The Crusade of 1309 was the first popular crusading movement after the fall of the city of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) to the Mamlûks in 1291. Particularly in the Low Countries and northern France and Germany, popular enthusiasm was kindled by the prospect of a new crusade and the desire to participate in it. Clearly, this demonstrates that more than a decade after the loss of the Holy Land, crusading fervor among the Latin Christian populace was far from extinguished.
Also known as the “Crusade of the Poor,” it began as a direct popular response to official crusade preaching. Pope Clement V intended to promote a first-stage, limited crusade to the East (Lat. passagium particulare), which was to be restricted to the Order of the Hospital. Bulls were issued in August 1308 for a crusade that was originally intended to depart in the spring of 1309, but which was then deferred until the autumn of that year. In June and July, Clement urged the friars responsible for preaching the crusade north of the Alps to excite the faithful to contribute funds and offer up prayers for the success of the forthcoming expedition. Generous indulgences were promised for those contributing cash or legacies to the new venture. Because this was not meant to be an all-inclusive, full-scale crusade (Lat. passagium generale), the laity were not supposed to take the cross, let alone participate overseas in actual combat. Their role in the crusade was to provide funds, prayerful sup- port—and nothing more.
Not for the first time, the church succeeded brilliantly in whipping up overwhelming popular enthusiasm for a crusade, only to fail to channel that enthusiasm, once aroused, in the desired direction. Consequently, from the spring of 1309, hordes of people (tens of thousands of them in some perhaps inflated estimates) headed for the papal court at Avignon, presumably hoping to combine their forces with the army of Hospitallers. A minority sought ships to take them down the Danube. According to the well-placed annalist of Ghent, “countless common people” (Lat. innumerabiles vulgares) “from England, Picardy, Flanders, Brabant, and Germany, taking the cross without consulting the bishops, set off to conquer the Holy Land” [translation adapted from AnnalesGandenses, ed. and trans. Hilda Johnstone (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), p. 97]. The largest contingent was most probably the Germans. Several chroniclers affirm that these unwelcome recruits had taken the cross. This is significant, for it indicates that they perceived themselves as authentic crusaders. The chroniclers further report that they referred to themselves as “Brothers of the Cross,” which seems to imply that they felt they belonged to some kind of self-proclaimed military order like the Hospitallers.
Women as well as men joined the troops of enthusiasts, whose declared aim was to cross the sea and regain the Holy Land. The chroniclers agree that nearly all these “Brothers of the Cross” came from the lower ranks of society. The great majority of them, so the chroniclers say, were destitute, landless peasants, rural laborers, and impoverished urban artisans such as tailors and furriers. Still, among them there were also well-to-do burgesses from northwestern German towns. Moreover, it is possible that a scattering of knights was tempted to enter the ranks of these impecunious crusaders. Yet, if this was the case, they provided no leaders, for several chroniclers stress that this vast throng of popular crusaders was headless (Lat. sine capite), that is, leaderless.
Unable to provide for themselves en route, the pauperes (poor men) of 1309 were forced to beg for Christian charity. At times, charity was freely given; at other times, it was extorted, or simply seized. Outbreaks of violence thus occurred along their line of march. Predictably, the Jews became a special target for the rapacious crusaders. At the castle of Born, north of Maastricht, they attacked and reportedly killed as many as 110 Jews from the surrounding region who had taken refuge there. Similar threats and raids against the Jews of Leuven and Tienen terrified the Jews of Brabant. Their protector, Duke John II of Brabant, who had an economic interest in their well-being, allowed them to take shelter in his castle of Genappe. Audaciously, the crusaders besieged it, but a ducal army came to the rescue, and the assailants fled with heavy losses.
Although some of these paupers may have reached Marseilles, the climax of the Crusade of 1309 occurred in July, when a great multitude of unsummoned, and thus illicit, crusaders arrived at the papal residence in Avignon. It is said that they asked the pontiff to declare a full-scale crusade, which would have had the effect of legitimizing them. Estimates of their numbers range from 30,000 to 40,000. It is noteworthy that the outright hostility of the clerical chroniclers does not seem to have been shared by the pope. Indeed, Clement V never condemned the movement. Instead, on 25 July, he granted an indulgence of 100 years to all the German faithful who had assumed the cross, together with those who sponsored them, and who vowed to assist the Holy Land but were unable to carry out their pilgrimage due to their lack of ships. The Hospitallers certainly must have rejected their advances and refused to transport them. So, comments the annalist of Ghent, “they returned in confusion to their own homes” [Annales Gandenses, p. 97]. This seems to have been the universal verdict of the chroniclers, who pronounced the movement vain and empty, and from which few returned.
In early 1310 the Hospitaller fleet sailed out of Brindisi in southeastern Italy. Their crusade achieved very little, aside from enabling the Hospitallers to consolidate their power in Rhodes (mod. Rodos, Greece). Aided by the Genoese, the Hospitallers had begun the conquest of the island in 1306, and by 1311 their hold was secure. Rhodes was admirably positioned as a platform for further crusading activities in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Hospitallers retained it until 1523.
Altogether, the Crusade of the Hospitallers and the popular Crusade of 1309, two diverse ventures originating from the same papal summons, exhibit a striking parallelism, almost as if they were mirror images of one another. A papal crusade purpose-built for specially selected, professional warrior-monks had been preached to the laity, who then responded, not with handsome donations, but with their own unauthorized crusade of self-selected, nonmilitary people, both male and female. No unified passagium generale resulted, but calls for a crusade continued to have unanticipated echoes.