The First Crusade was a monumental event of the 11th century, where thousands of ordinary people took up the cross to make the extremely long and perilous journey to Jerusalem to fight the ‘other’; the Muslim threat. Inspired by extreme devotion to God and His church, people made this decision based on a single speech. Jonathan Philips argues that Pope Urban II’s speech in 1095 had managed to draw together a number of key concerns and trends, synthesising them into a “single, highly popular idea”, which led to the First Crusade. Described often as an ambitious politician, it is certain that the Pope intended this to happen, for various motives, and his audience were ready consumers of the information he proclaimed to them. Pope Urban’s motives for his iconic speech in Clermont were largely restorative and ambitious. He wanted to restore Papal authority in the East, towards the Mediterranean, by recapturing the place known as the centre of the world, Jerusalem.
The Holy Land had been taken from them 400 years earlier, so it would be fair to agree with Asbridge that the situation “hadn’t deteriorated significantly in the years before 1095”. It can be argued that the Pope was recycling old events, dressing them in inflammatory language to create the “explosive material” he needed. Following in the footsteps of his ambitious predecessor Pope Gregory VII, he wanted to establish himself as the greatest leader in Europe; emphasising his papal role as God’s representative on Earth; above mere kings or emperors. The act of commanding great forces of the people of Europe for a single cause would demonstrate this kind of power. It would also act as a kind of unifying force for Europe that was fractured since the Great Schism of 1054, an event which undermined the Pope’s authority.
The schism created the rival body to the Pope; the Greek Orthodox church, seated in the great Byzantine Empire. Pope Urban’s source material for his speech which caused the eruption of the First Crusade came from a plea. Preceding the eruption of the First Crusade, its new young leader Alexios I was in trouble, and improving relations between the two old rival Churches made him able to request help from Urban II in 1095. Seemingly attacked from all sides, Alexios had sought the help from mercenaries to help with the first of his problems, the Pagans in the North. In 1082 the Pope helped him stall Norman insurgents, although typhoid was a better eradicator of the threat they posed to Alexios. However the greatest of his problems lay in the militant Seljuk Turks, new Muslim converts who were swiftly taking East Byzantine and swiftly crushed the limited Byzantine forces at the Battle of Manzikert. For this threat Alexios needed a greater force than he could muster.
In March 1095 he sent envoys to interrupt a papal council in Paicenza, asking for the Pope to send aid to help the Muslim threat in Asia Minor. He also exaggerated the threat facing him, as although it was “serious, it was not necessarily as catastrophic as Alexios depicted it at the Council”. Therefore when Urban gave is speech, it was under the premise of passing on Alexios’ message to the people of Western Europe, so it was twice exaggerated, making it more sensational and causing the eruption of the First Crusade. It can be argued that Alexios’ request was not the most important factor as it was merely a tool used by Urban to fit in with his own agenda. If it had not occurred Urban could still have relied on historical skirmishes with Islam over the Holy Land, inflaming them enough to seem an urgent responsibility.
Whilst Urban may have had his own personal motives, and these may have conveniently coincided with the Byzantine crisis to create a compelling argument, this alone would never have caused the eruption of the First Crusade if it hadn’t been for the fanatical reaction garnered from the people. This was because of the extremely important religious factor, the centuries-old medieval phenomena which Urban was not totally responsible for. It may be difficult for contemporary audiences to fully understand that total, unconditional, and unquestioning faith in God and religion “knitted every human together in Western Europe”, as Asbridge put it. The rituals of the Church dictated the rhythm of everyone’s lives, and doctrine of the Church was of ultimate importance as it represented the key to heaven.
Medieval introspective and sin-obsessed societies focused on this end goal. Sin was feared but still was a common occurence, particularly in a society where violence was normalised. Penance, or absolution of sin, was the answer, and whilst standard Confession with a priest was thought of as being sufficient for more minor (venial) sins, the ultimate act of penitence was undoubtedly the Pilgrimage. In a largely allegorical, illiterate culture, the pilgrimage was shown to have magical qualities. In a world where the lines between the figurative and literal blurred, for some there was little distinction between the Holy Land and heaven itself. Urban indicated eternal bliss as near guarantee as a result of this crusade. The more dangerous, the more sacrificial it was, the more devotion was shown to God, worthy of reward.
However this strong religious culture alone would not have caused the eruption of the First Crusade; without a world leader with his well-heard message of God’s calling the fractured peoples of Europe would not have been able to organise on that scale. In conclusion I would argue that Pope Urban was the primary cause of the eruption of the First Crusade. His “rousing sermon” was very cleverly calculated to manipulate the vulnerable masses to the greatest extent possible, demonstrating the power of emotive rhetoric. The religious culture was one that existed many centuries before the event, and conflicts like the one experienced by Alexios were not uncommon. Instead it was Pope Urban, the politician, who tied these two factors together, if not for the benefit for his Church, then for his career.
Phillips, J. (2002). The Crusades, 1095-1197. 1st ed. Pearson Education. Jones, T. Crusades. (1995).
Riley-Smith, J. (2014). The Crusades: A History. 3rd ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Purser, T. (2009). The First Crusade and the Crusader States 1073-1192. 1st ed. Oxford: Heinemann Notes