Post-classical history


Europe in Crisis

THE FIRST CRUSADE defined the Middle Ages. It established a common identity for the knighthood of Europe, pinned firmly on the Christian faith. It influenced behaviour, with piety and service emerging as highly prized personal qualities, extolled in verse, prose, song and art. It idealised the concept of the devout knight, fighting for God. It established the Pope as a leader not just of spiritual significance but of political importance. It gave common purpose to western principalities, creating a framework where the defence of the church was not just desirable but an obligation. Out of the First Crusade grew the ideas and structures which shaped Europe until the Reformation.

Ironically, the Crusade was itself the product of discord and disunity, for Europe was riven by turmoil and crisis in the second half of the eleventh century. This was a time of conquest and upheaval across the continent. England was under Norman occupation, having barely managed to resist persistent attacks from Scandinavia. Apulia, Calabria and Sicily were also in the process of being transformed by immigrants from Normandy, first mercenaries and then opportunists, who were drawn south by the rich financial rewards on offer. Spain was in transition, its Muslim occupiers being evicted one town after another following centuries of control over the peninsula. Germany too was in upheaval, with major uprisings breaking out against the crown on a regular basis. The Byzantine Empire, meanwhile, was under chronic pressure, with its northern, eastern and western frontiers threatened, assaulted and overrun by increasingly aggressive neighbours.

The eleventh century was also a time of violent dispute between the papacy and the leading magnates of Europe which saw rulers being dramatically excommunicated, then sometimes rehabilitated only to be thrown out of communion once again. Almost all the main figures of this period – Henry IV of Germany, Philip I of France, King Harold of England, the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos and the Norman duke Robert Guiscard – were excommunicated at least once by the papacy as part of its attempts to assert authority over the secular world.

So great were the divisions even within the church that in the late eleventh century there were rival popes, each claiming to be the legitimate heir to the throne of St Peter and backed up by rival clergies claiming to be the legitimate electing body. Then there was the Byzantine church, which was sharply at odds with the practices and teachings that were standard in the west, and in a state of schism with the papacy. Yet the most poisonous and sustained of the arguments engulfing Europe in this period threatened the viability of the church as a whole: a major fallout had devastated relations between Pope Gregory VII and the most powerful man in Europe, Henry IV of Germany. Henry’s predecessors had established control over northern Italy and made themselves emperors of Rome in the 960s; as a result they paid close and careful attention to the papacy, retaining a right to be involved in papal elections. Relations between Gregory VII and Henry IV started promisingly enough after the appointment in April 1073 of Gregory, ‘a religious man, well versed in both branches [sacred and secular] of knowledge, a most pre-eminent lover of equity and righteousness, strong in adversity … honourable, modest, sober, chaste, hospitable’.1 The Pope took heart from messages sent by the emperor after his election. Henry, he wrote to one supporter, ‘has sent us words full of pleasantness and obedience, and such as we remember that neither he nor his predecessors ever sent to Roman pontiffs’.2

It did not take long, though, for relations to degenerate. Even before becoming pope, Gregory had been a pragmatist with strong views about reforming the church and centralising Rome’s power more effectively. Of particular concern was the issue of appointments to high offices in the church, many of which were being sold in what amounted to little better than organised corruption. Some senior positions brought lucrative stipends as well as influence and authority, making them a highly desirable sinecure – useful rewards to be handed out by powerful rulers.3

Gregory’s attempts at reform by banning the sale of religious offices and asserting that he alone had the right to make appointments set him on a collision course with Henry, who deeply resented the Pope’s interference in the affairs of the German church. By 1076, relations had broken down to such an extent that the Pope excommunicated Henry, declaring that ‘on behalf of Almighty God, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, through your power and authority, I deny to King Henry, son of the emperor Henry, who has risen up with unheard of pride against your church, the government of the entire kingdom of the Germans and of Italy, and I absolve all Christians from the bond of any oath that they have taken, or shall take, to him; and I forbid anyone to serve him as king’.4

Not surprisingly, this inflamed tensions, with Henry’s supporters declaring that the Pope was a criminal and bishops loyal to the German sovereign passing the sentence of excommunication on the pontiff himself.5 Although the two men were briefly reconciled in the later 1070s, their relationship broke down once and for all after the Pope was persuaded to give his backing to powerful enemies of the emperor in Germany, who were seeking to depose him. After Gregory endorsed the claims of one of these rivals to the throne, praising his humility, obedience and love of truth in contrast to Henry’s pride, disobedience and deceit, the emperor took drastic steps.6

The bishops of Germany and northern Italy were summoned to a church council at Brixen in June 1080. There it was proposed that Gregory should be expelled from Rome by force and replaced by an ‘orthodox’ pope. Wibert, archbishop of Ravenna, was nominated as pope elect, with his coronation to take place in Rome the following spring.7 After being delayed by uprisings in Germany, Henry IV finally marched into Italy, advancing on Rome and taking the city in 1084. Wibert was immediately crowned as Pope Clement III in the basilica of St Peter. A week later, Henry himself was crowned as emperor of Rome. ‘We have been ordained by Pope Clement’, he wrote, ‘and have been consecrated emperor by consent of all the Romans on the Holy Day of Easter with the exultation of the whole Roman people.’8

The establishment of Clement as a rival pope, claiming to be the true heir to the throne of St Peter and supported by a swathe of senior clergy, threatened to split the Roman church in two. Although Gregory himself took refuge in the Lateran and eventually escaped from Rome to Salerno, where he died in exile in 1085, uncertainty and confusion continued to cloud the papacy. It took nearly a year for a successor to be named to take Gregory VII’s place, and even then the candidate chosen as pope, Victor III, had to be installed more or less by force. His death after barely eighteen months in office led to a new election and created further upheaval. In March 1088, Odo, cardinal bishop of Ostia, was named pope, taking the name Urban II; yet he was not recognised in lands subject to Henry IV in Germany or northern Italy. The church was in disarray.

The schism in the Western Church showed little sign of healing in the years that followed. In the decade before the Council of Clermont in 1095, it was Clement III – and not Urban II – who was in the stronger position. The latter, after all, was rarely even able to get inside the walls of Rome in the first years of his pontificate: even his election had taken place in Terracina, well away from the Eternal City, which was still firmly held by forces loyal to the emperor. Although he briefly managed to enter Rome in 1089, celebrating with a procession, a coronation Mass and proclaiming an encyclical, he quickly withdrew again, not daring to risk staying in the city for any length of time.9 When he returned at Christmas in 1091 and 1092, he was forced to camp outside the city walls, unable to undertake the most basic duties of the Pope, including saying Mass in St Peter’s.10

The idea that Urban might be able to move and inspire the Christian knights of Europe to rise up, bear arms and march on Jerusalem would have been laughable at the time of his election. Although the Pope followed developments in Spain closely, where gains were being made at the expense of the Muslims, he could do little more than send enthusiastic letters of support and encouragement.11 But given Urban’s predicament at home, his concern for the fate of the faithful in the east, while perhaps heartfelt, would have carried little weight and no influence in a world where he struggled to rally supporters even in Rome, let alone elsewhere in Europe.

In contrast, Clement III was relentlessly reinforcing his position as the true head of the Catholic Church. In the late 1080s, he sent a spate of letters to Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, inviting him to Rome, asking for Peter’s pence to be sent to him, and offering to intervene in disputes in England. He also urged the king of England and the bishops to provide help to the mother church.12 Clement communicated with the Serbs, confirming clerical appointments and sending a special ecclesiastical vestment, a pallium, to the archbishop of Antivari.13 He made contact with the head of the church in Kiev, the capital of the medieval Russian state, sending him messages of goodwill.14 He was behaving exactly as the Pope should: officiously contacting, advising and supporting leading figures in the Christian world. It was Clement III, and not Urban, who looked likely to deliver the sort of speech and produce the sort of reaction that might unite the church in the mid-1090s.

Where Urban II did have an advantage over his rival was in his relationship with the Eastern Church – though this itself was not without difficulty. Originally, Rome and Constantinople had been two of the five primary sees of Christendom, along with Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. The fall of the last three to the Islamic conquests of the seventh century elevated the status of the remaining two cities to the point of endemic rivalry. Disputes about their relative importance, as well as about matters of doctrine and practice, flared up on a regular basis, and furious exchanges between Pope Nicholas I and the head of the church in Constantinople, the patriarch Photios, had brought relations to a particular low point in the ninth century.

Normally, though, time soothed tensions and these quarrels were broken up by long periods of co-operation. A tenth-century Byzantine manual reveals how letters sent by the emperor in Constantinople to the Pope should be addressed, following a set formula: ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, our one and only God. [name left blank] and [name left blank], emperors of the Romans, faithful to God, to [name left blank] most holy Pope of Rome and our spiritual father’. Likewise, respectful terms with which to address the emperor were set out for ambassadors from Rome.15 These formulas suggest that co-operation between east and west was the norm rather than the exception.

In the middle of the eleventh century, however, relations between Rome and Constantinople emphatically broke down. A mission sent by Pope Leo IX in 1054 to explore common interests in Italy, where Byzantium controlled the regions of Apulia and Calabria, went spectacularly awry. Negotiations started off on the wrong foot, with discussion turning not to a possible alliance but to differences between the Latin and Greek rites in celebrating the Eucharist. As the excitable source material shows, it was of real significance to resolve whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used for the body of Christ. Most important of all, however, was the addition of the so-called filioque clause to the Creed, by which it was claimed that the Holy Spirit proceeded not just from the Father, but also from the Son. Initially proposed at a church council in Spain in the sixth century, which was, significantly, not attended by many leading clerics, its use had been initially condemned even by the papacy. However, the controversial filioque clause became increasingly prevalent in a world where it was not always easy to regulate practices. By the early eleventh century it was used so widely that it was formally accepted as a standard part of the Creed. The addition of the clause by Rome was furiously decried in the eastern Mediterranean, above all in Constantinople.

After the embassy reached the Byzantine capital, matters quickly came to a head. On 16 July 1054, the papal legate, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, along with other envoys from Rome, strode into the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as the Eucharist was being celebrated. In a moment of high drama, they walked directly up to the front of the church, not pausing to pray. Before the clergy and the congregation, they produced a document and brazenly placed it on the high altar. The patriarch of Constantinople, it read, had abused his office and was guilty of many errors in his beliefs and teaching. He was forthwith excommunicated, to suffer with all the worst heretics in hell, who were listed carefully. The patriarch and his supporters were condemned to eternal damnation, to suffer with ‘the Devil himself and his angels, unless they should repent. Amen, Amen, Amen.’ With that, Humbert turned around and walked out of the church, pausing to pat the dust from his sandals as he reached the doors of Hagia Sophia. He then turned to the congregation and declared solemnly: ‘Let God see and judge’.16

This was the nadir in relations between Rome and Constantinople, to this day known as the Great Schism. The animosity between east and west now became almost institutionalised. In 1078, for example, Gregory VII issued a notice excommunicating Nikephoros III Botaneiates, even though the new emperor had not had any contact with Rome; three years later, the Pope did the same to Alexios I Komnenos after the latter deposed Nikephoros.17 Around the same time, the Pope not only sanctioned an attack on Byzantium, but issued its leader with a banner to carry into battle against the imperial army. He even went so far as to endorse Robert Guiscard, the architect of the assault, as the legitimate candidate for the throne of Constantinople itself, even though the Norman had neither a genuine claim nor a realistic chance of installing himself as emperor.18

This puts Urban’s call to arms at Clermont into sharp relief. As the contemporary sources from late 1095 and early 1096 make clear, the Pope drew careful attention to the suffering of Christians in Asia Minor and to the persecution of the churches in the east – that is to say, the churches following the Greek rite.19 What led to this remarkable turnaround in the relations between Rome and Constantinople? The reasons for this extraordinary shift lay in the struggle for control of the church as a whole in the later eleventh century and, in particular, with the weakness of Urban’s position in the west.

When he became pope, Urban was keenly aware that he was being outmanoeuvred by Clement III and his protector Henry IV; he was forced to build bridges wherever he could. One of the first steps he took was to conciliate with Constantinople. Soon after his election in 1088, the Pope sent a small delegation to the imperial capital to discuss the sensitive topics that had provoked the falling-out three decades earlier. After being received by the emperor, they set out the issues in ‘a gentle and fatherly way’, as one contemporary commentator put it, covering topics such as the Greek use of leavened bread, as well as the removal of the Pope’s name from the holy diptychs of Constantinople, which contained the lists of the bishops, living and dead, considered to be in communion with the church.20

The emperor, Alexios I, was a former general with spartan tastes and a no-nonsense approach to his faith – a man who stayed awake late into the night with his wife immersed in study of the Holy Scriptures, according to their eldest daughter.21 He listened to the Pope’s ambassadors and ordered a synod to be convened to discuss their grievances, which included the complaint that churches following the Latin rite in the capital had been closed down, thereby preventing westerners living in the city from worshipping. The emperor also personally presided over a meeting attended by the patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch, two archbishops and eighteen bishops, and asked to see the documents relating to the decision to remove the Pope’s name from the diptychs. When informed that these did not exist, and furthermore that there appeared to be no canonical basis for the absence of the Pope’s name, he ordered that it be reinserted, according to custom.22

Alexios went further. Through the envoys, the emperor urged the Pope to come to Constantinople to put an end to the disputes which had been so damaging to the church in the past. In a document stamped with the imperial gold seal, he suggested that a special council should be convened, made up of senior Greek and Latin clergy, to discuss the major areas of difference. For his part, the emperor promised to abide by the conclusions reached in order to achieve a united definition of the Church of God.23

The patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas III Grammatikos, then wrote separately to the Pope in October 1089, expressing his delight that Urban was keen to affect an end to ecclesiastical dispute. The Pope was wrong, Nicholas wrote politely, to think that the patriarch personally harboured animosity to Latin Christians. He was mistaken too to think that churches using the western rite in the capital had been closed; in fact, the westerners living in Constantinople were allowed to worship using the Latin rite. ‘We desire with all our heart, more than anything, the unity of the church’, Nicholas wrote.24

These steps reopened dialogue with Rome and paved the way for a major realignment of the Byzantine Empire on the eve of the First Crusade. A senior Byzantine cleric, Theophylact Hephaistos, was commissioned to prepare a document deliberately playing down the significance of the differences between Greek and Latin customs to soothe misgivings in the Eastern Church. Many were petty, he wrote. Latin priests observed a fast on Saturdays, rather than on Sundays; they fasted incorrectly during Lent; unlike Orthodox priests, they thought nothing of wearing rings on their fingers, and also cut their hair and shaved their beards; they were not dressed in black while celebrating the liturgy but wore coloured silk vestments; they did not genuflect correctly; and unlike Greek monks who were strict vegetarians, Latin monks were only too happy to eat lard and various meats. All these issues could be easily resolved, the cleric argued, as could the question of leavening bread for use in the Eucharist.25 The filioque addition to the Creed was an altogether more serious problem, he acknowledged, and those who accepted the clause would descend into the flames of hell.26 Nevertheless, he was still hopeful that the clause would be removed.27

This careful repositioning was intended to close the gap between Constantinople and Rome, not just in religious affairs, but to pave the way for a political and even a military alliance. It was a crucial staging post in the genesis of the First Crusade, and a prerequisite for the Pope’s appeal to the knighthood of Europe to march to Byzantium’s defence just a few years later.

Urban reacted quickly to the positive signs from Constantinople. He travelled south to meet with one of his few supporters, Count Roger of Sicily, and seek his approval for improving links with Byzantium. Roger had long been concerned by Henry IV’s aggressive intervention in Italy. In the mid-1080s some of the German emperor’s supporters had called on Henry to advance to Constantinople and then to Jerusalem where glorious coronations would await him; along the way he should also establish himself over the Normans by taking control of Apulia and Calabria, the latter at Roger’s expense.28 Roger gave an unequivocal reply when he heard about Alexios’ invitation to hold a council to mend relations: the Pope should attend, and rid the church of the Great Schism.29

This was exactly what Urban wanted to hear: it gave him the chance to take on the role of unifier of the Church. In the context of his struggle with Clement III, Urban’s breakthrough was invaluable – and Clement knew it. The latter found out about his rival’s exchanges with Constantinople from Basil of Calabria, a hard-line Byzantine cleric who had become disaffected by being prevented by Urban from taking up his see in southern Italy. Basil had been present at the Council of Melfi in the autumn of 1089 when it was made plain that he would be installed in Reggio if he recognised the Pope’s authority. Appalled to see two of his colleagues do just that, Basil exploded with fury.30 In his eyes, Urban was unworthy of the office of pope, just like his ‘three times cursed’ predecessor Gregory VII. He wrote to the patriarch of Constantinople describing the Pope as a cowardly wolf who ran away when faced with the most basic questions about Christian doctrine. He was a heretic who had also taken to selling ecclesiastical offices to the highest bidder.31

Basil’s personal misgivings mask the fact that the Council of Melfi was a significant moment for rebuilding relations between Rome and Constantinople. What Basil saw as the unforgivable submission of his colleagues to take up their sees at Rossano and Santa Severina were in fact more likely to be important cases of new co-operation between the Pope and Byzantium in southern Italy.32

Basil nevertheless took matters into his own hands. As soon as he learnt about the conciliatory moves in Constantinople, he made contact with Clement III. The antipope replied immediately. ‘Please send us quickly the letter from our holy brother the Patriarch of Constantinople which you have mentioned’, referring to the instructions Basil had been sent in order to reconcile with Rome. ‘We also must reply to him about the subject which is of such concern; he should know that everything has been duly prepared by us – for we too wish, and welcome, peace and unity.’33 Clement reassured Basil about his own grievances, promising him that these would soon be resolved in his favour.34 Yet if Clement did try to initiate dialogue of his own with Constantinople, it did not get far. Although he had shown an interest in building bridges with the Greek church – writing to John, the Byzantine-born metropolitan, or archbishop, of Kiev to raise the prospect of closer ties with the Greek church – his overtures came to nothing. For Alexios, Urban was a more attractive ally than his German-backed counterpart.35

For one thing, Urban still retained influence in southern Italy, a region that had been under Byzantine control for centuries until a disastrous set of reversals in the 1050s and 1060s at the hands of Norman conquerors whose power spread, according to Anna Komnene, like gangrene – ‘for gangrene, once established in a body, never rests until it has invaded and corrupted the whole of it’.36 Although the fall of Bari to the Normans in 1071 brought imperial rule of Apulia and Calabria to an ignominious end, the provinces were still home to a primarily Greek-speaking population who looked naturally to Constantinople for their lead. This link was now reactivated in the wake of rapprochement between Rome and Constantinople. Since the Norman conquest, wills, sales charters and other formal documents had carried the name of the Norman duke to date them. But from the start of the 1090s, Alexios’ name and regnal year began to appear with increasing frequency, a clear sign that the locals were looking once again to the emperor for leadership.37 The rehabilitation of Byzantium went a step further when Urban lifted the excommunication that had been passed on Alexios in 1081.38

There were other signs of a realignment of interests between east and west. In the early 1090s, the Greek monastery of San Filippo di Fragalà benefited from a surge of favours. Several churches were placed under its authority and additional lands were granted to its community of monks by Count Roger of Sicily, who issued a decree that the monastery would be free from the interference of the Latin clergy, and from ‘the barons, the strategoi, the viscounts as well as all others’.39 And there were examples of significant co-operation elsewhere, specifically with regard to military matters. Faced with major invasions across the Balkans in the early 1090s, Alexios I sent appeals to all quarters to bolster his forces. Imperial envoys were also sent to Urban in Campania, who promptly dispatched men in the spring of 1091 to help Alexios fight Pecheneg steppe nomads who had launched a massive invasion from the Danube deep into Thrace. The subsequent battle of Lebounion, which saw the annihilation of this fearsome nomadic tribe, was one of the most important battles in the empire’s history.40

By 1095, therefore, much had been done to heal the long-standing rift between Rome and Constantinople. Although the council proposed by Alexios a few years earlier had yet to take place, emperor and Pope had struck up a good working relationship. Indeed, if a later addition to a twelfth-century source is to be believed, together they had already developed a plan. Envoys reportedly arrived at the court of King Zvonimir of Croatia early in 1090, sent jointly by Urban and Alexios, appealing for knights to provide assistance to the beleaguered church in Byzantium and to relieve Muslim oppression in Jerusalem. If true, this was a dry run for the Pope’s appeal at Clermont: a call for help from Old and New Rome; the lure of Jerusalem; and military service as an act of devotion. In Zvonimir’s case, however, it did not have the desired effect: according to the interpolation, his knights were so appalled that Zvonimir was prepared to fight somebody else’s war that they murdered him (although other sources claim that the king died peacefully of old age).41

By pursuing reconciliation with Constantinople, Urban deliberately positioned himself as the leader of the Christian world, which had been ravaged by years of intense competition, struggle and strife. As one contemporary chronicler put it, at the end of the eleventh century the church was in a state of chaos. ‘In all parts of Europe’, wrote Fulcher of Chartres, ‘peace, virtue and faith were brutally trampled upon by stronger men and lesser, inside the church and out. It was necessary to put an end to all these evils.’42 Yet Urban needed a wider scheme to establish himself at the heart of Christendom. The headway he had made in his dealings with the Greek church was not enough on its own to have any wider meaning when it came to the rivalry with Clement III in Rome, let alone strengthen his position elsewhere in Europe.

In the mid-1090s, however, the situation began to change. First, sudden and unexpected developments in Germany offered an extraordinary opportunity to outflank the antipope and his chief supporter, the emperor Henry IV. Urban was boosted by high-profile defections from Henry’s camp, frustrated by the emperor’s heavy-handedness. One was Henry’s beautiful young wife, who sought out the Pope to complain that she had been forced to commit so many ‘unusual filthy acts of fornication with so many men that even her enemies would excuse her flight [from the emperor]. All Catholics should be moved to compassion because of her treatment.’43 In a highly charged climate where the Pope’s supporters would seize on anything that could be used to discredit the emperor, sordid gossip was circulated gleefully by polemicists.44 More important still was Conrad, Henry IV’s son and heir, a serious young man who decided to renounce his father and together with his vassals offered his support to Urban, exhausted by the never-ending quarrels within the church and unsettled by doubts about his prospects as a result of military setbacks suffered by his father in northern Italy.

These developments gave the Pope an immediate and emphatic boost. Urban announced that he would hold a council in March 1095 in Piacenza, in the heart of territory previously loyal to Henry IV and in the heart of Clement III’s original archbishopric of Ravenna. With Henry’s estranged wife appearing at the council to condemn her husband, the antipope was fiercely denounced, before an amnesty was offered to all the clergy who had previously sided with the emperor. Immediately after the council, Conrad met with Urban at Cremona where he greeted the Pope by acting the part of a groom, holding the bridle of the pontiff’s horse in a ritual mark of deference and public humility.45 At a second meeting a few days later, Conrad swore an oath to protect the Pope, his office and his property. In return, Urban promised to recognise Conrad’s claim to the imperial throne.46 He also proposed a marriage between his new ally and the daughter of Count Roger of Sicily, Urban’s principal supporter in Italy. It would be much to Roger’s honour and to his future profit if a marriage was arranged, the Pope wrote to the count. The marriage was duly concluded in Pisa in splendid style, and Conrad was settled with lavish gifts from his wealthy father-in-law.47 This helped bring about a dramatic improvement in Urban’s position, taking him from an isolated figure forced to camp outside the walls of Rome to a figure of central importance in the politics of Europe.

Something else happened at Piacenza, however, that would change the position of the papacy forever. As the council met to discuss ecclesiastical affairs – definitions of heresy, the excommunication of the king of France on the charge of adultery, matters relating to the priesthood – envoys arrived from Constantinople.48 They brought terrible news: the Byzantine Empire was on the point of collapse, and help was urgently needed. Urban grasped the implications immediately. Here was the chance to unite the church once and for all. He announced he was heading north – to Clermont.

Crusade historians – medieval and modern – have followed him there. But what were the setbacks that had taken place in the east? Why was help so desperately needed? What had gone wrong in Byzantium? To understand the origins of the Crusade, it is not to the foothills of central France we must turn, but to the imperial city of Constantinople.

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