The First Crusade

Counterstrokes in the West and the East

Though the First Crusade was proclaimed in 1095, Muslim historians think of the Crusades as beginning ten years earlier with the fall of Toledo in Spain. In fact the reaction against Arab imperialism had begun long before that; just as Muslim armies had occupied the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, so the Christian counterattack was on several fronts.

In the West the Arabs had overrun Spain and struck deep into France, to within a hundred and fifty miles of the English Channel, before they were beaten back by Charles Martel between Poitiers and Tours in 732, though that did not prevent the Muslims from holding positions on the coasts of Languedoc and Provence for several decades to come. Throughout the eleventh century Pisa, Genoa and Catalonia fought campaigns in the Western Mediterranean to free Sicily, Sardinia and Majorca from Arab rule. In 1063 Pope Alexander II gave his Papal blessing to Iberian Christians in their wars against the Muslims, granting a remission of sins to those who were killed in battle. The recovery of Toledo from the Arabs in 1085 was a major victory; the northern third of Spain was now back in Christian hands, though not until the fall of Granada in 1492 would the Reconquista succeed in driving the Muslims out of the Iberian peninsula altogether.

In the East the Byzantines were scoring victories in the Eastern Mediterranean already in the tenth century, recapturing Crete from the Muslims in 961 and Cyprus four years later. The Byzantines also recovered great swathes of territory in the Middle East. In 969 they captured Antioch, and shortly afterwards they took Aleppo and Latakia along with a coastal strip extending clear down through Syria nearly to Tripoli in northern Lebanon. The Muslim inhabitants were left undisturbed and the local Muslim leaders were made vassals of the Byzantine Empire, but now they were made to pay taxes from which the Christians were exempted, while destroyed churches were rebuilt and the freedom to convert from Islam to Christianity or vice versa was guaranteed.

In 975, under the Emperor John Tzimiskes, the Byzantines launched a crusade with the intention of recovering Jerusalem, which was still an overwhelmingly Christian city. Marching out with his army from Antioch, Tzimiskes took Damascus, then advanced into Palestine where Nazareth and Caesarea opened their gates to him and the Muslim authorities at Jerusalem pleaded for terms. But first the Emperor turned towards the Mediterranean to clear the enemy from coastal castles–only to die suddenly in 976 before he could return his attention to Jerusalem. For the next century the Byzantines remained in control of northern Syria but got no closer to the Holy Land.

Arab Divisions and Decline

Until the middle of the eighth century Damascus, the seat of the Umayyad dynasty, had been the capital of a vast and complex empire which stretched from the Atlantic to Central Asia. It was an empire largely administered by Syrians, Christians as well as Muslims. The Arabs were the ruling class, but in turn the Umayyads were deeply influenced by the Graeco-Aramaic civilisation they found in Syria with its many links, intellectual, cultural and mercantile, to the Mediterranean world. The replacement of the Umayyad by the Abbasid caliphs and the shift from Damascus to Baghdad marked a rejection of these influences.

The advance of Christian forces against the Muslim empire from both the West and the East came as evidence of the decay and division in the Arab world. The empire had become a rapacious tax-gathering machine run by provincial governors who paid kickbacks to Baghdad but otherwise offered the caliph no more than the barest homage and granted their subjects even less than that. With the triumph of an authoritarian and incurious religious dogma, with the failure to develop resources or technological advances, and with civil administrations replaced by local military autocrats, the empire of the Arabs fell into intellectual, political and economic decline.

There were uprisings against the Arabs throughout their empire. In Egypt, where the population had been three million at the time of the Arab conquest, the mismanagement of the country’s resources was so appalling that there were not many more than one and a half million Egyptians by AD 1000. Muslim discrimination and oppressive taxation stoked up resentment among the Copts, that is the native Egyptians. Their national pride was already wounded by the coming of the Arabs and the continuing infiltration of Egypt by nomadic tribes and led to repeated Coptic revolts, which were only suppressed with much bloodshed. Many Copts converted to Islam after the ferocious repression of 832; being unable to meet taxation demands, partly because the irrigation system was falling into further disrepair, they migrated into the towns, leaving large areas of land uncultivated. Even so, not until the eleventh century, four hundred years after the Arab occupation, did the majority of Egyptians finally adopt Islam.

Similarly the prosperity of Syria declined along with its population. Marginalised and oppressed by their new rulers in Baghdad the Syrians more than once rose up in revolt. Yet under the Abbasids the Arabic language became virtually universal in Syria, and Islam became the religion of the majority of its inhabitants–partly because of fresh immigration from Arabia, and partly from persecutions, pressures and inducements. Many Christians moved to the safety of the Lebanese mountains, among them the Maronites, who established themselves there in the ninth century.

Apart from the tensions between the Arab elite and their eventually Arabised subjects, Islam itself was split between the orthodox Sunni, who controlled the Baghdad caliphate, and the Shia, that is the partisans of Ali, so that religious dissensions added to the original cultural, ethnic and political differences. The Fatimids, who were Arabs originally from Syria but had settled in North Africa, returned eastwards to Egypt where they established a Shiite caliphate in 969, and by the end of the century they had extended their empire over Palestine and southern Syria.

Islam Divided: Shia versus Sunni

In 656 after insurgent Arab troops murdered Uthman, the third caliph, who was a member of the powerful Umayyad family of Mecca, Ali put himself forward as the natural inheritor of the caliphate, basing his claim on his marriage to Mohammed’s daughter Fatima, as well as on his considerable religious learning. But Ali was opposed by Aisha, who had been Mohammed’s favourite wife, along with her Umayyad family and many of Mohammed’s surviving companions. He took to arms and won his first battle, but later saw his authority dissolve when rebels advanced on his army with copies of the Koran fixed to the points of their spears and his troops refused to fight.

Ali was assassinated and the Umayyads were installed once again in the caliphate. But the real wound to Islam occurred when Hussein, Ali’s son by Fatima, and therefore of Mohammed’s blood, led a revolt against the Umayyads and after a fanatical struggle was killed with all his men. In a sense the Prophet’s own blood had been shed, so that for the partisans, or Shia, of Ali, Hussein’s death was a martyrdom and also a stain on the Sunni, that is on orthodox Muslims who then as now constituted the greater part of Islam.

From then on the Shia refused to accept as caliph any but Ali’s descendants, while the Sunni barred the caliphate to the Prophet’s descendants for all time. Shiism took hold in Persia and in much of Iraq, but also, almost three centuries after the death of Ali, his followers in the form of the Fatimids would invade Egypt with the intention of using it as a base from where to oppose the Sunni Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and to impose Shia dominance throughout the entire Islamic world.

Perilous Pilgrimages

Initially the Muslim presence in Syria and Palestine interfered little with pilgrimage to Christian holy sites, nor did it affect the security of monasteries and Christian communities there. The Muslims were no strangers to the concept of pilgrimage, for they themselves had made the pilgrimage to Mecca one of the pillars of their faith; moreover the Christian pilgrims were a considerable source of revenue to Muslims at Jerusalem and other holy sites. For Christians, the Holy Land was unique in providing a tangible link with the life and death of Jesus, and throughout the Muslim occupation the numbers of pilgrims continued to grow.

To reach the river Jordan was a special aim of pilgrims, for there they could re-enact the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16–17). The afflicted were particularly attracted, for they recalled that one of Jesus’ grievances against the Temple priests in Jerusalem was their rejection of the lame, blind, deformed and sick as imperfect and unworthy, for the belief was that outer illness signified a corruption of the soul. Reacting against the Temple priests, Jesus performed baptisms at which everyone was welcome, for the core of his preaching was that salvation was for all. Pilgrims to the Holy Land sought baptism in the waters of the Jordan in order to undergo a spiritual cleansing, and among them were many afflicted people for whom the purification of their souls might also bring about a physical cure.

But the most popular object of pilgrimage was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on the traditional sites of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels place the hill of Calvary, or Golgotha, and the tomb offered for the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea, outside the walls of Jerusalem, yet the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands within the very heart of the city. In fact the city was enlarged and rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian, and in 135 he had a temple of Venus built upon the spot where the tomb was said to be.

Still, the old tradition remained strong enough to justify the Emperor Constantine in pulling down the temple in 326 in order to search for the tomb reputed to be beneath it. A rock-cut tomb was duly found and pronounced to be that of Jesus, and the outcrop of Golgotha was identified nearby. Constantine immediately ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in fact a vast complex consisting of two elements, the Basilica or Martyrium at the site of Golgotha, which was dedicated in 335, and the Church of the Anastasis, meaning ‘resurrection’, built in the form of a rotunda and surmounted by a great dome over the tomb of Jesus and dedicated in 340. Circulating within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which enclosed the most sacred sites in Christendom, pilgrims vividly relived the drama of that first Easter when Jesus died upon the Cross and rose again on the third day.

Following the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638 the city’s largely Christian population enjoyed a long period of good relations with the Muslims. But by the tenth century the Muslims had become more aggressive, and in 938 they attacked Jerusalem’s Christians during the Palm Sunday procession, set fire to the Martyrium and badly damaged the Anastasis church. In 966 a Muslim mob again attacked the Anastasis and set alight the roof of the Martyrium. The Patriarch who had hidden in a vat of oil was set alight and burnt alive. The Muslims set their seal on these acts by seizing part of the east entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where they constructed a new mosque.

Worse was to come. Starting in 1004 the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim, who ruled over Egypt, North Africa, Palestine and southern Syria, launched a campaign of anti-Christian fanaticism. Christians suffered persecution and had ordinances passed against them; church property was confiscated, crosses were seized and burnt, little mosques were built on church roofs, and finally the churches themselves were set ablaze. By 1014 over thirty thousand churches had been destroyed, and many Christians had been forced to convert to Islam, at least outwardly, to save their lives, while others fled into Byzantine territory. But the critical turning point in Western attitudes towards the Muslim East came in 1009, for in that year al-Hakim ordered the complete destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was carried out with such violence that even the tomb of Jesus, though cut deep into the bedrock, was demolished with pickaxes and all but obliterated.

After the death of al-Hakim in 1021 his successor permitted the Byzantine emperor, under stringent conditions and at his own expense, to rebuild the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrimage, too, was again permitted, though sojourns in the Holy Land proved unpredictable and often dangerous. For a while during 1056 the Muslims forbade pilgrims entry to Jerusalem and expelled three hundred from the city. In 1064 a large German pilgrimage led by Gunther, bishop of Bamberg, came under Muslim attack; the party was plundered and hundreds were massacred within sight of Jerusalem. Muslim pirates operated against pilgrims at sea, either attacking them outright or exacting charges, bargains and gifts. Pilgrims were obliged to pay protection money, known as khafara, along the roads. Also the sensibilities and prejudices of the Muslims had to be borne in mind: pilgrims could not enter mosques, they could not enter towns or cities except on foot, they could not dress in certain ways, they should not look at Muslim women, and they should not make merry or laugh lest the Muslims thought the Christians’ behaviour was directed at them.

Pilgrimage depended on the Muslim authorities maintaining orderly conditions so that the defenceless Christian traveller could move about and worship in safety, but the Middle East was wracked by misgovernment, division, exploitation, fanaticism and aggression, which undermined that guarantee. And now in the last third of the eleventh century a new threat arose–not only to pilgrims but to Byzantium and the Arabs–in the form of a Turkish invasion from the East.

The Turkish Invasion: Byzantium Appeals to the West

Migrating tribes of Turks known as Seljuks began arriving from the East in the territories of the Abbasid caliphate in about 970. They were soon converted to Sunni Islam and became invaluable to the Arabs for their martial qualities, especially for their mounted bowmen and the nomadic speed of their cavalry. But the caliphate was no longer a unified entity. Spain, Africa and Egypt had long since led a political life independent of the caliph in Baghdad. Indeed the enfeebled state of Arab rule stood as an open invitation, and in 1055 the Seljuks took Baghdad and established their hegemony over the caliphate. Under the Seljuks there was an immediate resurgence in the fortunes of Sunni Islam in Iran, Iraq and Syria. In 1071 the Seljuks defeated the Byzantine army at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia, opening the whole of Asia Minor to conquest by the Turks and threatening Constantinople itself. In that same year the Seljuks also turned south, taking northern Syria from the Byzantines and Jerusalem from the Fatimids.

With Byzantium suddenly reduced to hardly more than its capital, Constantinople, and the adjacent regions, in 1074 the Byzantine emperor Michael VII appealed to Pope Gregory VII for help, his desperation all the more evident in his willingness to overlook the Great Schism of 1054, which was the culmination of centuries of often violent doctrinal differences between the Latin and Orthodox Churches. Despite the schism, the appeal fell on ready ears, for already in 1063 the Papacy had given its blessing to a crusade against the Muslims in Spain and it might have done the same now. But this was not the moment when Gregory could call upon the secular powers of Europe to head eastwards on a crusade, as he was embroiled in the Investiture Controversy with many of those same secular authorities over whether it was they or the Church who had the right to appoint high church officials and thereby control the great wealth and powers such officials could command.

Meanwhile the Seljuks tightened their grip on Syria and Palestine. In 1076 they took Damascus from the Fatimids, and when the Fatimids briefly regained Jerusalem that year, the Seljuks recaptured the city after a siege of several months and massacred the entire Muslim population, about three thousand, as well as a large number of Jews who had supported the Fatimids, though the Christians were spared.

Throughout these convulsive events the pilgrim traffic had never entirely ceased, but the journey was now far more difficult than it had been before. Not only was there fighting between Turks and Egyptians in Palestine and Syria, but Asia Minor, which had offered secure passage when it was in the hands of the Byzantine Empire, could no longer be traversed without an armed escort owing to marauding Turkish tribesmen, and even then it was not safe. Everywhere throughout Anatolia and the Middle East there were brigands on the roads, and at every small town along the way the local petty headman tried to extort money from passers-by. The pilgrims who succeeded in overcoming all these harassments and dangers returned impoverished and weary to the West with tales to tell of the appalling conditions in the East.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus began the fightback against the Seljuks, reclaiming territory along the Black Sea and round the shores of the Sea of Marmara during the 1080s. But in order to press harder against the Turks he sought mercenaries from the West, and in March 1095 he sent an appeal to Pope Urban II. In response Alexius got something wholly unexpected and astonishing. Alexius’ daughter, the historian Anna Comnena, described how a multitude from the West approached Constantinople in 1096 on their way to the East: ‘They assembled from all parts, one after another, with arms and horses and all the other equipment for war. Full of enthusiasm and ardour they thronged every highway, and with these warriors came a host of civilians, outnumbering the sand of the seashore or the stars of heaven, carrying palms and bearing crosses on their shoulders. There were women and children, too, who had left their own countries. Like tributaries joining a river from all directions they streamed towards us in full force.’

Pope Urban’s Call

The Council of Clermont in central France was convened by Pope Urban II during the second half of November 1095. It was largely concerned with the Truce of God, the device by which the Church had for half a century been trying to limit feudal warfare, which was having a devastating effect upon the land. Population growth, shortage of land and petty civil wars had contributed to a feeling of insecurity and desperation at all levels of society. There had been floods and plague in 1094, followed by drought and famine in 1095. A shower of meteorites in April 1095 presaged a great movement of peoples, it was said, and lent an apocalyptic note to the social and economic problems.

Meanwhile Pope Urban had been formulating a policy in response to the appeal from the Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Urban’s aim was to provide the Byzantine Empire with the reinforcements it needed in order to drive the Seljuk Turks from Asia Minor, for he hoped that in return the Orthodox Church would acknowledge the supremacy of Rome and that the unity of Christendom would be restored. He was also concerned to give the aggressive nobility, especially that of his native France, an alternative outlet for their martial energies. The Papacy had gained strength through the Investiture Controversy, and not only had it established its authority over Church appointments, but in marshalling public opinion it had also intensified popular piety, so it seemed a propitious moment to inaugurate a new era of religious energy in the West and also to win the prize of Jerusalem. Urban let it be known that in response to the appeal from Eastern Christendom for help, he would make a speech on the penultimate day of the council, Tuesday 27 November. He expected that in addition to churchmen his audience would comprise members of the French nobility, for he envisioned the expedition to the East as an armed pilgrimage of knights.

Three hundred clerics had been attending the council within the cathedral at Clermont, but the crowds, both clerical and lay, that assembled on that Tuesday were huge, and so the Papal throne was set up on a platform in an open field outside the eastern gate of the city, and there, when the multitudes were gathered, Urban rose to address them. The reports of four contemporary chroniclers survive, but all were written years later, were coloured by subsequent events, and differ greatly from one another, so that we can have only a very approximate idea of what Urban actually said.

He began, it seems, by telling his listeners that the Seljuks were advancing into the heart of Christian lands, maltreating the population and desecrating their shrines and churches. The Emperor of Byzantium had called for help, and it was the duty of the West to respond. But he spoke not only about recovering Byzantine territory. He emphasised the special holiness of Jerusalem and told how pilgrims had suffered on their journeys there. Then he made his great appeal. Let the West go to the rescue of the East. The nobility should stop fighting one another and instead fight a righteous war. For those who died in battle there would be remission of sins. Let this armed pilgrimage (the word ‘crusade’ did not come into use until the thirteenth century when the Crusades were over) set out in the summer, at the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August, after the harvest had been gathered; and the armies should assemble at Constantinople.

Cries of Deus le volt!–God wills it!–interrupted Pope Urban’s speech and filled the air again when it was over. Adhemar, the bishop of Le Puy, immediately knelt before the throne and begged permission to join the holy expedition. This apparently spontaneous gesture was probably prearranged, as Urban had stayed at Le Puy in August. Yet the enthusiasm was greater than Urban had expected. Knights and peasants, rich and poor, pressed forward to follow the bishop’s example. Many burst into tears and many were seized with convulsive trembling. Everyone who listened was swept with emotions of overwhelming power.

Spinning the Pope’s Speech

Four contemporary chroniclers–Fulcher of Chartres, Baldric of Dol, Robert the Monk and Guibert de Nogent–wrote accounts of the First Crusade which contained versions of Pope Urban II’s speech at Clermont. None set down their accounts of what the Pope said until years after the event, nor did any pretend to standards of accurate and objective history; rather each used the Pope’s speech to put forward a point of view reflecting the different ways people looked at the crusade.

The earliest account was by Fulcher of Chartres. He was the only chronicler to actually take part in the crusade and wrote about it immediately afterwards, in 1100–01. His account gives the impression that he was at Clermont. Fulcher presents the Pope as a pragmatic strategist who speaks of the Arabs and the Turks as a threat not only to the East but ultimately to the West: ‘If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them.’

Baldric of Dol wrote his account soon after the First Crusade, but he was not a participant, though he does give the impression that he was at Clermont. In this version, references to the Old and New Testaments underline the Pope’s call for a holy war of liberation, with Jerusalem itself as the very image of heaven: ‘Let us bewail the most monstrous devastation of the Holy Land! This land we have deservedly called holy in which there is not even a footstep that the body or spirit of the Saviour did not render glorious and blessed which embraced the holy presence of the mother of God, and the meetings of the apostles, and drank up the blood of the martyrs shed there. How blessed are the stones which crowned you Stephen, the first martyr! How happy, O John the Baptist, the waters of the Jordan which served you in baptising the Saviour! The children of Israel, who were led out of Egypt; they have driven out the Jebusites and other inhabitants and have themselves inhabited earthly Jerusalem, the image of celestial Jerusalem. You should shudder at raising a violent hand against Christians; it is less wicked to brandish your sword against Saracens.’

Robert the Monk was not on the First Crusade, and though he is the one chronicler to explicitly claim that he was at Clermont, that is questionable. Certainly he was slow to produce his account, completing it only in 1106, eleven years after Pope Urban’s speech, which Robert presents in the most lurid terms. Although Urban certainly spoke of the persecution of Christians in the East, the inflammatory atrocities of which Robert accuses the Muslims are not recorded in other versions of the speech:

‘They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent.’

Guibert de Nogent, who was neither at Clermont nor went on the crusade, finished his account in 1108. His tone is apocalyptic, and he has Pope Urban playing to the popular medieval drama of the Antichrist and the Last Days. ‘With the end of the world already near, it is first necessary, according to the prophecy, that the Christian sway be renewed in those regions either through you, or others, whom it shall please God to send before the coming of Antichrist, so that the head of all evil, who is to occupy there the throne of the kingdom, shall find some support of the faith to fight against him.’

Strategic war, holy war, hysterical war, or the war of the Last Days according to one or another of the chroniclers. But it is most unlikely that Pope Urban would have seen the issue in apocalyptic terms, nor is it likely that he would have stooped to lurid rabble rousing. He never intended to whip up a mass movement of peasants and exhort them to march eastwards. His chosen instrument was the knighthood, and it was to them that he offered his rewards, remission of sins for death in battle and the unstated prospect of carving out estates for themselves in the reconquered Holy Land, just as had been happening in Spain.

Perhaps the best indication of what Urban said that late November day in a field outside Clermont comes in the form of a sober letter of instruction written a month later, at Christmas 1095, by the Pope himself to the gathering knights. ‘Your brotherhood, we believe, has long since learned from many accounts that a barbaric fury has deplorably afflicted and laid waste the churches of God in the regions of the East. More than this, blasphemous to say, it has even grasped in intolerable servitude its churches and the Holy City of Christ, glorified by his passion and resurrection. Grieving with pious concern at this calamity, we visited the regions of France and devoted ourselves largely to urging the princes of the land and their subjects to free the churches of the East. We solemnly enjoined upon them at the council of Clermont such an undertaking, as a preparation for the remission of all their sins.’

Taking the Cross

Pope Urban named Adhemar, the bishop of Le Puy, as his representative on the expedition and its spiritual leader. He had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem nine years before. Following Adhemar’s example, everyone joining the expedition had a cross of red material sewn onto the corner of his coat, symbolising that like Jesus they too carried a cross. Clerics and monks were not to take the cross without the permission of their bishop or abbot. The elderly and infirm were discouraged, the newly married should have the permission of their wives, and no one should go without consulting his spiritual advisor. Otherwise anyone taking the cross was vowing to complete the journey to Jerusalem, and if he failed to set out or turned back too soon he would be punished with excommunication.

The first great secular lord to join the expedition was Count Raymond of Toulouse, who led the knights of Provence, and soon others joined. Robert, the duke of Normandy, who was the son of William the Conqueror, led the knights of northern France; Bohemond, prince of Taranto, led the Norman knights of southern Italy, among them his nephew Tancred; and Godfrey of Bouillon led the knights of Lorraine. Subject in theory to Adhemar, who represented the Pope, these barons became the secular leaders of the campaign, and together with their followers, family and friends, they brought to the expedition many of the most enterprising, experienced and formidable fighting men of Europe.

But Urban had launched a movement greater than he knew, and in the belief that the apocalypse was at hand thousands of peasants, artisans and other ordinary people, often very poor, took the cross for the eastward march to liberate the Holy Land. Yet of all those who set out–the rich, the poor, the humble and the noble–only one in twenty would live to see Jerusalem.

The First Wave: The People’s Crusade

Though Pope Urban had asked his bishops to preach the crusade to the Holy Land, the most effective preaching was done by humble evangelicals who inflamed the poor of France and Germany with their version of the Pope’s message. Outstanding among these was Peter the Hermit, who had tried to make the pilgrimage some years earlier but had been maltreated by the Turks and forced to turn back. He went about barefoot and his clothes were filthy, but he had the power to move men, and as Guibert de Nogent, who knew him personally, said, ‘Whatever he said or did, it seemed like something half-divine.’

While Adhemar and the princely armies of knights were still preparing for their expedition, Peter’s preachings had roused fifteen thousand French men and women who left their homes to follow him into Germany where the numbers continued to swell. Already in northern France this rabble element of the crusade had begun attacking Jewish communities, giving them the choice between conversion and death–for according to the apocalyptic prophecy of the Last Days there could be no Second Coming until all those who had denied Christ repented and were saved or were destroyed.

The worst violence came when Peter’s crusade appeared along the Rhine, one of Europe’s major trade routes, where Jews had lived for centuries in large numbers, their economic usefulness recognised by the encouragement and protection they had always received from the bishops in the cathedral towns. During May and June 1096 Jewish quarters were attacked, synagogues were sacked, houses were looted and entire communities were massacred. The bishops and the burghers did what they could to protect the Jews but were often overwhelmed. At Worms, for example, the bishop sheltered Jews in his castle, but he could not resist the combined force of the Crusaders and his own poorer townsfolk who demanded their death or conversion; and when the bishop offered to baptise the Jews to save their lives, the entire Jewish community chose suicide instead. During that May and June as many as eight thousand Jews were massacred or took their own lives as the crusading rabble marched through Germany.

Far removed from the spirit and the intentions of Clermont, tributaries of this popular crusade passed across Europe, through France, Germany and Hungary, but only the chaotic stream led by Peter the Hermit and known in history as the People’s Crusade got as far as Asia Minor where in October 1096 it was annihilated by the Seljuks, though Peter, who had hung behind in Constantinople, lived to preach another day.

The official crusading army, led by Adhemar and the great secular lords, had no part in these massacres. Assembling their forces in the West, in France especially, they made their preparations and when the harvest was brought in they set out to liberate Jerusalem.

From Pilgrimage to Crusade: The Crux of the Matter

The term ‘crusade’ is a late one; it came into use only in the thirteenth century after the Holy Land was lost and the Crusades were over. The people we now call Crusaders were known by various names, such as knights of Christ, and they saw themselves as taking a pilgrimage, except that pilgrims were normally forbidden to carry arms. The word ‘pilgrim’ originally meant a stranger or a traveller, and for Christians life itself was seen as a pilgrimage in an estranged world far from their homeland in heaven.

Before setting out on this expedition to recover the Holy Land, members had a piece of red cloth in the form of a cross (crux in Latin) sewn into their clothes in imitation of Jesus, who had said, ‘And he that taketh not his cross and followeth after me, is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:38). This ‘taking of the cross’ eventually gave the name Crusade to these journeys–croisade in French, crociata in Italian, Kreuzzug in German, and cruzada in Spanish and Portuguese. Though crusades were fought in Spain, North Africa and elsewhere, the supreme crusade was to liberate or defend Jerusalem, as that was regarded as Jesus’ own territory.

The Second Wave: The Princes Lead the Way East

Setting off in groups after the summer harvest, the official army of Adhemar and the great lords arrived at Constantinople between October 1096 and April 1097. But of the 40,000 Crusaders who approached the city, no more than 4500 were nobles or knights. Travelling in their wake was yet another mass of poor and humble people, artisans and peasants, not unlike the rabble that had caused so much death and devastation the previous year along the Rhine. This untrained and undisciplined horde, which included women and other non-combatants, and a great number of religious fanatics, filled the leaders of the crusade with anxiety, as they did Alexius, the Byzantine emperor, because they were unpredictable and needed to be fed. But as the crusade was also a pilgrimage, there was little that could be done to prevent them joining in the march.

Alexius ferried the Crusaders across the Bosphorus, and in May they had laid siege to Nicaea, the Seljuk capital. Making clear what he saw as their purpose in Asia Minor, the emperor had the Crusader leaders swear an oath that they would ‘restore to the Roman Empire whatever towns, countries or forts they took which had formerly belonged to it’ and when Nicaea fell in June 1097, he took care that his imperial forces and not the Crusaders received the surrender. For the Byzantines there was nothing novel in fighting against the infidel; they had been doing so for five hundred years. But their concern now was to secure Asia Minor rather than to rush pell-mell towards Jerusalem, and this made them suspect in the eyes of the zealous Latin knights.

It was in this uneasy atmosphere that Alexius skilfully guided and provisioned the Crusaders across the length of Asia Minor. From Nicaea the First Crusade marched southwards to Dorylaeum (Eskisehir) where with Byzantine help it won a great victory over the Seljuks, and then farther south to Philomelion (Aksehir) and on to Iconium (Konya). A detachment passed through the Cilician Gates to Tarsus, but the main body swung up into Cappadocia, to Caesaria (Kayseri), and the two groups joined up again at Maras before heading southwards along the eastern flanks of the Amanus mountains, so that in the autumn of 1097 they stood before the walls of Antioch. The taking of the city the following year marked the parting of the ways between the Crusaders and the Byzantines, for instead of turning Antioch over to Alexius in keeping with his oath, Bohemond made it a principality of his own.

The Tafurs

The knights and the nobility may have thought that they were leading the crusade, but the poor who marched in their wake regarded themselves as the elite, a people chosen by God. Most of the common people who had joined the first wave of the crusade perished on the long journey across Europe or were cut to ribbons by the Seljuks no sooner than they had crossed the Bosphorus.

Many of those who survived and now joined the second wave of the crusade, the one led by Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy, and the great French, Norman and Provençal lords, were known as Tafurs. Stories describe them as barefoot, wearing sackcloth, being covered in sores and filth, and living on roots and grass and sometimes the roasted corpses of their enemies. Wherever they went they left a trail of devastation. Too poor to afford swords, they fought with clubs, knives, shovels, hatchets, catapults and pointed sticks. Their ferocity was legendary; the leaders of the crusade were unable to control them and never went among them without being armed, while the Muslims were terrified of the Tafurs.

Though the Tafurs made a virtue of their poverty, in fact they were full of greed. The Tafurs looted every city captured by the Crusaders; they also raped the Muslim women and committed indiscriminate massacres. Urban and the princes had intended a campaign with limited objectives, but in reality the crusade tended constantly to become what the common people wanted it to be, a war to exterminate ‘the sons of whores’, as the Tafurs called the Muslims.

The Reconquest of Jerusalem

After journeying for nearly three years and almost three thousand miles across the known world, on 7 June 1099 the pilgrims arrived within sight of Jerusalem. Many of them wept. It seemed a miracle that any had survived. They had helped restore Asia Minor to the Byzantine Empire. And now before them rose the earthly Jerusalem, which for many was the key to the heavenly Jerusalem.

The Fatimids had lost Jerusalem to the Seljuks in 1076 but in 1098 they had recovered it once more. Now to deny the Crusaders any aid from within the city the Fatimid governor sent away all the Christians, Orthodox and heretic, of whom there were thousands despite the persecutions of al-Hakim and the uneasy times following the Seljuk conquest. Jerusalem was one of the great fortresses of the medieval world, and the governor commanded a sizeable garrison of Arab and Sudanese troops which had recently been reinforced by four hundred cavalrymen from Egypt. He also poisoned all the wells outside the city, secure that within Jerusalem’s formidable walls he could rely on its numerous underground cisterns of good water. He knew that the Crusaders were hundreds of miles from any relief from Antioch, and in their haste they had not even attempted to take the nearby port of Jaffa. They were isolated and unsupplied in the midst of an alien land; their complete destruction seemed just a matter of time.

The Crusaders had about 1200 knights and 15,000 able-bodied men; their force was insufficient to effectively surround the city; but they had an unshakeable conviction that under divine protection their moment of victory had come. On 13 June they launched a general attack with great fervour and overran the outer defences, but they had too few ladders to scale the walls in several places simultaneously, and after a long morning of desperate fighting they withdrew. They needed siege engines and more ladders, but the Crusaders lacked the bolts and ropes and mangonels, and the area around Jerusalem had few trees. But then they had a stroke of luck: the Muslims had left Jaffa unprotected and six ships had sailed into the port, two from Genoa, four from England, carrying arms and food supplies and all the equipment necessary for building siege machines.

On the night of 13–14 July the attack resumed, simultaneously from north and south. The fighting continued throughout the day and on into the following night as against terrific resistance the Crusaders managed to move their machines closer to the walls. Around noon on 15 July Godfrey of Bouillon forced his way onto the northern battlements, and soon Tancred and his men surged deep into the city’s streets towards the Temple Mount, that is the Haram al-Sharif surmounted by the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, where the Muslims were retreating, intending it as their last redoubt. To the south the Fatimid governor paid Raymond of Toulouse an immense treasure in return for sparing his life and that of his bodyguard; they were escorted out of the walls and rode off to safety with the Muslim garrison at Ascalon. They were the last Muslims in Jerusalem to be spared their lives. Those on the Temple Mount surrendered to Tancred, who accepted and gave them his banner for protection, but the next morning the Tafurs killed all of them, ten thousand people according to one version, which outraged Tancred when he found out, and they set alight the synagogue where the Jews had taken refuge, burning them all within for having been allies of the Muslims.

Raymond of Aguilers, who was a chronicler attached to Raymond of Toulouse and entered Jerusalem with the Crusaders, gives this often-quoted account: ‘Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.’

But modern historians do not take Raymond of Aguilers very seriously; he was something of a credulous apocalyptic and described all sorts of visions and miracles, and his accounts of the undoubted slaughter at Jerusalem may be overdrawn. What is more, contemporary letters written by Jews living in the Eastern Mediterranean make it clear that not all Jews and Muslims in the city were killed; and indeed the contemporary Arab writer Ibn al-Arabi estimated the number of Muslim dead at Jerusalem at only three thousand.

When it was over, the knights went ‘rejoicing and weeping’ to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to give thanks to God at the site of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

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