Press enter to see results or esc to cancel.

The First Crusade as Protection and Pilgrimage

The Crusades are some of the most controversial and widely misunderstood events of medieval Europe. Crusaders are often portrayed as savage, imperialistic, barbaric conquest-seekers when, in actuality, many historical sources indicate that their missions were much more pious in motivation than their reputation would suggest. Historian Thomas Madden contends that the First Crusade was, first and foremost, an act of “love of one’s neighbor,” an “errand of mercy to right a terrible wrong.”[1] Crusades  were also considered a pilgrimage for the sake of the “reconquest of Jerusalem,” which “was not colonialism but an act of restoration and an open declaration of one’s love of God.”[2] Primary sources from the time support Madden’s thesis, demonstrating that the Crusaders thought of themselves as fulfilling two primary roles: as helpers coming to the aid of their brothers, the Greeks, and as pilgrims, leaving their worldly lives behind for God.

During the 11th century, the Byzantine Empire was at war with the Turkish Empire, and while the rise of the skilled and powerful emperor Alexios Comnenus made the Byzantine’s future seem a bit more promising than it had, as the Byzantine’s struggled with political instability, they were still in great need of aid. This need was the first of the two primary motivations for the Crusaders. Popes of the time, especially Pope Urban II, cast the First Crusade as an entirely defensive move meant to protect the Byzantines from “the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race,” he said while preaching the Crusade (according to a version written recorded by the monk Robert of Rheims), “a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire.”[3] He goes on about the horrifying destruction of churches, vicious torturing, rape of women, and all of the other atrocities the Byzantines were facing. To Pope Urban II, the Latin Christians had a particular duty to help their brothers: “On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in your arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you.”[4] It is clear that in the mind of the Pope and the Crusaders he inspired, this was an act of defense and protection.

In his speech about the Crusade, Pope Urban II also mentions that Jerusalem, the “navel of the world,” the land “fruitful above others” is being “held captive by [God’s] enemies,” and “does not cease to implore” the Christians to “come to her aid.”[5] It seems that Pope Urban II derives his assumption that the Crusaders have an obligation to help both from the fact that the Turks’ victims are their Christian brothers, as well as from the fact that it is Jerusalem, specifically, that is being captured. Jerusalem is the city which “the Redeemer of the human race has made illustrious by His advent, has beautified by residence, has consecrated by suffering, has redeemed by death, has glorified by burial.”[6] Jerusalem – and the Church of the East as a whole – is held in high esteem in Guilbert of Nogent’s version of Pope Urban II’s speech. He writes:

[If any church deserves] reverence above others (for persons, I say, since greater privileges are accorded to apostolic sees; for places, indeed, since the same dignity which is accorded to persons is also shown to regal cities, such as Constantinople), we owe most to that church from which we received the grace of redemption and the source of all Christianity.[7]

Thus, there is special significance associated with these Christians and the city of Jerusalem as they and it are the source of all of Christianity. It is both the Christian people and the Holy Land that the Crusaders are seeking to protect.

This obligation to protect is the Crusaders’ primary motivation, but not the only one. The Crusaders considered their mission a pilgrimage (they would not have used the word “Crusade” to describe what they were doing), and pilgrimage was one way to obtain an indulgence. Indulgences were not just a way to “buy forgiveness for sins,” which is a common misconception, but rather a recognition of good works for the sake of shortening the soul’s time in purgatory. Thus, the Crusaders believed that they were actually doing something to please God and save their souls, which is reflected in Pope Urban II’s remarks as well; he implores the Crusaders to “undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory for the kingdom of heaven.”[8] While one might consider this to be a motivation aimed towards personal benefit (less time spent in purgatory), it certainly was not aimed towards worldly benefit. Many very powerful and wealthy Crusaders (for example, the likes of Hugh the Great, Bohemond, and the Duke of Lorraine) left behind all of their worldly  possessions to go on these crusades with no intention of pursuing any material gain.[9] In fact, Pope Urban II warns against being tethered by worldly possessions: “Let none of your possessions detain you, no solicitude for your family affairs.”[10] He is also recorded as saying, “Whoever goes on the journey to free the church of God in Jerusalem out of devotion alone, and not for the gaining of glory or money, can substitute the journey for all penance for sin,” which indicates that the goal was never originally any sort of worldly reward (neither wealth nor esteem and honor). The words of Pope Urban II paint a very different picture than the reputation of the Crusaders as vicious imperialists; to him, they were simply being faithful Christians, at least insofar as they understood what it meant to be faithful Christians.

The various versions of Pope Urban II’s speeches are particularly helpful in determining the nature of the Crusades. They make clear that the Crusaders did not think of themselves as barbaric pillagers during the Middle Ages, but instead saw themselves as quite the opposite. Just as Madden proposes, they were considered, and considered themselves, to be defenders of the Byzantines, protecting them from the destruction inflicted on them by the Turks, as well as courageous pilgrims taking up their crosses and following Christ.

End notes:
[1] Thomas Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades,” Godspy Magazine, http://oldarchive.godspy.com/issues/Real-History-of-Crusades-by-Thomas-Madden.cfm.html.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Pope Urban II, “The Speech of Urban: The Version of Robert of Rheims,” in The First Crusade, ed. Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 27.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid. 28.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Pope Urban II, “The Speech of Urban: The Version of Guilbert of Nogent,” in The First Crusade, ed. Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 33.
[8] Pope Urban II, “The Speech of Urban: The Version of Robert of Rheims,” 28.
[9] Fulcher of Chartre, “The Chronicle of Fulcher,” in The First Crusade, ed. Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 57.
[10] Pope Urban II, “The Speech of Urban: The Version of Robert of Rheims,” 28.

 

References:
Madden, Thomas. “The Real History of the Crusades.” In Godspy Magazine. http://oldarchive.godspy.com/issues/Real-History-of-Crusades-by-Thomas-Madden.cfm.html.
Pope Urban II, “The Speech of Urban: The Version of Robert of Rheims.” In The First Crusade, edited by Edward Peter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Pope Urban II, “The Chronicle of Fulcher.” In The First Crusade, edited by Edward Peter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.