The First Crusade


Alexander Winn

The First Crusade

Never in the history of history itself has an event so captured the imagination of the general public and its legacy ingrained itself so firmly into the cultural landscape, yet been so elusive from the general populace whom discuss it. Historical misconceptions and deviations between common understandings and actual fact are not new. To just list a few we have heard repeated over and over again in various sources and platforms; World War I was fought by men living for months on end in trenches (the Eastern front was incredibly mobile and essentially lacked trenches, on the Western front men spent most of their time in respite camps behind the trenches), the 1967 referendum gave Indigenous people the vote (it did no such thing) and Paul Revere yelling at the top of his lungs that the British were coming (all American colonists were British, and would have looked at him quizzically, among other issues with the myth). Yet these pale in comparison to the abysmal public discourse surrounding the First Crusade. The aim of this article is to dispel those that relate to its causes and also some of its participants.

Myth #1 – Peaceful Muslims vs Evil Christian Crusaders

If one was to look at the most popular depiction of the First Crusade, one would think that thousands of Europeans, including Pope Urban II, woke up one morning and decided in a sudden bloodlust that thousands of peaceful Muslims minding their own business must be put to the sword, and the rest forcibly converted from their heathenish ways. Perhaps, it is not expressed quite that crudely, but the central idea propagated by popular media is of unprovoked, naked imperialism. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

Islamic conquests in the preceding four centuries had conquered most of the known Christian world. Jerusalem and Alexandria had all been conquered, as had been most of North Africa and Spain. Obviously, there are difficulties with the theory that the First Crusade was wholly a response to these previous military endeavours. Firstly, Spain, the closest part of the Islamic world to Western Europe, and therefore the most likely force to pose a military threat, was not the target for the First Crusade. Despite previous Christian military incursions into Spain prior to the First Crusade, namely with the capture of Toledo in 1085 AD and a separate military campaign launched by the Normans that captured al-Mahdiyya in North Africa 1086 AD, there is no evidence these military endeavours were part of one larger Holy War against Islamic enemies. They were for the most part localised examples of warfare. Even Islamic primary sources like Ibin- Al Athir which link these conflicts to the First Crusade do not expressly describe these conflicts as holy wars. Secondly, the Islamic world was bitterly divided in the 11th Century. As historian Thomas Asbridge explains, although the Moors of Iberia and Turks of Asia Minor shared a common heritage, there was no uniformity or even alliance between these factions that would have allowed a concerted military campaign against the Latin West. Steven Runciman further argues that Islamic forces reached their zenith in 717 AD under the Abbasids when they crossed the Pyrenees. Thanks to Charles Martel at Tours in 732 AD, they were forced from France and no longer posed as great a threat to Western Europe. Much to the chagrin of alt-right wing ideologues, the situation was not a perilous contest for the heart of Western Europe itself. The First Crusade was not an event that saved Western Europe from Islamic domination.

There are also very obvious difficulties in describing the First Crusade as a war of liberation for Christians in Jerusalem. There had been a reasonably sized Christian population living in Jerusalem when it was conquered in 637 A.D, but by 1095 most of the Christian population had already been forcibly converted.  The laws levied on those left, including the Jizya, a per capita tax on non-Muslims residing in Muslim territories, relegated many Christians from public life. Thomas Madden notes that authorities showed distinct religious hostility towards Christians by shutting down many churches, killing clergy. It is certainly a misconception to view the burdens placed upon the conquered Christian population as merely just a “tax” or indeed minor.  Some argue that conditions for Christians under Muslim rule were not as arduous as often claimed. Runciman argues that Christian populations were for the most part left alone, arguing the Caliphate’s treatment of Christians and other minorities, as people of the book, was much more favourable than European Christian treatment of their own religious minorities. It must be noted that Runciman’s viewpoint is not accepted by modern scholarly consensus. Whatever the conditions the Christian population in Jerusalem lived under, it is without a question there was not a large Christian population. Thus, justifying the war on the basis of liberation is difficult.

The First Crusade could accurately be described as a reaction to Seljuk Turk aggression. It was the annihilation of the Byzantine Empire’s forces at Manzikert in 1071 that prompted Alexius I to call for aid from Gregory VII and then Urban II. After Manzikert, the Turks advanced further into Asia Minor and conquered Antioch in 1086 AD. The loss of Antioch was a stunning blow for the Byzantines given its status as a profitable tax province, and as one of the five patriarch sites of the Church. With these victories, the Seljuks directly threatened Constantinople, the second holiest city in Christendom after Jerusalem. These conquests made the business of pilgrimage far more difficult. Initially the Turks prevented Christian pilgrims visiting Christian worship sites, and committed atrocities against pilgrims until they realised Christian pilgrims were a lucrative source of revenue. Some could try and argue that the First Crusades were not in any way a reaction to Seljuk aggression given that at the specific time the First Crusade was launched, the Seljuks were involved in a succession crisis over the throne. They had to contend with local rules challenging their authority and would not immediately threaten Constantinople. However, that would be unrealistic. No military force waits for their enemy to regain their strength before attacking. Even if the Seljuks in 1095 were not the same threat as in 1071 or 1086, it should not distract from the reality of the Seljuk threat in the more medium to long term. Its succession issues were merely a temporary weakness – the Byzantine losses in contrast created a much deeper structural problem. Once the Seljuks resolved their internal turmoil, Constantinople would be completely exposed for the taking.

Western Europe may not have been faced with the prospect of invasion, but the Byzantine Empire had been struck a serious blow and needed military assistance to prevent inevitable Turkish conquest. Whether that justified the continuation of the conflict to the Fatimid controlled Jerusalem, or capturing any land for that matter beyond reclaiming lost Byzantine lands is another issue.  It also almost goes without saying that the defeat at Manzikert was not the only cause or contributor towards the First Crusade, but it was substantial. Most importantly, the picture repeated in public discourse of the innocent Muslims being attacked by imperialistic, barbarous Europeans is pure, unnuanced fiction.

Myth #2 – Loot and Land

The narrative goes that the primary motive for Crusaders was supposedly the pursuit of loot and land. Accordingly, this narrative suggests that most Crusaders were the second sons of the nobility, unable to inherit land (land was inherited by the first-born son) and thus available to be sent East to find their own fortunes. In reality, many were extremely wealthy in their own right.  Raymond of Toulouse, as Count of Tolouse, and a key military commander, was already a fabulously wealthy landowner. Robert II of Flanders was the eldest son and heir to Flanders when he went on Crusade.  Stephen of Blois was already the Count of Blois. Hugh, Count of Vermandois, was the brother of Phillip I, King of France. Baldwin I of Jerusalem prior to Crusading was entitled to the County of Verdun. Even the more enterprising individuals like Bohemund, who established the principate of Antioch, were wealthy. He was the prince of Taranto and a wealthy military leader in his own right. All of these individuals were not poor disposed sons or stray knights. To the contrary, they commanded significant wealth, land holdings, political influence and military power in their own right.

While temporal reasons did influence decision makers, Crusaders went to battle predominantly for religious reasons. Of the five written accounts of Pope Urban II’s sermon at Clermont in November of 1095, there were three defining and common features between the accounts. The first was a promise of indulgence. This posed the greatest incentive to Crusaders. It may seem hard to understand today in the secular West, but as the historian Jonathan Riley Smith explains, the conception of heaven, hell and sin was a very real day to day issue for those living in the 11th Century. The decade had seen a huge swell of religious fervour. 1033 was the 1000th anniversary of the Crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and many believed that Christ would return to Earth per the Revelations.

Medieval man lived and operated in a brutal world. Violence, particularly feudal warfare, was ubiquitous and must have weighed heavily on the consciences of the men involved, creating an endless dilemma between feudal obligations and the teachings of the church. The First Crusade provided the perfect opportunity to funnel the nobility’s skill in waging warfare into “productive” use. In a society where the line between Heaven, Earth and Hell was precarious, and where lords and knights were in a constant position of worrying about the impact of their warfare on their chances of everlasting life, Urban II’s offer of a total remission of sins and immunity from excommunication, essentially an offer of an eternal “get-out-of-jail-free-card” was an offer the nobility just could not resist.

Beyond indulgence, there were other religious based reasons for Crusade. The Sermon at Clermont focused on the atrocities committed against the Christian population whilst simultaneously harnessing 11th Century conceptions of love and charity. Robert the Monk’s account involves the most visceral description of the atrocities (the veracity of which are questionable, and even if true, are surely exaggerated). His account, which I will warn the reader of, contains content that is exceedingly gruesome:

”From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent.”

Self-evidently, the visceral language would have imbued upon the medieval Christian listener a white-hot rage. It must be remembered there were no newspapers, radio, TV, internet, social media or fact checkers to question the allegations. To the medieval man, there would be an overwhelming imperative to end these atrocities. Urban II chose this motif very carefully, because he knew that the punishment of sin and the defence of Christendom in general was actually seen as a form of charity, and thus an extension of Christian principles of love. To modern man, punishment as an act of charity or of love is completely foreign. Our conceptions of charity usually only involve giving money to the local blind dog’s association, and our association of love is with romantic or parental concepts. Yet, charity and love encompassed broader concepts in the medieval era. As applied to the sermon, it meant that a Christian expedition designed to protect Christendom by ending these alleged atrocities, reclaiming the Holy Land and possibly preventing further conquest would have been seen as an act of charity and love. Thus, a medieval Crusader could genuinely say from the depths of his heart that his actions were being driven out of love. Of course, this does not justify or morally excuse anything or everything done during the First Crusade (the massacre of Jerusalem’s population at its fall in 1099 AD, including Muslims, Jews and local Christians alike was not at all an expression of love, but an egregious and shameful act of barbarity), but it does explain the motivations for military action in general.

Urban II’s plea also involved the subtle manipulation of the institution of the pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was extremely common, often directed to revering local shrines and churches for the purpose of venerating Saintly relics on Church holidays. Madden notes that in the 9th Century the discovery of the bones of St James the Greater in Spain (James the Greater was James, son of Zebedee, the first apostle to be martyred) prompted an increased interest in pilgrimage, as well as European demand to engage in warfare to reclaim lost sacred lands. With improving access and transportation, noble pilgrimages to Jerusalem were becoming increasingly common and important. Jerusalem had been the site of the crucifixion, resurrection and a number of other Christian miracles. It was the pilgrimage site of pilgrimage sites. Indeed, Medieval Europe was so fixated on Jerusalem that on many medieval maps, Jerusalem appears in the centre, reflecting its religious significance (the likelihood of its inclusion in the centre because medieval cartographers genuinely believed it to be in the centre is extremely slim, and far more likely explainable for religious reasons). The selection of Jerusalem as the target for an armed pilgrimage was essential in spurring the mass movement of people.

Beyond sources detailing the Sermon, most Latin sources corroborate the Sermon, and declare these three reasons in essence to be the cause for the religious fervour among the nobility and knights that caused the First Crusade. The Gesta Francorum, a chronicle of the First Crusade written by an anonymous author connected to Bohemund I of Taranto, goes so far as to state that Bohemund upon witnessing the Frankish procession to the Holy Land and thus being moved by the ‘Holy Spirit’ had his best cloak cut up and made into various cross shaped patches for his army. The veracity of this anecdote is highly questionable, and given the author was a scribe attached to Bohemund, it is obviously biased. Nonetheless, these religious sentiments, extreme as they were expressed, are reflected in most other European accounts (most of which are also written by clergy either attached to various lords or by later clergy relying on these earlier documents). The obvious flaw with Western European accounts was the preference towards elevating religious piety and downgrading potential temporal influences. They should not be taken completely at face value.

By comparison, Byzantine and Islamic sources suggest motives in line with the myth of European bloodlust. Anna Comnena, daughter of Emperor Alexius I, in her book the Alexiad cites a combination of influences. According to Comnena, Godfrey and other more simple-minded individuals (she did not mean Godfrey specifically was simple minded) were motivated by a legitimate desire to make pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre. More astute individuals like Bohemund were motivated by a desire to have a “reinvigorated” Roman Empire. Bohemund was not the most popular character in the Byzantine Court. Fighting in his father’s war against the Byzantine Empire from 1081, he was successful in seizing land from the Byzantines in a further blow to the already weakened Empire. Islamic sources by and large neglect to cover Frankish motivations for going on Crusade, mainly because Islamic writers did not see the Crusades as a particularly important watershed moment in their history – many read the Crusades simply as the story of an enemy infidel invading their lands.  Those that did cover the subject were normally extremely critical of the Crusaders. Ibn al Qalanisi’s chronicle of the First Crusade, one of the earliest written on the subject from Damascus (which was unscathed by the First Crusade), establishes the Franks as inherently violent infidels motivated mostly by greed.  To be fair, most of his focus is on Frankish actions in the Holy Land because this had far more relevance to Islamic historians.

Purely analysed in isolation, Latin, Byzantine and Islamic sources cannot provide a clear, definitive account of the motivations of the Crusaders because of the unique biases inherent to each source. Fortunately, surviving financial documents corroborate the theory that religious devotion was the main motivating factor for the Crusaders. Many land owners were forced to mortgage their properties in order to finance their expeditions. Many others forgave land disputes they had with the Church when they went on Crusade. It is incredibly improbable a feudal lord would go through enormous expenditures to arm a large retinue, mortgage large tracts of land and renounce land disputes (which are actual, almost guaranteed sources of wealth) to gain wealth. It’s an incredibly risky, ineffective way to get rich quick. It makes even less sense when considering that most individuals that went on Crusade returned home. It is beyond the scope of this piece to consider all the different temporal factors motivating certain individuals, but needless to say these motivations played a relatively minor role compared to religion. These were not proto-Imperialists motivated only by the desire for more loot and land.

Myth #3 – A Purely Selfish, Power Hungry Church

Another popular but mistaken theory surrounding the Crusade’s motivations holds that Pope Urban II was primarily motivated by a desire to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches – he wanted to use the Crusades as a project to expand Papal power into the East. This claim has more truth to it than the others, but unfortunately still paints a simplistic caricature of the papacy and its motivating goals. Pope Urban II was simply just another papal figure in a long line stretching through the 11th Century focused on diligently expanding papal power. While the seizure of power is naturally and understandably viewed with a great degree of scepticism, the papacy’s attempts at power expansion in the 11th   century need to be understood within the context of the time.

Papal power hitherto to the 11th Century had been declining as a consequence of the fall of the Carolingian Empire, and had come to rely upon the support of local Roman and Italian rulers. Thus, Popes of the 11th Century began re-asserting the power of the church in various ways. Firstly, the papacy began a critical plan of ridding itself from the scourge of simony, that is the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, by for instance selling pardons for money. Fultcher of Chartres account of the Sermon at Clermont features simony as a prominent sin that needed to be stamped out. Christopher Tyreman also notes that the Papacy faced concerns as to how it could enforce canonical rules on clergy, clerical marriages and the integration of clergy into local partisan political disputes.

Flowing from these problems was the Investiture Controversy, a bitter political dispute between Gregory VII and Henry IV, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, over who would have the power to appoint new priests, bishops and cardinals. Gregory VII in the Dictatus Papea 1090 AD asserted a whole suite of sweeping powers and authorities that would make the Papacy supreme over the secular authority over all matters spiritual. The ensuing power struggle resulted not only in Henry IV and even his son Henry V’s excommunication, but also decades of unrest caused by successive Popes sponsoring rebellions against the Emperor.  In retaliation, both Henry IV and V appointed Anti-Popes, and even at one point invaded Rome. Clearly, the assertion of Papal supremacy was a crucial step to ensuring the Papacy could effectively root out corruption.

Furthermore, the Church had genuinely been attempting to reduce political violence in Europe with the Peace of God and Truce of God movements. The Peace of God was a mutual agreement between arms bearers upon an oath to protect individuals that were not part of the military such as the clergy, civilians, women, the vulnerable and the poor.  The Truce of God movement was a church mandated ceasefire. Violations of either would result in the perpetrators being excommunicated. The extent to which these movements were successful is debatable, considering many were localised and sporadic. Nevertheless, both movements represented what was in effect a seizure of power by the Papacy that actually helped prevent bloodshed. Pope Urban II may have deliberately ignored Alexius I’s request for an attaché of knights to serve under his command for a mass movement to in part expand papal influence in the East since the schism of 1054 AD. More likely, it was just as, if not more directed as part of a long line of Papal reforms at securing power in Europe. Moreover, the Council at Clermont was not a one-off, but part of a tour from the Pope to shore up support in France. In any event, it was not solely a cynical power grab to expand power in the East, and to the extent that it was a power grab, that does not mean it was an intrinsically bad thing necessarily. Whether it was or was not is a normative point for debate beyond the scope of this article.

The many myths and misconceptions that surround the First Crusade highlight the great care needed in analysing history. If we try to understand individuals and events through contemporary cultural, social and political lenses we do so at the peril of our own understanding and the expense of truth.

For more reading on this subject I recommend the works of historians Thomas Asbridge, Jonathan Philipps, Christopher Tyreman, Jonathan Riley-Smith, Thomas Madden, Steven Runciman (although his work is important, elements are dated), Carole Hillenbrand for Islamic perspectives and the Fordham Medieval History Source Book for primary sources.

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