4.1.1. The First Crusade

4.1.1. The First Crusade

The crusades were a series of military and religious campaigns carried out by a good part of Catholic Europe, especially by Frankish kings and Holy Roman emperors. The crusades were a reaction to the Muslim conquest of the Near East at the time of the Rashidun Caliphate. Thus, they were meant to restore the Christian control over Jerusalem and Antioch (regions generically called the “Kingdom of Heaven”). The crusades were carried out over a period of approximately 200 years, between 1095 and 1291. However, crusading campaigns were also carried out in Spain and Eastern Europe until the 15th century against the pagan Slavs, the Jews, the Mongols, the Cathars, the Hussites, the Waldensians and other political enemies of the Papacy.

Ever since Islam arose in the 7th century, Christians constantly lost territories in favor of the new religion. When the crusade was preached for the first time, Muslims had already conquered the largest part of the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Islam threatened to destroy the Byzantine Empire and to invade the old continent. On the other side of the barricade, the idea of a single offensive formed from the combined efforts of all Christian nations meant to free Jerusalem and to secure pilgrimage routes was not new. But until the end of the 11th century there was no initiator and a favorable political context.

The First Crusade was the most intense, the longest and the only one to achieve its intended goals. The immediate cause of the First Crusade was the call for help of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I to Pope Urban II at the Council of Piacenza in 1095. Previously, in 1071, the Byzantine Empire was defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert, occasion on which it lost almost the entire territory of Asia Minor. Although attempts of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church failed, the call of the Byzantine emperor and the idea of a crusade were welcome by the pope. Besides the fact that Alexius humiliated himself in front of him through his request for help, a crusade had the potential of bringing the Orient under the political and religious control of the Papacy.

In July 1095 Urban went to France to recruit men for the expedition. His journeys culminated with the Council of Clermont in November, where, in front of a large audience of French nobles and clerics, he offered an ardent sermon. There are several versions of Urban’s speech,226 all written posterior to the crusade, and each insists on certain aspects. But only the version of Guibert, abbot of Nogent, used apocalyptic elements:

For it is clear that Antichrist is to do battle not with the Jews, not with the Gentiles; but, according to the etymology of his name, he will attack Christians. And if Antichrist finds there no Christians (just as at present when scarcely any dwell there), no one will be there to oppose him, or whom he may rightly overcome. According to Daniel and Jerome, the interpreter of Daniel, he is to fix his tents on the Mount of Olives; and it is certain, for the apostle teaches it, that he will sit at Jerusalem in the Temple of the Lord, as though he were God. And according to the same prophet, he will first kill three kings of Egypt, Africa, and Ethiopia, without doubt for their Christian faith. This, indeed, could not at all be done unless Christianity was established where now is paganism. If, therefore, you are zealous in the practice of holy battles, in order that, just as you have received the seed of knowledge of God from Jerusalem, you may in the same way restore the borrowed grace, so that through you the Catholic name may be advanced to oppose the perfidy of the Antichrist and the Antichristians ... These times, most beloved brothers, will now, forsooth, be fulfilled, provided the might of the pagans be repulsed through you, with the co-operation of God. With the end of the world already near, even though the Gentiles fail to be converted to the Lord (since according to the apostle there must be a withdrawal from the faith), it is first necessary, according to the prophecy, that the Christian sway be renewed in those regions, either through you, or others, whom it shall please God to send before the coming of Antichrist, so that the head of all evil, who is to occupy there the throne of the kingdom, shall find some support of the faith to fight against him. Consider, therefore, that the Almighty has provided you, perhaps, for this purpose, that through you He may restore Jerusalem from such debasement. Ponder, I beg you, how full of joy and delight our hearts will be when we shall see the Holy City restored with your little help, and the prophet’s, nay divine, words fulfilled in our times.227

The pope depicted the crusade as the apocalyptic war between two religions, promising to those who would die in the crusade the immediate forgiveness of sins. In a world dominated by chaos and unlawfulness, for any God-fearing man the forgiveness of sins was an irresistible opportunity to escape from the eternal punishment of Hell. Urban’s speech had an incredible impact on the audience, best illustrated in the version of Robert the Monk: “When Pope Urban had said these and very many similar things in his urbane discourse, he so influenced to one purpose the desires of all who were present, that they cried out, ‘It is the will of God! It is the will of God!’”228 The people took death oaths that they would deliver the Holy Sepulcher, they thronged to kiss the hand of the pope and of his representative, and they stitched on their chest a cross to signal that they became “soldiers of the Church.”

The crusade was perceived in various ways, depending on the intellectual, religious or social background. For some, including the pope, the crusade was a purely experimental military expedition, a gamble that could bring riches and political power. For others, gullible or religious fanatics, the crusade had a cosmic dimension, being associated with the gathering of nations for the final battle of Armageddon. For others, poor or tormented by feelings of guilt, the crusade was a great opportunity for escaping the hardships of everyday life or for the forgiveness of sins. And last but not least, for impostors such as Peter the Hermit the crusade was a good occasion for gathering followers and gaining power and money.

Originary from Amiens, Peter the Hermit is a clear example of how the traumas of a single individual can send to death tens of thousands of people. In Alexiad, Anna Comnena, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I, says that prior to 1069 Peter the Hermit made a pilgrimage alone to the Holy Land, where he was captured by the Turks and subjected to degrading treatments and terrible tortures. Abused and shamefully returned home, Peter the Hermit sought opportunity for revenge. It is not clear if he was present at the Council of Clermont, but it is certain that Peter the Hermit was the most ardent preacher of the crusade in the French regions. Comnena describes Peter the Hermit as a stubborn man with the power of persuasion, a charismatic monk and a powerful orator, who did not hesitate using others to reach his goals.229 He had the appearance of a shabby old man, dressed extremely simple, without ever wearing shoes and living only on fish and wine. He traveled large distances on the back of a donkey, and when he preached he carried a huge cross, imitating the image of Christ taunted by sinners. Peter the Hermit lied that Christ revealed himself to him at the Holy Sepulcher and he even possessed an alleged letter from Heaven, in which it was written that God had given him power, glory and protection, and people had to obey him. He enjoyed such great popularity that it is not clear if he or Urban II was the real initiator of the crusade.230

The pope’s audience was formed mainly of clerics and nobles with military and financial resources. After his call, the nobles retreated to their places to prepare themselves. The official march was set to start on August 15, 1096. But, due to the propaganda of Peter the Hermit and other charismatic figures, an unexpected number of peasants and knights left on their own a few months earlier. The answer was beyond expectations: instead of a couple of thousands organized knights, Jerusalem became the destination of a veritable migration of over 40,000 crusaders, most of them ordinary men, including women and children.231

In order to make the crusade even more appealing, the Council of Clermont freed the crusaders of any taxation, serfs were allowed to leave the land they were bound to, prisoners were released, death sentences were commuted, or the debtors who enrolled in the campaign could no longer be chased by their creditors. In addition, many years before 1096 the population was affected by thirst, famine and diseases, and thus many of them saw the crusade as an opportunity to free themselves of these difficulties. Accordingly, the first forces that headed east were not armies, but crowds of undisciplined people, untrained and without any experience of war. Driven by feelings of euphoria and urgency, the hordes of peasants did not wait for the professional armies of knights to lead the way, but they left without provisions or weapons. On their own or under the guidance of a charismatic figure, the first crusaders had no idea where they were going. In fact, many of them were people with a bad reputation, outcasts of society, charlatans, thieves, beggars, loiterers, prostitutes, old men, adventurers, fugitives or ex-convicts – Europe’s offscourings. Looting and destroying while on the move, they were nothing but a swarm of scoundrels.232

The instantaneity and the amplitude of the movement had a very interesting effect on the crowds of illiterates. The crusade – a concept never experienced before – created a psychological unity that gave the impression of a miracle. This holy adventure was assembled not by the pope, but by God himself; as the nation of Israel was called to battle by God through the voice of the prophets, in the same way the nations of Europe were summoned to the crusade through the voice of the pope. The crusaders filled the roads, more than the grains of sand or the stars in the sky, carrying green branches of celebration or crosses on their shoulders to imitate the passions of Christ. They compared themselves to the 70 apostles of Jesus (after the Ascension) who traveled without stick, without money and without provisions of water and food. From beggars to nobles, or from illiterates to scholars, few people were able to resist the temptation of being part of something huge, something that was out of this material world, but of the spiritual world, a duty to God. And charismatic figures such as Peter the Hermit offered exactly this chance. This was the People’s Crusade, the first part of the First Crusade.

Theoretically, the idea of crusade involved a holy war meant to bring the Holy Land under Christian control. Practically, the crusades proved to be a heavy slap on Christ’s face. Preaching the holy war inevitably ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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