Nov. 27, 1095—Having already issued decrees over the
prior eight days that sought to curb simony, corruption and other deviations
from church practice, Pope Urban II electrified a crowd of thousands in
a French marketplace with a sermon calling for a continental military mission
to deliver Jerusalem from Moslem control.
Urban’s fervent summons to his listeners, a motley
group of priests, knights and peasants, spurred the Crusades, a series
of expeditions that not only lasted beyond the remaining four years of his
reign but into the 13th century.
The goal of reducing the geographic reach of Islam in
the Middle East was not achieved by all the subsequent massive expenditure of
blood and treasure. Nevertheless, as with the great majority of wars, it
produced unexpected consequences before the clash of arms faded.
A Hot Historical Debate
For centuries, the Western and Muslim worlds viewed
the Crusades through sharply different lenses, a result of each sphere’s
ethnocentricity. Increased contacts, rather than uniformly leading to greater
tolerance and understanding, often only highlighted these profound differences.
From the Western side, the origin of “Crusade” bears
witness to the religious fervor evoked by Pope Urban. The word blends the Middle
French croisade and the Spanish cruzada, with both ultimately derived
from the Latin cruc- or crux—i.e., “cross.” It was the symbol
of a faith encircled and under siege.
With the rise of multicultural studies, the term began
to take on more complicated overtones. Virtually nobody in the West blinked an
eye, for instance, when Dwight D. Eisenhower titled his 1948 memoir on
delivering Europe from Fascist tyranny Crusade in Europe.
But 53 years later—five days after 9/11—George W. Bush’s statement at a press conference referring to the war on terrorism as
“this crusade” was assailed by many progressives as an ignorant gaffe certain
to trigger the anger of an Islamic world with a long memory for ancient wrongs.
All of this has also, in the past 50 years, taken
place within the context of constant Mideast tensions and terror, an era in
which the much-discussed “clash of civilizations” has been accompanied by a
clash of historians. This historiographical debate has “long remained a
dialogue of the distinctly hard of hearing,” wrote historian Francis Robinson
in an essay on “Islam and the West” in the May 1986 issue of History Today
Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun and
commentator on comparative religion, epitomized the greater sympathy for Islam among
scholars with Islam: A Short History, a revisionist history which
argues that “it was Christians who had instigated a series of brutal holy wars
against the Muslim world.” In this and Holy War: The Crusades and Their
Impact on Today's World, she traced many ills of the 20th
century—including the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict—back to the
Revisionists such as Armstrong have been countered by
the late Cambridge historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, who argued that “the
original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression.” More important, Riley-Smith
and the school of historians who followed in his wake reappraised the scope and
longevity of the Crusades and the motives of the men who inspired and waged it.
The Council of Clermont: The Background and Fallout
The latter took their cue from Pope Urban, who
delivered his sermon--perhaps the most crucial of the Middle Ages--at the Council of Clermont in central France.
reforming pope in the tradition of his mentor, Pope Gregory VII, he had convened
this meeting in keeping with his longstanding vision of a church that would be “catholic,
chaste and free: catholic in faith and the communion of saints, chaste from all
contagion of evil, and free from all secular power.”
You will notice one word missing from this sentence: “collegial.”
For all his idealism, Urban was not particularly interested in hearing the
views of the 200 bishops present. He expected them to listen to and
obey his new strictures against clerical misconduct and amassing of power. When
finished with them, he turned to the princes of Europe, pointedly using the word “anathema” to warn them against interfering with church affairs.
But then he called for the great military mission in the Holy
Land, and the conference took a different turn altogether.
Urban spoke against a backdrop of spreading Islamic
military conquests and fractured Christian unity. The Byzantine Empire,
sundered politically and even religiously from the West, increasingly shrank in
the face of Muslim armies. Altogether, Islam held sway from the coast of modern
Portugal to the Hindu Kush. Even in Italy, Rome had been attacked twice and the
Emirate of Sicily had been established.
Then, early in 1095, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I made
a special appeal to Urban for help, citing Muslim atrocities and the reduction
of Christians to slavery and dhimmi (i.e., legal protection in exchange for loyalty
to the state and payment of taxes).
There was neither audiovisual equipment nor a
stenographer on hand to record Urban's exact words. But five eyewitness accounts passed down through the years mention the kind of abuses cited by
Alexius, including the following from Balderic, archbishop of Dol:
“Our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are
scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and the other cities
of the East. Your own blood brothers, your companions, your associates (for you
are sons of the same Christ and the same Church) are either subjected in their
inherited homes to other masters, or are driven from them, or they come as
beggars among us; or, which is far worse, they are flogged and exiled as slaves
for sale in their own land. Christian blood, redeemed by the blood of Christ,
has been shed, and Christian flesh, akin to the flesh of Christ, has been
subjected to unspeakable degradation and servitude. Everywhere in those cities
there is sorrow, everywhere misery, everywhere groaning (I say it with a sigh).
The churches in which divine mysteries were celebrated in olden times are now,
to our sorrow, used as stables for the animals of these people!”
The varying accounts agree that at the conclusion of
Urban’s address, the multitude of listeners took up the cry, “God wills it!”
Those who heeded Urban's call took the movement in
directions he could not halt. He had anticipated that knights would provide
the military force needed for the reconquest, but had not foreseen the
extent to which the entire populace would be called on to sustain it through provisioning
or, more actively, through taking up arms. (Eventually, an army of between
60,000 and 100,000 was raised.)
Moreover, Urban regarded this mission as so all-consuming
that he extended a plenary indulgence (the remission of all
penance for sin) to those who aided Christians in the East. He never foresaw how
these indulgences would undermine his objective of ridding the Church of
abuses, furnishing a major cause for the Protestant Reformation.
The army Urban called into being was big enough to eventually
take Jerusalem on the first crusade, but with so many undisciplined recruits, it seized lands and wantonly killed on the way to the Holy Land. Urban died in 1099, before
the news of the military success and abuse of power could make its way back to him.
The Crusades, however, survived him, because those
initial gains were lost. It took centuries before weariness and
disillusion finally wore down the will to sustain the struggle, prompting bitter laments
like this from Renaissance scholar-philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam in his Consultatio (1530):
“Every time that this farce has been acted out by the
popes, the result has been ridiculous. Either nothing came of it, or the cause
actually deteriorated. The money, people say, stays stuck to the hands of the
popes, cardinals, monks, dukes, and princes. Instead of the wages, the ordinary
soldier is given license to pillage. So many times we have heard the
announcement of a crusade, of the recovery of the Holy Land; so many times we
have seen the red cross surmounted on the papal tiara, and the red chest; so
many times we have attended solemn gatherings and heard lavish promises,
splendid deeds, the most sweeping expectations. And yet the only winner has
been money. We are informed by the proverb that it is shameful to hit yourself
on the same stone twice; so how can we trust such promises, however splendid, when we have been
tricked more than thirty times, misled so often and so openly?”
Many Far-Ranging Consequences
Nevertheless, no different than other movements of
such widespread and long-lasting influence, the Crusades produced multiple, diverse
*A redrawn map of Europe. Riley-Smith and the
historians he influenced encouraged seeing the Crusades as more than the merely
eight (or, by some counts, nine) that had been traditionally counted. A
chronology in a work he edited, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, also used the word “crusade” in places like Spain, Germany, Estonia,
Finland, and Poland—where Muslim armies threatened. The Christian reconquest of
Spain in 1492 may have been the most important, as it allowed King Ferdinand
and Queen Isabella to use money formerly allocated for military purposes to Christopher
Columbus’ transformative first voyage to the New World later that year.
*The formation of a broader European identity. The
creation of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne in the year 800 attempted
to provide a unity on the continent that had been missing since the fall of the
Roman Empire. But the threat of a common enemy fostered cooperation, however inconsistent
and faltering, among quarreling princes.
*Stronger papal leadership. Gregory VII’s
conflict with Emperor Henry IV represented a watershed moment in church-state
relations on the continent. Urban’s assumption of moral leadership expanded on
the perilous foothold his predecessor had maintained. Subsequent popes
continued to leverage their moral authority and expanded their diplomatic and
even military influence.
*Absentee leadership at the national level. Campaigns
involving leading armies across vast areas, laying siege to Muslim strongholds,
and negotiating peace terms meant that European monarchs were out of their
country for long stretches of time. In the meantime, they had to deputize
others to act in their stead, sometimes with deleterious results. Prince John,
for instance, schemed against Chancellor William Longchamp while John’s older brother
Richard the Lionheart was fighting the Third Crusade.
*A heavier taxation burden to finance expeditions.
Then as now, long wars were exorbitant. The Crusades not only involved the
normal provisioning of a mass army but dealing with the unexpected fortunes of
war. (The capture of Louis IX of France while on his first crusade in 1250 brings
new meaning to the term “king’s ransom.” In the end, historian Simon Lloyd
estimates, expenses for Louis’s crusades amounted to roughly 12 times the
monarch’s budgetable annual income.) Although exploitation of material rights
and possessions may have helped, greater secular and ecclesial taxes were
required to fill the gap—engendering natural resentment.
*The mass involvement of all segments of society in
the war effort. It wasn’t simply the soldiers who sustained the war, but
financiers, preachers, cooks, and wives.
*Poisoned Christian-Jewish relations. The first
pogrom in Western European history occurred from December 1095 to July 1096, with
Crusaders attacking Jewish communities in Germany and France. Over time, such
outbreaks became more frequent and worrisome.
*Heavy casualties. Andrew Holt, a
historian out of Florida State College, is certainly correct in using the word “futility”
to describe any attempt to pinpoint the number of casualties in the
Crusades when the estimates range wildly, from one to nine million. But there
is a larger point that can be fairly made: the loss in life (and, for the
wounded, diminished subsequent lives) was enormous for Christians, Muslims and
*Improved medical practices. Western medics brought
back with them what they learned about trauma during the Crusades. In addition,
subsequent hospital practices were heavily influenced by what was learned in
dealing with the wounded.
*Greater trade. Merchants passed often between
Damascus and the Christian port of acre. Mamluk sultans eventually traded with
Venice and Genoa.
knowledge of lands beyond one’s community. One of the interesting aspects
of American history is the way in which service personnel who had never been
outside their towns or cities were exposed through the Civil War and World Wars
I and II into areas thousands of miles away. They never forgot what they saw
there. Documentation is far sparser for the Crusades than these latter conflicts.
But it is hard to believe that the soldiers in the Crusades, who were considerably
more isolated than later soldiers, were not similarly transformed by their experiences.