No one, least of all the pope, had any idea the First Crusade would start a five-century movement. At the time Urban’s battle-cry was seen as providing “a narrow and once-only escape from the burden of sin” (John France, “Patrongage and the Appeal of the First Crusade”, in The Crusades: The Essential Readings, edited by Thomas Madden, p 199). But his motives for the summoning the crusade have been controversial. Three arguments were presented in his sermon at Clermont; a fourth was provided by critics who knew better. Which (if any) were his actual reasons?
Urban summoned the first holy war–
(1) To consolidate papal power. The crusade represented a practical expression of papal ideology, leadership, and power.
(2) To reform violent warriors. The crusade emerged out of ecclesiastical reform, as an alternative to the Peace of God program which had failed to curb civil violence.
(3) To liberate Jerusalem and the holy lands. The crusade’s purpose was to take back the holy lands from Muslim control.
(4) To aid the eastern churches. The crusade was a defensive war, to help the Byzantines against invading Muslims.
The reasoning becomes increasingly apologetic as you go down the list. Thus someone like Robert Spencer sees (3) and (4) at work, but especially (4): the crusade was a defensive war. On the scholarly side of things, things become more complex. Carl Erdmann saw everything except (3) in Urban’s motives. In his view, the crusade was a means to harness Europe’s military energy for church purposes, and to convince the Byzantines to accept papal primacy; popular reactions expanded the mission to include Jerusalem, but that wasn’t part of Urban’s original goal.
Thomas Asbridge and Christopher Tyerman rightly emphasize (1) and (2). The crusade allowed Urban to channel knightly aggression outwards, against Islam, and even more broadly, secure his leadership independent of secular authorities. That he exploited the Byzantine call for military aid and capitalized on an opportunity to take back the holy lands doesn’t mean they were his primary objectives. Asbridge explains it better than anyone:
“The problems addressed by the First Crusade — Muslim occupation of Jerusalem and the potential threat of Islamic aggression in the East — had loomed for decades, even centuries, provoking little or no reaction in Rome. Urban II’s decision to take up this cause at Clermont was, therefore, primarily proactive rather than reactive, and the crusade was designed, first and foremost, to meet the needs of the papacy. Launched as it was just as Urban began to stabilize his power-base in central Italy, the campaign must be seen as an attempt to consolidate papal empowerment and expand Rome’s sphere of influence.” (The First Crusade, p 19)
That’s motive (1). Asbridge continues:
“Having grown up among the Frankish aristocracy, the pope was only too aware of the spiritual dilemma facing the knightly class. Bombarded by a stream of warnings about the dreadful danger of sin, but forced to resort to soul-contaminating violence in order to fulfill their duty and their rights, most nobles were trapped in a circle of guilt, obligation, and necessity. Urban was personally responsible for the soul of every single Christian living in the West. It was incumbent upon him to lift as many of his flock as possible towards salvation. The campaign launched at Clermont was, therefore, in one sense, designed to answer the prayers of a polluted class in Urban’s care… Knights would now be able to prosecute violence in the name of God.” (ibid, pp 20-21)
That’s motive (2) — the desire to export violence — which we glean from Urban’s sermon: “If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels. Soldiers of hell, become soldiers of the living God!” The crusade accomplished what the Peace of God movement never could, saving knightly souls — and Europe from civil chaos.
But if (1) and (2) were Urban’s reasons, (3) and (4) were his arguments. In his sermon he thundered about repossession and defense more than anything, stressing the need to recover holy territory, and help eastern Christians against Islamic invaders. This was propaganda. The holy lands had been in Muslim control for more than 400 years, and Christian pilgrims had been coexisting in relative peace ever since. As for “invading Muslims”, there was little to distinguish the recent Seljuk victory in Asia Minor from any other military struggle. Islam and Byzantium had “developed a tense, sometimes quarrelsome respect for one another, but their relationship was no more fraught with conflict than that between the Greeks and their Slavic or Latin neighbors to the west” (ibid, p 17). Most obviously, there was no pan-Islamic threat to Christendom at this time. In the 11th century Islam was more fragmented than it had ever been, which is exactly why the First Crusade was able to succeed.
Summary: Pope and Apostle
Urban’s overriding agenda was to establish his position in Italy. He needed the popularity and power that would turn the tide against his secular enemies, and the crusade gave him both. Knights now had an unprecedented opportunity to use their profession for salvific purposes, and kill Muslim infidels in the name of Christ. Safeguarding holy places and aiding eastern Christians were the means to this end.
Urban was like Paul in that his arguments obscured his reasons. He worried about Muslims invading Europe as much as the apostle did about sin invading the law. These men were really concerned about stigmatized people in their pastoral care — knights and Gentiles — and their visions of crusading and faith-righteousness were propelled accordingly. The irony is that in both cases, rhetoric evolved into la raison d’etre. Paul’s arguments against the law were seized on by later theologians in a world where the Gentile issue was obsolete and legalism a growing dilemma. Urban’s quest for Jerusalem became a popular goal as knights were reformed and papal leadership secured. Reasons call new ideas into existence; arguments linger, popularize, and sanitize those ideas.
In the next post we will examine Morton Smith’s motives for forging an ancient document.