From Just War to Holy War: A Godsend to Knights and Warriors

In the last post we examined Pope Urban’s motives in preaching the First Crusade. He was redirecting violence in an attempt to fend off Islamic expansionism. But what about the crusaders themselves? What made them respond so readily to Urban’s war cry?

A popular myth is that crusaders were mostly land-hungry younger sons who saw an opportunity to carve out territories in Palestine. Aside from exceptions who prove the rule (like Bohemund of Taranto), we know this wasn’t the case. Many crusaders were eldest sons, and many of them already enjoyed wealthy lordships — which they obviously jeopardized by going on crusade.

Generally speaking, greed wasn’t a motive. Most crusaders expected to return home, and indeed most who survived did. The cost of embarking on a crusade was lethally expensive: knights had to shell out anywhere between 2-5 times their annual income to afford equipment, supplies, horses, and servants. (Buying a horse back then was as fiscally intimidating as buying a house is for us today.) Most of the crusaders, who had never been more than 100 miles from home, let alone 2000 (the distance to Jerusalem), were terrified about the journey to Palestine. Simply put: those who were looking to improve their lot in life did not go on crusade.

That the goal of the crusade was “materialistic” by definition — repossession of land — does not mean that crusaders were driven by colonial or imperialistic motives; they were not. That leading crusaders ended up quarrelling, sometimes nastily, over who would assume lordship of conquered territory (Antioch, Tripoli, Jerusalem, etc.) does not mean they had been drawn to the holy war for mercenary reasons; all the evidence speaks against it. Our sources depict warriors making harsh sacrifices, driven by sincere piety, a reverence for relics and holy places, and, above all, an insecurity about their moral standing. Thomas Asbridge explains:

“All medieval society was preoccupied with the pursuit of purity, but the knightly aristocracy, forced by the nature of its profession into daily contact with contaminants such as violence and personal wealth, seems to have been particularly prone to harbor an obsession with spiritual infection and the afterlife… Knights across Europe were trapped — their secular obligations made sin inevitable, but monks cautioned them that their transgressions would, in the afterlife, trigger the most gruesome torments.” (The First Crusade, pp 71-72)

Urban’s holy war thus came as a godsend, an antidote to Augustine’s theory of just war which only exacerbated knightly guilt. Since the fourth century, Christianity had taught that violence was intrinsically evil, even when justified. By reversing the morality of violence — by making bloodshed sacred — the knightly dilemma was effectively resolved. For decades the Peace of God movement had tried imposing a quasi-pacifism on the warrior class, obviously to no avail. Now these warriors could “kill for Christ” and have their sins remitted, enabling them to bypass suffering in purgatory.

This is what the crusaders latched onto more than anything: an unprecedented opportunity to use their warrior-profession for salvific purposes. To make a superficial but pointed analogy: the modern al-Qaeda terrorists didn’t fly planes into buildings for material gain; they really believed that a host of virgins would be waiting in paradise to reward them. The medieval crusaders likewise truly believed — with the pope’s promise — that spilling Muslim blood and safeguarding Christian holy places would absolve them of their sins.

In the next post, we will examine the use of scripture during the crusading period.

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