And thus, the Crusades.
Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099 A.D.) came to the Chair of Peter about a decade after Gregory VII, who gave the name to this era of reform. He was another of the “Cluny monk” reformers of France, as was Gregory, who rewarded Urban with the cardinal’s red hat. Urban inherited the momentum of the renewal’s energy and strove to give it focus. A stronger papacy with newfound independence from its neighboring kingdoms made the Western Church a desirable partner to its Eastern half in Constantinople, under heavy siege from Muslim Turks. Although Leo IX had excommunicated the Eastern Church only four decades earlier, there was a mild thaw in relations during Urban’s reign. The Eastern enthusiasm for better relations was strategic, to be sure, a hope for military assistance.
The Roman Church’s reasons for considering military intervention are more complex. The religious nation of Islam had occupied Jerusalem since the 600’s. The fact of “infidels” holding the birthplace of Christianity had become an inherited shame for Christian believers who were in no way prepared to do much about it until Urban’s time at the end of the eleventh century. Christian belief of the time held that the Second Coming would take place in “the new and eternal Jerusalem.” To gain access and possession to the holy city carried apocalyptic hope. Access to the holy places became a dream now within reach. For Pope Urban, the possibilities of restoring union with the East loomed larger, as did his opportunities to flex muscles as an equal among equals in an international venture such as a crusade.
For our purposes, it would be wrong to overlook religious zeal as a critical factor in the organization of a crusade or military excursion. Urban summoned a council to Clermont, France, where he preached one of history’s most remembered sermons, a call for the Christian West to undertake a Crusade to reclaim the lands of Jesus. His exclamation “Deus vult!” or “God wills it!” The response to Urban’s call exceeded anything he was prepared to deal with. Piety and enthusiasm have their own masters. Despite Urban’s insistence that the Crusade be fought exclusively by knights, there was no effective way to control the enlistment of monks, women, nobles, and the poor, who saw themselves as martyrs for the cross of Christ whose death on the venture would bring instant eternal salvation.
The First Crusade was primarily French, though some Germans and Italians participated as well. Historians have described the First Crusade as both heroic and barbaric, which seems fair enough. The First Crusade “operated” in several tiers; before the major components of skilled men were prepared, a grassroots army of generally unskilled foot soldiers, the poor, the elderly, and the young went forward under a charismatic but misguided mystic named Peter the Hermit. About 100,000 under Peter set out from France into the unknowns of Eastern Europe and eventually the lands around Constantinople, where a leery emperor Alexis kept them at arms’ length. The “peoples’ crusade,” or what was left of it after starvation and disease, was annihilated once it entered Muslim territory; it was in some ways a not-unexpected fate for an army that had massacred Jews throughout Europe on its march.
The numbers of “regular army” crusading soldiers are hard to specify, given that they were spread through multiple regional detachments, but German states alone sent 10,000 fighting warriors. Perhaps 75,000 actual troops made the trek with Constantinople as first stop. The actual fighting force, speaking as many as twenty languages, arrived in Constantinople where fault lines between the Eastern Empire and the Roman Catholics were intensifying. The rank-and-file Crusaders saw their focus as recovering Jerusalem; bailing out the Byzantine East was probably a purpose they had never been informed of. As a result, the First Crusade continued south through Moslem territory without promised help and supplies from Constantinople.
The European knights suffered terribly from heat and thirst in the Middle East, as well as the death of their horses. A key to the success of the campaign was the capture of Antioch (in modern Syria). The siege lasted a full year and though ultimately successful, had worn the suffering crusaders to less than 1500 to proceed the final grueling stretch. A hardened core army besieged the City of Jerusalem, and having entered the city, massacred all citizens with a violence that forever taints the word “Crusade.” The power of Islam had been broken for a time, but no one involved in the process felt the glory of the New Jerusalem. In fact, the conquering army was eager to return home, leaving one Godfrey of Bouillon and several hundred troops in charge of the new Kingdom of Jerusalem.
This new kingdom would not last, and three more major efforts would be made to establish a permanent Western Christian footing. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) would bring the original Crusading cause in general to ridicule. We will come back to Crusade IV later in discussion on the papacy. The First Crusade established a most unwelcome introduction to Western Christian heritage—the holy war. Had this Crusade been waged in a “chivalrous” fashion, it might have been tolerated as unavoidable. But Crusaders understood Pope Urban’s command as a call to arms of all non-Christian believers—particularly Jews. In Jerusalem the conquerors had killed Moslem, Jewish, and even Eastern Christian residents merciless with the idea that “God wills it.”
Just seven tears after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, various regions took up the sword again and opened a period known—in an oxymoron, as it turns out—as “The Wars of Religion” which killed at least 50,000,000 persons in Europe between 1524 and 1648. This figure far exceeds those killed in the Crusades—but the former had set the ground rules for the latter. Instead of saving souls in the land of Western Christianity, the sword would destroy them.
For those interested in running ahead, I recommend the multi-volume history of the Crusades by the British historian Sir Steven Runciman. For a close look at the First Crusade, the 2004 volume by Thomas Asbridge is excellent, though subsequent books have disputed his hypotheses on how the Crusades began.