Post-classical history

The First Crusade


The Origins of Christian Holy War

On 12 April 1096, a young castellan, Achard of Montmerle, pledged property to the great Burgundian monastery of Cluny in return for 2,000 Lyons shillings and four mules so that he could accomplish his intention to join ‘the journey to Jerusalem to fight for God against pagans and Saracens’. In a similar deal with the abbey of St Victor at Marseilles four months later the brothers Geoffrey and Guy were reported as wishing to seek Jerusalem ‘both for the grace of pilgrimage and under the protection of God, to exterminate the wickedness and unrestrained rage of the pagans by which innumerable Christians have already been oppressed, made captive and killed’.1 The experience of that campaign, which cost Achard his life near Jaffa in June 1099, convinced his companions that they were the army of God ‘fighting for Christ’, their casualties martyrs, their cause supported in battle by the saints of heaven themselves, George, Demetrius and Blaise, ‘knights of Christ’, their success assured because ‘God fights for us’. They were no more than pursuing the task given them by Urban II on his preaching tour of 1095–6, who, in his own words to the Flemish in December 1095, hearing that the Turks had ‘in their frenzy invaded and ravaged the churches of God in the east’ and ‘seized the Holy City’, had at Clermont ‘imposed on them the obligation to undertake such a military enterprise for the remission of all their sins’.2

Fifty years later, in an account of the Second Crusade, an Anglo-Norman priest called Raoul aired a general theory of justified homicide: ‘He is not cruel who slays the cruel. He who puts wicked men to death is a servant of the Lord because they are wicked and there is ground for killing them.’3 By this time, such redefinition of Christian militancy raised few eyebrows. Some years before, the austere and massively influential Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, a sort of one-man European moral ombudsman and one of the instigators of the Second Crusade (1146–8), voiced his approval of the union of the Militia of God and the Militia of the World in the creation of the Military Order of the Knights Templar:

The knight who puts the breastplate of faith on his soul in the same way as he puts a breastplate of iron on his body is truly intrepid and safe from everything… so forward in safety, knights, and with undaunted souls drive off the enemies of the Cross of Christ.4

Bernard, in his recruiting preaching and letters for the Second Crusade in 1146–7, showed intimate knowledge of the New Testament, not least the Epistles of St Paul. The Apostle was fond of martial metaphors, but his message was wholly contrary to the abbot of Clairvaux’s:

Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against the flesh and blood… Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace… taking the shield of faith… and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:11–17)

Or, more succinctly, ‘No man that warreth for God entangleth himself with the affairs of this world’ (II Timothy 2:4) and ‘For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds’ (II Corinthians 10:3–4).

It is a measure of the pragmatism, sophistication (some might say sophistry) and sheer intellectual ingenuity of St Paul’s successors over the following millennium in expounding the doctrine of the Gospels that there was an ideology of Christian holy war at all.


The most ringing modern verdict on the crusades has become justifiably famous. At the end of what has been described as the last great medieval chronicle, his three-volume History of the Crusades (1951–4), Steven Runciman delivered his judgement: ‘the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost’.5 Yet intolerance of the enemies of God has a long history in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For much of the last two millennia there have been scholars and religious propagandists, often a majority, who would have taken issue with Sir Steven just as there have always been those who would have agreed with him. What may appear today to many Christians and perhaps most non-Christians as an irreconcilable paradox between holy war and the doctrines of peace and forgiveness proclaimed in the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount and many other Gospel passages has not always been so obvious or recognized. This was certainly the case in educated circles around Urban II at the end of the eleventh century.

As it had developed by the beginning of its second millennium in western Christendom, Christianity was only indirectly a scriptural faith. The foundation texts of the Old and New Testaments were mediated even to the educated through the prism of commentaries by the so-called Church Fathers, theologians such as Origen of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo and Pope Gregory I who, from the third to the sixth centuries, undertook the often tricky task of translating some inappropriate, obscure, incomplete, contradictory or idealistic apophthegms into an intelligible and satisfying system of thought and action within the context of the institutions of an active religion, a temporal church and the daily lives of believers. The Beatitudes had to be reconciled with human civilization, specifically the Graeco-Roman world, or, to put it crudely, ways found around the Sermon on the Mount. Being extravagantly well versed in the highest traditions of classical learning, the Church Fathers did this rather well. Beside these majestic exercises of the intellect, which extended even to manipulating the wording of some inconvenient biblical texts, Scripture attracted apocryphal additions and spawned a massive literature of imitative hagiography often supported by legends surrounding relics of biblical characters or events. The experience of the church over the centuries provided its own corpus of law, tradition, history, legend and saints that reflected neither the idealism nor experience of the first century AD.

The church’s teaching on war early reflected this process of interpretation and exegesis. Negatively, the so-called charity texts of the New Testament that preached pacifism and forgiveness, not retaliation, were firmly defined as applying to the beliefs and behaviour of the private person. John the Baptist advised soldiers to remain in the army and draw their wages (Luke 3:14). As citizens, Christ told His followers to pay taxes to Caesar, drawing a clear distinction between political and spiritual obligations (Matthew 22:21). St Paul implied the same fundamental dichotomy of obedience in urging his disciple Timothy and his community at Ephesus to pray ‘for kings and all that are in authority’ (I Timothy 2:2). This distinction between the public and the private was reinforced by the Bible’s very language. In St Jerome’s Latin translation of the Scriptures (finishedc.405), known as the Vulgate, which became the standard text of the Bible in the medieval West, the word for ‘enemy’ in the New Testament is invariably inimicus, implying a personal enemy. The Latin for a public enemy, hostis, does not appear in the New Testament. From this it could be argued that there was no intrinsic contradiction in a doctrine of personal, individual forgiveness condoning certain forms of necessary public violence to ensure the security in which, in St Paul’s phrase, Christians ‘may lead a quiet and peacable life in all godliness and honesty’ (I Timothy 2:2).

While theoretically, in a perfect world, individual pacifism could be translated into political pacifism, the main thrust of Christian teaching assumed post-lapsarian sin and imperfection. The Old Testament bequeathed stories of legitimate war pleasing to God, from the Israelites, Joshua and King David to Judas Maccabeus. In contrast to modern Christians not of biblical fundamentalist persuasion, the medieval church placed considerable importance on the Old Testament for its apparent historicity, its moral stories, its prophecies and its prefiguring of the New Covenant. Bible stories operated on many levels (medieval exegetes distinguished as many as four), including literal and divine truth. In the Old Testament, the Chosen People of the Israelites fought battles for their faith commanded and protected by their God. Moses was told directly by God to enlist the Levites to slaughter the followers of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:26–8). God ordered Saul to annihilate the Amalekites ‘men, women, infant and suckling’ (I Samuel 15:3). Warrior heroes adorn the scriptural landscape: Joshua, Gideon, David. In the Books of the Maccabees, recording the battles of Jews against the Hellenic Seleucids and their Jewish allies in the second century BC, butchery and mutilation are praised as the work of God through His followers, whose weapons are blessed and who meet their enemies with hymns and prayers. ‘So, fighting with their hands and praying to God in their hearts, they laid low no less than thirty-five thousand and were greatly gladdened by God’s manifestation’ (II Maccabees 15:27–8). Many Old Testament texts, especially those concerning Jerusalem, could be construed as providing casus belli: ‘O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps’ (Psalm 79).

Even in the New Testament the Apocalypse described in The Revelation of St John is shot through with violence as part of the fulfilment of the Last Judgement:

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war… And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed him… And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. (Revelation 19:11–15)

Such imagery and language as well as the martial history of the biblical Chosen People of the Old Testament fed directly the world-view of the crusaders, providing rich quarries alike for preachers and chroniclers. Although the surviving letters from the First Crusaders contain only one reference to the Apocalypse, commentators were full of it. In a notorious passage, Raymond of Aguilers, chaplain to Raymond IV, count of Toulouse, one of the leaders of the First Crusade, who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem in 1099, described the ensuing massacre on the Temple Mount: ‘it is sufficient to relate that in the Temple of Solomon and the portico crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses’.6 Whatever the atrocities performed that day, Raymond was quoting Revelation 14:20: ‘And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles.’ It is hard to exaggerate the dependence of Raymond’s contemporaries on the Scriptures for imagery and language. Many saw Urban II’s holy war as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy or an imitation and renewal of scriptural struggles. Just as the reformed papacy of the eleventh century loudly proclaimed its adherence to the so-called New Testament Petrine texts in which Christ committed His Church to St Peter, so the holy war itself was perceived and possibly designed to revolve around Matthew 16:24: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’ This was the text referred to in the deal between the south-east German abbey of Göttweig and Wolfker of Kuffern, who had decided to join the march to Jerusalem in 1096 because ‘he wanted to fulfil the Gospel command, “who wishes to follow me”’.7

This process of translating the spiritual conflict described by St Paul into a doctrine of battle and reversing the habit of discounting the interminable wars of the Israelites as literal models for Christian behaviour was not sudden. Until the adoption of Christianity by the Roman state, public war had been rejected by theologians such as Origen of Alexandria in the third century, who insisted that the Old Testament wars should be read as allegories of the spiritual battles of the New Covenant. Thereafter, Christianity had to come to terms with more than biblical exegesis. In devising a tentative theoretical justification for war in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Church Fathers incorporated two distinct traditions of legitimate war, the Helleno-Roman and the Jewish.

The fourth-century bc Greek philosopher Aristotle coined the phrase ‘just war’ to describe the categories of acceptable warfare (Politics I: 8). War provided a natural form of acquisition for the state but should not be an end in itself. It could legitimately be deployed in self-defence, to prevent the state’s enslavement; to obtain an empire to benefit the inhabitants of the conquering state; or to enslave non-Hellenes deserving of slavery. The key was the justice of the ends for which the war was fought. In his Politics (VII: 14) Aristotle insisted that ‘war must be for the sake of peace’. There was no concept of a religious war per se nor of religious disapproval of war, as public religion resembled a civic cult, thus the needs of a virtuous state were almost by definition just. Even while Aristotle deplored the Spartan attitude of war for its own sake, Athenian just war in practice accommodated the tradition of victors’ genocide of those they defeated. To Aristotle’s just ends, Roman Law added just cause, a causa belli as the historian Livy put it, based on contractual relations. From the Latin for peace, pax, derived from the verb pangere, meaning to enter into a contract, it was argued that war was justified if one party was guilty of breaking an agreement or injuring the other. As a legal procedure, to jurists such as Cicero, just war required formal declaration and purposes of defence, recovering lost goods or punishment. The enemy of a just war was ipso factoguilty. Cicero also argued for right conduct, such as virtue or courage, in waging a just war. The practical consequences of these theories lent the aura of justice to all Rome’s wars against external enemies, especially barbarians, identified as hostes, public enemies, automatically legitimate targets of just war.8


When Christianity became adopted as the official religion of the Roman empire in the early fourth century, Graeco-Roman just war confronted the Judaic tradition of wars fought for faith and not merely temporal but divinely ordained rights. The conversion of Constantine and the final recognition of Christianity as the offical religion of the Roman empire in 381 prompted the emergence of a set of limited principles of Christian just war which, by virtue of being fought by the Faithful, could be regarded as holy. The identification of the Roman empire with the church of God allowed Christians to see in the secular state their protector, the pax Romana being synonymous with Christian Peace. For the state, to its temporal hostes were added enemies of the Faith, pagan barbarians and, more immediately dangerous, religious heretics within the empire. Eusebius of Caesarea, historian of Constantine’s conversion, in the early fourth century reconciled traditional Christian pacifism with the new duties of the Christian citizen by pointing to the distinction between the clergy, immune from military service, and the laity, now fully encouraged to wage the just wars for the Christian empire. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), as befitted a former imperial official, consolidated this symbiosis of the Graeco-Roman and Christian: Rome and Christianity were indissolubly united, their fates inextricably linked. Thus the war of one was that of the other, all Rome’s wars were just in the same way that those of the Old Testament Israelites had been; even heresy could be depicted as treason. Ambrose’s vision of the Christian empire and the wars to protect it which constituted perhaps the earliest formulation of Christian warfare was, therefore, based on the union of church and state; hatred of foreigners in the shape of barbarians and other external foes; and a sharp intolerance towards dissent and internal debate, religious and political.

The collapse of the institutions of the Roman empire in the west in the fifth century undermined Ambrose’s union of interests and could have threatened the whole theoretical basis of Christian just war without the work of a younger contemporary, Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). Augustine combined the classical and biblical doctrines of just war to arrive at some general principles outside the context of an active imperium Romana. Augustine’s analysis depended on sin, which caused war but which could also be combated by war. In the face of the political realities of successful barbarian invasions and Donatist heretics in his North African diocese, Augustine combined the Graeco-Roman ideas of right causes and ends with a Christian concept of right intent. With Aristotle he agreed that the right end of war was peace. With Cicero he argued, ‘it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging war’. With Roman lawyers, he agreed that public war must be supported by authority, but cited scriptural evidence: ‘the commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged war on the authority of God’.9

From Augustine’s diffuse comments on war could be identified four essential characteristics of a just war that were to underpin most subsequent discussions of the subject. A just war requires a just cause; its aim must be defensive or for the recovery of rightful possession; legitimate authority must sanction it; those who fight must be motivated by right intent. Thus war, by nature sinful, could be a vehicle for the promotion of righteousness; war that is violent could, as some later medieval apologists maintained, act as a form of charitable love, to help victims of injustice. From Augustine’s categories developed the basis of Christian just war theory, as presented, for example, by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

However, Augustine was no warmonger. The world of the spirit was preferable to that of the flesh. Although public prayers, litanies and masses continued to be said from the fifth to the eight centuries, especially under papal instigation in Rome itself, to invoke divine aid in wars against enemies of the church, the Christian tradition of withdrawal from the world, of non-violence and condemnation of temporal aggression remained, if anything strengthened by the spread of monasticism across Christendom. Nonetheless, Augustine had moved the justification of violence from lawbooks to liturgies, from the secular to the religious. His lack of definition in merging holy and just war, extended in a number of later pseudo-Augustinian texts and commentaries, produced a convenientconceptual plasticity that characterized subsequent Christian attitudes to war. The language of the bellum justum often described what came closer to bellum sacrum. This fusion of ideas might conveniently be called religious war, waged for and by the church, sharing features of holy and just war, allowing war to become valid as an expression of Christian vocation second only to monasticism itself.

A just war was not necessarily a holy war, although all holy wars were, to their adherents, just. While holy war depended on God’s will, constituted a religious act, was directed by clergy or divinely sanctioned lay rulers, and offered spiritual rewards, just war formed a legal category justified by secular necessity, conduct and aim, attracting temporal benefits. The fusion of the two became characteristic of later Christian formulations. Where Rome survived, in Byzantium, the coterminous relation of church and state rendered all public war in some sense holy, in defence of religion as well as state, approved by the church, none more so than when the Emperor Heraclius defeated the Persians and returned the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630. However, Byzantine warfare remained a secular activity, for all its divine sanction, never a penitential act of religious votaries.


The advent of successor kingdoms in what had been the western Roman empire from the fifth century presented the Christian church with cultural as well as political problems. By the eighth century the ruling aristocracies of kingdoms in Italy, Gaul, Spain and the eastern British Isles had almost universally adopted orthodox Roman Christianity without radically altering their social assumptions and belief systems in which, in Carl Erdmann’s words, war provided ‘a form of moral action, a higher type of life than peace’.10In this new aesthetic, apparently contradictory of Christian teaching, war provided a raison d’être for political power and social status because, with the collapse of Roman civil institutions, war and its associated fiscal and human structures of plunder, tribute and thecomitatus or warband of dependent warriors, provided the basis for economic and social cohesion. The army – exercitus – assumed the role of a central public institution in the medieval west. In the process of converting the new rulers of early medieval Europe the church had no option but to recognize their values, even if it sought to defuse them of exclusively martial connotations by employing the new converts’ language metaphorically, much in the manner of St Paul.

Nevertheless, extremely and personally violent converted heroes such as Clovis the Frank in Gaul c.500 or Oswald king of Northumbria c.635 emerge from flattering accounts of Christian apologists as warriors for the Faith even when their political, tribal or national priorities are recognized. According to fellow Northumbrian Bede, Oswald, ‘a man beloved of God’, prayed for divine aid in battle against the British king Cadwalla ‘for He knows that we are fighting in a just cause for the preservation of our whole race’. It might be noted that Cadwalla was a Christian too. Oswald’s bloody career, which ended in death, mutilation and dismemberment at the hands of pagan enemies, earned him the sanctity of a martyr’s crown.11 The concept of the Christian warrior was thus forged in the reality of political life as the church relied for patronage and protection on such violent warlords. So intimate was the symbiosis of religion and society that bishops in northern Europe, themselves usually chosen from aristocratic families, began to appear as great noblemen complete with military retinues. The process of the conversion itself was accompanied by violence; even among the Anglo-Saxons, where there was comparatively little physical hostility to the missionaries, at least one pagan priest, a South Saxon, was killed by a Christian missionary as sign of God’s judgement. Perhaps even more corrosive of Christian pacifism than the political compromises reflected in accounts of conversions was the emergence of physical evangelical aggression in the burgeoning corpus of Christian hagiography: holy men were now themselves party to holy violence, a literary trend that reached maturity in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The type of the early medieval Christian warrior was Charlemagne (d. 814) who renewed the western Roman empire as a Christian imperium in 800 when he was crowned emperor by the pope in Rome. Charlemagne portrayed himself, and encouraged his propagandists to regard him, as the defender of the church. In 791, Charlemagne asked the pope to pray for his success against rebels and enemies so that they would be vanquished by ‘the arms of Faith’. Before campaigns against the pagan Avars of Pannonia in the 790s, special fasts, processions and masses were ordered to ensure victory and a profitable campaign (prosperum iter), Christ Himself being entreated to bring ‘victory and vengeance’, the latter a common legal justification. In 793, Frankish bishops were instructed to institute litanies and fasts for the king and the army of the Franks. Charlemagne’s protracted conquest of the pagan Saxons between the Rhine and the Elbe was placed in a Christian context: the pagan Saxons were ‘hostile to our religion’ and felt ‘no dishonour to violate and transgress the laws of God and man’.12 The Franks were careful to attack Saxon religion and to impose Christianity by force as a civic duty on the conquered Germans. The atmosphere of holy war was deliberately fostered. Frankish kings traditionally carried into battle the relic of St Martin’s cappa (i.e. cloak) to bring victory. According to the Annals of the Kingdom of the Franks, miracles displayed God’s approval of Frankish imperialism and genocide, as at Syburg in 776 when flaming red shields appeared in the sky to confound the Saxons. (The Revised Annals, composed after the great king’s death, interestingly make no mention of such divine encouragement.)13 A contemporary Italian poem attributed the victory over the Avars achieved by Charlemagne’s son Pippin to God, who ‘granted us victory over the pagan peoples’. At Ingelheim near Mainz a wall painting depicted the wars of the Carolingians:

with these and other deeds that place shines brightly;
those who gaze on it with pleasure take strength from the sight.

In such a world, the virtues of the Frankish warrior and the good Christian coincided. In her famous advice (843) to her son William, Dhuoda of Septimania, after praying that God would ‘determine that prosperity shall be his lot in all things’ hoped that he would be ‘openhanded and prudent, pious and brave’.14

Older Christian attitudes to violence did not disappear in the face of militant Carolingian Christian triumphalism. One of Charlemagne’s closest advisers, the Englishman Alcuin of York, in a lament on the destruction of the Northumbrian monastery of Lindisfarne by the Vikings in 793 and the loss of the Christian Near East, North Africa and Spain to the Muslims, insisted that only by prayer and pious living would the tide be reversed. The ninth-century Irish philosopher and poet John Scot Erigena, tutor to Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald, proudly contrasted pagan poets’ descriptions of temporal battles with his own poems on Christ’s spiritual victories, although even he was not above asking that God ‘thwart the scheme of our enemies and rout the pagan fleets’.15 This was no literary flourish but highly topical. The ninth century saw the disintegration of the Carolingian imperium Christiana in the face of civil wars exploited by external attacks of Muslims, Vikings and Magyars, whose success seemed to threaten Christendom itself, thrusting the practice as well as theory of holy war into urgent prominence.


The impact of the invasions of the ninth century was to consecrate wars fought in defence of the church, called by one contemporary ‘battles of Christ’. Pope Leo IV (847–55) offered salvation and Pope John VIII (872–82) penitential indulgences, remission of sins, to those who fought and died ‘for the truth of the Faith the salvation of souls and the defence of Christendom (patria Christianorum)’ ‘against pagans and infidels’.16 Only in the secular arm lay Christianity’s survival as Saracens established themselves in Sicily and southern France and Vikings penetrated the heartlands of western Francia and destroyed three ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The detached theorizing of Augustine’s just war was replaced by a seeming life-and-death struggle to which the church was inescapably committed. The propaganda of Alfred of Wessex (d. 899) deliberately and consistently characterized his Danish foes as pagans; his thegns fought with swords decorated with symbols of the evangelists; prayers and alms accompanied military success. The secular and religious causes became one. The Frankish Annals of Fulda – a monastic source – portrayed Arnulf, king of the East Franks, urging his men on to victory over the Northmen at the river Dyle in 891: ‘we attack our enemies in God’s name, avenging the affront not to us but to Him who is all powerful’, the justice of the cause being carefully established by reference to the pagan Vikings’ atrocities against Frankish civilians and clergy.17 The identification of religion and war extended to the clergy. A French monk, in his enthusiasm at the defence of Paris against the Vikings in 885/6, praised his own abbot of St Germain for his skill with a ballista, a sort of enlarged crossbow:

He was capable of piercing seven men with a single arrow;
in jest he commanded some of them to be taken to the kitchen.18

A few years earlier, Adelarius, a monk at Fleury in Burgundy, which claimed to possess the bones of St Benedict, the founder of his order, recorded that a Frankish commander in a skirmish against the Vikings thought he had seen monks on the battlefield; when told that none had been present he realized that he had witnessed St Benedict himself fighting for him ‘with his left hand directing and shielding my cavalry and with his right hand killing many enemies with his staff’.

This remarkable recruitment of the founder of western monasticism into the armies of the beleaguered Franks strikingly evokes the fusion, or perhaps confusion, of the sacred and the profane that underpinned Christian holy war in medieval Europe. The synthesis was neither a temporary expedient nor of recent gestation. In mediating between the Christian message and Germanic values, the vocabulary of Christianity itself adopted appropriate images accessible to warrior elites. In the eighth-century Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, composed only a generation or so after the completion of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, Christ is described as ‘the young warrior’, ‘the Lord of Victories’; His death on the cross a battle; and heaven a form of Valhalla, ‘where the people of God are seated at the feast’.19 The ninth-century Old German poetic rendering of the Gospel story the Heliand (i.e. Saviour), perhaps used to popularize the new religion among the recently and forcibly converted Saxons, witnesses a similar expression of what could be called vernacular Christianity. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy’ (Matthew 5:7) is transformed into ‘Blessed are those who have kind and generous feelings within a hero’s chest: the powerful Holy Lord will be kind and generous to them.’

The language of martial lordship and the warband dominate. Christ is the liege lord of mankind (manno drohtin), ‘a generous mead-giver’, his disciples his ‘gesiths’, ‘earls’ in high-horned ships or ‘royal thegns’ (cuninges thegn). Judas is damned for changing lords and breaking his bond of loyalty. Peter ‘the mighty noble swordsman’ begs to fight to the death in Gethsemane; Thomas argues that Christ’s followers should suffer with him ‘for that is the thegns’ choice… to die with his liege at his doom’; even Pilate, ‘coming from Caesar… to rule our realm’ resembles nothing so much as a Carolingian governor or missus.20 The thrust of these images is metaphorical, but the extended equation of Christian discipleship with the social relationships and functions of temporal warriors could blur the inherent distinctions between the two, providing a mental picture in which actual physical violence for Christ needed little special pleading. In the poem on the English defeat by the Danes at the battle of Maldon (991), the doomed hero Britnoth, in the thick of the fighting, thanked ‘his Creator for the day’s work that the Lord had granted him’; after his death, his thegns prayed ‘that they might take vengeance for their lord and work slaughter among their foes’.21 The theme of lordship, loyalty and vengeance reached a logical if extraordinary conclusion in one version of the twelfth-century poem about the First Crusade, the Chanson d’Antioche, where Christ is depicted on the cross prophesying that:

the people are not yet born
Who will come to avenge me with their steel lances.
So they will come to kill the faithless pagans

They will all be my sons, I promise them that.
In heavenly paradise shall their heritage be.22

Official church teaching remained reluctant to embrace the secularization of the spiritual battle, though still eager to appropriate the values and services of temporal warriors in its defence. God was a god of victory, His best advocates godly heroes such as Charlemagne or the tenth-century conqueror of the Magyars and recreator of the western empire, Otto the Great (d. 973). Ironically, as the immediate threat from outside diminished, within Christendom the political and social role of the armed nobleman grew as larger political units imploded. Monks persisted in asserting that their ‘spiritual weapons’ and the ‘sword of the spirit’ were effective ‘against the aery wiles of the devil’ and thus of direct use to kings and kingdoms. As the English monk Aelfric of Cerne, the abbot of Eynsham, argued at the end of the tenth century, the religious in their monasteries were ‘God’s champions in the spiritual battle, who fight with prayers not swords; it is they who are the soldiers of Christ’.23

Yet Aelfric’s own vernacular Lives of the Saints (mid-990s), aimed at a secular, aristocratic audience, contains laudatory homilies of St Oswald, St Edmund of East Anglia and Judas Maccabeus. There was no pacifist metaphor here. Following Abbo of Fleury’s widely popular Passio sancti Edmundi, Aelfric’s King Edmund is a martyr for Christ at the hands of the Danes. Even though the king was shown as throwing away his weapons, his resistance is made explicit; as Abbo put it, ‘I have never fled a battlefield, thinking it a fine thing to die for my country (pro patria mori)’; Edmund, a keen warrior, is ‘a martyr for Christ’. Aelfric copied Bede in showing Oswald using force to win power and protect his people and faith; Judas Maccabeus is ‘godes thegen’, waging bloodthirsty war, his troops supported by angels and the prospect of remission of sins. Aelfric makes clear that unbelievers will be slain ‘for their hardheartedness against the Heavenly Saviour’. Of course, as a monk Aelfric insisted on the primacy of the spiritual conflict inherent in the New Covenant but he admits that Judas Maccabeus, through his temporal wars

is as holy, in the Old Testament
as God’s elect ones, in the Gospel-preaching.24

Both Aelfric and Abbo employ the image of a secular warrior, in battle or not, aspring to martyrdom to point to their respectability.

These warrior saints were rulers who, in a sense, validated their own wars. Abbo of Fleury made great play with Edmund’s status as an anointed monarch, vested with authority to defend his people. In his version of the Passio, Aelfric refers to Alfred of Wessex, another protector of his people against pagans. This concentration on kings ceased to match contemporary reality as both the political and ecclesiastical worlds increasingly revolved around princes, counts, even castellans and seigneurs, whose military strength supplied social control and church patronage. From the tenth century the church’s express support was extended more widely to soldiers in public wars and against pagans, even their swords, arms and banners beginning to be blessed in formal liturgies. In his Vita Geraldi Comitis Aurillac (Life of Gerald, count of Aurillac), Abbot Odo of Cluny, one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures in western Christendom in the early tenth century, depicted a man of action, a saintly knight who fought in God’s cause for the common good in a just war. However removed from actual life – Gerald’s sword never shed blood – Odo’s portrait allowed for morality in martial culture. This was particularly important as monasteries more than ever relied on the protection of just such local military bosses. Thus, in the eleventh century, Odo of St Maur-les-Fosses, called Burchard, count of Vendôme, a count ‘faithful to God’ because he defended churches, monks, clergy, widows and nuns: his protection of St Maur itself counted for much. This pious layman nevertheless engaged in private warfare against his neighbours and, ‘confidently trusting in the Lord’, killed people.25 However, this idealized picture of the pious warrior was, in many cases, no less than the truth, as evinced in the level of lay funding and donations to monasteries. The spiritual anxieties attendant on violence as a way of life were not confined to the cloister.

Yet if the church accommodated war, it did not surrender to it, rather churchmen of the tenth and eleventh centuries sought to control and direct it in law and in practice. Across western Europe regional power was increasingly vested in the hands of landed aristocrats whose cultural world and social mentality were shaped by the practice of war. Around them emerged a class of dependants, members of their military households and tenants who in turn adopted the habits and outlook of their superiors, the future knights. While in many, but by no means all, parts of western Europe (England, areas of northern France and Germany were exceptions) political power had tended to devolve down to the localities, the years around 1000 did not witness some reversion to a Hobbesian state of nature. At a time of growing population, ownership of land was increasingly profitable, provided control of agricultural and commercial resources was tightly managed. Nucleated estates, often combined into blocs with associated public as well as private fiscal and judicial authority being exercised by the local landowners rather than by distant rulers or their representatives, may have looked chaotic from above, but supplied local cohesion, even if only that of the protection racket. This process of political, judicial and fiscal fragmentation seems especially apparent in western Francia, what is now France, but even here much power remained or was recreated by regional counts. One problem created by this mosaic of private usurpations of public rights, which applied to areas with emergent towns such as Flanders, the Rhineland or north Italy as much as to rural provinces, was the lack of sovereign or effective arbitration. Literally, counts, seigneurs and castellans took the law into their own hands in a process that sharply exacerbated the tendency towards endemic violence. Yet the perpetrators of this seemingly endless round of private violence were often themselves concerned for the destiny of their immortal souls, frenzied violence being interrupted by no less hysterical contrition. Famously, Fulk Nerra, the Black, count of Anjou, punctuated his bloody career of territorial aggrandizement in the Loire valley in the years around 1000 with three pilgrimages to Jerusalem ‘driven by fear of hell’; more permanently, he founded a monastery near Loches, where monks could pray ‘day and night for the redemption of his soul’.26


The principles evoked by Odo of Cluny’s portrait of Gerald of Aurillac and Odo of St Maur’s description of Burchard of Vendôme were not merely literary models. From the later tenth century, initially across the duchy of Aquitaine but spreading to Burgundy and, after an apparent lull in the third quarter of the eleventh century, resuming in northern France and the Rhineland, bishops summoned clergy and laity to councils at which they proclaimed the Peace of God, reinforced from the 1020s with Truces of God. The Peace of God consisted of agreement by the arms-bearers, under oath, to protect those outside the pale of the military classes: monks, other clergy, the weak, the vulnerable and the poor, just those, in fact, for whom Burchard of Vendôme allegedly spent his time fighting. The Truces specified periods during which all violence should cease. Both were to be policed by the local arms-bearers, under oath and the threat of excommunication and ecclesiastical interdict. The oaths exacted at these councils were regarded as demonstrating a communal repentance as much as responsibility, all sections of free society being apparently represented in attempts to expiate sins and alleviate God’s punishment in the shape not only of violence but of pestilence and famine. To this end, many councils were held in the awesome presence of the relics (i.e. almost invariably cadavers or bones) of local saints. There was an apparent contradiction in churchmen who willingly blessed the warriors’ instruments of death proclaiming, as did the Council of Narbonne in 1054, that ‘no Christian shall kill another Christian for whoever kills a Christian undoubtedly sheds the blood of Christ’.27

The Peace and Truce of God movements, sporadic, local, regional and ineffectual though they were, provided if not a model for the laity then a pattern for the clergy that directly influenced the inception of the First Crusade. The role of the knight was couched in positive language, as protector of Christian peace, specifically of the church and its interests. The clergy assumed leadership in tackling the material as well as moral ills of the temporal world and commanded the laity; oaths bound laymen into corporate action for a religious end, peace. Logically, if knights were forbidden to pursue their profession within Christendom, then just causes outside had to be found. It was no coincidence that Urban II’s speech launching the First Crusade echoed in setting, style and possibly even content the exhortations of the Peace and Truce movement; his audience’s vocal responses – ‘Deus lo volt!’ – paralleled the cries of ‘Pax, pax, pax!’ at earlier councils; and at Clermont Urban’s council passed a decree establishing a Peace throughout Christendom which was promulgated at regional church councils over the following months. Given the revival of the Peace and Truce movement in the 1080s in the Rhineland, a centre of reforming ideas with close contacts with the papacy, the link with holy war, although not geographically universal, was evident.

The problem remained of the legitimate function of arms-bearers in a Christian society. That of benign local policeman hardly fitted the political reality or individual self-image of men who saw what violence could bring; in the case of those Frenchmen who sought their fortunes in southern Italy or England fame, fortune and riches beyond their dreams. Despite concerted attempts from the tenth century, through exhortation and the liturgy, to refine the attitudes of arms-bearers to ensure righteous motives, just cause and humility even in victory, the prevailing ideology remained that, however lawful the conflict, fighting was sinful, the occupation of arms intrinsically a sin. This traditional position was retained by the widely influential canon lawyer Burchard, bishop of Worms (d. 1025) and even in his early years by Pope Gregory VII, who was to transform papal ideas on arms-bearing. In 1066, William of Normandy had invaded England with explicit papal approval, his cause deemed just, his army fighting under a papal banner. His opponent, Harold II, was adjudged an oath-breaker, having previously promised to support William’s claim to the throne, a usurper and, thanks to his patronage of a pluralist archbishop of Canterbury of contested legitimacy, a schismatic. Nonetheless, in 1070 on all who had fought with William at Hastings and had killed or wounded men penances were imposed even though the invasion was recognized as a ‘public war’ in the classical sense.28 The idea that an arms-bearer could be truly penitent whilst remaining a warrior, still less use fighting itself as a penance, was a development only of the twenty years before Urban II’s ideological coup of 1095 and a result of precise circumstances of papal policy and perceived threats to the Roman church from within and beyond Christendom’s frontiers.


In the later eleventh century, holy war became a particular and intimate concern of the reformed papacy, one which was to transform Christian attitudes and practices for half a millennium. The main thrust of papal reform was towards restoring to the church the pristine autonomy and spirituality of the Acts of the Apostles. This required enforcing canonical rules on the secular clergy, prohibiting abuses such as simony (buying or selling a cure of souls), clerical marriage, treating ecclesiastical office as property or political position and the intrusion of lay control over clergy and churches. A radical alteration was projected in the relationship of church and state which, since the Carolingians and perhaps since Constantine, had assumed mutual cooperation rather than separation. This carried severe political risks. At most centres of political power, the church was inextricably linked with secular rule: kings, notably in England or Germany, looked to churchmen for material and political assistance, received their prayers in scarcely disguised king cults and exercised recognized powers of patronage in church appointments. Exclusion of lay control not only undermined powerful and well-established political structures, it cut at local patronage systems whereby donor families maintained close, proprietorial interests in monasteries they had founded or subsidized or in parishes they had established on their estates. For the secular clergy, reform implied a deliberate attempt to distinguish the clerical order from the habits and behaviour of the laity. Crudely, reform aimed at making them more like monks in celibacy, in immunity from the material snares of money and personal property, and in obedience, to canon law, their ecclesiastical superiors and, ultimately, the pope. The social impact was potentially considerable, marking the end of the inheritance of clerical land and office. For the church, while there were clear economic advantages in denying the heritability, division and potential alienation of church property, there remained the argument of law and morality. The impact of papal reform was profound because of such effective combination of the temporal and spiritual.

While moral and institutional reform of the clergy had been promoted in many areas of early eleventh-century western Christendom, the annexation of the papal office by a cosmopolitan group of radicals and puritans from the mid-1040s provided reformers with the oldest, most dignified institution of church government with which to exercise authority and impose doctrinal, legal and liturgical uniformity. The challenges to the reformed papacy became those of politics and discipline as well as law and doctrine. Skilfully, if controversially, manipulating political circumstances in Italy and Germany, the reforming popes asserted not just the independence of the church, libertas ecclesiae, but the autonomous primacy of the see of St Peter. Trumpeting the Petrine texts in the New Testament as demonstrating how Christ gave St Peter – and therefore the pope as his heir or, more telling, vicar (i.e. representative) – rule of the church and authority in heaven and on earth (e.g. Matthew 16:18–19), the reforming popes increasingly claimed authority not just over all churches but over states and laymen as well. Ideologically and politically, this invited opposition, much of it physical. To establish and protect their ‘right order’ of Christendom, successive popes were forced or chose to fight with temporal weapons. The First Crusade was a direct result of this.

In recruiting allies or raising their own troops, later eleventh-century popes were fully aware of the theoretical implications as much as the political necessities. The moral standing of those who fought for the pope became a matter of acute concern. In 1053, Leo IX (1048–54) offered German troops who fought (unsuccessfully) under his personal command against the Norman bandit lords of southern Italy remission of penance and absolution of sins. In 1059, as a result of a major diplomatic revolution, these same Normans became papal vassals, with the obligation to fight for their new lord. Papal banners were granted the Norman invaders of Sicily (in 1060) and England (in 1066) and to Milanese street gangs, the Patarines, engaged in a violent and protracted struggle for the eradication of clerical abuses and control of the archbishopric of the city in the 1060s and 1070s. Holy war became part of the papal programme. The Patarine conflict was called a bellum Dei, a war of God, the fallen Patarine leader Erlembald (d. 1075), a martyr. The key testing ground of papal reform and power was in Germany, where any loosening of the link between church and state or challenge to imperial authority was fiercely opposed by Emperor Henry IV. From the late 1070s disagreements turned to war, the so-called wars of the Investiture Contest, although the issues were far broader than whether or not kings should invest bishops with ring and staff. To fight for papal interests, the most militant of the reforming popes, Gregory VII, even attempted to recruit knights from across Europe to form a papal army, a militia sancti Petri, a Militia of St Peter.

Gregory VII significantly developed the theory and practice of holy war and holy warriors. Although not given to citing Augustine of Hippo himself, his loyal henchman Bishop Anselm II of Lucca, in his Collectio canonum (i.e. Collection of canon law) of c.1083, brought together the Augustinian theories of just war in one contained, intelligible and coherent place for the first time, although its circulation was limited. Gregory, one of whose favourite scriptural quotations was ‘Cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed’ (Jeremiah 48:10), preferred a moral rather than legal approach. He identified two forms of occupation for arms-bearers, one secular, selfish and sinful, the other penitential, justified by legitimate rights, loyalty to a lord, protection of the vulnerable or defence of the church. Writing in the decade after Gregory’s death, a vigorous papalist propagandist, Bishop Bonizo of Sutri, in his Liber de Vita Christiana, identified those who, ‘for their salvation and the common good’, fought schismatics, heretics and excommunicates and protected the poor, orphans and widows, as members of an ‘ordo pugnatorum’, an order of warriors to rank in the social hierarchy, precisely the group implied by the Militia of St Peter and to whom Urban II sought to direct his appeal in 1095.29By the end of his stormy pontificate, Gregory VII offered all who fought for his cause, in whatever fashion, absolution of their sins and the prospect of eternal salvation. Provided their motivation was grounded on selflessness and faith not gain, such soldiers could combine penance and violence. In castigating his opponents and encouraging his followers Gregory extended his rhetoric, likening service in such a just war as an imitation of Christ’s sufferings against ‘those who are the enemies of the cross of Christ’.30

Gregory was not merely a rhetorician or theorist. Even before becoming pope, as archdeacon of the Roman church, he had taken a keen interest in wars on behalf of the church, in Sicily, England and Milan. As pope, this continued. In 1076, he offered absolution of all sins to the knights of Count Roger of Sicily on a projected campaign against the Saracens as he did to those joining an attack on Byzantium in 1080 to restore, as Gregory mistakenly thought, the rightful emperor. Throughout the 1070s and 1080s, he tried to enlist milites in Italy, Germany and France to coerce clergy contumaciously clinging to unreformed practices of simony and fornication as much as he encouraged the civil conflict in Milan and, after 1080, armed resistance to Henry IV in Germany and Italy. Beyond the specific justifications of war and the function of the arms-bearer, this extension of papal approval and rhetoric lent these conflicts a sustained ideological quality Gregory deliberately fostered and publicized. Those involved were bombarded with rhetoric from all sides insisting on the principles for which they were fighting, conceived in terms of service to God. Many, like the fidelis beati Sancti Petri Raymond IV of Toulouse or the duke of Lower Lorraine, Godfrey of Bouillon, who fought for the emperor in Italy against the pope in the 1080s, were to answer the call to Jerusalem in 1096. The level of this propaganda war was such as to indicate that catching the imaginations of the knights themselves was no accident. Not all was conducted on the highest intellectual plane. One imperialist propagandist nicknamed Godfrey of Bouillon’s predecessor but one as duke of Lorraine, another Godfrey, but a staunch papalist, as ‘Prickfrey’ or ‘Shitfrey’.31

The ideological rhetoric of the Investiture Contest wars and the recruitment of knights to establish and protect the Peace and Truce of God depended on the susceptibility of western knights to a religiously framed ideology of war. The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis left a sharp portrait of one such pious warlord. Hugh, count of Avranches in western Normandy and earl of Chester in north-west England, a nephew of William the Conqueror, had done very well out of the Norman conquest of England, a classic example of that eleventh-century aristocratic mobility and fluid opportunistic careerism that fuelled the First Crusade. In establishing his power on the fringes of the Anglo-Norman realm, Hugh, called by some ‘the wolf’, acquired a foul reputation; vicious, violent, addicted to gambling, a lecher and a glutton, so fat he could hardly move, he was ‘a great lover of the world’ (not a recommendation in the eyes of the monk who used the phrase). Brave, extravagant and generous to the point of prodigality, he attracted around him a rowdy household in which many were as debauched and sybaritic as he. Yet Hugh was also a patron of monks and an old and close friend of the saintly abbot and archbishop Anselm. He employed a chaplain, Gerold, who furthered the moral instruction of his household with stories of ‘holy knights’ from the Old Testament and of Christian military heroes, including the legendary William of Orange, a saintly warrior in one of the earliest cycles of chansons de geste. Some in Gerold’s audience were so moved that they became monks; Hugh himself died (in 1101) in the habit of a Benedictine.32 Such figures were found across western Christendom, from Denmark to Sicily. In such a raucous atmosphere of passion, carnality, militarism and piety was nurtured the mentality of the holy warriors of 1096, among them friends and relatives of Hugh, possessed of the self-righteousness of ideological conviction to add to the heady brew of hedonism, brutality, guilt, obligation, spirituality and remorse. These were precisely the skilled soldiers Gregory VII had hoped to recruit and Urban II did.

The most dramatic and quixotic of Gregory’s military plans was that of 1074, when he announced his intention to lead in person an army to help the Christians of the eastern Mediterranean, who were beleaguered by the Seljuk Turks, ‘to take up arms against the enemies of God and push forwards even to the sepulchre of the Lord under His supreme leadership’. The diplomatic context, involving a delicate and unstable triangle of Byzantium, the papacy and the Normans, was specific, in part a consequence of the Greek defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert (1071). However, the objects of the enterprise – apparently Jerusalem, the consolidation of relations with the eastern church, the demonstration of active papal leadership of the whole of Christendom, lay and ecclesiastical, east and west – as well as the rhetoric, pointed directly to the path his protégé Urban II later chose. The language was especially striking, with its persistent emphasis, not only on St Peter, as was usual in his calls to arms, but on Christ Himself:

the example of our Redeemer and the duty of brotherly love demand of us that we should set our hearts upon the deliverance of our brethren. For as He offered his life for us, so ought we to offer our lives for our brothers.

Gregory hoped he could ‘with Christ’s help carry succour to the Christians who are being slaughtered by the pagans’; preferable even to dying for one’s country, ‘it is most beautiful and glorious indeed to give our mortal bodies for Christ, who is life eternal’. He called on the faithful ‘to defend the Christian faith and serve (militare) the heavenly king’ thus ‘by a transitory labour you can win an eternal reward’.33 Similar Christocentric rhetoric suffused Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade twenty years later. Before he became pope, Odo of Largery, as cardinal-bishop of Ostia from 1080, had been very close to Gregory VII, once described as his pedisequus, lackey or valet. Within the papal Curia in the early twelfth century, therefore among those who may have known those involved first or at most second hand, Urban II’s crusade was seen explicitly as completing Gregory’s abortive project of 1074.

Gregory’s scheme of 1074 displayed a broad sense of history. The pope placed his desire to help and be reconciled with the eastern church in the context of papal visits to Constantinople that had ceased in the early eighth century when the Carolingian Franks were adopted as the new protectors of the church in the west. The church’s legitimizing of war in the eleventh century was similarly influenced by a historical perspective. Just as Carolingian warriors gained in reputation by being seen as the champions of Christianity against pagan and infidel foes, so the perception of a turn in what had seemed an inexorable tide running against Christendom not only inspired gestures such as Gregory VII’s in 1074 and Urban II’s in 1095 but enhanced the status of those called upon to fight for the Faith. However important the just and holy war against enemies of the church in general, the highest justification for knighthood was the battle against the infidel, against Islam. The earliest vernacular French chansons de geste of the late eleventh and early twelfth century, which provide some insight into the mentality and idealism of the arms-bearing classes, while displaying little of the trappings of the crusade – war as penance, Jerusalem and the Holy Land, papal authorization – demonstrated the special status of war against the infidel, who stood both in practice and in literary type as the absolute antithesis to the Christian world, a dangerous alien aping of the familiar and the good. As the Song of Roland, the earliest surviving version of which seems to have been consolidated c.1100, put it in a notorious line: ‘Paien unt tort e chrestiens unt dreit’ (Pagans are wrong and Christians are right).34 The memory of the long struggle with Islam from the seventh century was not lost 400 years later. If anything, it had grown in symbolic as well as political significance, an exaggerated exercise in collective religious and cultural nostalgia. The context of western reactions to Islam in the eleventh century was of a period of active military confrontation on all frontiers which had been preceded by one of relative stability. The First Crusade occurred at a time of shifting fortunes along the borders of Christendom, which provided the opportunity to think of aggressive campaigns even before the request for aid from the eastern emperor in 1095.


The ten years after the death of Muhammed at Mecca in 632 redrew the political and religious map of the Mediterranean and Near East. The ancient rivals of Christian Byzantium and Sassanian Persia who had fought each other almost to a standstill in a war that had lasted a generation (602–28) proved easy pickings for the Arab-led armies that swept from the Arabian peninsular to conquer the Fertile Crescent: Syria and Palestine 635–41; Persia 637–42; Egypt 640–42. In classical Muslim historiography, deliberately symbolic was the entrance into Jerusalem of the caliph (i.e. successor to the Prophet as Commander of the Faithful), Umar, in February 638. The caliph was not the field commander of operations in Palestine but, with the fall of Jerusalem imminent, he arrived to supervise proceedings. Having negotiated a peaceful surrender of the Holy City whence, Islamic tradition insisted, the Prophet had made his night journey to heaven, Umar entered the city, on a donkey or camel – the sources disagree – ostentatiously dressed in coarse, dirty robes, perhaps in deliberate contrast to the lavish parades favoured by the defeated Byzantines. The religious element in the triumph was clear to both Muslim and Christian commentators. Going to the terrace on which the Jewish Temple had stood, the supposed site of Muhammed’s celestial ascent but now reduced to a rubbish tip, Umar ordered the clearance of the site and the construction of a small mosque. Equally, in accordance with the surrender terms, the shrines, churches and synagogues of the Christians and the Jews were left untouched. This iconic moment resonated for centuries; it was entirely appropriate that the fullest contemporary history of crusading and the subsequent western settlements in Palestine and Syria in the twelfth century, by Archbishop William of Tyre, began with the Arab conquests and the failure of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius to resist them.35

The conquest of Jerusalem marked just one stage of Muslim expansion. Within a century of the Prophet’s death, Muslim rule extended from central Asia and north India to Spain. In the Mediterranean basin, Constantinople had survived the great siege of 674–7, but Byzantine sea supremacy had been shattered; Cyprus had been ceded to joint rule, Muslim control on the mainland of western Asia extended to Armenia and Cilicia, and the Byzantine provinces in north Africa lost by 698. In a lightning campaign, Visigothic Spain was overwhelmed by Arab-led Berber armies in 711–13. Although defeated by the Franks at Poitiers in 732, Muslim armies continued to harass southern Gaul for some years. Although the era of conquest was followed by civil war, religious schism and a collapse of political unity, with Spain and north Africa acquiring separate rulers, the Abbasid caliphs, established since 750 in Baghdad, retained the nominal loyalty of much of the Islamic world. More significantly, an international affinity was created by Islamic culture and, to a lesser degree, religion. The question of the extent of Arabization and Islamicization of conquered lands remains obscure and vexed, but it appears that the process was slow, uneven and, by the eleventh century, still incomplete. It is not certain whether there was even a Muslim majority in Syria or Palestine when the crusaders arrived in 1097.

In part this was a consequence of Islamic law. For those Christians and Jews, People of the Book, living within Muslim lands, the so-called Dar al-Islam (House of Islam), religious tolerance was guaranteed by the early Islamic texts. Sura 109 of the Koran declared:

Unbelievers, I do not serve what you worship, nor do you serve what I worship. I shall never serve what you worship nor will you ever serve what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine.

In return for Islamic rule and protection, the People of the Book had to recognize their subordinate status and pay a tax, the jizya. Despite the reaction of some modern sentimentalists, there was little of generosity but much of pragmatism in these rules. By contrast, beyond the world of Islamic order, in the Dar al-harb (House of War), non-Islamic political structures and individuals were open to attack. All the world must recognize or embrace Islam through conversion or subjugation. Thus on the Muslim community was enjoined jihad, struggle. In classical Islamic theory, i.e. traditionally from the seventh and eighth centuries but possibly later, this took two forms, the greater (al-jihad al-akbar), the internal spiritual struggle to achieve personal purity, and the lesser (al-jihad al-asghar), the military struggle against infidels. Both were obligatory on able-bodied Muslims. Unlike Christian concepts of holy war, to which the Islamic jihad appears to have owed nothing, jihad was fundamental to the Faith, described by some as a sixth pillar of Islam. In theory, fighting was incumbent on all Muslims until the whole world had been subdued, but it was a spiritual as well as military exercise from the start, and a corporate not individual obligation.

In practice, after the first century of conquest, accommodation was regularly achieved across religious and political frontiers. Islam was not in a constant state of aggression against neighbours and was no more actively militant than their enemies. Continued, almost ritualized raiding across stable frontiers in Asia Minor or Spain was lent added intensity during the collapse of Frankish power and continued Byzantine impotence in the west in the ninth century, highlighted by the conquest of Sicily by 830 and pirate bases being established in Calabria and Provence. However, much Muslim warfare was internal. By the mid-tenth century separate caliphates had been established, that of the Umayyads at Cordoba in Spain was of long standing and reached a pinnacle of success in this century, ending it with raids deep into Christian territory under the command of the effective ruler of Cordoba, al-Mansur. The Fatimid caliphate of north Africa had annexed Egypt in 969, buoyed by its Shi’ite heresy, a religious as well as political challenge to the Abbasids of Baghdad. The tenth century also saw a revival of Byzantine military power. Nicephoras Phocas (963–9) regained Cyprus and Syrian Antioch; his successor, John Tzimisces (969–76), campaigned in northern Iraq (974) and, in 975, in Syria and northern Palestine, his propaganda possibly even offering the prospect of a recapture of the holy sites of Jerusalem.

Yet such wars were hardly religious, even if some thought them just or holy. The Greeks wished to secure the eastern marches of Asia Minor; Nicephoras was perfectly willing to allow Muslim Aleppo to become a client, self-governing city. Al-Mansur posed as a holy warrior, yet he hired Christian mercenaries and his attack on the famous shrine of St James at Compostela in Galicia in 997 was only made possible by Christian nobles who acted as guides.36 This essentially secular pattern continued into the eleventh century, especially in Spain, where Christian adventurers rifled through the debris left by the collapse of the Cordoba caliphate from the 1030s, often in alliance with, or in the service of, Muslim princelings.

From the perspective of the western church, conflict with Islam was ipso facto meritorious in a religious context. Whatever the reality of ambitious Italian trading cities, Norman bandits, Spanish lords or even Greek princes, churchmen, in particular successive popes, conceptualized the conflict, fitting it into a wider picture of cosmic significance and individual grace. Whereas in the ninth century, Christendom appeared genuinely threatened, the frontier skirmishing of the eleventh century was of a very different order, yet the rhetoric was conversely gaudier. This was of considerable importance as the attitude to wars against the infidel in the earlier eleventh century coloured the whole approach of Urban II. The motives for holy war were always ever only partly practical, those directed against Muslims often being only tangentially related to any military necessity in defence of Christendom. What counted for successive popes was the place of these wars in Christian history and the opportunity they afforded for a revival of religious enthusiasm, devotion and piety, essentially concerns internal to the church and Christian society.

This is not to say that religion played no part in these wars. Pisan raids on Palermo in Sicily (1063) and al-Mahdiya in north Africa (1087) were consciously placed in the context of Christian service. The Norman invaders of Sicily after 1060, supported by papal encouragement and banner, were regarded by some as champions of the Faith. Their troops took Communion before battle; their efforts were sustained by visions of saints; and one Italian chronicler (who died in 1085, so avoiding the hindsight of the First Crusade that infected others) had the Norman leader Robert Guiscard declare his wish to free Christians from Muslim rule and to ‘avenge the injury done to God’.37

Pilgrimage and war marched closely together. The Pisan al-Mahdiya campaign in 1087 included a pilgrimage to Rome. Frenchmen were habitués of the pilgrimage to Compostela as well as the reconquista. A grant of indulgences by Pope Alexander II has been variously interpreted, if genuine, as applying either to war or pilgrimage or both.38 Gregory VII’s enigmatic reference to the Holy Sepulchre in 1074 hinted at a fusion of ideas, unsurprising in a pope so concerned with the ramifications of confession and penance as well as war. Partly no doubt as a consequence of an increase in pilgrimages, especially to Jerusalem, attested by Muslim as well as western observers and itself a result of the increase in Byzantine power in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean under Emperor Basil the Bulgar Slayer (d. 1025), there was a distinct frisson of outrage at the arbitrary destruction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre by the unstable Fatimid caliph of Egypt, al-Hakim, in 1009. Whether or not Pope Sergius IV (1009–12) encouraged the creation of a Christian relief fleet with a promise of indulgences, news of the outrage rang across the west. In a grim foreshadowing of the anti-Semitism of later Jerusalem holy warriors, a Burgundian chronicler, Ralph Glaber (d. 1046), recorded how Jewish communities in France were perversely blamed for inciting al-Hakim and were violently persecuted in consequence.39 Elsewhere, chroniclers saw those fighting wars of profit in Spain or in the Venetian defence of Bari against Muslims in 1003 as inspired by faith, as indeed may have been the participants themselves. In 1015–16, Pope Benedict VIII (1012–24) openly approved a Pisan and Genoese raid on Muslim pirate bases in Sardinia. The Limousin monk Adhemar of Chabannes (d. 1034) not only recorded the Jewish libel over the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre, adding gory details of atrocities against eastern Christians, but frequently mentioned campaigns against the Moors in Spain and, in describing a supposed Muslim attack on Narbonne c.1018, told of the Christian defenders receiving Communion before battle. Adam, who referred to his warlike lay uncles with pride, revealed a world in which religiosity and violence were as close as his lay and clerical relatives.40

From 1060, the reformed papacy applied their theories of justified war with even greater vigour and legal precision to campaigns against the infidel than they did to those against their Christian enemies. In Sicily, the ethos of holy war was carefully nurtured, extending to the eccentric but politically convenient expedient of appointing the military commander, Count Roger, Robert Guiscard’s equally bellicose younger brother, as papal legate, the pope’s representative in running the church in the newly conquered island. Although it appears that many holy war aspects of the reconquest of Muslim Spain resulted from the First Crusade rather than the other way round, the Iberian peninsula attracted interest from popes and French knights and fitted neatly and centrally into the increasingly grandiose concepts of world destiny being peddled not just by papal apologists but by monastic reformers as well. Glaber, a Cluniac Benedictine whose order had a long and close interest both in the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain and in promoting pilgrimage, peppered his chronicle with accounts of pilgrimages to Jerusalem (which he feared had become abused as a fashionable accessory for those seeking prestige not penitence); Christian warfare against the Moors in Spain and, on one occasion, the Slavs beyond the Elbe; and the Peace and Truce of God movement. Glaber was in no doubt of the efficacy of all of them; even monks who broke their vows and in extremis took up arms, were seen as gaining salvation.41 In this context, papal approval and grants of specific spiritual privileges to warriors against infidels would have occasioned little surprise. It is likely that Alexander II offered a lifting of all penances and remission of sins to campaigners in Spain in 1064. Gregory VII advertised ‘eternal reward’ for recruits against the infidel (and others) in 1074. In 1089, Urban II himself urged the colonization of the devastated frontier city of Tarragona on the Spanish coast south of Barcelona as a penitential act. The rebuilding of the city was described in military terms, as providing a wall of Christianity against the Muslims; those joining the enterprise could substitute it for any planned penitential pilgrimage, including that to Jerusalem, later specified as ‘indulgence of your sins’.42

Theories and practices of morally just and spiritually meritorious warfare had developed unevenly in response to changing political circumstances, religious outlook and social behaviour. Many clung to older concepts of sin and spiritual war. Some feigned or genuinely felt shock at the unapologetic and unequivocal combination of war and penance proposed by Urban II in 1095. Yet the pre-history of the First Crusade was long and illustrious. Holy war against infidels who, by the late eleventh century, appeared if not in retreat then at least to be subject to attack on equal terms, provided one means of morally legitimate expression for a military aristocracy whose social authority and robust culture served to highlight their spiritual vulnerability. The detritus of legal justifications, scriptural, Patristic and classical, thrown into relief by actual experience in the Carolingian period and by romanticized echoes of it enshrined in vernacular chansons de geste, supplied material from which fresh theories of holy war could be constructed. The catalystwas as much the perspectives and interests of the reformed papacy as the external threats presented by Islam: together they set the stage for Urban II. Yet much of what was proclaimed as new by the call to arms in 1095 represented old wine in new bottles; the winepress from which it came was grimed with use and age.

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