Post-classical history


The Summons to Jerusalem

The sermon preached by Pope Urban II outside the cathedral at Clermont in the Auvergne on Tuesday, 27 November 1095 has been seen as setting in train one of the most renowned sequence of events in the history of western Europe and Christianity. The story has resonated down the centuries; of how tens of thousands willingly uprooted themselves for the sake of liberating Jerusalem, a place of unimaginable physical remoteness yet ubiquitous immediate appeal; of how, suffering horrific losses and agonizing obstacles, they were painfully forged into an army that appeared to campaign as much in a war of the spirit as of the flesh; of how they surmounted seemingly fatal odds, of climate, terrain, local hostility and superior enemy numbers in repeated desperate battles and skirmishes; and of how, after three years on the road, the survivors stormed the Holy City, reclaiming it for Christendom, as one awed observer remarked, 460 years after its loss to Islam under the Emperor Heraclius.1 If the response to Urban’s appeal astonished all and shocked some, the outcome provided its own justification, creating a legend to feed the imaginations of western Europeans, to stir their emotions and haunt their nightmares.

The luminosity of the story of triumph over adversity in the cause of God, shining with epic, romance, adventure, excitement, glamour, heroism and the supernatural, casts shade as well as light. It suited promoters and apologists as well as the conquering heroes themselves, the proud Jerusalemites, to depict this holy war as a coherent narrative, of defined armies and a clear pattern of campaign. The story of the march to Jerusalem obscured much that failed to fit an acceptable and accepted literary and theological pattern, or challenged the embroidered reminiscences of the returned warriors of Christ. So far from a sudden clap of thunder or a leap in the dark, the devising and prosecution of what is now called the First Crusade, if unexpected, was not entirely unfamiliar, while much of the process remains unknown and unknowable.

The traditional version, largely derived from contemporary chronicles reflecting the experiences and perspectives of contingents and commentators in northern and southern France combined with a distinctive view from Lorraine, describes a series of armies leaving the west from the spring to the autumn of 1096 in explosive popular response to the inspirational and novel preaching of Urban II and his agents; their rendezvous was Constantinople, which all had reached by the end of May 1097. The earliest contingents, some associated with the charismatic preacher Peter the Hermit, often misleadingly known as the Peasants’ Crusades, after engaging in destructive attacks on Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland, continued to display indiscipline as they were picked off by enraged locals during separate marches across the Balkans, those who eventually reached Constantinople being massacred in their first serious military encounter with the Turks of western Asia Minor in the autumn of 1096. The armies of the so-called Princes’ Crusade, with more discipline, military skill, diplomatic contacts and money, fared better. Led by great nobles such as the dukes of Lower Lorraine and Normandy, the counts of Toulouse, Boulogne, Flanders, Blois and the brothers of the king of France and count of Apulia, accompanied by important churchmen, including a papal legate, and large numbers of knights, dependent and free, as well as footsoldiers, servants, camp-followers and subsidized pilgrims, these armies coalesced at the siege of Nicaea near the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus in June 1097.

With financial and military assistance from the Byzantine emperor, this skilled but disparate army fought its way across Anatolia before crashing into northern Syria in October 1097. During an extraordinary siege of Antioch (October 1097 to June 1098), when appalling material conditions and fear of military vulnerability caused many to desert, and a near-miraculous defeat of a Syrian relief force, the western army found sustenance to their morale in visions, relics and a growing belief in their providential status. In the wake of this advance, parts of Cilician Armenia, some ports on the north Syrian coast and the city of Edessa across the river Euphrates in northern Iraq fell under western control or effective influence. After internal bickering over precedence and land following the death of the papal legate (August 1098), most of the leaders joined the final, largely unopposed march south into Palestine in May 1099, reaching Jerusalem on 7 June. After a desperate siege in arid high summer, with the threat of an Egyptian relief army ever closer, the city was bloodily stormed on 15 July, its occupation confirmed by a startling victory over the Egyptians at Ascalon a month later. Leaving a garrison established in Jerusalem under Godfrey of Bouillon, most of the troops, their vows well fulfilled, returned home, mainly by sea, their deeds exciting immediate, if unsuccessful, imitation, in particular by armies from Lombardy, Bavaria and France (1100–1102), and almost universal praise. Judged on any criteria, the achievement of the expedition to Jerusalem was stupendous.2

By explaining these spectacular events in terms of divine will, contemporaries found neither need nor inclination to inquire too deeply into the gestation, purpose, timing or nature of Urban’s appeal. Still less were they able to produce a comprehensive view of all operations connected with the journey east. Although there was disagreement between local traditions over details (as in different provinces boasting one of their own as the first man over the walls of the Holy City), and at least one account, that of the Lorrainer Albert of Aachen (Aix), attributing the original inspiration of the whole enterprise to Peter the Hermit rather than the pope, the events themselves provided their own explanation and justification without causing anxiety over what occurred beyond the vision or hearing of the writer and his sources. Thus the direct and indirect accounts of eyewitnesses, many of which fed off each other, were partial and artificial, literary and didactic. Raymond of Aguilers, chaplain to the count of Toulouse, is frank about his concerns, lest the deeds of the victors of 1099 be distorted by rumours spread by ‘misfits of war and cowardly deserters’. His openness may stand for all:

It is a matter of record that God’s army, although it bore the whip of the Lord for its transgressions, nevertheless triumphed over all paganism because of His loving kindness. But it seems too tiresome to write of each journey since some went through Sclavonia, others by Hungary, by Lombardy, or by the sea. So, we have taken care to write of the Count of Saint-Gilles, the bishop of Le Puy, and their army without bothering with the others.3

As a result, although the most famous episode of its age and place, there is much about the First Crusade that is confused and irrecoverable. It is not only private motives that elude scrutiny. After the first five identifiable groups of Jew-persecuting crusaders had left the Rhineland by the beginning of June 1096, further attacks on Jewish communities occurred in June and July to the north, in Xanten, Geldern, Neuss, Wiehr and Wevelinghoren, hitherto untouched by the pogroms. Who precisely the perpetrators were, who led them and what happened to them is wholly obscure. When Peter the Hermit arrived in Constantinople in August 1096, he discovered a large army of Italians already there; again their provenance, leadership, organization and route have left no trace in the sources. When the princes’ army arrived in the environs of Antioch in October 1097, they discovered that two nearby ports on the coast of north Syria, St Symeon and Lattakiah, had already been captured by western fleets that included Genoese and angli (literally ‘English’). These may have acted in concert with crusade leaders or the Byzantine emperor, or not. For the next eighteen months, western shipping appeared regularly in Levantine waters without any clear account of their origins, such as another fleet of angli that reached St Symeon in March 1098, having put in at the Italian port of Lucca en route. These mariners, numerous other groups and thousands of individuals who joined the ‘great stirring’ (motio valida) have little or no history.4 To generalize about their expectations and experiences is inherently futile and possibly distorting. The picture of the First Crusade is far from clear, well delineated or fixed despite the fierce attention it has attracted over more than 900 years. Its story can only be tentative and incomplete, the stuff of legend indeed.

When Urban II stood before the crowd at the end of the council at Clermont neither was unprepared. In March 1095, at a council at Piacenza in Lombardy, ambassadors from the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, appealed for military aid against his hostile neighbours, the latest in a succession of such requests. A few years earlier, Alexius had asked Urban to organize help against the Pechenegs in the Balkans. Now, according to a western account, the enemy were described as ‘pagans’ who threatened eastern Christians and were menacing even Constantinople itself.5Whatever the strategic validity of such claims, the combination of military danger and religious solidarity bore strong echoes of the schemes of the 1070s. Urban turned this opportunity to his own purposes. After years of defensiveness since Gregory VII’s expulsion from Rome by the imperialists in 1084, the papal party had begun to consolidate its position in Italy, France and Germany. The Council of Piacenza, a clear demonstration of papal power as the first international ecclesiastical assembly of Urban’s pontificate, witnessed Gregorianism in action, sitting in judgement on the state of the church and the morals of the clergy and debating the sins of emperors and kings, specifically the conduct of Henry IV of Germany and the adultery of Philip I, the Fat, of France. This latest Greek request could be incorporated into this new confident papal assertiveness. It was recorded that the pope exhorted ‘many’ to promise to help Alexius against the ‘pagans’ by taking an oath.6

To capitalize on the achievement of Piacenza, Urban planned his elaborate tour of France, the first by a pope for almost half a century. This was to culminate at the Council of Clermont, attended by at least thirteen archbishops, eighty-two bishops, countless abbots and a host of other clerics. The geographical embrace of this gathering was impressive, from the Anglo-Norman realms and Artois in the north to Upper Austria in the east to Italy in the south; the assembling of such a gathering was a matter of weeks if not months; its business neither random nor spontaneous but premeditated. However, the council provided only part of the pope’s business and itinerary. Urban arrived in Provence in July 1095. During the following fourteen months before returning to Italy in September 1096, he conducted a unique papal tour, covering much of southern, central, western and south-eastern France: Provence, Languedoc, the Rhône valley, Burgundy, the Auvergne, the Limousin, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Poitou, the Bordelais, his journey punctuated by theatrical ceremonies, assemblies and preaching in some of the most important religious and urban centres: Nîmes, Avignon, Lyons, Cluny, Mâcon, Clermont, Limoges, Angers, Le Mans, Tours, Poitiers, Bordeaux, Moissac, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Montpellier, Arles. His avoidance of the territories under the direct control of the Capetian king, in the Orléannais and the Ile de France, and those of the feuding heirs to the Anglo-Norman lands, William II of England and Duke Robert of Normandy, was political and deliberate; the French king was to be excommunicated at the Clermont Council; the Normans were too successfully old-fashioned in their control of their clergy and too ambivalent in their loyalty to the Urbanist cause for comfort. Flanders and Lorraine were too far north and close to strong imperialists. The impact of the papal visit was great, the physical presence of such an august figure attracting special excitement in regions unused to such grand progresses.

By the time he reached Clermont in November Urban had already been on the road for four months, visiting significant religious and secular centres in Provence, Languedoc and Burgundy, including his alma mater, the abbey of Cluny, where on 25 October he dedicated the high altar of the new church that Abbot Hugh had begun to build, the ruins of which still stand as a reminder of the awesome scale and grandeur of Cluniac monasticism. Before arriving at Clermont he had almost certainly discussed his eastern project with Raymond IV of St Gilles count of Toulouse, a veteran of wars in Spain, and Adhemar of Monteil, bishop of Le Puy, both of whom were to play central roles in the expedition, as well as the bishop of Cahors and, very probably, the archbishop of Lyons and the abbot of Cluny, in addition to the cardinals and Italian clerics in his entourage, which included Daimbert, archbishop of Pisa, later patriarch of Jerusalem after its capture in 1099. To the Clermont meeting, diocesans were asked to bring with them the most powerful magnates from their regions (excellentiores principes); the bishop of Arras was specifically encouraged by his archbishop to invite Baldwin of Mons, count of Hainault, who was later to join up, dying in an ambush while on an embassy to the Greek emperor in Asia Minor in 1098.7 In Burgundy, a story persisted that at a regional council at Autun, possibly held during Urban’s stay in late October 1095 on his way to Clermont, ‘the first vows for the Jerusalem journey were sworn’.8

The consistency of Urban’s correspondence with what was later thought he had said at Clermont by eyewitnesses and with contemporary perceptions revealed in charters of departing soldiers and in accounts such as that of Count Fulk le Rechin (the Sour) of Anjou, who left a description of the pope’s preaching in the Loire valley in early 1096, strongly suggest that Urban travelled to France with most, if not all, the elements of his eastern project in place: a penitential journey in arms to Jerusalem to recover the Holy Sepulchre and to ‘liberate Christianity’ and the eastern Christians, the expedition earning warriors satisfaction of penance and remission of sin, signalled by a vow to enforce the obligation and the adoption of the sign of the cross to distinguish those who, in the words even of a grudging papal critic, had swapped the ‘militia of the world’ (militia mundi) for the ‘militia of God’ (militia Dei).9 With him, Urban carried relics of the True Cross, one of which he used to consecrate the abbey church of Marmoutier, near Tours, inMarch 1096, an event that coincided with local magnate recruits ‘in the presence of the pope stitch(ing) onto their clothes the insignia of the holy cross’.10 Taking the cross became the emblematic and defining gesture of crusading. The crosses to be worn were usually of textile, wool or occasionally silk, large enough to be noticed but small enough to be sewn on to the shoulder of a cloak or tunic.

The planning was meticulous, part of a wider programme. At the Council of Clermont, the Jerusalem decree was one of more than thirty that promulgated a general Peace and dealt with issues of penance, ecclesiastical organization and discipline, simony, clerical marriage, lay investiture and sanctuary. The call to arms sat squarely within this assertion of church discipline, moral reform of clergy and laity, and papal authority. Geoffrey, abbot of Vendôme, recalled Urban personally distinguishing between the journey enjoined on the laity and the prohibition on the participation of monks, signals of discipline confirmed in Urban’s own correspondence. Papal spiritual and temporal authority was expressed by the grant of the remission of sins and the appointment of Adhemar of Le Puy as leader of the expedition ‘in our place’, as Urban wrote to the Flemish in December 1095; it was confirmed by the enthusiastic response.11 The link between the Jerusalem journey and papal power politics so impressed the gossipy English writer William of Malmesbury a generation later that he insinuated that Urban dreamt up the whole idea in order to create enough upheaval and turmoil to allow him to recapture Rome.12 Yet, if the context was a restatement of Gregorian ideals and practices, the expedition to Jerusalem was both novel and distinct, a bold, radical reformulation of Gregorian ideas and expedients concerning penance, war and moral regeneration presented in a succession of carefully designed public demonstrations of which that at Clermont was only the most lavish, and, in fact, not even the most successful.

Urban II’s speech at Clermont was the first public declaration of his new concept of holy war that we know of. The event itself was carefully orchestrated, its theatricality aimed at establishing a concrete image and memory. In a partially literate society, ceremonies acted as media for information, exhortation and formalized debate, as in the regular crown-wearings by kings such as William the Conqueror, or at the Peace and Truce of God assemblies. In the repeated familiar ritual of church liturgy, the mass exposed with particular force basic issues of the relationship of God and man, sin and redemption; it provided an ideal setting for preaching the Jerusalem expedition. At Clermont, the presence of such a grand figure as the pope itself lent power to the imagery of language and action, the flavour of penance in his Christocentric message strengthened by its proclamation five days before the beginning of the penitential season of Advent. During the speech, chanting of the slogan ‘Deus lo volt’, probably led by a papal claque, established the participation of the congregation in the ritual as well as symbolizing the correct submissive acceptance of divine guidance.13 At Clermont the unfamiliarity of the new ritualistic forms, notably taking the cross, and the uncertainty of the correct response presented problems. As with all revivalist meetings, Urban’s sermon demanded a physical as well as vocal reaction; nothing destroys the message of ritual more certainly than unease or confusion in its performance. Later crusade preachers were in no doubt of the importance of a member of the audience to set an example, to use an analogy from modern Christian evangelists, by promptly ‘coming on down’ to take the cross. ‘Converts’ were often planted to be the first to respond in this fashion after the end of the sermon.14 At Clermont this role was taken by Adhemar of Le Puy, who, following Urban’s address, demonstrated to the rest what was expected of them by immediately taking the cross, numbers of which, some recorded, had been prepared earlier. At the end of the subsequent oath-taking, a cardinal led the congregation in the general confession, a prayer familiar to all from the mass. The ceremonial of commitment, confession, penance, oath and cross proved iconic and effective, its imagery and language lending distinctive identity to the recruits in the exercitus Dei. Some of those ‘signed’ with the cross saw themselves as pilgrims, peregrini, receiving the recognized symbols of pilgrimage, such as the napkin or satchel and staff. Thus novelty and familiarity could be satisfyingly and effectively blended. The crusade and the pilgrimage were originally distinct. Yet official correspondence and chroniclers suggest a rapid fusion of language, images and ideology; charters recording departing crusaders’ property transactions talk of penitential journeying as often as explicit fighting, their models similar contracts struck by earlier pilgrims; it is frequently very difficult to see the difference. Members of the mass German pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1064–5, said to number 7,000, had, according to one account, worn crosses. The attitudes and social rituals of Urban’s new war and of traditional pilgrimage were often identical; to the pope’s apparent concern, many took up or followed the cross in 1095–6 with little or no soldierly skill or intent.15 The key to Urban’s success in 1095–6 lay in the incorporation of existing images and emotions into a fresh concept of secular spirituality.

In fact, as far as we can tell, at the time the Clermont speech proved something of a damp squib. Very few lay magnates attended, not even the count of Toulouse. Few bishops bothered to record the council’s decree concerning the Jerusalem expedition, most retaining copies only of those canons effecting church reform. Provincial ecclesiastical councils held in the wake of Clermont, such as one at Rouen, ignored the Jerusalem business. There survives no official account of what Urban actually said at Clermont. Three eyewitnesses recorded their versions years later only after the success of the expedition had moulded attitudes and perspectives. Even then they disagreed with each other, using the speech to reflect their own visions of what they later thought worthy of recognition. The artificial literary quality of these accounts established a model for succeeding propaganda exercises, the inspirational set-piece sermon becoming a familiar stereotype of crusade literature if not practice, but they do not record Urban’s own words. In November 1095, success was by no means inevitable. To a large extent, the impact of Urban’s message depended on the subsequent publicity skills of the pope himself. These proved to be formidable.

A key element in a carefully devised strategy to assert the papacy’s political and moral purpose, Urban’s scheme reflected sentiments central to his personal understanding of Christendom, Christian history and the papacy’s role in reform. Close examination of Urban’s thought has revealed that his intellectual approach to the unity and integrity of Christendom, and hence his Jerusalem venture was determined by a particular schematic view of Christian history: an idealized picture of the purity of the early church; its corruption by human sins that allowed the conquest of ancient Christian centres by Islam from the seventh century; the eleventh-century Christian recovery of lands lost in Spain, Sicily and finally the eastern Mediterranean; this reconquest manifesting an opportunity for a general Christian renewal through divine grace, a process in which the pope performed as God’s executor and coadjutor.16 Hence the intrinsic duality in Urban’s Jerusalem project: the material objective to aid Byzantium and the eastern Christians and recapture the Holy City enmeshed with the transcendent purpose of serving God by liberating the Holy Sepulchre as an individual and collective act of piety and redemption. Going beyond the academic debate on holy war pursued in the circle of papalist intellectuals (e.g. Anselm of Lucca, John of Mantua, Bonizo of Sutri), Urban, following the logic of his mentor Gregory VII, argued in 1095–6 that not only was the war meritorious, and thus participation not blameworthy, so too was the fighting, which, refashioned into a religious act combining penance and charity, ‘for the love of God and their neighbour’,17 would earn substantial merit rather than dutiful expiation, as with William of Normandy’s troops at Hastings in 1066. To emphasize the unique nature of the enterprise and the special status of participants, probably at Clermont, certainly by the end of his French tour, Urban attached regulations designed to protect crusaders’ property, to prevent husbands unilaterally abandoning their wives, to prohibit indiscriminate clerical and monastic participation and to ensure advice was sought from local priests. One witness at Clermont later indicated that Urban had tried to forbid the participation of unchaperoned women, the old, the infirm and the poor, unless subsidized by the wealthy.18 These rules merely pointed the central innovation of the plenary indulgence, remission of sins, for fighting in the holy war. This was controversial on two counts: holy war was now classed as penitential; and the pope was assuming the authority of Christ in seeming to remit sin not just penance. Whatever academic unease was aroused, neither innovation provoked much resistance, certainly not after the expedition’s success.

Jerusalem formed the cornerstone of Urban’s concept of penitential warfare in 1095. The Clermont decree, preserved by the bishop of Arras, and repeated almost verbatim by the pope in a letter to Bologna in September 1096, was unequivocal: ‘Whoever for devotion alone, not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance.’19 Writing to supporters in Flanders a few days after his Clermont speech, Urban talked of the Muslim conquest and ravaging of the eastern church:

Worse still, they have seized the Holy City of Christ, embellished by his passion and resurrection, and… have sold her and her churches into abominable slavery… we visited Gaul and urged most fervently the lords and subjects of that land to liberate the eastern churches… [and] imposed on them the obligation to undertake such a military enterprise for the remission of all their sins.20

Contemporary descriptions of his preaching in the Loire valley, echoed in numerous charters drawn up by monastic recipients of departing warriors’ property, confirm that Urban encouraged people ‘to go to Jerusalem to drive out the heathen’. As he expressed it in a letter to the monks of Vallembrosa in October 1096, his recruits ‘are heading for Jerusalem with the good intent of liberating Christianity’.21 The restoration to Christendom of the scene of the ideal church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles represented more than a propaganda device or a sop and capitulation to ill-informed populism, as some twentieth-century historians such as Carl Erdmann have implied. Rather it signalled the ultimate libertas ecclesiae for which the whole church reform movement of the previous half-century had been striving.

Jerusalem in the eleventh as in other centuries defined an ideal as much as a terrestrial city. It could stand as a metaphor, ‘the holy city, God’s celestial Jerusalem’, as an English royal charter of 1093 put it, for the world redeemed by Christ.22 Jerusalem could represent a spiritual condition and aspiration, as in the religious life of an individual or community, or its attributes could be geographically transposed to create a virtual reality in relics and shrines. Clairvaux abbey in the mid-twelfth century was likened to Jerusalem by its abbot, St Bernard, as had been the imperial courts of Charlemagne or Byzantium. More pervasively, the liturgy recreated scenes from Jerusalem in the mass or enacted whole episodes, as in the increasingly popular Easter plays, each a glimpse of the Holy City. Yet for all its liminality, poised between heaven and earth, God and man, Jerusalem remained a place as well as an ideal, temporal as well as spiritual, corporal as well as supernatural. In the tenth and eleventh centuries its distance – loca remotissima, as one historian of Urban’s expedition put it23 – and association with Christ’s life, Passion and Resurrection ensured Jerusalem as the most meritorious goal of pilgrimage to such an extent that the chronicler Ralph Glaber noted that such a trip was in danger of becoming a fashionable social accessory rather than an act of piety.24 The difficulties of the journey, magnified a hundred-fold by war, secured its penitential attraction.

Scriptural history and the pseudo-history of Christian prophecy confirmed this unique numinous status. Earlier in the eleventh century the Limousin monk Adhemar of Chabannes insisted on the historical primacy of Jerusalem over Rome itself as ‘the fountain of Christianity… the mother of all Churches’.25 Throughout the century, notably in the 1030s and 1060s, huge bands of pilgrims trekked east, inspired by chiliastic enthusiasm condemned as misguided by one commentator, who nonetheless recorded the potency of such emotions to attract ‘not only the common people but the elites (primores)’.26 Jerusalem played a prominent part in the genre of eschatological literature popular in western monasteries, cathedrals and courts from at least the mid-tenth century, the setting for the final scenes of Judgement at the end of the world. There, it was widely asserted, the Last Roman Emperor would surrender his crown as a preliminary to the Last Things. Unsurprisingly, such prominence in the Divine Plan appealed to imperialists during the contest between Henry IV and the reforming popes, Benzo of Alba advising the king to fulfil these Jerusalem prophecies himself. Western obsessions with the Holy City may have been sufficiently strong to have persuaded the Byzantine emperor Alexius I to cite the liberation of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre in enticing western nobles into his service in the years before 1095.27

Pope Urban was particularly susceptible to the pull of Jerusalem. As a monk, later prior of Cluny from the late 1060s, he was exposed to vivid images of the Holy City in the interminable liturgical round, in Psalms (e.g. Psalm 79: ‘O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance’) as well as in special ceremonies surrounding Easter and Pentecost conducted in the great Burgundian abbey. As pope, Urban’s interest in the Apostolic church of Jerusalem is suggested by his patronage in the years immediately before 1095 of regular canons – secular clergy who lived in a community – in whom, he insisted, the virtues of the pristine church could be renewed. As a cardinal in Rome after 1079, Urban had been surrounded by relics of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, especially the collection housed at the Lateran, then the pope’s habitual Roman residence. These included Christ’s umbilical chord, foreskin and some of His blood, pieces of the cross, numerous objects associated with His ministry and Passion (such as a loaf and thirteen beans from the Last Supper), relics of Holy Land saints and numerous physical specimens, such as rocks from Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, the river Jordan, Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre itself. Such a collection fitted the growing trend in eleventh-century religious devotion away from purely local saints towards those with worldwide appeal, such as St Nicholas at Bari or the cult of the Virgin Mary. It was in trying to establish the universal importance of his Limoges patron St Martial that Adhemar of Chabannes disparaged Rome in preference to Jerusalem, where he claimed the saint had been consecrated. Adhemar died on his own pilgrimage to the Holy City in 1034. International shrines such as St Iago of Compostela in Galicia as well as Jerusalem featured increasingly prominently in the spiritual life of western Christendom. Urban’s preaching of 1095 did not create such interest or enthusiasm, however much it confirmed and extended it; rather, as elsewhere, the pope reforged a new weapon from old shards.28

This was obvious with the employment of the cross as military banner, personal insignia and mystical symbol; part relic, part totem, part uniform. The ceremony instituted at Clermont tapped into another well of traditional devotion conjured up by the Crucifixion and Christ’s command: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24; cf. Luke 15:26: ‘And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple’). Two eyewitnesses later reported Urban use this invocation, as did a veteran of the expedition itself who probably heard of Urban’s appeal some months after Clermont. The theme of following Christ was a standard of eleventh-century eremitic (the ideal of the recluse) and revivalist rhetoric. On a popular as well as elite level, church reform was pursued by evangelists living and preaching a return to the Apostolic life. The idea was not confined to the Jerusalem journey; it inspired eremitical groups such as the new religious communities of Molesme and Cîteaux established in Burgundy before and during the First Crusade as well as the influential Robert of Arbrissel, founder of the Order of Fontevrault, whose preaching tours coincided with Urban’s. Closer to the papacy, Peter Damian (d. 1072), hermit and cardinal, who exerted a strong influence on successive popes for a generation from the 1040s, was an enthusiast for the Jerusalem pilgrimage who propagated the cult of the cross. The two went together as symbols of practical and mystical remission of sin and redemption. From his Jerusalem pilgrimage of 1026–7, the saintly Abbot Richard of St Vanne of Verdun returned with a piece of the True Cross hanging in a bag around his neck.29 By the 1090s many abbeys had received such relics from pilgrims, not least those, such as Moissac, that were active in support of both pilgrimage and crusade; as Urban’s consecration of Marmoutier indicated, such relics were sought after.

The use of the symbol of the cross at Clermont signalled a pivotal concern for Jerusalem. Urban himself certainly presided over cross-giving at Tours (March 1096) and probably Le Mans (February), and it is likely that he or his agents distributed crosses wherever he preached. Ceremonies conducted by Urban’s deputies, by local clergy or unofficially proliferated. Apparently at one such occasion at Rouen a riot ensued. Using relics of the cross as a prop to encourage participation, as Urban had done at Marmoutier, became fashionable. It could backfire. An English annalist described how, during the preaching of the Jerusalem expedition, a French abbot constructed his own cross, passing it off as having been made by God: as a punishment, he was afflicted with cancer.30 It is an indication of the independent role assumed by Peter the Hermit, possibly retrospectively, that he carried as a preaching aid a letter from heaven rather than a relic of the cross which, within a year of Clermont, had swept all other symbols aside. Giving the cross was simple and non-discriminatory. Unlike the granting of the symbols of pilgrimage, which assumed a contractual imposition of a penance by a priest, in the first flush of the new ritual, presenting crosses was not a monopoly of those in holy orders. In June 1096, at Amalfi in Apulia, as a carefully staged demonstration of piety and power, the Italian-Norman lord Bohemund of Taranto provided crosses for his men. Although never becoming the exclusive preserve of holy warriors, wearing the cross was immediately distinctive. At Amalfi, Bohemund had been particularly struck by the crosses worn by passing crusaders. Those in the army to Jerusalem themselves referred to recruits who had not yet fulfilled their vows as being ‘signed with the holy cross’ while in 1098 they wrote to Urban himself that he had ‘ordered us to follow Christ carrying our crosses’.31 For others these badges carried more sinister implications. One of the words employed by Hebrew chroniclers to describe the perpetrators of the Rhineland pogroms of 1096 translates as ‘those bearing insignia’, signs of an obsession with the Crucifixion and vengeance on those allegedly responsible who still denied Christ’s divinity.32 For Christian warrior and persecuted Jew, the cross was definitive.

Urban’s message delivered at Clermont and repeated in sermons and letters over the next three years, emerged clearly: penitential warfare to rescue Jerusalem and the eastern churches from Islam; the liberation of the eastern church after centuries of bondage with the implication of the restoration of fraternal unity with, as one eyewitness at Clermont later had it, ‘blood-brothers’;33 the prospect of the remission of all sins, as Urban clearly stated in December 1095, for those warriors who had taken the cross in sign of their acceptance of their duty to follow Christ; the obligation to revenge the loss of Christ’s Holy Land as a debt of honour; the realization of papal leadership of Christendom; the transformation of a sinful military aristocracy into a godly order. It is not entirely clear how far this was from what Alexius I had envisaged when he despatched yet another embassy to the pope early in 1095, but it is certain that Urban’s scheme owed more to his own rather than the Greek’s designs. Not the least remarkable feature of the inception of the Jerusalem expedition was that the casus belli was the sole invention of the aggressors, almost entirely unimagined by their target. In the west, Urban’s penitential war marked a significant step on the path towards incorporating all Christendom into a militia Deiagainst unbelievers and sinners.

Urban called for a penitential holy war rather than, as many have maintained, specifically an armed pilgrimage. While no authentic account of the Clermont speech exists, the council’s Jerusalem decree and Urban’s surviving letters from the period emphasized the spiritually meritorious temporal goal of the expedition, the liberation of the eastern churches and that of Jerusalem. The method to be employed was unequivocally military. In a letter to his supporters in Flanders written days after the end of the Clermont assembly, Urban talked of the expedition in terms of aprocinctus, a military undertaking.34 To the monks of Vallembrosa a year later he referred to his hope that the knights who set out ‘might be able to restrain the savagery of the Saracens by their arms and restore the Christians to their former freedom’, warning the monks not to join up ‘either to bear arms or go on this journey’. Urban was remembered as calling for an armed struggle in his preaching at Limoges in December 1095. Count Fulk of Anjou, who entertained Urban in March 1096, shortly afterwards noted how the pope had exhorted recruits ‘to go to Jerusalem to hunt the pagan people who had occupied the city’. Many of those who received the pope’s message of liberating Jersualem by force understood his meaning clearly enough, as a Gascon charter put it, ‘to fight and to kill’ those who had defiled the scene of the Resurrection. The countess of Flanders recalled in 1097 how the Holy Spirit had inflamed the heart of her husband, Count Robert II, to curb the perfidy of the Turks with armed force. In the surviving letters of the crusaders, the sense of the army as a militia rather than a pilgrimage is strong. When Pope Paschal II announced the capture of Jerusalem to the French clergy in December 1099, he described the expedition as a Christiana militia, only the following April adding the word peregrinatio and the language of pilgrimage.35

For Urban, holy war and its associated remission of confessed sin needed no additional justification; he claimed the authority of God. The Clermont decree avoided any direct reference to pilgrimage. The Clermont ceremony of taking the cross appeared deliberately novel, independent of the rite performed by departing pilgrims. Libertas ecclesiae by force needed no further sanction, as the Investiture Wars of Gregory VII had shown – at least to the radicals at the Papal Curia, of whom Urban was one. It has been argued that the oblique language of Urban’s letters, using words such as labor, via and iter, implied pilgrimage. Rather, they implied an equally meritorious penitential military alternative to pilgrimage. Overt language of pilgrimage was avoided or ignored by Urban in his own correspondence, the closest evidence for what he may have been thinking. Urban’s own words explicitly and unequivocally described holy war, in the style of Gregory VII; they did not refer explicitly to an armed pilgrimage even if he were conscious of the tempting parallel. However, the sacralizing of war in all its aspects, shedding blood, killing, securing booty and plunder, appeared extreme and for some, especially among the clergy, no doubt disconcerting. The point was made by the famous battle cry of the hard-pressed crusaders at the battle of Dorylaeum in July 1097 as recorded by a widely circulated anonymous author who gave the impression of being an eyewitness: ‘Stand fast all together, trusting in God and the Holy Cross. Today, please God, you will all gain much booty’.36 This was not, as many have assumed, a surrender to material greed. Instead, the chronicler was attempting to convince his audience of the spiritual legitimacy of the form of warfare in all its practical ramifications, in recognition, perhaps, of its contentious nature.

Other witnesses, such as Bishop Gaston of Cahors or Abbot Geoffrey of Vendôme, took Urban’s holy war and, whether or not the pope intended it, by analogy interpreted it as a form of pilgrimage, a familiar and more clerically palatable model.37 This was facilitated by the goal of the enterprise being the supreme pilgrimage destination, Jerusalem. The association with pilgrimage diluted the radicalism of Urban’s message, even if it set up an inherent conceptual contradiction by linking extreme violence with a previously pacific activity. Earlier stories of pilgrims carrying arms for defence and fighting attackers, as on the German pilgrimage of 1064–5, simply did not embrace the idea of pilgrims whose whole purpose was to fight. The appeal of thinking of the Jerusalem expedition as a pilgrimage was obvious; the typology of journeying, penance and remission of sins was recognizable, demonstrated by the hordes of non-combatant pilgrims who tagged along with the armed forces. From the evidence of some charters, a few crusaders’ letters, such as those of Count Stephen of Blois, and early chronicle accounts, it is clear that this conservative approach, probably peddled by local clergy in search of a means of comprehending this novel phenomenon, possessed force and acquired ready adherents.38 Thereafter, pilgrimage and the holy wars of the cross became almost inseparable. This may not have been Urban’s doing. His vision was more radical, more disturbing and more penetrating.

It is sometimes argued that Urban’s original plan had been for a limited expedition to assist Alexius I and press on to the Holy Sepulchre rather in the fashion of Gregory VII’s embryonic scheme of 1074, and that it was only the astonishing response to his call that forced him to change his rhetoric and policy. This underestimates the grandeur of his scheme. His tour of France was extensive and exhausting. At Clermont in late November and again at Tours in March, the sixty-year-old pope preached in the open air. His schedule was punishing, with the travelling followed by regular public appearances at long-winded liturgical ceremonies even without preaching. He presided over three major church councils, at Tours (March 1096) and Nîmes (July 1096) as well as Clermont. The vigour and geographic embrace of Urban’s preaching argues against modest recruitment plans; his role in local consecrations of altars and the like, the ease of passage through different provinces and lordships and the orderly crowds of notables assembled reflected careful premeditation. Despite the attempts of apologists to imply otherwise, enthusiastic crowds were not gathered by chance in the early weeks of Urban’s tour. On Christmas Day 1095 at Limoges he attended three separate services, progressing between them in full regalia. Within the week he had rededicated the cathedral and the chief local shrine of St Martial. Only then did he preach about Jerusalem.39 His visit to Poitiers coincided with the feast of that city’s patron saint, St Hilary (13 January). At Angers (January 1096) and at Tours and Marmoutier (March), his preaching was linked to local ceremonies or assemblies that were far from haphazard and probably long planned (dedications of churches, translations of bodies of local dignitaries, church councils, etc.). The liturgical theatricality, emphasized by regular processions in full ceremonial finery, was not staged at random. His successor Paschal II noted Urban’s attention to towns (civitates). While he tried to impose a southern French bishop, Adhemar of Le Puy, as leader of the expedition in his place, he still wrote to the Flemish in the north urging participation and dispatched a legate to the Anglo-Norman realms. Although the expedition lacked the cohesion Urban may have wished for, Adhemar’s authority was widely accepted on the march once the armies had combined at Nicaea in June 1097. Urban’s later injunctions to the Bolognese (September 1096), prohibiting clergy from joining and encouraging laymen to consult their parish priests or bishops, do not speak of alarm at numbers but canonical rectitude, very much part of the package from Clermont or even Piacenza onwards. The timing of the preaching, seen by some as oddly late in the year, suited elaborate recruitment. Urban’s journey to France covered two penitential seasons, Advent and Lent, appropriate to his message of repentance, as well as the major Christocentric festivals of Christmas and Easter, when images and dramatic representations of Jerusalem accompanied church and civic celebrations. Urban’s announcement that the expedition would set out on 15 August 1096 provided time for armies to be raised: in the event all the main contingents north of the Alps left by October. It also recognized the importance of waiting for the harvest, traditionally begun in northern Europe on 1 August. Thus the timetable of the church year, including the departure date, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a major cult in Le Puy itself, was suited to military requirements; logistics matched liturgy.

Urban’s own preaching seems to have been highly effective. From the admittedly partial and limited evidence of charters between recruits and monasteries, it has been observed that a ‘high proportion’ of noble recruits came from areas Urban visited or within a couple of days’ ride from his itinerary. His preaching impressed eyewitnesses, and he had an advantage that Gregory VII lacked, in that he himself came from precisely the arms-bearing aristocratic milieu of the French nobility that he sought to exploit, as did his chosen legate, Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, a nobleman reputed as an excellent horseman.40 Like many contemporary bishops, Adhemar was evidently almost as at home on a battlefield as in a cathedral, some of his colleagues even donning armour (like Odo, bishop of Bayeux at the battle of Hastings as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry) and wielding maces in deference to the canon law prohibition on clergy spilling blood, a ban that apparently did not include crushing and bruising.

Urban performed only as the hub of the recruiting wheel. The mechanics of spreading the word capitalized on the networks of ecclesiastical affinity and administrative efficiency developed by the reformist papacy over the previous half-century. Urban authorized local diocesans to preach the cross but probably depended more upon a concentric circle of friends, allies and supporters, such as the archbishop of Lyons. Sympathetic abbots not only preached but used their local influence to encourage lay patrons to take the cross and to exchange property for money or war materials (e.g. pack animals). As religious centres possessed of bullion and cash, monasteries were the chief bankers for the First Crusade. The holy warriors desired their prayers and their capital. The necessary financial outlay on the expedition for each landowner was likely to represent many times his annual revenue, especially as the mid-1090s were times of agricultural depression. The price of sin was incalculable. In some cases monks deliberately – and successfully – touted for trade. Elsewhere, the process was indirect, clergy instilling into the faithful over time the sense of sin which provided the spur to many to take the cross.41

Beside the complementary efforts of the papally directed and local ecclesiastical apparatus, news of the expedition spread though informal contacts and association. The papal legate to the Anglo-Norman provinces, the abbot of St Bénigne, Dijon, in early 1096 negotiated an agreement between William II of England and his brother Duke Robert of Normandy under which Robert pledged his duchy to William for three years in return for 10,000 silver marks, a massive sum equivalent, it has been speculated, to a quarter of royal income, only available through a heavy land tax. If nothing else, this unpopular levy publicized the crusade. More direct contacts eased publicity. In southern Italy, Bohemund of Taranto apparently only learnt of the crusade from a passing band of French (or possibly Catalan) recruits in June 1096. His ignorance of the momentous events north of the Alps is surprising and, on the face of it, unlikely. Bohemund’s half-brother and nominal overlord, Roger Borsa, was married to the sister of the count of Flanders, who had taken the cross. Bohemund had close links with the pope; between 1089 and 1093 he had entertained Urban twice and had met him on at least two other occasions. His half-brother Guy was prominent in the service of Alexius I, whose attempts to recruit Italian Normans may have intensified after the completion of the Sicilian conquest in 1091–2. The anonymous writer of one of the earliest accounts of the expedition, the Gesta Francorum, perhaps a knight or cleric in Bohemund’s army, may have accurately reflected the situation of the summer of 1096 when he wrote of the widespread rumours of Urban’s message sweeping through ‘all the regions and provinces of the Gauls’.42 Even if merely relying on what he later heard from companions on the march, the author hit upon three prime recruiting officers: emulation, the courts of lay nobles and princes, and rumour.

The rapidity of the spread of news of the Jerusalem campaign is attested not only in the literary accounts but in the rate of recruitment itself. Within twelve months of Clermont perhaps as many as 70–80,000 people had already left their homes for the east. The geographical spread was wide but uneven, the bulk of known crusaders coming from a shallow crescent stretching from the Dordogne in the south-west to Flanders in the north-east, covering the Limousin, Poitou, the Loire valley, Maine, the Chartrain, Ile de France and Champagne; there were also significant groupings in Languedoc, Provence, Burgundy, parts of western Germany and in Italy. Enthusiasm for the expedition was not universal. Although support crossed the ideological and political divide between papalists and imperialists, even Henry IV’s constable joining up as well as important imperial vassals such as Godfrey of Bouillon, only a minority even in areas of greatest enthusiasm took the cross. Contemporary chroniclers emphasized the magnitude of the response, which they attributed to the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit or to the potency of rumour. Although reconstruction of the details of how information spread through a semi-literate society is difficult, certain features stand out. The focal points of recruitment were lay courts and households, especially those with close links to monasteries (although this may be a distorted impression caused by the nature of charter evidence); networks of interlaced aristocratic families and, crucially, their dependants – humbler relatives, tenants, household knights and clergy, servants; and towns. Crusading was as much an urban as a rural phenomenon. In both, wealth and status provided necessities and incentives. Just as the castellan, seigneur or count were pivotal in raising the countryside, so the ‘better sort’ (meliores), as a Genoese observer of 1096 put it, gave the lead in towns and cities.43 The expedition inspired by Urban’s preaching was not assembled at random, but followed the contours of a society dominated by wealthy lords, connected by bonds of family, obedience, locality, obligation, employment and commerce. A rural/urban divide is misleading. Many influential monasteries were situated within or just outside major urban centres; lords had rights over markets and, in areas of developed urban life, such as north Italy or Flanders, town and country were mutually bound together socially and economically as well as politically. Although managing to sell or pledge most of his properties to raise money, Godfrey of Bouillon also extorted 1,000 silver pieces from the Jewish communities of Cologne and Mainz to fund his campaign. Gossip and rumours thrive when people are in close contact; ceremonies exert maximum effect if witnessed. The success of recruitment in 1095–6 relied on wealth, social order and mobility, attributes of an underlying prosperity, as well as on skilful manipulation of cultural habits of violence and spiritual fears of damnation.

According to some witnesses, at the centre of the ‘great rumour’, as one contemporary called it, was the charismatic preaching of a diminutive, ageing Picard evangelist known as Peter the Hermit. In Lorraine, during and immediately after the crusade, he was regarded as having inspired the whole enterprise. This cannot entirely be dismissed, not least because, whatever his status, he managed to raise armies months before anyone else, in person led one of them to Constantinople and was thereafter accepted by the princes as a member of the expedition’s elite, if only in a minor capacity. Peter had experience as a preacher of apostolic poverty. It was later claimed that he was a pilgrim to the Holy City who had been entrusted with a letter from heaven to rouse Christians to liberate Jerusalem and a request from the patriarch of Jerusalem to send western help which he conveyed to Pope Urban. In fact, Patriarch Symeon may have been in Constantinople when Peter was supposed to have passed through on pilgrimage. It may or may not have been chance that one of the first contacts the Christian army made in northern Syria in 1097–8 was with the exiled patriarch, who then promptly wrote a letter to the west appealing for further military aid, perhaps an echo, repeat or inspiration of the Peter the Hermit story.

The hints of distinctive features in Peter’s appeal – apocalyptic, populist, visionary, charismatic – in contrast to the uniform outline of the theologically focused message emanating from the pope reflected in most chronicles and charters – authority, penance, pilgrimage, cross, war – may be taken as a sign of Peter’s insignificance or the reverse. Even hostile witnesses attest to the popular if naive element in his following. Part of the motive for the massacres of the Rhineland Jews identified in Jewish sources was a crude, vindictive and violent assertion of Christian supremacy and lust for vengeance for Christ Crucified; many of these pogroms were the work of contingents associated with Peter. That there was little or no such barbaric persecution of Jews by the armies recruited by Urban and his agents may point to a distinct difference of tone and content in Peter’s preaching. However the evidence is viewed, Peter played a prominent and semi-independent role in at least some theatres of propagandizing and recruiting for the Jerusalem expedition. The Lorraine perspective contained in the chronicle of Albert of Aachen is probably as valid as others which ignore Peter.44

It is incontestable that the armies he inspired were on the road by Easter 1096 (13 April); even the anonymous chronicler attached to Bohemund placed Peter’s as part of the ‘official’ campaign.45 To organize, equip and supply perhaps up to 30,000 troops and non-combatants at the end of winter and in spring, following poor harvests, some local famines and plagues in the previous year, suggests that Peter must have begun preaching before Clermont and that his powers of organization were of an order beyond his image of a dishevelled hedge priest. It is possible that Urban appointed him to preach the Jerusalem journey weeks before Clermont: the pope had been discussing his plan with potential leaders at least as early as August 1095. It is notable that Peter’s itinerary, from Berry through the Orléannais and Champagne to Lorraine and the Rhineland, avoided those areas visited by the pope. Peter, in a more demotic style, appealed to audiences not dissimilar to the pope’s. He recruited a number of significant lords, one of whom, Walter, lord of Boissy Sans Avoir, whom he despatched with eight knights and a large company of infantry in early March, was already in Constantinople in July 1096, no mean logistical effort. The forces Peter raised lacked the tight social authority lent by the presence of many great lords. His preaching campaign, which he combined with leading an army, apparently operated apart from the hierarchy of religious houses that so crucially underpinned Urban’s efforts: unlike the pope, Peter is absent from surviving monastic charters.46His message was revivalist, probably peppered with visions and atrocity stories. These were neither new nor exclusive to Peter. The Limousin chronicler and pilgrim Adhemar of Chabannes had peddled stories of persecution, assassination and murder of Christians by the Muslim rulers of the Holy Land seventy years earlier. The memory of the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre may have formed part of a propaganda campaign by the monks of St Peter’s Moissac, visited by Urban himself in May 1096.47

On arrival in the Rhineland, Peter appears to have delegated his own preaching commission to a local priest, Gottschalk, who, demonstrating that he was no rabble-rousing bumpkin either, in turn recruited a large army in southern Germany, which reached Hungary via Bavaria only to be massacred in late July by the Hungarian army, outraged at the violent and indiscriminate foraging. Gottschalk’s force may have been intended as the right flank of Peter’s own army, predominantly comprised of Frenchmen and led by lords from Chartres and Champagne, which marched through the Rhineland in April before travelling down the Danube to Hungary and across the Balkans to reach Constantinople on 1 August. It is possible that Peter also delegated recruitment to another German, Volkmar, whose contingent followed a route to Peter’s north, through Saxony and Bohemia before being dispersed by the Hungarians in late June. To Peter’s preaching may be attributed the participation of numerous other German lords, in particular the Swabian count Emich of Flonheim and Count Hartmann of Dillingen-Kybourg, who joined forces with lords from the Ile de France as well as, apparently, some Englishmen. Even if these groups took the cross independent of Peter, his contribution was significant, possibly papally authorized and suggestive of just how much is unknown about the genesis of the First Crusade. Peter, a man of some learning and habitually boastful, may have spent his retirement at the abbey of Neumoustier in Lorraine embroidering his own legend. The tragedy of the subsequent military failure of all of his contingents and Peter’s own equivocal fortitude during the sieges of Antioch ensured the relegation of his initial contribution by writers eager to emphasize the successes of their favoured leaders for didactic purposes. Yet between the two extremes, those returning to Lorraine from the Jerusalem adventure in 1099 did not dismiss him; some even remembered him as its ‘primus auctor’.48

Urban’s initiative, like that of Gregory VII, could have been still-born. That it was not indicates a social and cultural predisposition to accept his radical concept of guiltless, meritorious violence and a skilful publicity campaign. Both are evident in the events of 1095–6. However, the question of timing remains. Why did 1095 strike Urban II as the ‘acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God’ (Isaiah 61:2)? Western aristocratic arms-bearers had been anxious for their souls for generations; Greek emperors had been asking for and receiving western military aid for decades; campaigns against Muslims in Spain, Sicily or north Africa had become an increasingly common feature of western Mediterranean warfare; church discipline of secular society had been at least notionally acknowledged though the Peace and Truce of God movement in many areas; papal thinking on holy war and penance had a long pedigree. Yet a convergence of circumstances persuaded Urban to recast Alexius’s appeal; and the immediate context of 1095 allowed for its success.

There is little direct evidence that, as was later alleged, the pilgrim route to Jerusalem or the treatment of Jerusalem pilgrims had deteriorated since the conquest of much of Asia Minor and parts of northern Syria by the Seljuk Turks since the 1070s. Among Near Eastern observers, there are traces of anxiety about western (i.e. for them primarily Byzantine) threats. The Persian Naser-e Khosraw, a visitor to Palestine in 1046/7, recorded that the Fatimid rulers of Egypt had garrisoned the Nile Delta port of Tinnis ‘as a precaution against attacks by Franks and Byzantines’. A century later, the Aleppan historian al-Azimi (d. 1161) referred to Frankish and Byzantine pilgrims being prevented by strong-arm tactics from reaching Jerusalem in 1093/4, adding, ‘those of them who survived spread the news about that to their country. So they prepared themselves for military invasion.’49 The neatness with which this account mirrors western propaganda invites suspicion. Visiting Jerusalem was always dangerous and ran the risk of violent confrontation, as the 1064/5 German pilgrims discovered when attacked at Ramla. There is no evidence of pilgrimages drying up in the 1090s. Roger count of Foix happily set out for Palestine in late April 1095; the Norman Odard’s pilgrimage actually coincided with the crusade itself.50

Nonetheless, even if conditions had not in reality become more difficult, perceptions may have altered. The First Crusade did not open up the Near East to westerners. There is more and more evidence that Asia Minor as well as the Balkan areas of the Byzantine empire were crawling with French, Italians and Germans. Large numbers of south Italian Normans had entered and stayed in the service of Alexius I after the failure of the Norman campaign against him in the Balkans in 1081. When Bohemund and his force arrived in Byzantium in 1097, they were among friends and relations. Many in the post-Conquest Anglo-Saxon aristocratic diaspora had found their way into the imperial Varangian guard. The Greeks positively encouraged western knights to enter imperial employment, such was their admiration of western military tactics: this enthusiasm helped lose them the battle of Manzikert against the Seljuk Turks in 1071, when western levies under the Norman Roussel of Bailleul deserted. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the late 1080s of Robert the Frisian, count of Flanders, led to his sending Alexius a force of 500 knights around 1090: his son, Robert, was one of the leaders of the 1096 expedition. By the early 1090s Alexius may have been employing thousands of western troops in Asia Minor, for whom he constructed at least one base, at Kibotos, and possibly planned another, at Nicomedia, under the supervision of a Frankish monk. Western clerics as well as soldiers and pilgrims were apparently familiar figures at the Byzantine court, some of whom also made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After the final conquest and settlement of Sicily in 1092, a process to which Alexius paid close attention, Norman troops were more available than for a generation. While after the Council of Piacenza, Urban II looked northwards, Alexius’s gaze may have been resting firmly on the south, as it had for over a decade.

Almost at every step of their journey, the armies of 1096 to 1099 encountered expatriate westerners. When Bohemund’s nephew, Tancred, arrived at Adana in Cilicia in September 1097, he found a Burgundian, Welf, already in occupation with a force of Armenians. At Tarsus in the same month, Baldwin of Boulogne encountered a fleet of Flemish and Frisian pirates who claimed to have been plying their trade in those waters for eight years.51 More sensationally, after the Christian army had invested Jerusalem on 7 June 1099, in his camp facing the Damascus Gate, Duke Robert of Normandy received an unexpected visit from a fellow countryman living locally who offered his services to his natural lord. Twenty-two years before, Hugh Bunel had committed one of the most notorious murders of the day when he decapitated Mabel of Bellême at her castle of Bures, ‘where she was relaxing in bed after a bath’, this in revenge for her seizing his patrimony. Pursued by Mabel’s sons, William the Conqueror’s agents and bounty-hunters, Hugh had fled to Apulia, then Sicily, then Byzantium before, fearful of William’s ‘strong hand and long arm, he left the Latin world’. He had lived among Muslims for twenty years when the crusaders arrived at the walls of Jerusalem.52

Although Hugh Bunel’s cause célèbre prevented contact with the west, the presence of westerners as pilgrims, visitors, merchants, mercenaries and settlers in and beyond the Byzantine empire provided a growing medium for the transmission of news and intelligence, such as the English Jerusalem pilgrim Joseph, a Canterbury monk who met Greek-speaking friends at Constantinople, or Guillermus of Cormery, appointed by Alexius as chaplain to western troops stationed around Nicomedia in the early 1090s. The information reaching the west may have sounded an increasingly strident note in portraying the depredations of the Seljuk Turks, even if these were not in fact more onerous. There is evidence that at precisely this juncture Alexius himself played on the Jerusalem-sensitive emotions in the west by sending ‘frequent messages about the oppression of the Lord’s sepulchre and the desolation of all the churches’.53 In this context the story of Peter the Hermit spreading atrocity stories does not sound too unlikely; his may have been one of many such reports. The elements in Urban’s coup of 1095 begin to be apparent: the Greek appeal to the pope of March 1095, only the latest in a consistent series; increasing contacts with the east through pilgrims, mercenaries and correspondence with some of the higher nobility of the west; persistent rumours of persecution of pilgrims and attacks on eastern Christians perhaps reaching a crescendo through the accounts of travellers and Greek diplomats; the consolidation of Urban’s own historical and theological vision; the coincidence of the improved political position of Urban in Italy and France. The roles of Urban, Alexius and Peter the Hermit have often been placed in opposition as explanations of the events of 1095; perhaps instead they should be seen as complementary.

The scale of the reaction to the call to Jerusalem was impressive. While large armies were not unknown in western Europe in the eleventh century – William of Normandy collected perhaps as many as 14,000 men and up to 3,000 horses for his invasion of England in 1066 – the combination of forces being raised simultaneously in so many different regions struck contemporaries as remarkable and novel. The reasons for such a response have been much debated. Generalizations can mislead as motives varied and conflicted from person to person, class to class, region to region; evidence for individual or collective decisions is extremely patchy, transmitted through the prism of clerical interpretation, whether in chronicle, charter or correspondence. However, this does not disqualify such material, as lay attitudes often found inspiration and articulation from the clergy.

A central discussion revolves around the balance between material and ideological motives. Crudely, did crusaders embark for worldly or spiritual profit? In many senses this poses a false dichotomy. The Chanson d’Antioche a couple of generations later declared that those who served Jesus would receive gold.54 Subsequent accounts of Urban’s speech by those who heard it unapologetically portrayed him as offering material gain:

Take the road to the Holy Sepulchre, rescue that land from a dreadful race and rule over it yourselves, for that land that, as scripture says, floweth with milk and honey was given by God as a possession to the children of Israel. (Robert of Rheims before 1107)

You will get the enemies’ possessions, because you will despoil their treasures and either return victorious to your own homes or gain eternal fame, purpled with your own blood. (Baldric of Bourgeuil c.1108)55

The battle cry at Dorylaeum on 1 July 1097 already mentioned – ‘Stand fast all together, trusting in Christ and in the victory of the Holy Cross. Today, please God, you will all gain much booty’ – made good psychological and theological as well as tactical and logistic sense.56 The emphasis was as much on ‘standing fast’ in faith as on the necessary material rewards of military success. The rewards of service to God need not be restricted to the spiritual; given the service was military, it could not be if success were to be achieved.

However, that is not the same thing as saying that the Jerusalem expedition attracted recruits for mercenary reasons. As a song composed at the time of the First Crusade put it: ‘There we must go, selling our goods to buy the temple of God and to destroy the Saracens.’57 The peasant-hating Guibert of Nogent recalled the economic and financial hardships they suffered in selling their homes, vineyards and fields to raise money for the journey: ‘everyone bought high and sold low’.58 A similar fate could not be avoided by knights and nobles. Whatever his hopes for future gain, a crusader began his journey suffering capital losses in converting landed property into cash and war materials. The agricultural depression of the mid-1090s only exacerbated the problem. Even for those who did anticipate a land of milk and honey, the scale of the initial investment was sobering: no money; no crusade.

As most wished to return – demonstrably so with those who left charters behind – and as most survivors did just that, putative profits of settlement and colonization were hardly an issue. Of course, the rewards of successful campaigning were accepted eagerly; opportunities for profit were taken with alacrity. Genoese crusaders were quick to establish privileged trading status with Bohemund’s new regime in Antioch in July 1098. This does not mean they had taken the cross with this intent uppermost in their minds; the risks of committing a fleet to such a venture were very great. It was not as if those who took the cross did not know where they were going or were ignorant of the costs involved; their own, their neighbours’ and their relatives’ experiences in war and on pilgrimage prepared them. The crusaders’ financial balance sheet on setting out contradicts any easy economic reductionism. Terrestrial profits were more realistically those of honour, prestige and relics. The cliché of younger sons being drawn to the Jerusalem adventure contains no truth. Almost by definition the leaders were, if not all eldest sons, possessed of significant patrimonies of their own; this applied not only to the so-called princes but to the vital second-rank nobles whose retinues formed the military backbone of the armies, such as Raymond Pilet, lord of Alès in the Limousin, who emerged as an independent leader within the army from the summer of 1098. The evidence of land-hunger is local and unconvincing; internal colonization and expanding the areas of cultivation within western Europe catered for the expanding population. What is known of individual crusaders demonstrates no special appeal for younger sons; rather the opposite. Whole families departed together; some sixty families contributing more than one member to the expedition have been identified.59 Having broken one of the supposedly immutable rules of medieval life by mortgaging or selling patrimonies, such men were evidently moved by considerations other than the obviously material.

The cultural aspirations of the arms-bearing aristocracy were directly engaged. The growing social dominance of a self-conscious military elite was answered in the call to Jerusalem depicted in terms of honour, reputation and family pride. Robert of Rheims had Urban appeal directly to these values:

Oh most strong soldiers and the offspring of unvanquished parents, do not show yourselves to be weaker than your forbears but remember their strength… upon you (i.e. the Franks) before all other nations God has bestowed outstanding glory in arms.60

Heroes of the Scriptures, such as the Maccabees, and of secular romance, notably Charlemagne, were held up as models for emulation. The Jerusalem expedition was perceived as an honourable duty by a class familiar with the raison d’être expressed in theChanson d’Antioche: ‘He who fears death more than dishonour has no right to lordship’.61 In this war, the reward was social and religious justification, honour and eternal life.

It is hardly surprising that the surviving charters of departing crusaders, drafted by monks, should emphasize their overwhelming burden of sin. However, both lay and clerical observers confirmed this obsession. For Guibert of Nogent and his contemporaries, the key to the success of the Jerusalem expedition was that it offered the professionally and socially violent classes ‘a new way of earning salvation’ in holy war.62 Fulcher of Chartres, a priest in the army of northern French who set out for Jerusalem in the autumn of 1096, explained:

Let those who are accustomed wantonly to wage private war against the faithful march upon the infidels… Let those who have long been robbers now be soldiers of Christ; let those who once fought against brothers and relatives now rightfully fight against barbarians. Let those who have been hirelings for a few pieces of silver now attain an eternal reward.63

Such pious generalities were translated into active reconciliation. There are numerous examples of lords and knights taking the opportunity of the Jerusalem expedition to resolve outstanding disputes with local religious houses, some of which had been pursued with considerable savagery, such as Bertrand of Moncontour and Nivelo of Fréteval in northern France or the castellans of Mezenc in the south, whose cruelty to local villagers shocked the hard-bitten Adhemar of Le Puy, who nevertheless absolved them for their Jerusalem journey.64 The tone of such deals may have exaggerated both guilt and penitence. While for some, the Jerusalem journey signalled a transformed life, many crusaders were and remained extremely violent. Thomas of Marle notoriously terrorized the Ile de France for years on either side of his march to Jerusalem; the pilgrim remained a psychopath. William viscount of Melun earned his nickname ‘the Carpenter’ because of his skills as a battlefield butcher. Stephen count of Blois, who fled the siege of Antioch and later died a hero’s death at Ramla in 1102, had killed men in private wars. On his return to the Chartres region, Raimbold Croton, a hero at Antioch and Jerusalem, castrated a monk in a land dispute. Such men were not immune to religious anxieties, rather their piety was robust and practical. The lay biographer Ralph of Caen’s famous portrait of Bohemund’s nephew Tancred agonizing over his violent life before the Clermont indulgence reconciled warfare with God’s commandments should be treated with scepticism; Tancred’s dilemma was neither new nor previously unresolved.65 Nevertheless, Urban’s remission of sins for such killers was a lifeline indeed.

The success of recruiting in 1096 remains mysterious. The dilemmas of secular rule and war were hardly novel. It is difficult to reconcile eleventh-century history with a view that hundreds or even thousands of powerful arms-bearers suffered from debilitating individual or collective guilt complexes that suddenly became critical, as a literal acceptance of their charters might suggest. There was an increased focus by the church and hence by congregations and patrons on the problem of salvation for sinners. Urban II neatly summed it up: ‘there are only two gates to eternal life; baptism and genuine penitence’.66 The supernatural was perceived as real and proximate. Hell, heaven and the place between where souls waited for redemption, if not as yet fully understood as purgatory, were not abstractions. Yet it needed a combination of pressures to excite the response of 1096. Alone, ideology is insufficient explanation.

Concentration on faith by itself is inadequate to explain the genesis or progress of the war of the cross ideologically, sociologically, politically or militarily. Jerusalem was not won by faith alone; faith alone did not send men to Jerusalem. The reductionism implied by the idea of an ‘age of faith’ requires questioning. The picture is more complicated. Faced with sermons repeatedly insisting on the basic merits and message of Christianity; with hagiography in which doubters featured regularly; with academics, such as Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), attempting to construct logically satisfactory explanations of God; and with innumerable anecdotes of lay (and some clerical) mockery of the pretentions of the church, it is hard to argue that we are dealing with an age any more credulous or unthinkingly accepting of religious truth than our own. One much-derided episode during the First Crusade concerned the story of a band of crusaders or pilgrims being led towards Jerusalem by a goose from Cambrai in northern France to Lorraine, where the creature died. The snobbish and irascible Guibert of Nogent dismissed the tale with contempt, as much social as academic, suggesting that the animal would have given more to the cause of Jerusalem ‘if the day before she had set out she had made of herself a holiday meal for her mistress’. Having earlier poured scorn on the credulity of the masses who believed they saw clouds at Beauvais forming (Guibert, who was there, thought they looked like a stork or crane), the abbot explained why he had mentioned the goose at all: ‘we have attached this incident to the true history (historiae veraci) so that men may know that they have been warned against permitting Christian seriousness to be trivialized by belief in vulgar fables’.67 Reactions to the Jerusalem journey were hardly undiscriminating.

Contemporaries had few doubts of the genesis of the expedition. Whether described as rumour or a great stirring, the emotions whipped up in 1095–6 were neither ephemeral nor superficial. A previous ‘terror’ in 1064 had been observed to inspire men of all classes to leave their families and possessions for Jerusalem, including bishops and at least one scholar who entertained his companions with vernacular songs about Christ’s miracles, a technique of boosting morale probably repeated in the armies of 1096.68 The well-attested astrological episodes early in 1095 – apparently a meteor shower – could be used to agitate moods, as had Halley’s Comet of 1066. Enthusiasm for the Jerusalem expedition was not the result of any famine or ergot-inspired hallucinations; if it can be described as a form of mass hysteria, it was by no means inchoate. The patterns of delivering the message and of recruitment tracked the dynamics and bonds of society; of lordship, kinship, locality, authority, towns, and of worship. Ceremony, symbolism and repetition of a simple creed provided focus for disparate ambitions involving faith, self-image and the pressure of peers. Although, as one rather bemused onlooker noticed, the huge number moved by this single objective was inspired by word of mouth, one to another,69 the elites of church and lay rule provided the kernel of idealism as well as the prosaic but vital mechanics of action. Part revivalism, part politics, part a search for release and personal renewal, both a manipulation of popular beliefs and prejudices common to all social groups and an attempt to channel these towards a narrowly laudable yet essentially familiar and explicable end, the summons to Jerusalem succeeded because it caught the imagination of a society not necessarily ready but psychologically, culturally and materially equipped to answer the call. In the level of official enthusiasm, in the rapidity of popular acceptance, in the extremes of response, in the widespread uncertainty, indifference and regional variation shadowing extravagant and well-publicized bellicosity, 1096 was the 1914 of the middle ages.


1. Europe and the Near East at the Time of the First Crusade and Preaching Tour of Pope Urban II 1095–6

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