Pope Urban II and Clermont

Written by Nathaniel Robinson. Edited by Joscelin Woodend.

It is winter 1095 and Europe faces a growing threat from the Muslim world. The Holy Land has long been under Muslim control and Christian pilgrims are in danger in their travels. Furthermore, the Seljuk Turks have taken over much of Anatolia and are pushing further into Europe. In response,to this Pope Urban II addresses a council at Clermont, a speech which becomes a call to arms known as the First Crusade. In the weeks and months that follow the Pope’s impassioned appeal, some 100,000 men and women, from prince to peasant, take up the call for Holy War – the largest mobilisation of people seen since the fall of the Roman Empire.

“What did Urban say?” No one knows for certain. One account suggests his speech included a graphic depiction of the violence:

“A race alien to God has invaded the land of Christians, and has reduced the people with sword and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts and they cut open the navels of those whom they chose to torment with loathsome death, tear out their most vital organs and tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them, before killing them.”

Whilst we do not know exactly what was said, one thing is evident. Pope Urban II delivered an electrifying speech telling of Christians living in the east who, he alleged, were enduring dreadful oppression and abuse at the hands of their Muslim masters, and the epicentre of Christian tradition, the holy city of Jerusalem, likewise, lay in the grasp of Islam. Pope Urban II called upon Catholic Europehristians to take up arms and to prosecute a Holy War that would cleanse its participants of sin and evil. When he proclaimed that those fighting would be purified by the fire of battle, his words set Christendom alight.

The results of the Pope’s call had quick and long lasting results. Filled with zeal at the prospect of liberating the Holy Land and motivated by the promise of instant entry into heaven, thousands responded to the call. After a short-lived ‘people’s crusade’ Jerusalem was conquered. After initial success, these fortunes were reversed as Muslims unified under Zenghi, Nur-al-Din and Sal-a-Din against Christians, firstly capturing Edessa, then Jerusalem and finally enabling the Muslims to regain the majority of the Holy Land.

a statue of Pope Urban II in Clermont

a statue of Pope Urban II in Clermont

One lasting result of the Crusades was that they deepened mistrust between Western Christians and Eastern Christians. During the Crusades, neither side co-operated well with one another. Indeed, in 1098, during the First Crusade, when Crusaders outside Antioch were starving, the Byzantines refused to help. Both sides thought the other a traitor to the cause. Relations between Christians and Muslim countries also deteriorated over the period of the Crusades, with ramifications lasting until the present day.

Whilst we do not know the content of Pope Urban’s speech, we know its message is not just relegated to the 11th Century. The same message was expressed by George W. Bush, who, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, declared: “We’re also a nation under attack… We haven’t seen this kind of barbarism in a long time….This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” Whether deliberate or not, the use of the word Crusade certainly stirred up centuries of tension between Christianity and Islam, with some Muslims using this to reinvigorate the global jihad they had previously launched. Just as Pope Urban’s speech was mirrored by George W Bush, so too was the call to action with the mobilisation of people being just as evident in 2001 as 1095. Similarly, atrocities being inflicted on innocent civilians are echoed in both periods.

The speech at Clermont marked a watershed in relations between Islam and the West. This was not the first war between Christians and Muslims, but it was the conflict that set these two world religions on a course towards deep-seated animosity and enduring enmity. Between 1000 and 1300AD Catholic Europe and Islam went from being occasional combatants to avowed and entrenched opponents, and the chilling reverberations of this systematic shift still echo in the world today.