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November 27: The First Crusade

The First Crusade (1095)

Capture of Jerusalem

It was on this date, November 27, 1095, that Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. The purpose of the Crusade was to answer an appeal for help that Urban had received from the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Komnenos, to relieve the pressure by the Seljuk Turks on the Eastern Roman Empire, and to secure free access to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims.

That, anyway, is what we learn in school history books. Rude-but-obvious questions are not encouraged, such as: Why did God allow the Muslim Turks to take control of Palestine in the first place? And: Why couldn't the Pope ask God, rather than soldiers, to liberate the holy lands? The wealth of the Muslim occupiers and the relative poverty of the papacy are not stressed in popular accounts of the Crusades, either. But the expeditions to the so-called holy lands by soldiers bearing and wearing the cross are romanticized out of all relation to their historical function, context and purposes.

Some soldiers, surely, were attracted to the cause through religious fervor. But there were three stronger reasons why the First Crusade was joined. One was the booty to be carried home and another was simply a love of fighting in the brutalized Middle Ages. The third reason was a bit more complicated, but in the context of a Christendom that was 95 percent serfs — that is, little better than slaves — if enough booty could be captured on the Crusade, a good soldier might buy his freedom from the manor! "Famine and pestilence at home," says Barker, "drove men to emigrate hopefully to the Golden East."[1] Also, as Walsh put it, "for the lower classes in the West life had become almost intolerable because of the oppression of the nobles, the frequent wars, and the almost servile duties that feudalism enjoined."[2]

The nobles and leaders of the soldiers had their own purposes: they were "intent solely on their private interest ... that of carving out principalities for themselves," as the Cambridge Medieval History puts it.[3] Another historian says that "only of a few of the Crusaders can we predicate absolute purity of motive."[4]

As for the 60-year-old Urban's motives, there is little debate among serious historians. He saw an opportunity to subjugate the Greek Church to the sovereignty of Rome.[5] "The wealth of our enemies," he said in calling the First Crusade, "will be yours, and you will despoil them of their treasures."[6] And he tantalized his audience with the words, "the land is fruitful above others, like another paradise of delights."[7] Urban also described atrocities the Turks visited on the Greek Christians, which was a calculated lie. Since hardly anyone but priests could read, there was no way to verify the Pope's charges. And the Christian knights, who until this time killed each other with great relish, could now pursue their favorite hobby in the service of God.

Ironically, Urban II didn't live to learn of his victory: He died in 1099, and conquest was consummated only in 1101. It is generally agreed there were seven more crusades.[8] What remains unsettled is their benefits. On the plus side, the transit of soldiers revived trade with foreign lands, and the respite from the brutality of the lords gave the serfs a taste for freedom.

On the minus side, the Crusades are often touted as a harbinger of the revival of Europe from the intellectual slumber of the Dark Ages through contact with a higher civilization. In fact, it was peaceful contact with Spanish Muslims, not warfare with Palestinian Muslims, that awakened Europe. The only other benefit generally acknowledged is an enrichment of the Church of Rome, followed by extravagance, corruption, selling indulgences, massacres of religious dissenters, and the establishment of the Inquisition — a legacy of Innocent III, who called the Fourth Crusade, the one that sacked a Christian city!

[1] Edmund Henry Barker in Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Crusades", 11th Ed., 1911. [2] Robert Walsh, Encyclopaedia Americana, "Crusades," 1903-04. Dr. Walsh was pretty much a Catholic apologist, without any standing as a historian. [3] Cambridge Mediaeval History, 7 vols., 1924, vol. iv, p. 335. [4] Thomas A. Archer and Charles L. Kingsford, The Crusades:The Story of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Story of the Nations Series, 1894, p. 446. [5] Jacques Paul Migne, Latin Fathers to Innocent III, 217 vols., vol. 151, Col. 586. Another version (that of Balderic, archbishop of Dol, who wrote a century after the speech) reads, "The possessions of the enemy, too, will be yours, since you will make spoil of their treasures and return victorious to your own." (August. C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, Princeton: 1921, pp. 33-36.) Urban called the Crusade, according to one account, with the words, "All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested," which sounds suspiciously like the words Osama bin Laden might have used to call his "soldiers" to attack the US on September 11, 2001. (Bongars, Gesta Dei per Francos, 1, pp. 382 f., trans. in Oliver J. Thatcher, and Edgar Holmes McNeal, eds., A Source Book for Medieval History, New York: Scribners, 1905, pp. 513-17.) [6] Cambridge Mediaeval History, vol. iv, p. 599. [7] From the Fulk of Chartres version of the eyewitness accounts of Urban II's preaching of the First Crusade. [8] The Second Crusade (1145-47), headed by Louis VII, was a complete failure; the Third, led by Phillip Augustus and Richard the Lion-Hearted, the "splendid savage" (1189-92), ended in a truce with Saladin; the Fourth, preached by Innocent III (1204), simply appropriated the wealth of Christian Constantinople, but the soldiers refused to enter Palestine; the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) included the conquest and abandonment of Damietta (Dumyat) in Egypt; in the Sixth Crusade (1228-29), Frederick II negotiated, rather than taking his prize by force, and was excommunicated for his efforts; the Seventh and Eighth Crusades, under St. Louis, were failures.

Originally published November 2003.

2 comments on “November 27: The First Crusade”

  1. There wasn't any such thing as a palestinian in 1096. A Nazi trained terrorist called Arafat invented them in 1949.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. The only reference to “Palestinian” in my blog post on the First Crusade was in reference to Palestinian Muslims, which I believe did exist in 1096: That is, Muslims living in Palestine. I never represented that Palestinian in the modern sense existed in 1096 – although even before 1776, Native Americans were still arguable “Americans.” As for Arafat, he would have been 16 years old when the Nazis were wiped out. I don’t know where you get the idea that he was trained by Nazis. He was radicalized by Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

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