ALEXIUS I COMNENUS, who became Byzantine emperor in 1081, began the fight-back against the Seljuks, reclaiming territory along the Black Sea and round the shores of the Sea of Marmara. But a new danger arose in 1090–91, when Tzachas, a Turkish pirate based on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, moved his fleet against Constantinople, intending to combine with the Seljuks in Nicaea and with another Turkish people, the Pechenegs, who had rounded the top of the Black Sea and now stood outside the Land Walls of Constantinople to the west. During these desperate days when the Byzantine Empire was ‘drowning in the Turkish invasion’, Alexius appealed to the West for help. ‘In 1091, from the shores of the Bosphorus’, one historian has written, ‘there broke upon western Europe a real wail of despair, a real cry of a drowning man.’1 Alexius addressed his appeal to his friend Count Robert of Flanders, and according to Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexius, who wrote a history of her father’s reign, Alexius also expected troops ‘from Rome’, which can only mean that he was in touch with the new pope, Urban II, who had been raised to the throne of St Peter in 1088.2 Count Robert did send help, but before Urban raised any forces Alexius succeeded in setting his enemies against one another and then, with some well-placed blows, routed both the Pechenegs and Tzachas’ navy. The crisis had passed, but the problem remained.
In March 1095, following renewed pressure from the Turks, Alexius again sought assistance from the West, this time sending emissaries to the Council of Piacenza, in northern Italy, where Urban had summoned a synod to pass decrees against simony, the marriage of clergy and schism within the Church. Thousands of ecclesiastics, including two hundred bishops, as well as thirty thousand laymen, were reported to have attended the council,3 so vast a congregation that it had to be held in the open air outside the city, the numbers a tribute to the increased authority of the Church following Gregory VII’s triumph in the Investiture Controversy. The synod was also a supreme court which heard appeals from royalty. The chronicler Bernold of Constance recorded that emissaries came from King Philip I of France, who had been excommunicated for his illegal divorce and adulterous remarriage, asking for more time to put the matter right. And Queen Praxedis, the separated twenty-four-year-old wife of Henry IV, the Holy Roman emperor, ‘complained to the lord pope and the holy synod about her husband, regarding the unheard-of filth of fornication that she suffered at his hands’, for which she was absolved of any sin as ‘she had not initiated such filthiness and also had endured it unwillingly’.
Bernold then went on to describe the appearance of a legation from the Byzantine emperor ‘who humbly implored the lord pope and all the faithful of Christ that they offer help to him against the pagans for the defence of the holy church which they already had almost annihilated in these parts, occupying those regions up to the walls of the city of Constantinople’. The Byzantines made a deep impression on the gathering, and Urban ‘induced many men to offer this help, so that they promised indeed by oath that they will journey there with God’s help and, to the best of their ability, will provide help to the same emperor’.4 But this was hardly a large-scale military venture, and Bernold, who is the only source for the Byzantine appeal at Piacenza, does not say how deep into Asia Minor the campaign was meant to go, or whether the intention was to advance into Syria and Palestine. These were matters that Urban turned over in his mind before crossing over the Alps into France to meet with various lords and bishops and summon another council, this time at Clermont.
Another chronicler, Albert of Aachen, provides a different version of how Urban was spurred to support military action against the Turks. He writes of an itinerant French monk popularly known as Peter the Hermit who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was shocked at the behaviour of the Turks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Peter sought out the patriarch and asked him why he allowed these ‘wicked men to defile the holy places, and let the offerings of the faithful be carried off, churches be used as stables, Christians beaten up, holy pilgrims robbed by excessive fees and distressed by the many violent acts of the infidels’. The patriarch replied:
Why do you reproach me about these things and make things difficult for our fatherly care, when our strength and power may not be reckoned more than a poor ant’s against the tyranny of so many? The fact is, either we have to ransom our life by constant payments, or it will be cut short by fatal executions, and we expect the dangers to be greater from one day to the next unless there should be aid from the Christians, which we summon with you as our envoy.
Peter promised the patriarch, ‘I shall return and seek out first of all the pope, then all the leaders of Christian peoples, kings, dukes, counts, and those holding the chief places in the kingdom, and I shall make known to them all the wretchedness of your servitude and the unendurable nature of your difficulties.’5
Peter then ‘crossed the sea again with considerable anxiety’, continues Albert of Aachen, ‘and when he was back on dry land he set out for Rome without delay’. There he found the pope and told him of the ‘outrages against the holy places and the pilgrims’, so that Urban was ‘stirred into action because of this’ and crossed the Alps into France, where he summoned a council at Clermont.6 As we shall see, Peter the Hermit certainly gathered a vast and myriad following for a crusade, but whether he and not the pope was the ‘first instigator’7 of the crusade is another matter. Jonathan Riley-Smith accepts that ‘Peter must have been preaching some kind of religious expedition to Jerusalem before the council of Clermont’, although only in the context of the ‘waves of rumour’ that preceded the papal announcement;8 but it would not be surprising, given the Turkish outrages in Palestine and their threat to Byzantium, if a call for action arose from several sources. The real significance of Albert of Aachen’s account is that it presents the crusade as answering not only the call of a Byzantine emperor and a Roman pope but also the call of the patriarch of Jerusalem and his fellow Christians in Palestine. In the words of a present-day historian, ‘Far from being passive spectators of the events of 1095–9, the indigenous Christians surely understood the First Crusade as a forceful response to the perceived crisis of Christianity under Seljuk rule’.9
Between the Council of Piacenza in March and the Council of Clermont in November, Pope Urban gave his thoughts to the menacing situation in the East, but he did so in the wider context of the centuries-long assault by Islam against a Christian civilisation that had once embraced the whole of the Mediterranean. The tide had seemed to turn with the Byzantine victories in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean in the tenth century and with the slow but steady advance of the Reconquista in Spain, culminating with the recovery of Toledo in 1085. In the Western Mediterranean, Pisa, Genoa and Catalonia had fought campaigns throughout the eleventh century to free Sardinia and Majorca from Arab rule, and Sicily fell to the Normans in 1090. But now these advances were threatened or reversed by the sudden resurgence of militant Islam. The Seljuks had overrun the Middle East and Asia Minor, threatening the very existence of the Byzantine Empire, the bulwark of the West, while the fundamentalist Almoravids struck back after Toledo with a victory at Zalaca in 1086 that cost the Christians large swathes of eastern Spain, including Valencia and Saragossa, and carried Muslim armies within striking distance of France. Confronted with aggression on two fronts, Urban mounted his response, not driven by religion, but rather summoning religion to the cause of the survival of the civilisation shared by East and West.
When Urban arrived in France, he had not yet summoned the Council of Clermont. Instead, he said his main reason for his journey was to do honour to the Benedictine abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, where he had been a monk and where now he dedicated an altar at its new church, the largest in Europe, built with funds provided by Ferdinand I of León and Castile. The reforms that swept the monastic order of Benedictines had begun at Cluny, which was both engine and beneficiary of the growing piety of society. The abbey was at the forefront of generating the architecture, the art and the liturgical music that defined and expressed the sacralised culture of the Middle Ages. Cluny, which was subject only to the pope, was the best-endowed monastery in Christendom, and through its priories, nearly a thousand in France and northern Spain, it wielded great influence. It was also a firm supporter of Gregory VII in the Investiture Controversy and of the consolidation of papal authority under Urban; another of its sons, Pope Alexander II, had given his blessing to the Reconquista and in 1064 declared that those who fell in battle would receive remission from their sins.
After Cluny, and accompanied by its abbot, Urban visited a number of Cluniac priories along the pilgrims’ way which ran through southern France to its destination, Santiago de Compostela, in a corner of north-west Spain never overrun by the Arabs. Charlemagne himself was said to have discovered the bones of Jesus’ cousin St James the Apostle at Compostela not long after the Great Mosque at Cordoba announced that it possessed a bone from the body of the Prophet Mohammed. Soon St James was being identified with the Reconquista and was seen fighting alongside the Christians in numerous battles against the occupying Arabs. The pilgrimage to the saint’s relics at Compostela quickly caught the imagination of Christian Europe, and at the height of its popularity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the city received over half a million pilgrims each year. After Jerusalem and Rome, Compostela was regarded as the third holiest site in Christendom, and completion of a pilgrimage to its relics ensured the remission of half one’s time in Purgatory. Cluny was a great proponent of pilgrimages to the East, and likewise its priories in France gave encouragement and support to pilgrims bound for Compostela as well as to young French knights who crossed the border into Spain and played their part in the Reconquista.
Urban’s visit to Cluny and its priories along the way to Compostela brought him among people who well understood that the reconquest of the East was a second front in the struggle to restore the Mediterranean to its Christian roots and to the unity that it had enjoyed before the Muslim conquests. Since Piacenza, Urban had matured his plan for a campaign for the defence and recovery of the Christian East; his visit to Cluny and its priories was to gain support, for Urban’s aim was to rouse every church and monastery to his great venture and have his message broadcast from every pulpit, so that all of Western Christendom should reverberate with his call. The full weight of Christianity would be brought to bear, but neither Christianity nor the West was the cause of the crusades. As the historian Paul Chevveden has written,
Scholars have been asking themselves, ‘What devotional religious climate or religious innovation caused the emergence of the Crusades?’ when they should have been asking, ‘What ongoing conflict intensified to the point where it received the highest and most expansive religious warrant?’ [. . .] The prolonged struggle between Islam and Christianity in the Mediterranean world, rather than the religion of the Latin West, is the central issue and must be the real focus of inquiry.10
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 ecclesiastical business similar to that at Piacenza; even King Philip’s persistent adultery came up again. But Urban had let it be known that in response to the appeal from Eastern Christendom he would make a speech on the penultimate day of the council, Tuesday 27 November. 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 differ greatly from one another; all were written years later, were coloured by their authors’ points of view and by subsequent events, so that we can have only a very approximate idea of what Urban actually said.
According to one of these chroniclers, Fulcher of Chartres, Urban began by referring to the Truce of God, the device by which the Church had for half a century been trying to limit feudal warfare which was creating anarchy and abuses across the land. ‘You have seen for a long time the great disorder in the world caused by these crimes. It is so bad in some of your provinces, I am told, and you are so weak in the administration of justice, that one can hardly go along the road by day or night without being attacked by robbers; and whether at home or abroad one is in danger of being despoiled either by force or fraud.’ Truces had been imposed from time to time in one region or another, but now Urban threw the full weight of his universal and newly empowered Church behind the Truce of God. ‘I exhort and demand that you, each, try hard to have the truce kept in your diocese. And if anyone shall be led by his cupidity or arrogance to break this truce, by the authority of God and with the sanction of this council he shall be anathematised.’
But however bad the disorders in the West, continued the pope, the Christians in the East were suffering under conditions far worse:
As the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Byzantine Empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire.
Nowhere in Fulcher’s account does Urban say that the object of the expedition is Jerusalem; rather, as the pope explains, ‘your brethren who live in the East are in urgent need of your help’ – the cause is the defence of Christians in the East and their Church. And the cause is also the defence of the West, for ‘if you permit [the Turks] to continue thus for a while with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them’.
Then Urban 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 those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time have been robbers now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honour.11
Urban’s speech at Clermont, as conveyed by Fulcher of Chartres, was entirely in line with the realities of Muslim oppression in the East, the advancing Turkish threat and the dangers posed to the Christian world in those parts of the Mediterranean and Europe that had not fallen victim to Muslim aggression or had recently been liberated from alien rule. If Urban mentioned Jerusalem, Fulcher does not say so; instead the pope speaks of rescuing the Christians of the East and their Church, which effectively meant joining with the Byzantines in recovering their lands – certainly Asia Minor, invaded just twenty-five years earlier, and perhaps also Syria and Palestine, occupied by the Turks at the same time.
Fulcher’s is the earliest of the four accounts we have of what happened at Clermont. He is thought to have trained as a priest, probably at Chartres, and during the crusade he would serve as personal chaplain to Baldwin of Boulogne, who established a crusader state centred on the Armenian city of Edessa (present-day Urfa in Turkey) and later became the first Frankish king of Jerusalem. Fulcher was the only chronicler actually to take part in the crusade and he wrote about it immediately afterwards, in 1100–01, although, as he followed Baldwin to Edessa, he was not at the siege of Jerusalem, or at Antioch or Ma’arra, where his accounts are secondhand. But he was at Clermont, where he presents Urban as a pragmatic strategist with a global grasp of the situation besetting Byzantium and the West.
The other three chroniclers – Baldric of Dol, Robert the Monk and Guibert de Nogent, all of them Benedictine monks – give strikingly different accounts of Clermont from that of Fulcher of Chartres. Baldric of Dol wrote his account soon after the First Crusade, but he was not a participant, although he does give the impression that he was at Clermont. His version is a theological rewriting of Urban’s speech; its 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.12
According to Baldric of Dol, the multitude listening to Urban that day were swept with emotions of overwhelming power, with many bursting into tears and others seized with convulsive trembling.
Robert the Monk was not on the First Crusade, and although he is the one chronicler explicitly to 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 atrocities of which Robert accuses the Turks 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.13
In Robert the Monk’s version, as Urban delivered these words and called for a great army to march against the Turks, cries of ‘Deus le volt!’ – ‘God wills it!’ – filled the air.
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 the pope 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.14
But it is most unlikely that Urban would have seen the issue in apocalyptic terms, nor is it likely that he would have stooped to lurid rabble-rousing. In fact, 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 a gathering of knights in Flanders:
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.
Here Urban repeats the information he has received of Seljuk destruction and abuse in the East, and this time he mentions Jerusalem as an instance, but the aim of the expedition remains the same, ‘to free the churches of the East’.
This assessment is confirmed by Peter Frankopan in The First Crusade: The Call from the East, where he writes:
By the time of Urban’s speech at Clermont, the Turks had demolished the provincial and military administration of Anatolia that had stood intact for centuries and captured some of the most important towns of early Christianity: places like Ephesus, home of St John the Evangelist, Nicaea, the location of the famous early church council, and Antioch, the original see of St Peter himself, were all lost to the Turks in the years before the Crusade. Little wonder, then, that the Pope pleaded for the salvation of the church in the East in his speech and letters in the mid-1090s. [. . .] The knights who set out in high expectation in 1096 were reacting to a developing crisis on the other side of the Mediterranean. Military collapse, civil war and attempted coups had brought the Byzantine Empire to the edge. It was to the west that Alexios I Komenneos was forced to turn, and his appeal to Pope Urban II became the catalyst for all that followed.15