Post-classical history



‘Hearken unto me, ye stouthearted, that are far from righteousness.’ ISAIAH XLVI, 12

Pope Urban arrived in France in the late summer of 1095. On 5 August he was at Valence and on 11 August he reached Le Puy. From there he sent letters to the bishops of France and the neighbouring lands, requesting them to meet him at Clermont in November. Meanwhile he turned south, to spend September in Provence, at Avignon and Saint-Gilles. Early in October he was at Lyons and thence moved on into Burgundy. At Cluny, on 25 October, he consecrated the high altar of the great basilica that Abbot Hugh had begun to build. From Cluny he went to Souvigny, near Moulins, to pay his respects at the tomb of the holiest of Cluniac abbots, Saint Maiolus. There the Bishop of Clermont joined him, to escort him to his episcopal city, in readiness for the Council.

The Council of Clermont

As he travelled Urban busied himself with the affairs of the Church in France, organizing and correcting, giving praise and blame where they were due. But his journeyings enabled him also to pursue his further scheme. We do not know whether, while he was in the south, he met in person Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Count of Toulouse and Marquis of Provence, already celebrated for his leadership of the holy wars in Spain. But he was in touch with him and must have heard of his experiences. At Cluny he could talk with men that were concerned with the pilgrim traffic, both to Compostella and to Jerusalem. They could tell him of the overwhelming difficulties that pilgrims to Palestine had now to endure with the disintegration of Turkish authority there. He learnt that not only were the roads across Asia Minor blocked, but the Holy Land itself was virtually closed to pilgrims.

The Council of Clermont sat from 18 November to 28 November 1095. Some three hundred clerics were present and their work covered a wide range. In general, decrees against lay investiture, simony and clerical marriage were repeated and the Truce of God was advocated. In particular, King Philip was excommunicated for adultery and the Bishop of Cambrai for simony, and the primacy of the see of Lyons over those of Sens and Reims was established. But the Pope wished to use the occasion for a more momentous purpose. It was announced that on Tuesday, 27 November, he would hold a public session, to make a great announcement. The crowds, clerical and lay, that assembled were too huge to be contained within the cathedral, where hitherto the Council had met. The Papal throne was set up on a platform in an open field outside the eastern gate of the city; and there, when the multitudes were gathered, Urban rose to his feet to address them.

Four contemporary chroniclers have reported the Pope’s words for us. One of them, Robert the Monk, claims to have been present at the meeting. Baudri of Dol and Fulcher of Chartres write as though they had been present. The fourth, Guibert of Nogent, probably obtained his version at second hand. But none of them professes to give an accurate verbal account; and each wrote his chronicle a few years later and coloured his account in the light of subsequent events. We can only know approximately what Urban in fact said. It seems that he began his speech by telling his hearers of the necessity for aiding their brethren in the East. Eastern Christendom had appealed for help; for the Turks were advancing into the heart of Christian lands, maltreating the inhabitants and desecrating their shrines. But it was not only of Romania (which is Byzantium) that he spoke. He stressed the special holiness of Jerusalem and described the sufferings of the pilgrims that journeyed there. Having painted the sombre picture, he made his great appeal. Let western Christendom march to the rescue of the East. Rich and poor alike should go. They should leave off slaying each other and fight instead a righteous war, doing the work of God; and God would lead them. For those that died in battle there would be absolution and the remission of sins. Life was miserable and evil here, with men wearing themselves out to the ruin of their bodies and their souls. Here they were poor and unhappy; there they would be joyful and prosperous and true friends of God. There must be no delay. Let them be ready to set out when the summer had come, with God to be their guide.

Urban spoke with fervour and with all the art of a great orator. The response was immediate and tremendous. Cries of ‘Deus le volt!’ — ‘God wills it!’ — interrupted the speech. Scarcely had the Pope ended his words before the Bishop of Le Puy rose from his seat and, kneeling before the throne, begged permission to join in the holy expedition. Hundreds crowded up to follow his example. Then the Cardinal Gregory fell on his knees and loudly repeated the Confiteor; and all the vast audience echoed it after him. When the prayer was over Urban rose once more and pronounced the absolution and bade his hearers go home.

Regulations for the Crusade

The enthusiasm was greater than Urban had expected. His plans for its direction were not yet fully made. No great lay lord had been present at Clermont. The recruits were all humbler men. It would be necessary to secure more solid secular support. In the meantime Urban reassembled his bishops for further consultation. The Council had probably already at his request passed a general decree giving remission from temporal penalties for the sins of all that took part with pious intentions in the holy war. It was now added that the worldly belongings of the participants should be placed under the protection of the Church during their absence at the war. The local bishop should be responsible for their safekeeping and should return them intact when the warrior came home. Each member of the expedition was to wear the sign of the Cross, as a symbol of his dedication; a cross of red material should be sewn on to the shoulder of his surcoat. Anyone that took the Cross should vow to go to Jerusalem. If he turned back too soon or failed to set out, he would suffer excommunication. Clerics and monks were not to take the Cross without the permission of their bishop or abbot. The elderly and infirm must be discouraged from attempting the expedition; and no one at all should go without consulting his spiritual adviser. It was not to be a war of mere conquest. In all towns conquered from the infidel the churches of the East were to have all their rights and possessions restored to them. Everyone should be ready to leave his home by the Feast of the Assumption (15 August) next year, when the harvests should have been gathered; and the armies should assemble at Constantinople.

Next, a leader must be appointed. Urban wished to make it clear that the expedition was under the control of the Church. Its head must be an ecclesiastic, his legate. With the unanimous consent of the Council he nominated the Bishop of Le Puy.

Adhemar de Monteil, Bishop of Le Puy, belonged to the family of the Counts of Valentinois. He was a middle-aged man, who had already made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem nine years before. He had earned his leadership by coming forward as the first to answer Urban’s appeal; but as he had already entertained Urban at Le Puy in August and must have talked to him there of eastern affairs, it is possible that his stirring gesture was not entirely spontaneous. It was a wise appointment. Subsequent experience proved him to be a fine preacher and a tactful diplomat, broad-minded, calm and kindly, a man whom all would respect but who sought to persuade rather than to command. His influence was unfailingly used to curb passions and to spread goodwill, but it was not always firm enough to control the magnates that were nominally to be under his orders.

The first off the magnates to ask to join the expedition was Count Raymond of Toulouse. On 1 December, while Urban was still at Clermont, messengers arrived there to say that the Count and many of his nobility were eager to take the Cross. Raymond, who was at Toulouse, could not have heard reports of the great speech at Clermont. He must have had forewarning. As the first to be told of the project and the first to take the vow, he considered that he should be given the secular leadership over the other great lords. He wished to be Moses to Adhemar’s Aaron. Urban would not admit this pretension; but Raymond never entirely abandoned it. In the meantime he planned to co-operate loyally with Adhemar.

Urban Returns to Italy

Urban left Clermont on 2 December. After visiting various Cluniac houses he spent Christmas at Limoges, where he preached the Crusade in the cathedral, then passed northward through Poitiers to the valley of the Loire. In March he was at Tours, where he held a council; and one Sunday he summoned a congregation to meet him in a meadow by the banks of the river. Standing on an improvised platform he preached a long and solemn sermon, exhorting his hearers to repent and to go on the Crusade. From Tours he turned southward again through Aquitaine, past Saintes and Bordeaux to Toulouse. Toulouse was his headquarters in May and June; and he had many opportunities for discussing the Crusade with his host, Count Raymond. Late in June he moved on to Provence. Raymond accompanied him to Nimes.

In August the Pope recrossed the Alps into Lombardy. His journey had been no holiday. All the time he was interviewing churchmen and writing letters, seeking to complete his reorganization of the Church in France and, above all, continuing his plans for the Crusade. Synodal letters embodying the decisions taken at Clermont were sent round to the bishops of the West. In some cases provincial councils were held to receive them and to consider local action. It is probable that the chief lay powers were also officially informed of the Pope’s desires. From Limoges at the end of 1095 Urban wrote to all the faithful in Flanders referring them to the acts of the Council at Clermont and asking for their support. He had every reason to be satisfied with the response that came from Flanders and the neighbouring lands. In July 1096, while he was at Nimes, he received a message from King Philip announcing his absolute submission on the matter of his adultery and probably telling at the same time of the adhesion of his brother, Hugh of Vermandois, to the Crusade. During the same month Raymond of Toulouse gave proof of his intentions by handing over many of his possessions to the monastery of Saint-Gilles. It was perhaps on Raymond’s advice that Urban decided that the help of a maritime power would be necessary in order to maintain the expedition’s supplies. Two legates set out with letters to the republic of Genoa to ask for its co-operation. The republic agreed to provide twelve galleys and a transport, but cautiously delayed their dispatch till it could tell whether the Crusade was a serious movement. It was only in July 1097 that this fleet set sail from Genoa. Meanwhile many Genoese took the Cross.

By the time that Urban was back in Italy he was assured of the success of his scheme. His summons was eagerly obeyed. From as far afield as Scotland, Denmark and Spain, men hastened to make their vows. Some raised money for the journey by pawning their possessions and their lands. Others, expecting never to return, gave everything over to the Church. A sufficient number of great nobles had adhered to the Crusade to give it a formidable military backing. Beside Raymond of Toulouse and Hugh of Vermandois, Robert II of Flanders, Robert, Duke of Normandy, and the latter’s brother-in-law Stephen, Count of Blois, were making preparations to set out. More remarkable was the adherence of men devoted to the emperor Henry IV. Chief amongst these was Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, who took the Cross with his brothers, Eustace, Count of Boulogne, and Baldwin. Grouped round these leaders were many of the lesser nobility and a few eminent ecclesiastics, such as the Bishop of Bayeux.

Peter the Hermit

In Italy Urban found similar enthusiasm. In September 1096 he wrote to the city of Bologna to thank its citizens for their zeal and to caution them not to leave for the East without their priests’ permission. Nor should newly married husbands leave without their wives’ consent. Meanwhile news of the project had reached southern Italy and was warmly welcomed by many of the Normans there, who were always ready to start on a new adventure. The princes at first held back, but Guiscard’s son Bohemond, now prince of Taranto but thwarted in his ambitions in Italy by his brother Roger Borsa and his uncle Roger of Sicily, soon realized the possibilities that the Crusade would open out for him. Together with many of his family and his friends, he took the Cross. Their participation brought to the movement many of the most experienced and enterprising soldiers in Europe. When Urban returned to Rome in time for Christmas 1096, he could feel assured that the Crusade was truly launched.

He had in fact launched a movement greater than he knew. It might have been better if fewer great lords had answered his appeal. For, though with all of them except Bohemond, genuine religious fervour was the strongest motive, soon their terrestrial schemes and rivalries would create troubles far beyond the papal legate’s control. Still more uncontrollable was the response shown by humbler folk throughout France and Flanders and the Rhineland.

The Pope had asked his bishops to preach the Crusade; but far more effective preaching was done by poorer men, by evangelicals such as Robert of Arbrissel, founder of the Order of Fontevrault, and still more by an itinerant monk called Peter. Peter was an oldish man, born somewhere near Amiens. He had probably tried to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem a few years previously, but had been maltreated by the Turks and forced to turn back. His contemporaries knew him as Little Peter — chtou or kiokio in the Picard dialect — but later the hermit’s cape that he habitually wore brought him the surname of ‘the Hermit’, by which he is better known to history. He was a man of short stature, swarthy and with a long, lean face, horribly like the donkey that he always rode and which was revered almost as much as himself. He went barefoot; and his clothes were filthy. He ate neither bread nor meat, but fish, and he drank wine. Despite his lowly appearance he had the power to move men. There was an air of strange authority about him. ‘Whatever he said or did’, Guibert of Nogent, who knew him personally, tells us, ‘it seemed like something half-divine.’

Peter probably had not assisted at the Council of Clermont; but before the year 1095 was out he was already preaching the Crusade. He began his tour in Berry, then moved during February and March through Orleannais and Champagne into Lorraine, and thence past the cities of the Meuse and Aachen to Cologne, where he spent Easter. He gathered disciples whom he sent to the districts that he could not himself visit. Among them were the Frenchmen Walter Sans-Avoir, Rainald of Breis, Geoffrey Burel and Walter of Breteuil, and the Germans Orel and Gottschalk. Wherever he or his lieutenants went, men and women left their homes to follow him. By the time that he reached Cologne his train was estimated at about 15,000 persons; and many more joined him in Germany.

Apocalyptic Enthusiasm

The extraordinary success of his preaching was due to many causes. Life for a peasant in north-western Europe was grim and insecure. Much land had gone out of cultivation during the barbarian invasions and the raids of the Norsemen. Dykes had been broken, and the sea and rivers had encroached on to the fields. The lords often opposed the clearing of the forests in which they hunted for their game. A village unprotected by a lord’s castle was liable to be robbed or burnt by outlaws or by soldiers fighting petty civil wars. The Church sought to protect the poor peasants and to establish bourgs in empty lands; but its help was fitful and often unavailing. Greater lords might encourage the growth of towns, but lesser barons opposed it. The organization of the demesne was breaking down, but no orderly system was taking its place. Though actual serfdom had vanished, men were tied to the land by obligations that they could not easily escape. Meanwhile the population was increasing, and holdings in a village could not be subdivided beyond a certain limit. ‘In this land’, said Urban at Clermont, according to Robert the Monk, ‘you can scarcely feed the inhabitants. That is why you use up its goods and excite endless wars amongst yourselves.’ Recent years had been especially difficult. Floods and pestilence in 1094 had been followed by drought and a famine in 1095. It was a moment when emigration seemed very attractive. Already in April 1095 a shower of meteorites had presaged a great movement of peoples.

Apocalyptic teaching added to the economic inducement. It was an age of visions; and Peter was thought to be a visionary. Medieval man was convinced that the Second Coming was at hand. He must repent while yet there was time and must go out to do good. The Church taught that sin could be expiated by pilgrimage and prophecies declared that the Holy Land must be recovered for the faith before Christ could come again. Further, to ignorant minds the distinction between Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem was not very clearly defined. Many of Peter’s hearers believed that he was promising to lead them out of their present miseries to the land flowing with milk and honey of which the scriptures spoke. The journey would be hard; there were the legions of Antichrist to be overcome. But the goal was Jerusalem the golden.

What Pope Urban thought of Peter and the success of his preaching no one now knows. His letter to the Bolognese suggests that he was a little nervous of uncontrolled enthusiasm; but he did not, or could not, prevent it from spreading in Italy. Throughout the summer of 1096 a casual but constant stream of pilgrims without leaders or any form of organization began to flow to the East. No doubt he hoped that they and Peter’s followers would safely reach Constantinople and there would await the coming of his legate and the military chieftains, who would incorporate them into the orderly ranks of the great Christian army.

Urban’s insistence that the expedition should assemble at Constantinople shows how confident he was that the Emperor Alexius would welcome it. Byzantium had asked for soldiers from the West; and here they were answering the summons, not as a few individual mercenaries but in whole powerful armies. His confidence was ingenuous. No government is unwilling to make allies. But when these allies send large armies, over which it has no control, to invade its territory, expecting to be fed and housed and provided with every amenity, then it questions whether the alliance is worth while. When news of the Crusading movement reached Constantinople it aroused feelings of disquiet and alarm.

The Emperor s Preparations

In 1096 the Byzantine Empire had been enjoying for some months a rare interval of repose. The Emperor had recently defeated a Cuman invasion of the Balkans so decisively that none of the barbarian tribes of the steppes was likely now to attempt to cross the frontier. In Asia Minor, thanks to civil wars encouraged by Byzantine diplomacy, the Seldjuk empire was beginning to disintegrate. Alexius hoped soon to take the offensive against it, but he wished to choose his own time. He still needed a breathing-space in which he could repair his strained resources. The problem of man-power worried him. He wished for mercenaries from the West; and no doubt he hoped that his ambassadors in Italy were successful in their recruitment. Now he was informed that instead of the individual knights or small companies that he expected to join his forces, whole Frankish armies were on the move. He was not pleased, as he knew from experience that the Franks were an unstable race, greedy for money and unscrupulous in keeping agreements. They were formidable in attack; but under the circumstances that was a doubtful advantage. It was with some apprehension that the imperial court learnt, in the words of the princess Anna Comnena, that ‘all the West and all the barbarian tribes from beyond the Adriatic as far as the Pillars of Hercules were moving in a body through Europe towards Asia, bringing whole families with them’. Not only the Emperor but his subjects were uneasy. As a monitory portent great hordes of locusts swept over the Empire, leaving the com untouched but devouring the vines. Inspired, perhaps, by a hint from the authorities who were anxious not to spread despondency, popular soothsayers interpreted this to mean that the Franks would do no harm to good Christians, whose symbol was the com, the source of the bread of life, but would destroy the Saracens, a people whose sensuality might well be symbolized by the vine. The Princess Anna was a little sceptical of the interpretation; but the likeness of the Franks to locusts was certainly apparent.

The Emperor Alexius set about calmly making his preparations. The Frankish armies would have to be fed as they travelled through the Empire; and precautions must be taken to keep them from ravaging the countryside and robbing the inhabitants. Stores of provisions were accumulated in each main centre through which they would pass, and a police force was detailed to meet each detachment when it arrived within the Empire and to accompany it to Constantinople. There were two great roads across the Balkan peninsula, the north road that crossed the frontier at Belgrade and struck south-east through Nish, Sofia, Philippopolis and Adrianople, and the Via Egnatia, from Dyrrhachium through Ochrida and Edessa (Vodena) to Thessalonica and on through Mosynopolis and Selymbria to the capital. Since the great German pilgrimage of 1064 the former road had seldom been used by travellers from the West. The total number of pilgrims had declined and those that had attempted the journey had preferred the alternative route. Moreover, Alexius received his information about the Crusade from Italy. He therefore anticipated that the Frankish armies would cross the Adriatic and make use of the Via Egnatia. Supplies were sent to Dyrrhachium and the intervening cities; and the governor of Dyrrhachium, the Emperor’s nephew John Comnenus, was instructed to give the Frankish leaders a cordial welcome, but to see that they and their armies were all the time supervised by the military police. High-ranking envoys from Constantinople would be sent to greet each leader in turn. Meanwhile the admiral Nicholas Mavrocatacalon took a flotilla to Adriatic waters to watch the coasts and give warning of the approach of the Frankish transports.

The Emperor himself remained at Constantinople, awaiting further news. Knowing that the Pope had fixed 15 August as the date of departure for the expedition he did not hurry over his preparations, when suddenly, at the end of May 1096, a messenger came posting from the north to say that the first Frankish army had come down through Hungary and had entered the Empire at Belgrade.

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