Post-classical history


The reasons that so many people went on crusade have been discussed by historians since the time of the First Crusade (1096-1099). No single explanation will suffice for all ranks of society and over such a long period, but generally historians have favored either economic or religious motivation as the driving force.

Crusade expeditions have been interpreted as migration from a western Europe under severe pressure from a growing population. The period of the earlier crusades saw the growth of towns and cities and the bringing of marginal lands under cultivation. Since land was the basis of wealth and status, competition for it was intense, and this competition was exacerbated by the widespread adoption of inheritance customs, such as primogeniture, that were intended to prevent the fragmentation of family lands. It was once argued that many of the combatants were landless younger sons looking to make their fortunes in Outremer. However, the systematic study of participants has shown that most were well established in their homelands and undertook the expedition with the intention of returning at the end of it. Furthermore, crusading was costly for a knight: he had to equip himself with arms and armor, and to take with him servants and pack animals for whom he would have to provide throughout the campaign. This capital expenditure might amount to five times his annual income and could only be achieved through selling or mortgaging land. The prospect of realizing any return on this investment was small.

Peasants and humbler participants in the early expeditions had much less to lose by going on crusade, and they were much less provident in their preparations. The trouble they caused when they set out in 1096, by looting supplies in the market towns they passed through, is evidence of this. Some of them may well have been motivated by hopes of a better life, for the harvest in 1095 was the last in a series of poor ones affected by drought. Nevertheless it is doubtful that such economic motivation was enough on its own to take them all the way to Jerusalem: it is probable that the hardships of the long march led many to desert, and those who remained with the expedition were motivated in other ways.

Crusaders prepare for war. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Crusaders prepare for war. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Religious faith was at least part of most people’s motivation to go on crusade. When he preached at Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II used certain themes that tapped into popular Christian beliefs. The most potent of these themes was the appeal to deliver Jerusalem from the hands of the infidels. Jerusalem, the city where Jesus Christ had lived and died, was the most important of pilgrimage centers. For some 750 years, pilgrims had traveled to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the spiritual journey of a lifetime. In the eleventh century, there was a widespread interest in relics, which intensified the desire to journey to shrines both local and distant. To see the city that had witnessed the most important events of the Gospels was the greatest of these pilgrimages, and there are accounts of thousands going together on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for example, in 1064-1065. However, access to the important site of the Holy Sepulchre became difficult during the Saljûq occupation of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the eleventh century, and there were emotive accounts of attacks on Christian pilgrims.

Thus, quite simply, crusading was for some an opportunity to complete the greatest pilgrimage; for others the idea of making safe the routes to Outremer was an incentive. This was as true for the lesser people as for the arms bearers: Peter the Hermit evidently told his own story of being beaten up near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and of his interview with the patriarch of Jerusalem, who appealed for help to protect and defend the shrine. It is also probable that some participants were inspired by millenarian ideas; there had been a widespread expectation that, as told in the Book of Revelation (20:2-7), there would be the Second Coming after a thousand years. It had not happened, and one explanation was that Jerusalem was not in Christian hands, and Christ would not come again until it was. The importance of a Christian Jerusalem can be seen at the time of the Third Crusade (1189-1192): the capture of the city by Saladin roused the people of western Europe to an armed response after some forty years, following the Second Crusade (1147-1149), in which crusading activity had been desultory.

The idea of crusading as a development of pilgrimage was encouraged by the granting of the papal indulgence. For many, pilgrimages had been undertaken as penitential journeys, which they made in the hope or expectation that by undergoing suffering on earth they could offset punishment after death. Popes, starting with Urban II at the Council of Clermont, declared that undertaking a crusade was sufficient penance for all the sins of an individual, whether he died on the expedition or survived. In an age when people had a clear concept of sin, this indulgence offered an escape from the inevitability of an afterlife where all their sins would be punished for a finite time in purgatory, or ultimately by everlasting torment in hell. For some individuals, perhaps many, the hardships of the expedition and even a violent end were prices worth paying for admission to heaven after death. By granting indulgences, popes stressed the penitential nature of the campaigns, and this meant that they could not limit recruitment to arms bearers only; women, clerics, the elderly, and children wanted to participate in them, probably welcoming the new idea of a pilgrimage under armed escort, for traditionally pilgrims had not born weapons.

Pope Urban II could not prohibit the participation of noncombatants, but it was not his intention to encourage them, and in the proclamation of the first crusade expedition he was very specific in the language he used to elicit the response he wanted. He appealed to the pride of the knights of the West and invited them to wield their weapons in the cause of Christendom. This “sanctified violence” was a deliberate departure from the idea of pilgrimage, and it had its critics from the beginning of the crusading movement. But the radical idea of fighting, killing, and dying to liberate the holy places of Jerusalem and the oppressed Eastern Christians was a powerful motivator to a particular social stratum: the lords and knightly ranks. Urban II himself came from such a background and well understood how to couch his appeal.

From the pope’s point of view, a crusade was a way of harnessing the aggressive energies of the secular lords and directing them away from the disruption of order and justice in their localities. The papacy in its reformed vigor of the eleventh century had previously played a similar political role by preaching the Peace of God and the Truce of God, both attempts to curb the violent behavior of the knightly ranks. The effectiveness of this new appeal was immediately seen, not only in the numbers of knights who took the cross, but also in the way they set about preparing for their departure by resolving disputes with their neighbors and eliciting the protection of local ecclesiastical and monastic foundations for their lands and families for the duration of the expedition. These transactions are preserved in many charters of the period. From the knights’ point of view it is easy to see the attraction of the pope’s proposition: they were trained for fighting and very little else; now for the first time they were invited to fight with divine approval, as expressed in the papal indulgence.

When a lord decided to go on crusade, his household would be expected to follow him: although for each of them it was technically a free choice, the bonds of loyalty were strong. Thus even a relatively obscure knight would be accompanied by a squire, and probably at least one body servant and a groom, whose freedom to go or stay was inhibited by their social conditioning. Although throughout the crusades successive popes discouraged the participation of women, they are often recorded as accompanying their fathers and husbands, and again this reflects society’s expectations of them, which were submission and obedience rather than independence and exercise of choice. Very few women can be identified who made autonomous decisions to go on crusade, and fewer still traveled without the protection of a male family member. Feudal and familial loyalty accounts for the motivation of many among the upper ranks of the crusading expeditions.

Within this same milieu, there is strong evidence for the evolution of family traditions of crusading. News of the preaching of crusade was spread rapidly along family communication lines, incidentally highlighting the important role women played in both transmitting the message and in fostering enthusiasm to respond. Among participants in the early crusades can be found several kinship groups: arms bearers linked by blood or by marriage. Preeminent examples in the first decades of the crusades are the brothers Godfrey of Bouillon, Eustace and Baldwin of Boulogne, and theMontlhéry clan of the Ile-de-France.

Some or all of these motives coexisted in the mind of any crusader, and in each case the balance would be unique. There are examples of prominent crusaders who had committed murder and for whom, therefore, the fear of damnation and the promise of the indulgence were powerful incentives. Others were attracted by the prospect of settling abroad: on the First Crusade these included Raymond of Saint-Gilles and Bohemund of Taranto, but in both cases there was more to crusading than territorial ambition. Raymond was a warrior experienced in fighting the Muslims in Iberia, and perhaps saw himself as commander in chief of the expeditionary forces; Bohemund perceived an opportunity to continue preying on Byzantine territories. Just as the leaders’ motives were complex, so were those of the lesser crusaders. Many were enticed by the idea of pilgrimage; others were lured by the prospect of adventure. Some, no doubt, were in trouble from the law; some were trying to evade creditors; some sought relief from the monotonous grind of a peasant’s existence. Finally, it should be remembered that throughout the crusades, though many thousands of people were motivated to travel to Outremer, Greece, or the Baltic regions, many more stayed at home.

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