Post-classical history

Chapter Five



A knight kneels in prayer as he prepares to set off on the First Crusade. At the top right, his servant leans over the turret with his master’s helmet.
© British Library / HIP / Art Resource, NY

IT WAS ONE THING for Pope Urban II to conclude that Europe should rally in support of Eastern Christianity and the liberation of the Holy Land. But how was he able to bring it about? How were tens of thousands of people convinced to commit their lives and fortunes to such a challenge? Many of them, especially those recruited by Peter the Hermit, may have been unaware of what really lay ahead. But the great nobles and knights were neither foolish nor naive. They knew much about the journey itself: some had already been to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage, and all of them had close relatives and associates who had been there. So they knew they faced a very long and perilous journey at the end of which there would be many bloody battles against a dangerous and determined foe. They also were fully aware that there was no pot of gold awaiting them in the sands of Palestine. So, how were they recruited?


No matter how eloquent Pope Urban II was when addressing the crowd at Clermont, one speech could not have launched thousands of knights to the Holy Land. Indeed, by the time he reached Clermont the pope had been on the road for four months visiting important Frankish (French) nobles, abbots, and bishops. Since most of them subsequently played leading roles in mounting the First Crusade, we can be sure that the pope used his visits to enlist their support. If we credit the story that during his famous speech at Clermont some in the audience began to cut out crosses and sew them onto their chests, we can assume they had prepared to do this in advance: knights did not usually carry sewing kits. Moreover, according to one account, when the pope had finished speaking “envoys from Raymond, count of Toulouse, appeared and announced that their lord had taken the cross.”1

But whatever the pope had done ahead of time to line up support, Clermont was still only the beginning; the plan had yet to be widely “sold” before it could happen. Consequently, according to the account by Baldric, archbishop of Dol, at the end of his speech at Clermont, Urban turned to the bishops and said, “You, brothers and fellow bishops; you fellow priests and sharers with us in Christ, make this same announcement through the churches committed to you, and with your whole soul vigorously preach the journey to Jerusalem.”2 But even had they all done so, their efforts probably would have been insufficient. The First Crusade became a reality only because the pope was able to recruit hundreds to preach it who had not been at Clermont. To understand how he achieved this, it will be helpful to see just what kind of a pope he was and the churchly resources available to him.

Two Churches

In many ways, the conversion of Constantine was a catastrophe for Christianity. It would have been enough had he merely given Christianity the legal right to exist without persecution. But when he made Christianity “the most favoured recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favour,”3 he undercut the authentic commitment of the clergy. Suddenly, a faith that had been meeting in homes and humble structures was housed in magnificent public buildings; the new church of Saint Peter built by Constantine in Rome was modeled on the basilican form used for imperial throne halls. A clergy recruited from the people and modestly sustained by member contributions suddenly gained immense power, status, and wealth as part of the imperial civil service. Bishops “now became grandees on a par with the wealthiest senators.”4 Consequently, in the words of Richard Fletcher, the “privileges and exemptions granted the Christian clergy precipitated a stampede into the priesthood.”5

As Christian offices became another form of imperial preferment, they were soon filled by the sons of the aristocracy. There no longer was an obligation that one be morally qualified, let alone that one be “called.” Gaining a church position was mainly a matter of influence, of commerce, and eventually of heredity. Simony became rife: an extensive and very expensive traffic in religious offices developed, involving the sale not only of high offices such as bishoprics, but even of lowly parish placements. There soon arose great clerical families, whose sons followed their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers into holy office, including the papacy.6 As a result, many dissolute, corrupt, lax, and insincere people gained high positions: Pope Benedict IX (1012–1055), the nephew of two previous popes, took office without even having been ordained as a priest and caused so many scandals by “whoring his way around Rome” that he was bribed to leave office.7

Of course, many who entered the religious life were not careerists or libertines; even some sons and daughters of the clerical families were deeply sincere. Consequently, there arose what became, in effect, two parallel churches. These can usefully be identified as the Church of Power and the Church of Piety. The Church of Power was the main body of the Church as it evolved in response to the immense power and wealth bestowed on the clergy by Constantine. It included the great majority of priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes who ruled the Church most of the time until the Counter-Reformation set in during the sixteenth century. In many ways the Church of Piety was sustained as a reaction against the Church of Power. It might have been silenced or at least shunted aside but for the fact that it had an unyielding base in monasticism, which, in turn, had very strong support among the ruling elites: 75 percent of ascetic medieval saints were sons and daughters of the nobility, including many sons and daughters of kings.8

Remarkably, at the same time that there had begun a “stampede” into the priesthood by the sons of privilege, there was a rapid expansion of monasticism: by the middle of the fourth century there were many thousands of monks and nuns, nearly all of them living in organized communities. Naturally, those living an ascetic life felt themselves spiritually superior to the others, as was in fact acknowledged by Catholic theology. However, their antagonism toward the regular clergy and, especially, the Church hierarchy had a different basis; it was not merely that these men were not leading ascetic lives, but that so many were leading dissolute lives. This was an issue that would not subside. Again and again leaders of the Church of Piety attempted to reform the Church of Power, and during several notable periods they managed to gain control of the papacy and impose major changes. It was during one of these interludes of control by the Church of Piety that Urban II rose to the Chair of Peter.

Otho (or Odo) of Lagery was born into the northern French nobility in 1042. During his early teens he entered the Church and quickly rose to be archdeacon of the cathedral at Rheims. In 1067 he entered the monastery of Cluny, which had rapidly become the largest and most aggressive of Europe’s monastic organizations. Here Otho soon gained the office of grand prior, second only to the abbot, and in 1078 Pope Gregory VII (himself a former monk and an ardent member of the Church of Piety) appointed him cardinal-bishop of Ostia. He was elected pope by acclamation in 1088 and took the name Urban II. He died on July 29, 1099, two weeks after the crusaders had taken Jerusalem but before word of their victory had reached the West.

That Urban II was an esteemed member of the Church of Piety was important because it gave him credibility with the friars and monks who did most of what little preaching was done in medieval Europe; “preaching to the laity was, at best, sporadic”9in this era. Local parish priests did very little preaching. It was not required that they do so during Mass, and in any event, Mass attendance was extremely low.10 What effective preaching took place was done by monks and wandering friars, usually in the marketplace rather than in a church, and it was they who accepted the pope’s request to preach support for the First Crusade. Hence, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of friars and monks spread the pope’s message in every hamlet, village, and town. Among them were three very distinguished men who had turned away from very successful church careers to live as ascetics in the forest of Craon: Robert of Arbissel, Vitalis of Mortain, and Bernard of Tiron. At the invitation of the pope, each emerged from seclusion to preach the First Crusade, and subsequently each successfully founded a new monastic order.

And just as these three men, like the pope himself, were from upper-class backgrounds, the same was true of most monks, which enabled them to witness for the Crusade directly to their noble relatives. In this era, monks usually entered their orders through the process of oblation (or offering), wherein a young boy (far less often a girl) was enrolled in a religious order by parents who paid a substantial entry fee. Too often this practice has incorrectly been interpreted as a method for disposing of “excess” sons who did not stand to inherit.11 In fact, the entry fee usually was equal to a quite substantial inheritance.12 In any event, oblation was such a common practice that most of the nobility had uncles, sons, brothers, and nephews living nearby in religious cloisters with whom they usually remained in close touch. This arrangement sustained strong ties between the Church of Piety and the nobility and had very significant effects on the religiousness of the privileged families.

However, the pope did not simply delegate the task of preaching the Crusade. From Clermont he took to the road once more, spending the next nine months traveling more than two thousand miles through France, “entering country towns, the citizens of which had never seen a king or anyone of such international importance…accompanied by a flock of cardinals, archbishops, and bishops…whose train must have stretched across miles of countryside.”13 Everywhere he went, the pope consecrated local chapels, churches, cathedrals, monasteries, convents, and cemeteries and blessed local altars and relics. Most of these occasions were public ceremonies, and huge crowds turned out—or at least “huge” in terms of the size of the local population (the population of Paris was about twenty-five thousand).14 The pope used all these opportunities to preach the Crusade. Perhaps even more important, the pope’s visit and his preaching stimulated many locals, including bishops, to continue preaching the Crusade long after the pope and his party had departed.15 Moreover, while the pope “toured France, papal letters and legates travelled swiftly to England, Normandy, and Flanders, to Genoa and Bologna, exhorting, commanding and persuading…Later in the same year the pope sent the bishops of Orange and Grenoble to preach the crusade in Genoa, and bring the formidable Genoese sea-power into the war.”16

In many ways, those preaching the Crusade were too successful. They convinced not only thousands of fighting men to volunteer, but also even larger numbers of men and women with no military potential. Soon thousands of these people, many of them peasants, traveled east under the leadership of Peter the Hermit, doing a great deal of harm along the way, and then suffered pointless deaths—as will be seen.

Penitential Warfare

Many skeptics have noted that the pilgrimages often failed to improve the subsequent behavior of pilgrims. The main issue here is not that some pilgrims were like Fulk III, who returned from each of his four pilgrimages ready and eager to sin again. The issue seems to be the expectation that an authentic pilgrimage ought to have fundamentally transformed a pilgrim’s character and personality—or at least to have changed an individual into a far more peaceful and forgiving sort of person. But that was not a typical outcome. Instead, most of the fighting men who went on a pilgrimage returned as fierce and ready to do battle as before. For example, according to the Chronicle of Monte Cassino (c. 1050s), “[F]orty Normans dressed as pilgrims, on their return from Jerusalem, disembarked at Salerno. These were men of considerable bearing, impressive-looking, men of the greatest experience in warfare. They found the city besieged by Saracens. Their souls were inflamed with a call to God. They demanded arms and horses from Gaimare the prince of Salerno, got them, and threw themselves ferociously upon the enemy. They killed and captured many and put the rest to flight, achieving a miraculous victory with the help of God. They swore they had done all this only for the love of God and of the Christian faith; they refused reward and refused to remain in Salerno.”17

That even very pious knights found pacifism incomprehensible may puzzle some having modern sensibilities, but that assumption was fundamental to Pope Urban’s call for a Crusade. Having come from a family of noble knights, the pope took their propensity for violence for granted. He fully understood that from early childhood a knight was raised to regard fighting as his chief function and that throughout “his life the knight spent most of his time in practicing with his arms or actually fighting. Dull periods of peace were largely devoted to hunting on horseback such savage animals as the wild boar.”18 Since the pope could not get the knights of Europe to observe a peace of God, at least he could enlist them to serve in God’s battalions and to direct their fierce bravery toward a sacred cause. And to bring this about, Urban proposed something entirely new—that participation in the Crusade was the moral equivalent of serving in a monastic order, in that special holiness and certainty of salvation would be gained by those who took part.

As Guibert of Nogent recalled Urban’s words at Clermont: “God has instituted in our time holy wars, so that the order of knights…[who] have been slaughtering one another…might find a new way of gaining salvation. And so they are not forced to abandon secular affairs completely by choosing the monastic life or any religious profession, as used to be the custom, but can attain some measure of God’s grace while pursuing their own careers, with the liberty and dress to which they are accustomed.”19 In this way Urban took a realistic view not only of the knighthood, but also of the military situation. Tens of thousands of dedicated pacifists could do nothing to liberate the Holy Land. It was going to take an army of belligerent knights who were motivated but not transformed by the promise of salvation. Thus, the invention of penitential warfare.

Many recent historians have followed Carl Erdmann (1898–1945) in arguing that Pope Urban’s call to the Crusade was nothing new, that it was a potpourri of well-known ideas and practices—holy war, pilgrimage, and indulgences.20 And besides, religious motives were of minor importance to the knights, since they went primarily in pursuit of gain. These historians also have followed Erdmann’s remarkable claim that Pope Urban had far less interest in liberating the Holy Land than he had in sending reinforcements to the Byzantines and perhaps thereby gaining authority over the Eastern church.

None of these claims is sustained by the evidence, not even that cited by Erdmann, who “rummaged through the versions of the [pope’s] sermon [at Clermont] isolating and taking out of context [phrases]…to support his thesis that it was not the liberation of Jerusalem which Urban had in mind but the fulfillment of Gregory VII’s plan for the unification of the Christian church.”21

Since all surviving versions of Urban’s speech at Clermont were recalled and written down well after the fact, there is perhaps some license as to what the pope may have actually preached. But there is nothing ambiguous about the statement issued by the Council of Clermont, convened by the pope just prior to his speech: “Whoever goes on the journey to free the church of God in Jerusalem out of devotion alone, and not for the gaining of glory or money, can substitute the journey for all penance for sin.”22Nothing here about saving Byzantium.

In addition, in his campaign for volunteers the pope wrote several letters that survive, each of which specifically gives Jerusalem as the destination of the Crusade then being organized. For example, in his letter to Bologna: “We have heard that some of you have conceived the desire to go to Jerusalem, and you know that it is pleasing to us, and you should also know that if any among you travel…. only for the good of their souls and the liberty of the churches, they will be relieved of the penance for all of their sins.”23

As for the claim that the pope’s idea of penitential warfare was nothing new, he did not propose it in a theological vacuum. Penance and pilgrimage had been linked for many centuries. Nor was the idea of a “just war” anything new; it had been assessed at length by Saint Augustine (354–430), among many other theologians. But putting these notions together was creative. And as we have seen, again and again Urban explained in the most direct ways, unadorned by theological quibbles or qualifiers, that anyone who went on the Crusade in the proper spirit would have their sins forgiven. That idea was so new that many theologians opposed it at the time as inconsistent with previous Christian doctrines on violence, which held that fighting always was sinful. Indeed, the “idea of penitential warfare was revolutionary…because it put the act of fighting on the same meritorious plane as prayer, works of mercy and fasting.”24

Finally, even if Erdmann had been right and the pope had not placed the primary emphasis on liberating Jerusalem, the far more important fact is that liberating Jerusalem is what the crusaders believed their mission to be, as they explained in many documents that survive. Godfrey of Boullion and his brother Baldwin of Boulogne issued a document to their mother to go into effect should they not return from their “fight for God in Jerusalem.”25 Raymond of Saint-Gilles claimed he was going “on pilgrimage to wage war on foreign peoples and defeat barbaric nations, lest the Holy City of Jerusalem be held captive and the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord Jesus be contaminated any longer.”26

In addition to such words came the deeds. The knights were not content with having won some decisive victories over Muslim forces and pushing them far back from Constantinople. No! Starving, riddled with disease, having eaten most of their horses, and with greatly reduced numbers, they pushed on to Jerusalem and against all odds stormed over the walls to victory.


The primary sources on the Crusades—on the routes marched, the suffering endured, and the battles fought—have been well known for centuries. But only recently have historians recognized the immense amount of data available on the crusaders themselves—on who went and how they financed their participation. As first noted by Giles Constable, 27 these data are contained in “legal documents describing transfers of property by endowment, sale, or pledge, many of [which]…record benefactions and other financial arrangements made by the members of the property-owning classes who crusaded, wills drawn up on their behalf, and disputes in which their heirs and families were involved.”28 These treasures took on added significance when Jonathan Riley-Smith entered them in a computer database.29 He did so because he wished to shift the focus from events to individuals, to shed light on why some people decided to become crusaders—given that most of their peers did not.

Riley-Smith’s most important insight was thrust upon him by the data: crusading was dominated by a few closely related families! It appears that it was not so much that individuals decided to accept the pope’s summons, but that families did so. Unbeknownst to Riley-Smith, this is entirely consistent with a very large social scientific literature on recruitment to social movements, be they political campaigns or new religions. People become active in social movements in response to the fact that many of their friends, relatives, or other close associates already have done so. Put another way, collective social activities are not the summation of a number of independent choices made by individuals; rather, they are the product of social networks. So, for example, reconstruction of the initial set of converts to new religions, from Buddhism to Mormonism, shows those religions to have begun as family affairs. 30 And so it was with crusading.

Consider the family headed by Count William Tête-Hardi of Burgundy. He had five sons. Of these, three went on the First Crusade and the fourth became a priest who, as Pope Calixtus II (1119–1124), inaugurated an extension of the Crusade to attack Damascus in 1122. Count William also had four daughters. Three were married to men who joined their brothers-in-law and went on the First Crusade, and the fourth was the mother of a First Crusader. As for the Second Crusade, this family sent ten crusaders in 1147. There were many similar examples. Baldwin of Ghent went on the First Crusade, accompanied by his brother, his uncle, and his two brothers-in-law. As for the four Montlhéry sisters, they had so many spouses, children, and other close relatives involved in the Crusades, and in sustaining the crusader kingdoms, that it took Riley-Smith a whole chapter to cover them all.31 Riley-Smith also discovered that, in addition to crusaders’ being highly clustered into immediate families, these crusader families also were extensively tied to one another by marriage and kinship, ties that even crossed the two major nationality groups involved in the First Crusade: the Franks and the Normans. For example, Count William Tête-Hardi’s granddaughter Florina was married to Sven of Denmark and accompanied him on the First Crusade.

In addition to the fact that networks form the basis for joining social movements, there was a second reason that families were so prominent in generating crusaders: families were inevitably deeply involved in the ability of a knight to go crusading. Substantial sums had to be raised to fund the venture, and arrangements had to be made about estates and heirs in case of death. Indeed, that’s why Riley-Smith was able to assemble such an elaborate body of data on the crusaders: these arrangements were recorded in formal, written documents. In many instances, these took the form of very large mortgages, promissory notes, or loan agreements.


Crusading was a very expensive undertaking. A knight needed armor, arms, at least one warhorse (preferably two or three), a palfrey (a riding horse), and packhorses or mules, all of them being very costly items. For example, Guy of Thiers paid ten pounds for a warhorse, which was equal to more than two years of salary for a ship’s captain.32 A knight also needed servants (one or two to take care of the horses), clothing, tenting, an array of supplies such as horseshoes, and a substantial amount of cash to buy supplies along the way, in addition to those supplies that could be looted or were contributed, and he needed to pay various members of his entourage. In those days, money consisted entirely of coins, and because coins are so heavy, a group of knights often shared a treasury wagon.33

Most crusaders also needed funds to sustain their families and estates while they were away in the East. The best estimate is that a typical crusader needed to raise at least four or five times his annual income before he could set forth.34 This reveals the absurdity of all claims that the crusaders were mostly landless younger sons, since it would have been cheaper for families to have kept such sons at home and provided them an adequate inheritance.

Pope Urban asked the richer crusaders to subsidize those lacking sufficient funds, and in response some great nobles put a substantial number of knights on their payrolls. But that still left large numbers, especially among the lesser nobility, in need of very large sums. A few financed their participation by selling property, and some huge sales were involved. In order to raise needed crusading funds, Godfrey of Bouillon sold the entire county of Verdun to King Philip of France. The Viscount of Bourges sold both the city and the county of that name; the buyer also was King Philip.35 In similar fashion, “part of the county of Chalon and the castle Couvin”36 changed owners. And on a smaller scale, there are many records involving the sale of vineyards, mills, and forests, and even of peasants being sold new rights to their land.

However, medieval families placed so much emphasis on never surrendering any property that most aspiring crusaders preferred to borrow rather than sell. Some approached their relatives and friends for loans. Of course, since crusading was so concentrated in families, that often was a dead end, as all who might otherwise have lent the money were themselves seeking funds. Consequently, only about 10 percent of the crusaders obtained their funding from relatives.37 One of these was Robert, Duke of Normandy, who “pawned the entire duchy of Normandy” to his brother King William II of England for ten thousand marks in 1096,38 a sum that would have paid the wages of twenty-five hundred ship’s captains for a year.39 To obtain such a sum, the king had to impose a new tax on the nation despite many angry protests.40 And even having sold the county of Verdun, Godfrey of Bouillon mortgaged his county of Bouillon to the bishop of Liège for fifteen hundred marks.41

Since banks had yet to be invented, in this era monastic orders served as the primary financiers in Europe, 42 and it was to them that most aspiring crusaders turned. Because the Church still clung to its opposition to interest payments (on grounds of usury), the transactions were quite creative. Today one pledges property such as a farm or a factory to a lender and repays the principal, plus interest—the latter being payment for use of the principal. Meanwhile, the borrower retains possession of the mortgaged property and receives any income the property produces. In the eleventh century, however, a lord would borrow a sum of money in the form of a vifage, an arrangement whereby control of the property and all or part of the income it generated passed to the lender until such time as the principal was repaid. The income gained from the property by the lender was, of course, a substitute for interest, but it was not defined as such by the Church, and hence no sin of usury was involved. Thus, for example, in order to go on the First Crusade, William of Le Vast pledged his land for three silver marks to the abbey of Fécamp. In return, the abbey would collect all the rents until William repaid them. (Repayment was not taken from the rents.) Bernard Morel was able to get better terms when he borrowed against his farm from the nuns of Marcigny. His vifage agreement awarded only half of all the income from the farm to the nuns until he, or his heirs, repaid the loan.43

Of course, as with modern mortgages, failure to pay resulted in foreclosure, and because such a high percentage of those knights and nobles who went on the First Crusade died from disease or starvation or were killed in battle, foreclosures were widespread. Thus, the mortgage agreement signed by Achard of Montmerle with the monks of Cluny pledged his property in return for two thousand solidi with the provision that “[n]o person can redeem [this mortgage] except myself. Thus if I die…that which is the subject of this mortgage…shall become the rightful and hereditary possession of the monastery of Cluny in perpetuity.” Achard was killed in fighting near Jerusalem.44

But it wasn’t only raising the funds needed for crusading that caused knights who had taken the cross to enter into negotiations with religious orders. They wanted to insure, as best they could, their fate and that of their families. Thus, Stephen of Blois gave a forest to the abbey of Marmoutier “so that God, at the intercession of St. Martin and his monks, might pardon me for whatever I have done wrong and lead me on the journey out of my homeland and bring me back healthy and safe, and watch over my wife Adela and our children.”45 Robert of Burgundio of Sablé gave a vineyard and a farm to the same abbey “so that God may keep me healthy and safe in going and returning.”46 Many others gave substantial property to monastic groups in return for regular prayers for their souls and their success.

Finally, it must be kept in mind that about 85 to 90 percent of the Frankish knights did not respond to the pope’s call to the Crusade.47 This gives further support to the claim that those who went were motivated primarily by pious idealism. It must be supposed that if it had been widely believed that great returns were to be had from looting a land of “milk and honey,” there would have been a much greater turnout.


The pope made frequent efforts to limit crusading to warriors and their needed support personnel. At Clermont he said: “We do not…advise that the old or feeble, or those unfit for bearing arms, undertake this journey; nor ought women set out at all, without their husbands or brothers or legal guardians. For such are more of a hindrance than aid, more of a burden than advantage.”48 He also forbade clerics from taking part unless given permission to do so by their superiors.

In the groups organized by the nobility, the pope’s advice prevailed to at least a modest extent, although even these contingents contained substantial numbers of noncombatants: monks and clergy, those too elderly to fight, some wives, and the unarmed poor, as well as the usual large contingents of camp followers and whores.49 Unfortunately, the largest groups to head east for the First Crusade paid little heed to the pope’s sensible limitations. Instead, they consisted mainly of peasants and villagers, including many women and children. There were a few knights among them, and although many of the other men had secured some arms, they had no training in using them—a fatal deficiency, as matters turned out. These groups have come to be known as the “People’s Crusade.” They were aroused and led by Peter the Hermit.

Peter the Hermit was so small that his friends called him “Little Peter.” He was “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.”50 Peter was born near Amiens and apparently had attempted a pilgrimage to Jerusalem sometime before 1096 but was turned back and tortured by the Turks, according to Anna Comnena.51 It is uncertain whether he was at Clermont to hear the pope speak, but he quickly embraced the call to crusade and began a remarkably effective evangelistic campaign in support. According to William of Tyre, “[H]e was sharp witted, his glance was bright and captivating, and he spoke with ease and eloquence.”52 At a time when most people had rarely if ever heard any impassioned preaching, at each stop Peter’s charismatic harangues caused outbreaks of public excitement. Guibert of Nogent, who actually met him, wrote that Peter “was surrounded by so great throngs of people, he received such enormous gifts, his holiness was lauded so highly, that no one within my memory has been held in such high honor.”53 Indeed, as he moved from town to town, he inspired so many to leave their homes and follow along that by the time Peter reached Cologne, his train of followers is thought to have numbered fifteen thousand men, women, and children, 54 or equal to the population of London and not far below that of Paris.55

Peter called a brief halt in Cologne in order to preach to the Germans and gather a larger force. But many of his French followers, especially the knights, were in no mood to wait. In early April 1096 (nearly five months ahead of the August 15 departure date fixed by Pope Urban), several thousand marched off toward Hungary under the leadership of Walter the Penniless. Very little is known about Walter, aside from the fact that he was a Frankish knight from Burgundy and was “a well-known soldier” according to Albert of Aachen.56 His true name was Walter Sans-Avoir, but he wasn’t poor. His contingent included some of the knights who had joined Peter and “a great company of Frankish foot-soldiers,”57 and they had adequate funds to pay their way across Europe. However, by jumping the gun Walter put irresistible pressure on Peter for a prompt departure, and so he and his great mass of followers, perhaps numbering twenty thousand, began their march east about ten days later. Their unexpectedly early arrival in Constantinople upset the Emperor Comnena’s timetable and damaged the relationship between the crusaders and the Byzantines.


The knights of Europe sewed crosses on their breasts and marched east for two primary reasons, one of them generic, the other specific to crusading. The generic reason was their perceived need for penance. The specific reason was to liberate the Holy Land.

Just as it has today, the Church in medieval times had many profound reservations about violence, and especially about killing. This created serious concerns among the knights and their confessors, because war was chronic among the medieval nobility and any knight who survived for very long was apt to have killed someone. Even when victims were evil men without any redeeming worth, their deaths were held to constitute sins, 58 and in most instances the killer enjoyed no obvious moral superiority over the victim—sometimes quite the reverse. In addition to violence, the lifestyle of medieval knights celebrated the Seven Deadly Sins and was in chronic violation of the commandments against adultery, theft, and coveting wives.59 Consequently, knights were chronically in need of penance, and their confessors imposed all manner of acts of atonement, sometimes even demanding a journey all the way to the Holy Land.

Thus the call to crusade was not a call to do something novel; no doubt many knights had long been considering a pilgrimage (and a few had already gone and returned). Now the pope himself was assuring them that crusading would wash away all their sins and that at the same time they could rescue the Holy Land, including Christ’s tomb, from further damage and sacrilege at the hands of the enemies of God. It was an altogether noble and holy mission, and the knights treated it as such. The Burgundian Stephen I of Neublans put it this way: “Considering how many are my sins and the love, clemency and mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ, because when he was rich he became poor for our sake, I have determined to repay him in some measure for everything he has given me freely, although I am unworthy. And so I have decided to go to Jerusalem, where God was seen as man and spoke with men and to adore the place where his feet trod.”60

Had the crusaders been motivated not by religion but by land and loot, the knights of Europe would have responded earlier, in 1063, when Pope Alexander II proposed a Crusade to drive the infidel Muslims out of Spain. Unlike the Holy Land, Moorish Spain was extremely wealthy, possessed an abundance of fertile lands, and was close at hand. But hardly anyone responded to the pope’s summons. Yet only thirty-three years later, tens of thousands of crusaders set out for the dry, impoverished wastes of faraway Palestine. What was different? Spain was not the Holy Land! Christ had not walked the streets of Toledo, nor had he been crucified in Seville.

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