Monday, November 28, 2016
The First Crusade
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II made perhaps the most influential speech of the Middle Ages, giving rise to the Crusades by calling all Christians in Europe to war against Muslims in order to reclaim the Holy Land, with a cry of “Deus vult!” or “God wills it!”
Statue of Pope Urbaan II
Born Odo of Lagery in 1042, Urban was a protégé of the great reformer Pope Gregory VII. Like Gregory, he made internal reform his main focus, railing against simony (the selling of church offices) and other clerical abuses prevalent during the Middle Ages. Urban showed himself to be an adept and powerful cleric, and when he was elected pope in 1088, he applied his statecraft to weakening support for his rivals, notably Clement III.
By the end of the 11th century, the Holy Land (the area now commonly referred to as the Middle East) had become a point of conflict for European Christians. Since the 6th century, Christians frequently made pilgrimages to the birthplace of their religion, but when the Seljuk Turks took control of Jerusalem, Christians were barred from the Holy City. When the Turks then threatened to invade the Byzantine Empire and take Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I made a special appeal to Urban for help. This was not the first appeal of its kind, but it came at an important time for Urban. Wanting to reinforce the power of the papacy, Urban seized the opportunity to unite Christian Europe under him as he fought to take back the Holy Land from the Turks.
At the Council of Clermont, in France, at which several hundred clerics and noblemen gathered, Urban delivered a rousing speech summoning rich and poor alike to stop their in-fighting and embark on a righteous war to help their fellow Christians in the East and take back Jerusalem. Urban denigrated the Muslims, exaggerating stories of their anti-Christian acts, and promised absolution and remission of sins for all who died in the service of Christ.
The Council of Clermont
Urban’s war cry caught fire, mobilizing clerics to drum up support throughout Europe for the crusade against the Muslims. All told, between 60,000 and 100,000 people responded to Urban’s call to march on Jerusalem. Not all who responded did so out of piety: European nobles were tempted by the prospect of increased land holdings and riches to be gained from the conquest. These nobles were responsible for the death of a great many innocents both on the way to and in the Holy Land, absorbing the riches and estates of those they conveniently deemed opponents to their cause. Adding to the death toll was the inexperience and lack of discipline of the Christian peasants against the trained, professional armies of the Muslims. As a result, the Christians were initially beaten back, and only through sheer force of numbers were they eventually able to triumph.
Four armies of Crusaders were formed from troops of different Western European regions, led by Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh of Vermandois and Bohemond of Taranto (with his nephew Tancred); they were set to depart for Byzantium in August 1096. A less organized band of knights and commoners known as the “People’s Crusade” set off before the others under the command of a popular preacher known as Peter the Hermit. Peter’s army traipsed through the Byzantine Empire, leaving destruction in their wake. Resisting Alexius’ advice to wait for the rest of the Crusaders, they crossed the Bosporus in early August. In the first major clash between the Crusaders and the Muslims, Turkish forces crushed the invading Europeans at Cibotus. Another group of Crusaders, led by the notorious Count Emicho, carried out a series of massacres of Jews in various towns in the Rhineland in 1096, drawing widespread outrage and causing a major crisis in Jewish-Christian relations.
Godfrey of Boullon
Peter the Hermit
When the four main armies of Crusaders arrived in Constantinople, Alexius insisted that their leaders swear an oath of loyalty to him and recognize his authority over any land regained from the Turks, as well as any other territory they might conquer; all but Bohemond resisted taking the oath. In May 1097, the Crusaders and their Byzantine allies attacked Nicea (now Iznik, Turkey), the Seljuk capital in Anatolia; the city surrendered in late June. Despite deteriorating relations between the Crusaders and Byzantine leaders, the combined force continued its march through Anatolia, capturing the great Syrian city of Antioch in June 1098. After various internal struggles over control of Antioch, the Crusaders began their march toward Jerusalem, then occupied by Egyptian Fatimids (who as Shi’ite Muslims were enemies of the Sunni Seljuks). Encamping before Jerusalem in June 1099, the Christians forced the besieged city’s governor to surrender by mid-July. Despite Tancred’s promise of protection, the Crusaders slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children in their victorious entrance into the city.
The Seige of Jerusalem
Urban died in 1099, two weeks after the fall of Jerusalem but before news of the Christian victory made it back to Europe. His was the first of seven major military campaigns fought over the next two centuries known as the Crusades, the bloody repercussions of which are still felt today. Urban was beatified (made a saint) by the Roman Catholic Church in 1881.
Images of the First Crusade