Extraordinary inducements brought multitudes to the standard. A plenary indulgence remitting all punishments due to sin was offered to those who should fall in the war. Serfs were allowed to leave the soil to which they had been bound; citizens were exempted from taxes; debtors enjoyed a moratorium on interest; prisoners were freed, and sentences of death were commuted, by a bold extension of papal authority, to life service in Palestine. Thousands of vagrants joined in the sacred tramp. Men tired of hopeless poverty, adventurers ready for brave enterprise, younger sons hoping to carve out fiefs for themselves in the East, merchants seeking new markets for their goods, knights whose enlisting serfs had left them laborless, timid spirits shunning taunts of cowardice, joined with sincerely religious souls to rescue the land of Christ’s birth and death. Propaganda of the kind customary in war stressed the disabilities of Christians in Palestine, the atrocities of Moslems, the blasphemies of the Mohammedan creed; Moslems were described as worshiping a statue of Mohammed,7 and pious gossip related how the Prophet, fallen in an epileptic fit, had been eaten alive by hogs.8 Fabulous tales were told of Oriental wealth, and of dark beauties waiting to be taken by brave men.9
Such a variety of motives could hardly assemble a homogeneous mass capable of military organization. In many cases women and children insisted upon accompanying their husbands or parents, perhaps with reason, for prostitutes soon enlisted to serve the warriors. Urban had appointed the month of August, 1096, as the time of departure, but the impatient peasants who were the first recruits could not wait. One such host, numbering some 12,000 persons (of whom only eight were knights), set out from France in March under Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless (Gautier sans-Avoir); another, perhaps 5000 strong, started from Germany under the priest Gott-schalk; a third advanced from the Rhineland under Count Emico of Leiningen. It was chiefly these disorderly bands that attacked the Jews of Germany and Bohemia, rejected the appeals of the local clergy and citizenry, and degenerated for a time into brutes phrasing their blood lust in piety. The recruits had brought modest funds and little food, and their inexperienced leaders had made scant provision for feeding them. Many of the marchers had underestimated the distance; and as they advanced along the Rhine and the Danube the children asked impatiently, at each turn, was not this Jerusalem?10 When their funds ran out, and they began to starve, they were forced to pillage the fields and homes on their route; and soon they added rape to rapine.11 The population resisted violently; some towns closed their gates against them, and others bade them Godspeed with no delay. Arriving at last before Constantinople quite penniless, and decimated by famine, plague, leprosy, fever, and battles on the way, they were welcomed by Alexius, but not satisfactorily fed; they broke into the suburbs, and plundered churches, houses, and palaces. To deliver his capital from these praying locusts, Alexius provided them with vessels to cross the Bosporus, sent them supplies, and bade them wait until better armed detachments could arrive. Whether through hunger or restlessness, the Crusaders ignored these instructions, and advanced upon Nicaea. A disciplined force of Turks, all skilled bowmen, marched out from the city and almost annihilated this first division of the First Crusade. Walter the Penniless was among the slain; Peter the Hermit, disgusted with his uncontrollable host, had returned before the battle to Constantinople, and lived safely till 1115.
Meanwhile the feudal leaders who had taken the cross had assembled each his own force in his own place. No king was among them; indeed Philip I of France, William II of England, and Henry IV of Germany were all under sentence of excommunication when Urban preached the crusade. But many counts and dukes enlisted, nearly all of them French or Frank; the First Crusade was largely a French enterprise, and to this day the Near East speaks of West Europeans as Franks. Duke Godfrey, Seigneur of Bouillon (a small estate in Belgium), combined the qualities of soldier and monk—brave and competent in war and government, and pious to the point of fanaticism. Count Bohemund of Taranto was Robert Guiscard’s son; he had all the courage and skill of his father, and dreamed of slicing a kingdom for himself and his Norman troops out of the former Byzantine possessions in the Near East. With him was his nephew Tancred of Hauteville, destined to be the hero of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered: handsome, fearless, gallant, generous, loving glory and wealth, and universally admired as the ideal of a Christian knight. Raymond, Count of Toulouse, had already fought Islam in Spain; now, in old age, he dedicated himself and his vast fortune to the larger war; but a haughty temper spoiled his nobility, and avarice stained his piety.
By diverse routes these hosts made their way to Constantinople. Bo-hemund proposed to Godfrey that they seize the city; Godfrey refused, saying that he had come only to fight infidels;12 but the idea did not die. The masculine, half-barbarous knights of the West despised these subtle and cultured gentlemen of the East as heretics lost in effeminate luxury; they looked with astonishment and envy upon the riches laid up in the churches, palaces, and markets of the Byzantine capital, and thought that fortune should belong to the brave. Alexius may have gotten wind of these notions among his saviors; and his experience with the peasant horde (for whose defeat the West had censured him) inclined him to caution, perhaps to duplicity. He had asked for assistance against the Turks, but he had not bargained upon the united strength of Europe gathering at his gates; he could never be sure whether these warriors aspired to Jerusalem so much as to Constantinople, nor whether they would restore to his Empire any formerly Byzantine territory that they might take from the Turks. He offered the Crusaders provisions, subsidies, transport, military aid, and, for the leaders, handsome bribes;13 in return he asked that the nobles should swear allegiance to him as their feudal sovereign; any lands taken by them were to be held in fealty to him. The nobles, softened with silver, swore.
Early in 1097 the armies, totaling some 30,000 men, still under divided leadership, crossed the straits. Luckily, the Moslems were even more divided than the Christians. Not only was Moslem power in Spain spent, and in northern Africa rent with religious faction, but in the East the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt held southern Syria, while their foes, the Seljuq Turks, held northern Syria and most of Asia Minor. Armenia rebelled against its Seljuq conquerors, and allied itself with the “Franks.” So helped, the arms of Europe advanced to the siege of Nicaea. On Alexius’ pledge that their lives would be spared, the Turkish garrison surrendered (June 19, 1097). The Greek Emperor raised the Imperial flag over the citadel, protected the city from indiscriminate pillage, and appeased the feudal leaders with substantial gifts; but the Christian soldiery complained that Alexius was in league with the Turks. After a week’s rest, the Crusaders set out for Antioch. They met a Turkish army under Qilij Arslan near Dorylaeum, won a bloody battle (July 1, 1097), and marched through Asia Minor with no other enemies than a shortage of water and food, and a degree of heat for which the Western blood was unprepared. Men, women, horses, and dogs died of thirst on that bitter march of 500 miles. Crossing the Taurus, some nobles separated their forces from the main army to make private conquests—Raymond, Bohemund, and Godfrey in Armenia, Tancred and Baldwin (brother of Godfrey) in Edessa; there Baldwin, by strategy and treachery,14 founded the first Latin principality in the East (1098). The mass of the Crusaders complained ominously at these delays; the nobles returned, and the advance to Antioch was resumed.
Antioch, described by the chronicler of the Gesta Francorum as a “city extremely beautiful, distinguished, and delightful,”15 resisted siege for eight months. Many Crusaders died from exposure to the cold winter rains, or from hunger; some found a novel nourishment by chewing “the sweet reeds called zucra” (Arabic sukkar); now for the first time the “Franks” tasted sugar, and learned how it was pressed from cultivated herbs.16 Prostitutes provided more dangerous sweets; an amiable archdeacon was slain by the Turks as he reclined in an orchard with his Syrian concubine.17 In May, 1098, word came that a great Moslem army was approaching under Karbogha, Prince of Mosul; Antioch fell (June 3, 1098) a few days before this army arrived; many of the Crusaders, fearing that Karbogha could not be withstood, boarded ships on the Orontes, and fled. Alexius, advancing with a Greek force, was misled by deserters into believing that the Christians had already been defeated; he turned back to protect Asia Minor, and was never forgiven. To restore courage to the Crusaders, Peter Bartholomew, a priest from Marseille, pretended to have found the spear that had pierced the side of Christ; when the Christians marched out to battle the lance was carried aloft as a sacred standard; and three knights, robed in white, issued from the hills at the call of the papal legate Adhemar, who proclaimed them to be the martyrs St. Maurice, St. Theodore, and St. George. So inspired, and under the united command of Bohemund, the Crusaders achieved a decisive victory. Bartholomew, accused of a pious fraud, offered to undergo the ordeal of fire as a test of his veracity. He ran through a gauntlet of burning faggots, and emerged apparently safe; but he died of burns or an overstrained heart on the following day; and the holy lance was withdrawn from the standards of the host.18
Bohemund became by grateful consent Prince of Antioch. Formally he held the region in fief to Alexius; actually he ruled it as an independent sovereign; the chieftains claimed that Alexius’ failure to come to their aid released them from their vows of allegiance. After spending six months in refreshing and reorganizing their weakened forces, they led their armies toward Jerusalem. At last, on June 7, 1099, after a campaign of three years, the Crusaders, reduced to 12,000 combatants, stood in exaltation and fatigue before the walls of Jerusalem. By the humor of history, the Turks whom they had come to fight had been expelled from the city by the Fatimids a year before. The caliph offered peace on terms of guaranteed safety for Christian pilgrims and worshipers in Jerusalem, but Bohemund and Godfrey demanded unconditional surrender. The Fatimid garrison of 1000 men resisted for forty days. On July 15 Godfrey and Tancred led their followers over the walls, and the Crusaders knew the ecstasy of a high purpose accomplished after heroic suffering. Then, reports the priestly eyewitness Raymond of Agiles,
wonderful things were to be seen. Numbers of the Saracens were beheaded … others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers; others were tortured for several days and then burned in flames. In the streets were seen piles of heads and hands and feet. One rode about everywhere amid the corpses of men and horses.19
Other contemporaries contribute details: women were stabbed to death, suckling babes were snatched by the leg from their mothers’ breasts and flung over the walls, or had their necks broken by being dashed against posts;20 and 70,000 Moslems remaining in the city were slaughtered. The surviving Jews were herded into a synagogue and burned alive. The victors flocked to the church of the Holy Sepulcher, whose grotto, they believed, had once held the crucified Christ. There, embracing one another, they wept with joy and release, and thanked the God of Mercies for their victory.