“By this kind of death people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road.” 13th Century preacher of the crusades.[i]
Modern man finds it difficult to follow the reasoning that a crusade could open the gates of heaven. Indeed, the idea is so shocking and repulsive to modern ears that it has fueled contempt and condemnation for the crusades generally. Popular culture for more than a century has characterized the crusades as brutal land-grabs preached by fanatical priests who advocated “killing Saracens” as the way to heaven.
Such portrayals are inaccurate and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of medieval theology and mentality.
Today I look more closely at crusader motives.
The theological basis for the crusades grew from the concept of “just war” — not, note, holy war. This notion was first articulated by the Christian theologian St. Augustine, who lived between 354 and 430 AD. Augustine argued that Christian leaders (not just anyone) had the right to engage in defensive wars. He did not, however, suggest that the church should engage in violence for its own purposes. On the contrary, he opposed wars of conversion or wars for the purpose of murdering pagans. Augustine argued that only the state -- not the church -- could under certain circumstances legitimately use violence -- i.e. in a just cause, usually defined as wars against aggression and oppression. Yet such wars, St. Augustine argued, must not be disproportional or cruel, and they must be motivated by love, e.g. the desire to end aggression and oppression.
That the crusades fell in the category of defensive wars — i.e. wars against aggression and oppression — was self-evident to Christians in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Islam had been spread by the sword ever since the mid-seventh century. (For details see: Jerusalem Forgotten?) The call to arms that evolved into the first crusade stressed both the oppression of Christians living under Muslim rule and also the fact that Muslim aggression had stolen from Christ his homeland.
It is now commonplace to talk about Jerusalem belonging to all three monotheistic religions equally. Jews, Christians and Muslims, modern leaders intone repeatedly, all have an equal right to Jerusalem because it is holy to all three faiths. This view was not shared in the Middle Ages. Jews, naturally, viewed Jerusalem as their city because it was the heart of their lost state. Jerusalem was both the political and religious capital of the Jewish people. For the Eastern Roman Empire, the claim to Jerusalem and the Levant was likewise both territorial and religious. The Eastern Roman Empire claimed Jerusalem based on the fact that Constantinople viewed itself as the heir to the Roman Empire (to which Palestine had belonged), as well as because Christ had lived, died and been resurrected in Jerusalem. For Latin Christians, the significance and draw of Jerusalem was solely religious — but it was no less powerful because of that.
The Muslim claim was, in contrast, extremely weak. Mecca was the Holy City of Islam, followed by Medina. These were the two cities where Mohammed had lived and preached. Indeed, Mohammed lived his entire life in the Arabian Peninsula; he never set foot in Jerusalem — except in a dream. Jerusalem had been just one of a thousand conquered cities in the four hundred years after Mohammed’s death. Mosques had been erected all across these conquered territories; the Dome of the Rock was only one of these, even if a particularly beautiful one. It was not until the Franks had captured Jerusalem that Muslim leaders started talking about how “important” Jerusalem was in order to recruit and motivate troops to fight the Franks.
Note, at the time of the first crusade, the religious importance of Jerusalem to Islam had not yet been discovered. The Muslim hold on Jerusalem was primarily political: it was a conquest of a Muslim power, the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo. For the Latin Christians, however, that conquest had a religious character. Because of that conquest, “Christ was crucified again in the persecution of his faithful and the defilement of his sanctuaries.”[ii]
This is an essential point that cannot be over-emphasized: to a feudal Europe that viewed Christ as the “king of king and lord of lords,” the destruction of churches or their conversion into mosques constituted an insult to their Lord. Just as a vassal was obliged to come to the assistance of his lord if that lord was attacked, so Christians felt obliged to come to the assistance of their Lord Jesus Christ. The duty to secular lords was legal and rational but did not always include an emotional component. The duty to defend Christ on the other hand was hugely emotional and spiritual because devout Christians genuinely loved Christ. No one was more moved by this logic and obligation than the Christian warrior class: knights and nobles.
So why hadn’t they responded in 648 when Jerusalem fell to the Arabs?
The answer is simple: they had not been strong enough. Indeed, they had not been strong enough at any time before the First Crusade. It was not the sudden discovery of the affront to Christ that was different in 1095 than 648, but rather the gradually evolved capacity of Western Christians to take action.
Even so the degree to which the plea for aid resonated with people was surprisingly great. It surprised even those who had called for action, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus and Pope Urban II. They were astonished by the response to their plea for aid and embarrassed by the numbers who followed the call, particularly by the numbers of non-combatants, namely women, elderly people, the sick and the lame.
The response was so strong largely because Pope Urban II had combined the notion of a just war to free Christ and fellow Christians from oppression with the promise of the remission of sins for those who undertook the journey. Thus, in addition to being a just war against aggression and oppression, the crusades (still not yet called by this name, by the way) offered a route to heaven through the remission of sins. The journey to Jerusalem was first and foremost a pilgrimage for each crusader because what defined a crusader (one who took the cross) was that he took an oath to God — not the pope, a bishop or his secular lord.
The crusader oath was not — as Hollywood would have us believe — “to kill Saracens.” It was not even an oath to take political control of Jerusalem. It was a vow to pray at the Holy Sepulcher. For the participants of all but the Second Crusade, this entailed crossing into Muslim held territory. While this could (and was) done peacefully in the periods before and after the crusader era, for most fighting men the notion of praying at the Holy Sepulcher was tied up with the goal of restoring Christian control the Holy Sepulcher.
This did not, however, cancel or even obscure the penitential character of the vow. On the contrary, to a man conscious of his sins (and medieval knights were usually very guilty and very conscious of sinning), the need for penance was particularly great. An armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem offered them a means to receive forgiveness of past sins, without giving up their status or profession. Up to this point, most penance entailed putting down the sword, showing humility and charity, and in extreme cases taking holy orders. Here at last was a chance to win favor with the God of Love, without actually taking the tonsure of the clergy. This is not to be confused with seeking an easy way out. A significant percentage of crusaders died on crusade. All of them impoverished themselves at the outset. It was the very hardships and risks of the journey that made it valuable as penance.
The penitential character of crusades, however, is all too frequently misunderstood in modern popular culture. Crusaders did not wash away their sins in Saracen blood. They did not view killing and violence as the means to attain admittance to heaven. It was the hardships they suffered and the sacrifices they made in the service of Christ (i.e. to liberate his tomb from hostile occupation by individuals who did not honor Him as their Lord) that could absolve them of other sins already committed.
Returning to the quote at the start of this essay, the point the preacher was trying to make was that the struggle for Jerusalem was so difficult and dangerous that it provided an opportunity — even for those (such as fighting men) whose sins were so great that they otherwise had little hope of compensating for them — in order to have a chance of entering heaven.
What this meant, however, was that every crusader, i.e. every man and woman who ‘took the cross’ and made the crusader vow, was on an individual quest for purification. They were not acting in accordance with the demands of authority but in accordance with bidding of their own conscience. Professor Madden put it this way: “A crusade army was, in effect, a loosely organized mob of soldiers, clergy, servants and followers heading in roughly the same direction for roughly the same purposes. Once launched, it could be controlled no more than the wind or the sea.”[iii]
[i] Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades: A History. Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 20.
[ii] Madden, Thomas. The Concise History of the Crusades. Rowman and Littlefield, 2014, p. 9.
[iii] Ibid, p. 10.
Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent releases are a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus and a new series on the baronial revolt against Frederick II.