have been seen by them as desiring the military expedition for its own ends, and so there was little appeal to a secular warrior, who had more to gain by waging war closer to his own home in Europe. So, unlike Urban’s crusade of 1095, Gregory probably alienated secular knights to some extent, by adopting an approach that was too hierarchical. Gregory said that he wanted to command the army in his time, but Urban had a far better idea; letting the greatest of the French knights and nobility themselves lead the expedition. It was this strategy that ensured the strong popular response to Urban’s call, where Gregory’s had failed. It is worth noting that before he became pope, Urban, as Odo of Lagery, was cardinal bishop of Ostia and was known as the pedisequus (valet) to Gregory VII, given their close friendship. So there can be no doubt that Gregory’s ideas of holy war lived on in Urban.

The crusaders themselves were certainly an enormously diverse group, and the reasons why so many took the cross and traveled such a perilous road to the east have been long questioned and debated. In addition to the imitatio Christi, many felt other religious inspirations, while some may well have desired material gain. Urban was aware of this, and stressed that it was only those who undertook the burden without wanting honor or wealth would gain the full remission of sins.

Susanna Throop has argued that a specific form of vengeance was also invoked as an encouragement to take the cross. Drawing from Old Testament influences, it was known in the sources as vindicta, ultio, and venjance. This was not the petty vengeance of mortals (and thus forbidden to Christians), but rather the divine vengeance of righting wrongs, of punishing and committing violence with moral authority against those who had transgressed divine law. Indeed the First Crusade itself might be seen more as an exercise in punishment than an actual war. While the Jews had killed Christ, a great affront to God, the Muslims were equally villainous, since they had willingly rejected Christ as God. They were the successors to the crime of deicide by their occupation of the holy places, and the crusaders saw it as a duty to take revenge on Islam for the perceived guilt of Judaism. Jews, heretics, and Saracens were equally enemies of God, and all were deserving of the same divine punishment. God had been injured by the Muslims. Their rebellion against Christian law was likened to a kind of ongoing crucifixion. The Jews had crucified Christ once because of their lack of belief; the Muslims, by also not believing, did so every day.

Looking at another possibility, Jay Rubenstein makes the case for apocalyptic hopes and fears playing a key role in the lives and motivations of the first crusaders.

All of these can be put forward as being among the reasons for the success of the venture, and the ability to inspire thousands to take up arms. Within that success, however, we must remember that there was a clearer line of demarcation between the duties of the clergy and the laity within Ecclesia, enhanced as a result of the increased gulf between the two groups, which the Reform created.

The absolute prohibition on monks joining the crusade, and the stipulation that other clergy needed to demonstrate justifiable reasons for doing so, are further examples of the difference between clerical and lay duties in this new vision of the Church. Indeed, Urban was faced with the problem of enthusiastic monks desiring to join the crusade, and had to expressly forbid it, reminding them that they had already devoted themselves to spiritual warfare. They were warned that they would face excommunication if they failed to heed his command. Priests had never been permitted to shed blood, but they were, of course, expected to minister to soldiers and whole armies. The Church was defining its own role in crusading as something different from the laity. Penitential killing of the infidel was held to be meritorious for the secular man, who was by nature sinful and prone to violence and killing, but not for the priest or monk, who had sworn his life to peace and service to God. And yet, certain chroniclers favorably compared the crusaders to monks, saying that they were more like monks than knights.

Was this a means of allowing the masses of common people to perform the tasks that the Church desired, without it having to take undue risks itself? It is possible, though remember that in the structured organization brought about by the Reform, all classes of society were seen as having different duties to perform and different expressions of piety. By presenting a “secular” means of salvation, one that made use of both the imitation of Christ‘s sufferings and the use of “holy” violence, the laity would be active participants in the spreading of the Gospel in their own way. God’s enemies could be defeated, and Catholic rule brought to the East (thus enhancing papal power and influence even further) without the pope having to exert great amounts of effort beyond preaching and encouraging feelings of support for the idea. The lay crusader was thus helping all of Christendom by undertaking the dangerous journey to the East, with the spiritual support of the clergy. The mere fact that the Reform sought to establish the Church as the supreme earthly authority and to elevate itself over the laity suggests that such measures of encouragement may have been employed, for both political and religious reasons. Helping the common people feel valued by encouraging their participation in the crusading venture was a most effective means of encouraging the spirit of cooperation in the formation of the new Ecclesia. Quite simply and obviously, the crusade would not have succeeded without lay support. How much of this was manipulative and how much sincere continues to be debated, though there may have in the end been little difference in motivation between the Church and lay society in general.

It is clear from the correspondence and writings cited that Christian writers of the eleventh century felt a genuine sense of outrage at Turkish and Muslim military activities directed against pilgrims, or at least catching them up in the “crossfire” of sectarian disputes. The situation in the East provided a coincidental and most effective means of helping the Church to secure power, and in their determination to counter the perceived Muslim threat, the papacy realized this. The solution to the problem of Islam could be found in the attitudes of the Reform movement itself, and was no doubt held by many to be God-given. The First Crusade was the result of this combination.

The papacy did not conceive of its ideas in a vacuum; it relied on the support of certain key institutions and thinkers to make the whole process of the new Christian war machine operate effectively. It was one matter to have the support of the laity, but that support had to be reinforced by many others within the Church itself. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it was in the monastic houses that this support often came with such strength.

The Burgundian monasteries of Cîteaux and Cluny were to prove vital in maintaining support and engendering enthusiasm for future holy military ventures. The Cistercians, under Bernard of Clairvaux, were particularly important in this regard, for it was Bernard who so strongly advocated the Second Crusade, and who gave his support to the new Order of the Knights Templar of Jerusalem. This monastic order was created to deal with the Muslim presence and other dangers to pilgrims in the new Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as to defend the lands won by the Christian conquest. The Benedictine Cluniacs, while supporting the crusade, also played a role, for their abbot, Peter the Venerable, acquired a keen interest in Islam and its teachings.