Henry Treece

The First Crusade





Henry Treece provides here a synthetic account of the reasons, mainly cultural and economic, that motivated the men, at the beginning of the first millennium, to embark on the adventure of the Crusades. So, even if the Pope was the initiator of the first Crusade, the real drive and substance was given by those individuals who were trying to escape a life of toil and drudgery in search for wealth and adventure; and this had practically nothing to do with spirituality and religion.



In April, 1095, such a great shower of meteorites fell over Europe that Bishop Gislebert of Lisieux interpreted them as a sign from God, asking for a crusade to the holy places of the East. Seven months later, in November, 1095, Pope Urban II called a solemn Council at Clermont in Auvergne.

The gathering was immense despite the cold season of the year: there were more than two hundred eminent prelates, knights and barons from mid-France, and so many thousands of others that tents and shelters had to be erected for them in the open fields. From a scaffold in the market-place of Clermont, Pope Urban stirred the hearts of his vast and clamouring audience: "Hitherto," he said, "ye have waged unjustifiable warfare, slaying each other and sometimes wielding mad weapons for the sake merely of greed or of pride, whereby ye have earned everlasting death and the ruin of certain damnation. Now we set before you wars which have in themselves the glorious reward of martyrdom, and the halo of present and ever lasting fame."

Simply to remind the peasant-folk who crowded the square that for years the barons had seemed intent on annihilating each other would not have been sufficient inducement to send them off on a holy war; but Urban, with consummate craft, found another way of touching each man's heart. "The end of the world is near," he cried. "The days of Antichrist are at hand. If, therefore, when he cometh, he shall find no Christians in the East, as at this moment there are scarce any such, then there will be no man to stand up against him." Then the Pope went on to promise God's pardon of all past sins to the confessed soldiers in the proposed war, to assure all who died in this venture of a martyr's crown, and to protect by the most solemn curse the family and possessions of all crusaders, whatever their social degree. And Constantinople was to be the gathering-place of all crusaders.

It was as though a great weight had been lifted from the minds of those who heard him. They laughed aloud with hysteria and shouted that this was God's will. Then they set to and sewed the red cross upon their garments without delay. Sensing success, Urban deputed the leadership of this venture to his legate, the Bishop of Le Puy, and set the time of departure for August 15, in the following year, 1096, by which date the harvests would be gathered in, and an the princes ready. The multitude dispersed, to carry the glad tidings from town to town through France and even as far away as Scotland and Denmark, in a frenzy of excitement which surprised even the Pope himself.

It is necessary to consider what factors, apart from the undeniable power of Urban's oratory, had so inflamed the minds of those who listened to his words. In the first place, at a national level, East and West had been expanding towards each other by trade and war since the fall of the Roman Empire, and had now come to the point when they felt the need to test each other's metal. Lower down the scale, moreover, and to keep the people in check, the frightful nightmare of the Antichrist and of the Day of Judgement had been preached from every pulpit in Christendom. Families of churchgoers for the past century had heard this warning, until the sensation of imminent disaster had become second nature to them, until whole generations were hag-ridden with the image of unavoidable damnation. Again and again, common men sought the opportunity to become clean, to stand well in the sight of God and His prelates. This desire put a weapon in their hands and, wherever they found opponents, they attacked and converted them - Lombard, Slav, Norman, Magyar and Saracen - hoping to bring them to Heaven as a ransom for their own souls.

Guibert called his history of these times God's Dealings through the Franks. The French had become a unified people who, by deciding on a crusade, had proved their identity, their Christian courage and their desire for salvation. Here, it is even possible that the turmoil and vigour needed for a holy war, or a war of any sort at all, was largely provided by a new race - the Normans, who in England and Southern Italy had suddenly found themselves capable of expressing their warrior pride and strength, and now looked for a more rewarding goal.

The pattern for such a venture had already been set for them in the tenth century, when the Orthodox Greek emperors had regained wide territories from the effete Mohammedans. Though the enemy they were now to meet had changed. The newest hordes of Islam, the Seljuk Turks, were no more decadent than the Normans who yelled for their blood at Clermont. Central Asiatic nomads, they were as hard and as crafty as their ancestors, the Huns, had been. In less than a lifetime, these nomads had moved from the howling steppes to the very borders of Egypt in search of their own national fulfilment. By 1071 they had captured Jerusalem and, though the Greek Emperor Romanus had turned on them his army of 100,000 men, the Seljuks had routed them by their mobility and single-mindedness, so closing the land route to the Holy Sepulchre for all pilgrims. The merchants, whose trade with the East was in process of developing, suffered no less than the Church. For years Greek emperors had appealed to the West for help, and not always on grounds of religion. It was inevitable that sooner or later a Western people would evolve which would see the potentialities, religious and mercantile, of such a movement eastwards.

There was yet another basis of conflict. The world of the Seljuk Turk was one of a small warrior aristocracy lording it over a multitude of easily-dominated peasants or workmen. The West had, by the eleventh century, begun at least to outgrow this primitive stage. In most European towns and villages, individual men had begun to regard it as their personal right to improve their conditions wherever they might. On the religious side, the difference between East and West was even greater. While the Seljuk Turk regarded all Christians as polytheists in their worship of the Holy Trinity and in their kneeling to graven images, the Christians firmly believed, with a conviction produced by generations of reiteration, that no unbaptised person could escape the dreadful fires of damnation. To Europeans, all Moslems were damned: to kill them was to act as God's instrument and to hastens God’s judgement upon them. Ironically, this feeling of the Frank against the Moslem Turk was also extended, largely because of doctrinal differences, against the Greek Christians.

It is probable, however, that the greatest inducement towards this war was an economic one. The Seljuk Turk by capturing Asia Minor and the Levant, had turned the Mediterranean into a cul-de-sac, and the swiftly-growing race of Western merchants-adventurers, whose sheer political force cannot be over-estimated, could not tolerate such a limitation. It is impossible to visualise these merchants in the sedentary terms of today; they were men of action, fighters, often unprotected or unguided by law, custom or morals. To gain trade and a good bargain, they were prepared to kill or to be killed. There were no half-measures among them. In this respect, they resembled all the other soldiers of fortune at that time - from the young noblemen who possessed little more than a sword and a horse, to the half-starved, work-weary peasants.

Again, at the lowest level, there were many thieves and murderers who escaped block and gallows only on condition that they redeemed themselves by spilling heathen blood. Such men would know no mercy, whatever the colour of their opponents' skin, and Christian though they might be, could hope for little understanding from the majority of the crusaders who were soon to meet them.

There is one other factor which should be mentioned, and that is the eleventh-century love of pilgrimages. Relic-worship had by this time grown to such an extent that no Christian altar could be considered completely hallowed unless it were surrounded by a heap of saintly or at least martyred bones. By his inflammatory words at Clermont, Pope Urban gave sanction to a repetition of such an act of relic-gathering, of expiation by the robbery of martyr-tombs. To save his soul, the man of eleventh-century Europe would have stolen anything to avoid the hot flames of Hell which, the priests had told him, licked his legs at every step.


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