Article by James Lewis. Edited by Antony Lowe. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.
It might seem strange to start an article on the Crusades with a lyric from Canadian alternative band Arcade Fire. However, the apocalyptic undertones in the groups second album ‘Neon Bible’ draws frightening parallels with some of the conditions faced by the Crusaders whilst conquering the Holy Land at the turn of the eleventh century. Yet, despite this, it is clear that there was still religious conviction within Crusader ranks, even after the years of fighting and horrific conditions. Key events such as the finding of St. Peter’s Lance, an important religious artefact, and the siege of Jerusalem expose this belief, despite some claims by historians that the Crusades were fuelled by more selfish or violent goals. To do this, I will focus on four key religious events.
Firstly, it is important to note the initial motivations for the First Crusade, of which religious enthusiasm was undoubtedly important. Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont (1095) remains one of the most significant religious speeches ever given, and contains a plethora of examples of fervent religious language:
‘Brethren, we ought to endure much suffering for the name of Christ – misery, poverty, nakedness, persecution, want, illness, hunger, thirst, and other (ills) of this kind, just as the Lord saith to His disciples: ‘Ye must suffer much in My name,’ (The Gesta Francorum)
This was the principal motivator for the people of Western Europe. As word of the Pope’s speech spread around the Frankish kingdoms, huge numbers of warriors, priests and knights flocked to join the Crusades as a religious mission to save not only Jerusalem, but also their souls from eternal damnation.
These rousing speeches and rumours catalysed the People’s Crusade (April-October 1096), and whilst being an unqualified disaster, displayed the qualities of a movement spawned out of religious obligation and enthusiasm. Peter the Hermit, whilst being a poor tactical and military leader, inspired ordinary peasants and farmers to march with arms into Muslim territories, without the support of the Pope or the Byzantine Emperor. In fact, their religious passion caused the Crusaders to riot in the streets of Constantinople after the Emperor advised them not to enter the land of the Turks:
‘The Christians conducted themselves badly, inasmuch as they tore down and burned buildings of the city and carried off the lead with which the churches were constructed sold it to the Greeks. The Emperor was enraged thereat and ordered them to cross the Strait.’ (The Gesta Francorum)
Although the People’s Crusade ended in the slaughter of the group by Muslim leader Kilij Arslan, it is great evidence for the religious zeal in the First Crusade.
The best example of this took place during the siege of Antioch, which occurred from October 21st 1097 to June 2nd 1098. Although the Crusading armies had already successfully conquered the cities of Nicea and Dorylaeum, the true religious undertones were only exposed during times of hardship, in particular at Antioch. The almost impenetrable walls of the city meant that the Crusaders, after conquering the city were stuck with no supplies inside the city with the Muslim armies outside. The conditions were becoming horrific for the Crusading armies, for example, the Crusaders resorted to eating their own diseased horses, and cannibalism was surely close to becoming common practice. However, at this point, a religious leader emerged in the form of Peter Bartholomew, who, after discovering the ‘Lance of St. Peter’ inspired the Crusaders to rush out of the walls of the city and attack the Muslim army, and ultimately lead to victory.
‘Thirteen men dug there from morning until vespers. And so that man found the Lance, just as he had indicated. They received it with great gladness and fear, and a joy beyond measure arose in the whole city.’
This reinvigorated the Crusade, and at Jerusalem, the Crusaders marched around the walls of the city in the guise of the siege of Jericho written in the Bible:
‘However, before we made this assault on the city, the bishops and priests persuaded all, by exhorting and preaching, to honor the Lord by marching around Jerusalem in a great procession, and to prepare for battle by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving’ (The Gesta Francorum)
‘And ye shall compass the city, all ye men of war, and go round about the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days. And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams’ horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets.’ (Joshua 6:3-4)
This is a great indicator of the emphasis placed upon religious obligation in the First Crusade; even more significant considering that it took place at the Holy City itself, which had no strategic value.
In recent texts, it has become very commonplace for historians to de-emphasize the role of religious enthusiasm, and instead highlight the violent and money grabbing nature of some of the Crusaders. To get a full picture of the Crusade, one must explore the indisputable religious importance, both to the Crusaders themselves, and to the success of the First Crusade. This highlighted by the religious zeal originating from Pope Urban II, which continued to inspire through the People’s Crusade and the hardships of the First Crusade itself.
For more reading concerning the Crusades, I would recommend ‘God’s War’ by Christopher Tyerman, as well as general books upon the Middle East, such as ‘The Middle East’ by Christopher Catherwood.
Timeline of key events
1085-1095- 3000 Christian pilgrims massacred in Jerusalem. Churches were destroyed or used as stables.
1095 Pope Urban II calls a Council at Placentia to discuss the call for help received from the Emperor of Byzantium. He later travels to Clermont where he calls for participants for the Crusades.
1095-1096 Peter the Hermit enlists the People’s Crusade.
Summer 1096 – Crusaders gather at Constantinople to prepare for war.
October 1096 – the People’s Crusade is wiped out.
May-June 1097 Siege of Nicaea, modern day Iznik.
October 1097-June 1098 Siege of Antioch.
February-June 1099 Siege of Arqah, near Tripoli.
July 1099 Jerusalem is taken, resulting in the massacre of the inhabitants. The eastern Christian population had been previously been expelled from the City, escaping the bloodshed.