Post-classical history

Popular Crusades

Popular crusades were an ongoing feature of the crusading movement. Scholars use a variety of terms to describe them, such as people’s crusades, peasants’ crusades, shepherds’ crusades, and crusades of the poor. But all these terms carry much the same meaning. First, these were not typical crusades; and second, those participating in them were not conventional crusaders.

Individually, popular crusades were passing episodes of short duration. Collectively, however, their lifespan in the history of the crusades stretches from the crusade of Peter the Hermit’s followers of 1096 to the Hungarian Peasants’ Crusade of 1514. None of these episodes created lasting institutions, although contemporary chroniclers acknowledged their power to mobilize vast crowds of enthusiasts and were dismayed by the violence that often accompanied them. It is no small thing, moreover, that memorable figures like Peter the Hermit and enthusiasms like the Children’s Crusade (1212) survived in the popular imagination. Historians have recently begun to take social memory seriously. In fact, nowadays scholarly interest in the popular crusades thrives on such topics as prophecy, crowd psychology, charismatic leadership, social dislocation, religious arousal, and the transmission of religious ideology in medieval society by means of preaching, processions, and visual culture.

Popular crusades provide conclusive proof of three phenomena: first, of the enduring power of the idea of the crusade; second, that ordinary believers (peasants, burgesses, urban artisans, and workers) were neither indifferent to nor cut off from the great events of Latin Christendom, as some historians previously maintained; and third, that exclusive concentration on the role of churchmen (Lat. oratores) and knights (Lat. bellatores) in the crusades considerably underestimates the significance of the movement, for it is unquestionable that the impact of the crusades was felt right across medieval society.


Defining the popular crusades is by no means as easy as it might seem. At first glance the distinction between “popular” and “professional” crusades would appear to be clear- cut. Popular crusades were composed of noncombatants, or at least of those of nonknightly origin. “Professional” crusades, by contrast, rested upon the shoulders of well-trained and well-equipped warriors, the knights of Christendom. If this distinction is applied simplistically, however, it means that the first People’s Crusades (1096), which included a surprising percentage of nobles and knights, paradoxically fail to meet the test. This intermingling of “popular” and “professional” participants in the First Crusade solidified when the remnants of the followers of Peter the Hermit joined the main crusading host. Thereafter, one can speak of a “popular element” attaching itself to the armies of knights. Such a “popular element” might be composed not only of noncombatants, such as women, but also of potential combatants: irregularly armed peasants, for instance.

Noncombatants attached themselves to the armies of the Second Crusade (1147-1149), much to the anger and despair of military strategists, who found their adherence dangerously burdensome. In the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) peasants or low-born foot soldiers were to be found among the camp followers. Reputedly craving only booty, they served as lightly or unconventionally armed fighters. But with the high costs of sea voyages restricting mass participation in the Third Crusade (1189-1192) and the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), the “popular element” ultimately became minimal. Military crusading thereafter was becoming professionalized, although the presence of St. Francis of Assisi and his companions at Damietta in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) shows that noncombatants could still find a place.

So if the popular crusades are defined as autonomous movements, divorced from the more or less disciplined troops of armed knights and lacking knightly (or clerical) leadership, then the Children’s Crusade, which included no “professionals,” should be regarded as the first truly popular crusade. Interestingly, one year after the Children’s Crusade, Pope Innocent III, in his new recruitment strategy for the Fifth Crusade, allowed ordinary laypeople to take the cross as well as knights. While popular enthusiasm for crusading was to be encouraged, unsuitable crusaders (broadly, those deemed unfit for military service) would be allowed to redeem their vows for cash. The money thus raised would then be used to fund an army of professional fighting men. Thus, by a clever division of labor, the two worlds of crusading, “popular” and “professional,” were tacitly recognized.

After the Children’s Crusade, these two worlds were finally disentangled. Although popular crusades persisted after the fall of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) to the Mamlûks (1291), the knights were absent. Thus, the near-contemporaneous Crusade of the Poor (1309) and the crusade of the fully professionalized Hospitallers, both stemming from the same papal appeal, represent the two worlds of crusading, fundamentally based on social composition and military expertise, as parallel universes.

What, then, of the distinction between “popular” and “official” crusades? Here we seem to be on secure ground with regard to canon law. Only the pope, after all, could lawfully summon a crusade. All crusades not officially preached, that is, decreed and promulgated, by the papacy were, consequently, illicit, unauthorized, and unblessed. Moreover, official papal crusade armies were always to be accompanied by the pope’s legate, who functioned as his special representative and other self (Lat. alter ego). In contrast, bands of popular crusaders went on their way unaccompanied by a papal legate. Of course, the clergy were aware that these “crusaders” were setting off without a papal blessing. Indeed, clerical chroniclers, at least from the Children’s Crusade onward, made their disapproval of any crusading venture that the pope had not authorized perfectly clear. Yet when the chroniclers denounced such crusades, they were voicing their own opinions. Papal condemnation was what mattered, and it came remarkably late. The first popular crusade to be disavowed explicitly by the papacy was the Second Shepherds’ Crusade (1320). Nonetheless, it must be emphasized that even in the case of a papally unauthorized crusade, crusader vows, once taken, remained valid and binding. To be released from crusader vows involved successfully completing the canonical procedures laid down by the church.

All of this implies that, although fundamentally sound, the distinction between “popular” and “official” crusades was in reality more blurred than was implied by the precise definitions of canon law. Furthermore, the chroniclers, even while disparaging the popular crusades, frequently described them in the standard terminology applied to “official” crusades (Lat. iter, expeditio, crucesignatio, and so on). Popular crusaders, in addition, nearly always started out by professing conventional, orthodox crusade goals, precisely the same goals professed by “official” crusaders. Often reiterated, for example, was the ardent desire to regain Jerusalem and the Holy Land; and the First Shepherds’ Crusade (1251) set out with the aim of rescuing King Louis IX of France from his Saracen captors. Likewise, the chroniclers noted that these “crusaders” often displayed the regular emblems of pilgrimage and crusade, including the cross. This is compelling evidence that they perceived themselves as authentic crusaders.


Understanding the historical circumstances behind the coming of the popular crusades tends to undermine the idea of rigid canonical partitions effectively dividing “popular” from “official” crusades. A quick historical survey demonstrates that both kinds of crusade were, so to speak, born of the same womb. The paradigmatic example is the First Crusade. Inaugurating papal legislation on the crusading movement, the Clermont conciliar decree (1095) begins with an open invitation to all the faithful. Addressing potential recruits for the grand enterprise, its first word is “Whosoever” (Lat. Quicumque), meaning anyone and everyone. Despite Pope Urban II’s subsequent efforts to qualify and restrict such an overtly populist appeal, this foundational all-inclusiveness continued to adhere to the ideology of the crusades. Thus, the populist character of the first wave of the First Crusade, the People’s Crusades of 1096, which included both knights and peasants, was in direct response to Urban’s appeal at Clermont.

The Council of Clermont set the pattern. Throughout the long span of popular crusades, virtually the same collective reaction occurred again and again. Thus, the Children’s Crusade began in the aftermath of preaching for the Albi- gensian Crusade and in the midst of fervent processions imploring God’s help for crusading in Iberia. With its inception at the junction of two crusades and its genesis in an atmosphere of crisis-driven, officially sponsored crusade enthusiasm, the coming of the Children’s Crusade makes sense only within the context of papally sponsored crusading. The First Shepherds’ Crusade also sprang to life at just such an intersection. Self-proclaimed would-be saviors of Louis IX, the Shepherds (Lat. pastores) would have been unthinkable without the unfinished business of Louis’s crusade to the East. While they can almost be thought of as constituting the last wave of his “official” crusade, the simultaneous preaching of the papally promoted crusade against the German-Sicilian Staufen dynasty would have added further fuel to their crusading flames.

The adherents of the Crusade of 1309 (also known as the Crusade of the Poor) believed implicitly that their movement was brought into being by Pope Clement V’s crusading summons of 1308. That theirs was a pious misapprehension is beside the point. In the case of the Second Shepherds’ Crusade, however, the ties that bound it to an “official” crusade are less conspicuous, although no less real. Talk of an “official” royal crusade had been in the air from at least 1318 onward. It could also be argued that by 1320 a tradition of popular crusades, and especially shepherds’ crusades, was well established in France. Then, in 1345-1346, particularly in the Lombard and Tuscan cities, news of a Christian victory against the Turks at Smyrna (mod. Izmir, Turkey) in 1344 aroused mass enthusiasm, which was intensified by miracles and preaching. Papal approbation soon followed. The Hungarian Peasants’ Crusade of 1514 was the last of the medieval popular crusades. Beginning as an officially declared holy war against the Turks, it turned into an uprising against the Hungarian nobility. Once again, the histories of “popular” and “official” crusades became inextricably intertwined.

Certainly by the late twelfth century both “popular” and “official” crusades largely shared a common geography. In addition, they tended to occur around the same time. Lands already crisscrossed by crusade preachers and already familiar with crusading appeals and recruitment drives were territories in which a tradition of crusading had become established. Enthusiasm for the crusade was thus localized and latent in certain regions. So a mere spark, an immediate cause, was all that was needed to provoke a collective response. That is why the precise historical circumstances of chronology and geography, taken together, make canon law distinctions (whatever their undeniable value and utility) appear artificial.


Another approach to defining the popular crusades is to ask whether they had peculiar characteristics that set them apart from “official” crusades. To summarize what a number of scholars believe, popular crusades were (1) recurrent and (2) charismatically led; they were (3) eschatologically influenced movements and (4) associated with anti-Jewish outbursts; and they were (5) composed of diverse, sometimes marginal, elements of society, united by the potentially revolutionary conviction that poverty was a sign of divine election.

How helpful are these five major characteristics in differentiating “popular” from “official” crusades? It is certainly true that popular crusades recurred at irregular intervals from 1096 to 1514. But so too did officially promulgated crusades. Were they not two sides of the same crusade tradition? Similar arguments apply in the case of charismatic leadership. In a broad sense, many of the most illustrious crusading figures were charismatic, for they proved inspirational to their followers and enjoyed fame long after their death. One thinks of Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemund of Taranto, Richard the Lionheart of England, and Louis IX of France. These “official” leaders, important rulers or outstanding field commanders (sometimes both), possessed rank and authority as well as an aura of personal glamour. With the possible exception of Louis IX, however, they were not regarded as holy men. Medieval personal charisma depended on holiness made manifest; Bernard of Clairvaux, the “official” preacher of the Second Crusade, was charismatic, but so too was Radulf, the unauthorized “popular” preacher of the same crusade. In this respect, the charismatic leaders of the popular crusades do present a striking contrast: Peter the Hermit (1096), Stephen of Cloyes and Nicholas of Cologne (1212), and Jacob, the Master of Hungary (1251). These men lacked any “official” authority. What authority they radiated appeared to come directly from God. Verification, if it were needed, was provided by heavenly letters or emblems like Nicholas of Cologne’s tau cross. As for Gyorgy Dôzsa, leader of the 1514 Hungarian Peasants’ Crusade, it is unclear whether his leadership can be called charismatic in a religious sense. The fourteenth-century popular crusades seem to have lacked charismatic leaders.

Notions of an apocalyptic end of the world and of the central role of the crusades in the sacred drama of providential history are well documented in crusade history. When Bernard, while preaching the Second Crusade, stressed that “now” (Lat. nunc) was a special moment, he meant that the forthcoming crusade was to play a vital role in the divine plan. Similarly, when Joachim of Fiore, the Calabrian prophet of divine and human history, was interviewed by Richard the Lionheart at Messina in advance of combat on the Third Crusade, Joachim’s prophecy gave hope of victory. Again, when the legate Pelagius sought morale-boosting confidence from Arabic prophetic texts at Damietta during a critical point of the Fifth Crusade, prophecy did matter.

All of these incidents of anticipated divine intervention in the Christian cause occurred on or before “official” crusades. The same goes for miracles, signs, and wonders. At one time historians mocked the lowly popular crusaders for their credulity, but chroniclers’ accounts of providential signs on the Peoples’ Crusades of 1096 need to be compared to the reports of crosses in the sky when Oliver of Cologne was preaching the Fifth Crusade. As the crusaders’ acclamation “God wills it!” proclaimed, these were God’s wars. Hence a providential sensibility, prophetic rather than eschatological, pervaded the crusading movement as a whole.

Attacks on Jews, on the contrary, do point toward an eschatological sensibility, if only because the conversion of the Jews was destined to occur during the Last Days. Of course, bringing this about was far from being the only factor in anti-Judaic violence on the crusades. Nevertheless, the option of baptism or death was offered to the Jews time and time again, and not only on the Peoples’ Crusades of 1096. Massacres of Jews punctuated the crusades, both “official” and “popular.” The massacre of the Jews of York in 1190, for example, occurred during English preparations for the Third Crusade, and gathering French crusaders attacked Jews in 1236. Still, on the whole, the record of the popular crusades is more consistently anti-Judaic than that of the “official” crusades. Only the Children’s Crusade was never implicated in violence or threatening behavior against the Jewish communities along its route.

It is not hard to see that the idea of poverty as proof of divine election would be especially appealing to poor crusaders. “Blessed are the poor” (Matt. 5:3) would have been music to their ears. Many historians have made much of poverty as the very ideological heart of the popular crusades. Yet there is a nagging problem: that of historical evidence. Did the poor on the various crusades, including knights who fell into destitution, actually perceive themselves as a religiously privileged class? For the concept of poverty was theological, rather than social. The medieval theology of poverty, while encompassing the weak and the vulnerable, gave pride of place to the voluntary poor, Christ’s poor (Lat. pauperes Christi), such as pilgrims, monks, and friars. For the involuntary poor, deprivation alone was insufficient. God’s poor were blessed because they were “poor in spirit.” Although an ideology of poverty has been postulated as underlying the Children’s Crusade [Raedts, “The Children’s Crusade of 1212”], there is little evidence to sustain it. Only around the mid-thirteenth century was an exalted notion of spiritual poverty widely diffused in northern Europe by preachers, particularly Franciscans. By that time poor peasants were beginning to be familiar with this idealization of poverty applicable to themselves, as God’s elect. That was what most of the fourteenth-century popular crusaders took it to mean. Norman Cohn stresses the revolutionary implications of this idea.


Analysis of these five supposedly defining characteristics of the popular crusades highlights how difficult it is to identify common features across the entire range of medieval popular crusading enthusiasms. Charismatic leadership is verifiable up to the fourteenth century; an eschatological sensibility, reflected primarily in anti-Judaic violence, may be partially correct; and a consciousness of election on the part of the involuntary poor has some validity, but probably only after around 1250. What this exercise in singling out behavioral attributes indicates is that the popular crusades were more diverse than is often thought. As the most useful rule of thumb, therefore, we are left with the twin dichotomies of “popular” and “professional” and “popular” and “official,” always flexibly interpreted and never for a moment ignoring the unique historical circumstances pertaining to each individual popular crusade.

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