Why Did Christians Crusade?

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By John Harrison

On March 13, 2017, the youtube channel Real Crusades History posted a video titled Top 5 Myths About the Crusades[1]. A link to this video can be found here: https://youtu.be/ubhIXY2WExk. The channel Real Crusades History strives to approach the crusades from an unbiased angle and this video does a great job highlighting some misconceptions about the crusades widely held by contemporary society. One misconception concerns what motivated the crusaders to undertake their mission. This article will elaborate on the Real Crusades History’s verdict about the crusaders’ primary motive by examining the speech in which Pope Urban II called for the first crusade.

In order to understand the pope’s speech, it is important to know some historical context. In the year 1094 Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, ruler of Byzantium, called for aid from Pope Urban II against the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuk Turks formed a mighty Islamic Empire which at this time had control over nearly all of Asia Minor, including the Holy Land. The Seljuk Turks had gained much of this land including the Holy Land through a series of military conquests. In a Council held from November 18 to November 28 , 1095 in the city of Clermont, France, Pope Urban II answered the Byzantine emperor’s call. On November 27 Pope Urban II declared unequivocally the need for the Christian West to help their brothers in the East, calling for the first Crusade. Pope Urban II named Jerusalem as the main goal of the crusaders and told them to go forward to battle with the cry of ‘Deus Vult’ or ‘God wills it’. However, the question still remains, why would God will such a thing? Or more precisely, why did medieval Christians believe God would will such a thing?

Fortunately, Pope Urban II identifies in his speech, and quite eloquently at that, why exactly the first Crusade was God’s will. In his speech, of which there exist contemporaneous written reports, the pope explains the need for a Crusade.  The response by the medieval Christian demonstrates that Pope Urban II’s reasonings resonated with his contemporaries. In his November 27, 1095 speech, according to the records made by Fulcher of Chartres and Robert the Monk, the pope laid out a vision of Christian brotherhood that required peace amongst Christians and a willingness to aid each other in both moral and material struggles. Specifically, the pope established a sort of list of duties that Christian Brothers owed to one another. Examining this vision of Christian Brotherhood and looking at what duties medieval Christians thought they owed each other makes apparent why so many were willing to go on the Crusade.

The first thing Christians owe each other, according to Pope Urban II’s speech, is peace. In the record kept by Fulcher of Chartres, Pope Urban II speaks about how he is troubled with the lawlessness within Christian Europe and how he wants to reenact the ‘Truce of God’ in the hopes of stopping Christian people from abusing each other and fighting amongst themselves. Pope Urban II states:

“Hardly anyone can venture to travel upon the highways, by night or day, without danger of attack by thieves or robbers; and no one is sure that his property at home or abroad will not be taken from him by the violence or craft of the wicked. Therefore, let us reenact the law made by our holy ancestors long ago and commonly called the “the Truce” [of God][sic].”[2]

By reenacting the ‘Truce of God’ Pope Urban II calls for Christian people to stop attacking each other. The pope’s demand is even more explicitly stated in Robert the Monk’s record that reports the pope’s words, “Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber.”[3] Here, Pope Urban II clearly presents the view that Christian people owe each other peace.

The second duty Christian people owe each other, according to Pope Urban II’s speech, is to lead one another to goodness. More specifically, Pope Urban II puts this duty of moral leadership in the hands of the authorities. In the record by Fulcher of Chartres, Pope Urban II presents to his bishops and others in attendance the gospel proof for this claim. Pope Urban II states:

“In the words of the gospel, “Ye are the salt of the earth.” But if you fail in your duty, how, we ask, can it be salted? Oh, how admirable is that salting! Truly, you must strive by the salt of wisdom to correct these foolish people… For if, through your neglect of duty, He shall find in them any worms, that is sins. He will in contempt order them to be hurled into the abyss of unclean things. And because you are unable to make good to Him so great a loss, He will certainly drive you, condemned by His judgment, from the presence of His love.”[4]

Pope Urban II explains how all Christian people, and especially the leaders, are responsible for helping each other do well morally. Pope Urban asserts that Christian people owe each other a duty to do what they can to ensure that God will judge both themselves and their neighbors well and will not cast them into the ‘abyss of unclean things’.

The third duty Christian people owe each other, according to Pope Urban II’s speech, is to be the most morally good one can be. Again this part of the speech is addressed especially to the leaders and describes their ideal qualities. This third point ties in very closely with the second point and follows in successive order in Fulcher of Chartres’ recording of Pope Urban II’s speech. Pope Urban II says, “But for this reason the distributor of this salt ought to be wise, prudent, modest, pacific, learned, watchful, pious, just, equitable, pure. For how can the unlearned make others learned, the immodest make others modest, the impure make others pure?”[5] Pope Urban II reasons that because Christians owe each other a duty to make each other good, they also owe it to each other to be good themselves.

The fourth duty Christian people owe each other, according to Pope Urban II’s speech, is to be willing to war for each other. In Fulcher of Chartres’ recording of Pope Urban II’s speech, the call for war comes at the end. Pope Urban II states:

“Oh, what a disgrace if a race so despised, degenerate, and slave of the demons, should thus conquer a people fortified with faith in omnipotent God and resplendent with the name of Christ! Oh, how many reproaches will be heaped upon you by the Lord Himself if you do not aid those who like yourself are counted of the Christian faith!”[6]

The recording by Robert the Monk is no less fiery in this particular regard, as Pope Urban II is just as intent on Christians being willing to war for each other. Pope Urban II states:

“From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, 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… On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?”[7]

Despite sounding inherently contradictory, Pope Urban II’s call for war is consistent with his overall desire for peace. Pope Urban II reasons that the call for war is a necessity as it is a war in self-defense against people who have broken the peace by invasion and who lack the fundamental desire and the vision for the peace the pope had laid out before. In short Pope Urban II calls for Christians to be willing to defend each other from both internal strife and external threats.

In conclusion, why were Christian people willing to go on the first Crusade? Well at least for the first Crusade, Pope Urban II would say it was a Christian duty. Pope Urban II would explain that Christians should not attack each other, should help each other achieve sanctity, should strive for sanctity themselves,  and should be willing to defend each other.  Medieval Christians agreed with him; Urban II’s answer to this question was the answer of medieval Christianity. The evidence for this consensus is that the people of medieval Christian Europe took up ‘Deus Vult’ as its war cry. The crusaders, inspired by this speech, marched towards Jerusalem and retook it.

The crusaders reasoned that the plight of the Christian people of the East could not be ignored. They agreed with Pope Urban II and believed that they owed it to other Christians to be willing and ready to fight for them. This is why medieval Christians answered the call to the first Crusade. To go back in time nine hundred years and ascribe greed for riches or power as their motive is the height of arrogance. To think that a modern person knows better than the crusaders themselves what motivated the crusader’s behavior is laughably ridiculous. An exam of the speeches by the thinkers and leaders of those days and the response by the Christians who heard them best manifests the motivations and reasonings of the crusaders.

[1] “Top 5 Myths About the Crusades” YouTube, uploaded by Real Crusades History, 13 Jan. 2017, https://youtu.be/ubhIXY2WExk

[2] Fulcher of Chartres, in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, vol. I, no. 2 (Philadelphia: The Department of History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1902), 2-8.

[3]Robert the Monk, in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, vol. I, no. 2 (Philadelphia: The Department of History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1902), 2-8.

[4] Fulcher of Chartres.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Robert the Monk.

2 Responses

  1. There were two significant reasons why the crusades were only marginally effect. The first was logistical. In the Middle Ages a military operation over that distance was nearly impossible. Supplying and transporting an army of the size necessary to succeed showed that western countries were simply not up to the task at the time. The second was political. Getting the European monarchs to agree on a single plan and strategy proved that division was stronger than the objective. This continued even up through WW I, which was the last time that Europe might have been in a position to impose moderation on Islam.

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