One of the larger more bloody mistakes in our long and war ridden history, the crusades presents itself uniquely to modern audiences not only for its gore but for its origins. Unlike other wars fought for land, power, and wealth, the crusades were fought for a belief. Unlike other wars, the crusades were lead by the significant other of the monarchies – the monasteries and the popes lead these wars for once. Although the idea began beautifully, like most beliefs, it was abused, falsified, and corrupted over time in order for those with out religion but with wealth to exploit those without wealth but with religious ardor (Bishop, 90).
The situation of the people at the time of the High Middle Ages was full of religious passion but that faith was often checked and questioned. The holy lands were held by ‘infidels’ and some of the more prominent places in Europe were being taken over by those they considered faithless – Spain was held by the Moors, Sicily was controlled by Muslims. Even within their borders, those who ruled them were often faithless and excommunicated, and, like France, were up to its neck in feudalistic problems. Up north in Scandinavia, Vikings were also pillaging Normandy on a frequent basis but were slowly, along with Western Europe, converting to Christianity. On the eve of the crusades, before Pope Urban II gave his famous speech, most of the royalty of Europe were in a less than participatory manner. Mayer (pg. 2) sums up the state of the primary players as such: “Philip I of France had been excommunicated and 1094 for sending his wife, Bertha, packing. William Rufus of England, a son of William the Conqueror, was still preoccupied with the consolidation of Norman power in England. His policies, anyway, were usually extremely anti-clerical. North Italy was caught up in the imperial-papal struggle; South Italy had only recently been subjugated by the Normans who had driven out the Byzantines and Saracens. IN the Iberian Peninsula, the kings of Astoria-Leon, Navarre, Aragon, and Portugal were all engaged in expelling the Muslims.” (Mayer 2).
Already, with the kings in such a state of disorder, one would think that the last thing they’d need is a disruptive crusade. However, the taking of land had already begun and, like colonialism later, everyone wanted in on some of the reclaiming of land in both the Byzantium empires and a piece of the holy land. The Normans, in 1071, had captured the Kingdom of Sicily which was controlled by Muslims at the time. The fight against the Moors in Spain had progressed but wouldn’t be successful until the late 1400s. With more Christians than ever, along with the conversion of several countries in Europe and a more open route, pilgrimages had had a rise in popularity. More than ever, people began to travel to Palestine to be in the land where Jesus, Mary and the apostles lived. As punishment to sinners, their confessors would send them on pilgrimages to distant holy sites, distances depending on the severity of the sin. It may be to some local shrine, like Canterbury, a more distant shrine, such as St James in Spain or St. Paul in Rome, or, the hardest, longest, most meritorious of all was the holy land (Thompson, 520). One would think that the common folk would be satisfied with a holy land they could reach peacefully (many went unarmed) even though it was owned by the Turks. However, through propaganda instilled by Pope Urban II, their allowances to the Turks soon turned to bitter hatred and bigotry. This is where the flame of the crusades got its first spark.
At this time it was decided by Pope Urban II that, like popes before him, to further his power and political influence over his Christian subjects and his royal ones. He was not as interested in freeing the holy land from the Turks as he was the chance to lead a powerful army comprised of kings and peasants alike. He then, taking advantage of the popularity of pilgrimages, appealed to the French as a Frenchman and Pope in one by flattering their race, nation, and history. This was the council of Clermont where the Pope said such things as that the Turks destroy alters, circumcise Christians, torture people, and perforate their navels and certain floggings to disgusting to repeat. He then told them quite plainly that the land they will conquer has very little resources . He then contradicts himself to call it the land, as stated in the Bible, that floweth with milk and honey. He then, hitting the driving nail, described the crusades as an escape from their feudalistic private wars. “You, girt about with the badge of knighthood, are arrogant with great pride you rage against your brothers and cut each other in pieces…You, the oppressors of children, plunderers of widows, you guilty of homicide, of sacrilege, robbers of another’s rights; you who await the pay of thieves for the shedding of Christian blood – as vultures smell fetid corpses, so do you sense battles from afar and rush to them eagerly… If , forsooth, you wish to be mindful of your souls, either lay down the girdle of such knighthood or advance boldly, as knights of Christ, and rush as quickly as you can to the defense of the Eastern Church.” (Krey 30)
This struck home to those who had done exactly what the Pope described and for the first time in their lives of power and control, they felt fear for their immortal soul. Now that he had the nobility under his control, all that was left were the kings of Europe to join. Many were religious enough to see the appeal of a crusade but their greed and power was mostly the cause of this religious zeal. Urban II knew of these ambitions that they had and their excommunications didn’t help their relations with their subjects (who were much more religious) so he granted that a journey to Jerusalem for the crusades would “take the place of all penance” to insure immortal life. However, despite the promises made for the after life, few noble leaders joined the first crusade. However, the brothers of the kings, those petty princes, took up their countries flags and lead the crusades, such as “Count Robert of Flanders, Duke Robert of Normandy, who mortgaged his duchy to his brother King William Rufus to raise the money to go, Count Hugh of Vermandois, brother of Philip I, and Count Stephen of Blois, the future King of England.” (Thompson 524). Most of the armies itself comprised of the lower sorts of people – criminals escaping punishment, sinners forced to march along, serfs under control of their crusading lords, and the religious zealot that leaves his wife, kids and farm to kill as many infidels as possible. It was mostly the French and Southern Italians who went on the crusades with small number of compatriots from Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and other such countries.
Bishop, Morris. The Middle Ages.
New York: American Heritage Press, 1970
Mayer, Hans E. The Crusades
London: Oxford University Press, 1972
Thompson, James W. An Introduction to medieval Europe, 300-150
New York: WW. Norotn & Company, inc. 1937
Previte-Orton, Chalres W. The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1952
Krey, A.C The First Crusade
Peter Smith Publications Inc. 1986