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 is an amalgam of the four reports:

“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?

“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!!”

With inflammatory rhetoric, Urban was presenting the first crusade as a war of defense (against Muslim aggression) and repossession (of the holy lands), and it is true that the crusade was first and foremost a delayed response to centuries of Islamic jihad. But the Muslim threat doesn’t completely account for the genesis of holy war in Christian thought. Why holy war?

Urban was proactive as much as reactive, designing the crusade to meet his needs, which involved consolidating papal power and expanding his sphere of influence. According to William of Malmesbury, 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, who was a stooge of Urban’s arch-enemy, Emperor Henry IV. Crusade historians recognize that the call to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims was deeply connected to the call to liberate the church from the secular control of the Holy Roman Emperor. And it paid off: the success of Urban’s crusade call allowed him to reestablish the seat of papal power in Rome.

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 and Truce of God movements 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 about exporting violence and saving knights’ souls in stopping the tide of Islamic jihad. 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. None of this should be taken to imply that the First Crusade wasn’t primarily defensive. It was a long overdue counter to 300 years of jihadist warfare which had ripped away two-thirds of the Christian world, and was still pushing deeper into Christian lands. The time was ripe for this counter, given the papal politics and ongoing problem of knightly violence.

In the next post, we will examine the motives of the crusaders themselves.

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