From Soldiers of Hell to Soldiers of Christ: Exporting Violence
On this day, November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II gave a ringing sermon on a field outside Clermont that set in motion what later became known as the First Crusade, and a radically new concept of holy war that would evolve and last for centuries. No official account of Urban's speech survives, but we have a good idea of what he said based on four later reports. The commonalities point to a powerfully staged propagandist piece. This comes from Robert the Monk's version, c. 1120:
"Distressing news has come to us: a race utterly alienated from God has invaded Christian lands and devastated them with sword, pillage, and fire. They have ruined God's altars with filth and defilement. They have circumcized Christians and smeared the blood on the altars or poured it into the baptismal fonts. And they have cut open the bellies of those they choose to torment with loathsome death, tearing out their intestines and tying them to a stake, then making them walk around the stake until their innards spill out and they fall dead. Others were shot through with arrows, and still others were decapitated. And what shall I say about the abominable rape of women?With inflammatory rhetoric, Urban was presenting the first crusade as a war of defense (against Muslim aggression) and repossession (of the holy lands). But were these really the factors which motivated him to preach the holy war?
"Rise up, then, Christian warriors: you who continually and vainly seek pretexts for war, rejoice, for you have today found a true pretext. You, who have so often been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the barbarians, go and fight for the deliverance of the holy places. Go and merit an eternal reward. If you are conquered, you will have the glory of dying in the very same place as Jesus Christ, and God will never forget that he found you in the holy battalions. If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels. Soldiers of hell, become soldiers of the living God!!"
Hardly. The holy lands had been in Muslim hands since the 7th century -- not a fresh wound -- and the threat of Islamic aggression had presented itself for decades without any response from Rome. Moreover, despite the loss of territory in Asia Minor to the Seljuks, there was no serious pan-Islamic threat to the eastern empire; Islam was more fragmented and internally conflicted than ever before (which is exactly why the First Crusade was able to succeed). And despite Urban's lurid account of atrocities, the reality was that Islam and Christianity had been co-existing in relative equanimity for centuries. There was little to distinguish the recent Seljuk-Byzantine conflict from typical military struggles which flared up from time to time. Urban exploited the Byzantine call for military help, and capitalized on a golden opportunity to take back the holy lands, but those were not his reasons for summoning the holy war to begin with.
Urban was "proactive rather than reactive" (Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade, p 19). He designed the crusade to meet his needs, which involved consolidating papal power and expanding his sphere of influence. William of Malmesbury understood perfectly that Urban engineered the holy war in order to gain popularity and create enough upheaval to allow him to recapture Rome from the anti-pope Clement -- a stooge of Urban's arch-enemy, Emperor Henry IV.
But why would the crusade make Urban so popular? The answer is that by making warfare sacred under the right conditions, he was able to address the spiritual dilemma of medieval knights whose violence had been tearing apart Christendom for the past century -- and which the Peace of God movement had tried in vain to remedy. "If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels; you who have been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the barbarians." By demonizing the Islamic world, Urban was able to channel violence abroad and make bloodshed -- for the first time ever -- not merely justified-but-evil (per Augustine), but holy and penitential. In the words of a medieval preacher: "By this kind of warfare, people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road."
The First Crusade, then, was primarily about exporting violence and purifying knightly souls. In the process, the pope hoped to achieve solidarity with the eastern churches and recover the holy lands. All of this served the broader 11th-century reformist agenda, as the church struggled to stay on top of secular authorities and their influence, particularly that of the Holy Roman Emperor.
In the next post, we will examine the motives of the crusaders themselves.