The sign of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and principal symbol of the Christian faith was associated with the crusade movement from its very inception. At the Council of Clermont (1095), which set in motion the First Crusade (1096-1099), Pope Urban II decreed that all those going to fight on behalf of their fellow Christians in the East should wear the sign of the cross. The use of the cross as the special sign of the crusader was immediately taken up with great enthusiasm as Urban’s appeal found adherents all over the West.
The attachment of a cross to clothing or armor came to be the most visible and popular outward expression of the intention to go on crusade, so much so that “to take the cross” effectively meant the same as to take a crusade vow. The cross was normally made of cloth and sewn onto the prospective crusader’s outer garments, in preference on the right shoulder or between the shoulders. Cloth crosses were usually prepared beforehand but might be improvised from any suitable material as circumstances demanded. After the Norman Bohemund of Taranto announced his intention to join the First Crusade on hearing Urban II’s appeal while at the siege of Amalfi, he tore up his own red cloak to make crosses for those of his followers who wished to join him. When the charismatic Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade (1147-1149) at Vézélay in France in March 1146, it produced such an overwhelming response that he was obliged to hand over his own outer clothing to meet the immediate huge demand for crosses.
The cross of cloth seems to have been most frequently made of red material at first, but other colors were used, sometimes for purposes of differentiation. During the organization for the Third Crusade (1189-1192), it was decided to reserve colors to specific contingents of crusaders: red for the French, white for the English, and green for the Flemings. Crosses of cloth were not the only means of identification used by the crusaders, however: some simply painted the sign of the cross on their breasts or foreheads. Others, particularly in the atmosphere of fervent piety that characterized many popular crusades, had it branded on their shoulders or foreheads. It was this practice that probably gave rise to reports that the corpses of some dead crusaders found in 1097 had been marked with crosses by some miraculous agency.
The act of taking the cross remained largely informal during the twelfth century and to some extent in the thirteenth. Many crusaders seem to have “crossed themselves”: although the frequency of terminology relating to “self-crossing” expressed the volitional and determinant role of the individual, it also reflected the prevalence of that practice. When the cross was indeed received by would-be crusaders, they usually preferred to accept it from ecclesiastics and in ecclesiastical venues, but it was also given by secular persons and in nonecclesiastical contexts. The cross given on such occasions was usually the insignia subsequently sewn on the crusader’s clothes, but in some cases a cross was handed over momentarily as a foretoken of that insignia, as in the case (in some accounts) of the taking of the cross by Louis IX, king of France. No regular formal ceremony of “taking” or “giving” the cross is documented prior to the late twelfth century, and the public venues described were usually characterized by disorderly ecstasy and inspired improvisation.
A more specialized use of the cross occurred in the insignia of the military religious orders, founded to provide permanent fighting forces to protect pilgrims and to defend Christian territories in Outremer, Iberia, and the Baltic region. Almost all of the orders used the sign of the cross on their surcoats and banners, with variations in form and colors. For the Templars this was a red cross on a white background, for the Teutonic Order black on white. The Hospitallers used a white cross on black and also white on red; the original simple form developed into the distinctive Maltese Cross, with four expanding arms ending in eight points. Crosses also figured in the insignia of the military orders of the Iberian Peninsula.
The most tangible use of the cross as a symbol of crusading occurred in the context of the veneration of relics associated with the crucifixion of Christ. One particle of the True Cross was discovered after the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099. Set within a larger metal cross, this fragment was regularly venerated and displayed in liturgical ceremonies in Jerusalem up to the time of its loss at the battle of Hattin, but it was also carried into battle with the armies of the kingdom of Jerusalem, thereby combining the functions of battle standard and talismanic relic.
The cross as crusader’s symbol was charged with various meanings. It was perceived (often simultaneously) as an imitation of the cross carried by Christ, a sign and memorial of the Passion, a mark of the true discipleship of Christ, a pilgrimage badge, a mark of inclusion in an order or a privileged status similar to the emblem of knighthood, a guarantee of defense and protection, a military sign and a sign of military victory identical to the Triumphant Cross shown in a vision to Emperor Constantine the Great, and, finally, as an example and means of influencing the pusillanimous. The primacy of pilgrimage in this complex is best illustrated by the prevalent contemporary opinion that a crusader’s vow was deemed to be fulfilled only after he had visited the holy places or died as a martyr on the way.