In the early Christian Church, a martyr was a person put to death for refusing to renounce the Christian faith. The word martyr means “witness,” and martyrs bore their sufferings, even to death, as Christ’s witnesses. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, this concept was considerably developed and extended, and the crusades played a significant part in this process.
Martyrdom was part of the religious belief system of Western Christendom. In the Middle Ages the relics of martyrs were present on every altar, and martyrs were formally remembered every day in every monastery. Martyrdom was also a feature of stories of chivalry, such as the Chanson de Roland, which told of Emperor Charlemagne’s battles against the Moors of Spain, and thus it was part of the mentality of the arms-bearing elite: the knights whom the pope wished to enlist to fight against the Turks in 1095. The papacy had already been responsible for changes in the idea of martyrdom. The early martyrs had been passive figures, but from the ninth century on, some of those killed fighting Muslims or Vikings in defense of the church had been referred to as martyrs. In the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII had extended this usage to supporters who defended the papacy in its struggle against the abuse of simony as well as against the anti-pope. Pope Urban II was aware of this usage of martyrdom, and according to four accounts of his speech at the Council of Clermont (November 1095), he alluded to martyrdom in his address to the clergy and laity that inspired their participation in the First Crusade (1096-1099).
Contemporary accounts of the First Crusade refer to martyrdom, but it is interesting to note that the eyewitnesses do so less than those who did not go on crusade. Many of the references are in speeches and sermons of the crusade leaders made before battle and in other times of crisis. The same contemporary historians also associated martyrdom with two crises: the siege of Nicaea (1097) and the siege of Antioch (1098). Individuals, and sometimes groups of people who died during the expedition were believed to have achieved martyrdom, whether they died of disease like Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy, or were killed as noncombatants or as captives who refused to renounce Christianity (like Raynaud Porchet), or, most controversially, when they were killed on the battlefield, like the knight Roger of Barneville. Although there were precedents for warrior-martyrs, they were not plentiful before the First Crusade, and it has been debated whether the idea that crusaders who died in battle went straight to paradise became widely accepted only as a result of the crusade. Jonathan Riley-Smith suggested in the 1980s that it was not part of the preaching of the crusade, but became part of the crusaders’ consciousness once Asia Minor had been crossed. He also conjectured that this specialized concept of martyrdom was developed early in the twelfth century by nonparticipant writers of crusade narratives, particularly Guibert of Nogent.
The more widely accepted view is that martyrdom achieved through death in battle, or on campaign, was already an accepted idea before Urban preached at Clermont, and if he did not hold out the promise of this eternal reward, it was because the status of martyr could be given only by God (unlike the indulgence, which the pope could offer). During the First Crusade, the idea became fully formulated and accrued certain features. An important one was that the status of martyr was authenticated by the appearance of the candidate in a vision. This was true, for example, of Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy. At the Great Battle of Antioch (28 June 1098), accounts tell of visions of a host of martyred crusaders riding into the fray and assuring the victory of the Christians. With them were earlier soldier-martyrs, including St. George. It has been argued that the First Crusade made the martyred knight the norm, in contrast to the passive model of martyrdom that pertained earlier.
After the First Crusade, martyrdom became a constant element in warfare against unbelievers. There were visions of martyrs who appeared and worked miracles after the siege of Lisbon during the Second Crusade, for example. It became part of the propaganda for future crusades, as in the Old French Chanson d’Antioche: when the hero Rainald of Toul is dying on the battlefield, he plucks three blades of grass, swallows them, and invokes the Holy Trinity; then angels bear his soul to heaven, singing the Te Deum. The concept of martyrdom for those who died fighting against unbelievers was an aspect of “sanctified violence,” and its acceptance played a part in the development of the military orders, which sanctioned monks becoming warriors.