At a council of the Church held at Clermont in the French Auvergne in November 1095 a decree was issued that marked a new beginning in western Christianity’s use of war to further its religious mission.
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.
This decree did not invent Christian violence. Nor did it define precise terms of a revolution in thought or practice, or determine how future generations would employ the precedent. Coming half way through a preaching tour of France conducted by Pope Urban II (1088–95), the Clermont assembly was best remembered not for the legal authority granted by the decree but for the pope’s sermon at the end of the council on 27 November. What the pope said is not known. Witnesses and later commentators subsequently depicted him as delivering a rousing call to arms to the fighting classes of western Europe to recover the Holy City of Jerusalem, insisting that this was no ordinary act of temporal warfare but a task enjoined on the faithful by God Himself, a message echoed back in the cries of ‘Deus lo volt!’ – ‘God wills it!’ – said to have greeted Urban’s words. To provide a focus for commitment and a sign of distinction, Urban instituted the ceremonial granting of crosses to those who had sworn to undertake the Jerusalem journey. Thus they became ‘signed with the cross’, crucesignati.
5. Urban II (on the left, his hand raised in blessing) consecrates the new church at his alma mater, the Burgundian abbey of Cluny, a month before he proclaimed the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095.
Over the following century writers in western European vernaculars began to describe these wars in similar terms – crozeia, crozea, or even crozada in early 13th-century southern French (langue d’oc). The appropriation of Christianity’s most numinous symbol, as badge, banner, and talisman, followed naturally from the pope’s conception of the enterprise to liberate ‘the Holy City of Christ, embellished by his passion and resurrection’. Observers and veterans of the enterprise understood the pope to have called for Christ-like sacrifice in obedience to the gospel command: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24). All Hebrew accounts of the 1096 massacres of Rhineland Jews by the passing Christian armies emphasized that the butchers wore the sign of the cross.
The memory of Urban’s rhetoric at Clermont played a central role in how the events prompted by his speech were later portrayed, providing a convenient start to narratives of the startling consequences of the pope’s preaching. Urban’s decree explicitly proclaimed a holy war in which the effort of the campaign, including the fighting and the inevitable slaughter, could be regarded as equivalent to strenuous performance of penance provided it had been undertaken devoutly. The cause may have been seen as just, but that was not the point. This was an act of total self-abnegating faith demanded by God, hence the language of unrealistic absolutes that failed to match military, social, and psychological reality, an ideal to inspire and against which deeds could be judged. The Clermont decree instituted a holy war, its cause and motive religious, an act of Christian charity for ‘the love of God and their neighbour’ (the eastern Christians). As well as combining violence with a transcendent moral imperative, Urban appealed to a form of ‘primitive religious nostalgia’ embodied in the ambiguously liminal Holy City of Jerusalem, lost to Christendom since its capture by the Muslims in 638 yet central to Christian imagination as the scene of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Here, according to Christian texts familiar through the Mass and liturgy, earth touched heaven. In a short space, the Clermont decree identified reasons for the massive response: the certainties of faith; fear of damnation; temporal self-image; material, social, and supernatural profit; the attraction of warfare for a military aristocracy; an unequivocally good cause; and an iconic objective of loud resonance in the imaginative world of western Christians. It proved to be a formula of sustained power for the rest of the Middle Ages.
What we today call a crusade could be described as a war answering God’s command, authorized by a legitimate authority, the pope, who, by virtue of the power seen as vested in him as Vicar of Christ, identified the war’s object and offered to those who undertook it full remission of the penalties of confessed sins and a package of related temporal privileges, including church protection of family and property, immunity from law suits and interest repayments on debt. The beneficiary earned these grants by swearing a vow symbolized in a ritual adoption of a cross, blessed by a priest and worn on the recipient’s clothing, the vow often being couched in terms parallel to those for a pilgrimage. The duration of the spiritual and temporal privileges was determined by the fulfilment of the vow, by absolution or by death. Those dying in battle or otherwise in fulfilment of their vow could expect eternal salvation and to be regarded as martyrs. At every stage, analogies with a quasi-monastic commitment were drawn, associating the activity with what remained the ideal conception of the perfect Christian spiritual life. Although details of the operation of the vow and its associated privileges developed over the following century or more to cover a multiplicity of political and ecclesiastical concerns, the first appearance and original justification for such a holy war in 1095 was the recovery of Jerusalem from Muslim rule. Thereafter, the Holy Land retained a primacy in rhetoric, imagination, and, for many centuries, ideology.
6. A 15th-century drawing by a German pilgrim of the Edicule (small house) built over the Holy Sepulchre within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the physical destination of so many pilgrims and crusaders over the previous four centuries.
Numbering the crusades
Historians organize the past to help them make sense of the evidence. In doing so they run the risk of becoming imprisoned by their own artifice. Between 1095 and, say, 1500 there were scores of military operations that attracted the privileges associated with the wars of the cross. Yet only a few later became known by a number, all of them aimed at Muslim targets in and around Syria and Palestine in the eastern Mediterranean. Obviously, the nobles, knights, foot soldiers, unarmed pilgrims, and hangers-on who answered Urban II’s appeal in 1095–6 did not know they were embarking on the first of anything; they were told their efforts were in a unique cause. Subsequent events altered perceptions. The promoters of the next comparable eastern campaign, in 1146–9, invoked the precedent of 1095–6, casting into shadow smaller expeditions that had embarked to aid the Christian cause in the east in the interim. Thus, in the eyes of later scholars, the 1146 crusade became the Second Crusade. Subsequent numbering followed suit, attached only to general, large-scale international assaults intended to reach the Holy Land. Hence the inclusion in the canon of the Fourth Crusade (1202–4) that planned to attack Egypt, although getting no further than Constantinople. Other crusades are defined by objective, location, participants, or motive. Hence the Albigensian Crusades describe the wars against religious heretics in southern France around Albi between 1209 and 1229. The Baltic Crusades were campaigns launched against local pagan tribes of the region for two and a half centuries from the mid-12th century. The Peasants’ (1096), Children’s (1212), and Shepherds’ (1251, 1320) Crusades speak for themselves, socially pigeon-holed by historians’ (and contemporary) snobbery. The wars directed from the 13th century against papal enemies in Europe are called, somewhat judgementally, ‘Political’, as if all crusades, like all wars, were not political. The dozens of lesser crusades to the Holy Land not deemed large or glamorous enough have remained unnumbered. To add to the confusion, even within the canon, historians have disagreed over some numbers attached to Holy Land crusades in the 13th century. Some see Frederick II of Germany’s crusade of 1228–9 that briefly restored Jerusalem as the Sixth Crusade; others as the last campaign of the Fifth Crusade summoned in 1213. Louis IX of France’s Egyptian campaign of 1248–50 (the Sixth or Seventh depending on the view taken of Frederick II) and his campaign to Tunis in 1270 (the Eighth or Ninth) are not now generally described by number. Such games are not new. In the early 18th century some historians stuck to five (1096, 1146, 1190, 1217–29, and 1248) while others counted eight. Most modern historians, content to number crusades until the Fifth (beginning in 1213), thereafter dispense with numbering.
7. The crusade as a penitential exercise was intimately linked to the practice of pilgrimage. Here, in a wall-painting from St Nicholas Church, Travant, France, a 12th-century pilgrim is shown returning from Jerusalem bearing a palm leaf as evidence of the completion of his journey. Palm leaves could be bought in the Street of Palms in the Holy City.