The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading

In this classic work, presented here with a new introduction, one of the world's most renowned crusade historians approaches this central topic of medieval history with freshness and impeccable research.

The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading

Jonathan Riley-Smith

2009 | First Edition
232 pages | Paper $24.95
History | Religion
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Pope Urban's message
Chapter 2. The response of lay people
Chapter 3. Conditions on the march
Chapter 4. The ideas of the crusaders
Chapter 5. The crusade of 1101
Chapter 6. Theological refinement

Chronological table
List of abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The First Crusade was an extraordinary three-year epic which ended in triumph, in spite of the fact that almost every acknowledged rule of generalship was broken. The army which mustered across the Bosphorus in May 1097 and helped take the city of Nicaea consisted of rather more than 20,000 fighting men, of whom c.5,000 were knights, accompanied by perhaps 15,000 male and female pilgrims. Its leaders had expected to join a great Byzantine army under the emperor himself, who had been writing not only to the pope but also to western magnates like themselves, proposing that Jerusalem be restored to Christian control. Now, concluding that he had no intention of committing himself to such an adventure, they decided to break out on their own and to march for Jerusalem 1,200 miles away, at the height of summer and across alien territory which for over a third of the distance had been ravaged by nomadic Turks.

They could not have known that they were approaching a half open door. The recent deaths of the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir, who had ruled Egypt for fifty-eight years, and his vizier, Badr al-Jamali, and of the 'Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadi, together with the Selchük Sultan Malikshah and his long-serving and powerful vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, had gravely weakened the two chief Muslim powers in the region. The Selchük sultanate, which stretched from Asia Minor to Iran, had disintegrated into principalities over which pretenders and members of the ruling family fought each other for control.

But the opposition the crusade faced was still potent and the deficiencies in the Christian army shambling to the East were apparent. Drawn from all over western Europe, it had no easy means of communication, because, even though most of the leaders came from what is now France, men from the north and from Languedoc could not understand one another. There was no commander-in-chief and the enterprise was run by a committee of the greater lords, who found it hard to agree on anything. Each of them had authority only over his household, and possibly his closer relations, because most arms-bearers, who were free-agents, drifted here and there, attaching themselves to anyone who could assure them and their little bands of followers of food and security.

The march would have been difficult in the best of conditions, which these were not. There was no system of provisioning and for long periods the crusaders were far from potential supply points. Most of their time was taken up in foraging. They had to fight most of their battles on foot, because they lost nearly all their horses and, even more seriously, their pack animals, so that they had to carry their baggage themselves. Research on the death rate among them suggests that for the knights it was in the region of 36 percent. Mortality must have been far higher among the poor.

The decision in late June 1097 to press on regardless of any assistance from the Byzantine Greeks was not the only gamble the leaders took. Nearly two years later, in May 1099, having progressed slowly with a strategy, such as it was, dominated by a determination to reduce methodically the stronger points down the Syrian coast, they suddenly decided to ignore the cities that stood in their path and make a dash for Jerusalem. Negotiations with the Egypt, which they knew was preparing a formidable army, had broken down and they wanted to reach their goal before it could be relieved. They covered the last 170 miles in little more than three weeks and whereas the city of Antioch in northern Syria had been besieged for eight months and then taken only through treachery, Jerusalem was stormed after only five weeks; indeed the first evidence we have for westerners knowing how to deploy a wide range of technologically advanced siege weaponry is to be found in the accounts of the assault on it.

It was conventional wisdom that the investment of strong points should be avoided if armies of relief were in the wings, because any force settled into a siege was handicapped by its posture. The crusaders paid no attention to this doctrine. They beat off three such armies and they took on two others that arrived on the scene just after cities had been successfully taken. They were not fools. They knew how weak they were and what risks they took. It is not surprising that they attributed their triumph to divine assistance or that their achievement enthralled their contemporaries and was venerated as a model of heroism and endurance for many centuries to some.

* * * *
My interest in the crusade led me to write two research books on it. The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading was the first of them. I had come to the topic by an indirect route. In the 1970s I had discovered—rather late in the day—the writings of the militants of the South American Liberation movement and they had sparked an interest in the history of theories of Christian violence. I had planned to write a full account of the Christian theology of force and I had embarked on a serious reading of the scattered writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, the greatest of the early theorists.
By 1980 I was beginning to quail at the amount of ground I still had to cover and I started to focus on a much less ambitious project, a study of theory with reference to the First Crusade. This was mostly because I had persuaded myself that the crusade was the pivot around which the history of Christian war-theories turned. I became convinced that the ideas preached by Pope Urban II in 1095-6 were inchoate and that crusade theory would not have developed as it did were it not for the experiences on the march of the participants, whom I tried to treat as sympathetically as I could, and for the way these experiences were written up in theological terms by three accomplished monastic authors a decade later.

Becoming closely involved in the course of the expedition I found myself imagining what the crusaders had gone through. I had already begun to look at some of the charter-material, although I had no idea how much it there would prove to be. I wanted to ask whether light could be thrown on the reasons why men and women had been prepared to engage in something so severe and unpleasant. The second book was therefore complementary. It treated motivation rather than ideas and concentrated on the departure and return of the crusaders rather than on the campaign.

The books were published eleven years apart and straddled the nine-hundredth anniversary of the preaching of the crusade. This was commemorated in 1995 with conferences in England, Spain and France, where two ran concurrently at Clermont-Ferrand, organized by the Conseil Régional d'Auvergne and the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East. There was rumoured to be a third in the town at the same time, dedicated to a critique of bigotry and religious zealotry and convened by the local free-thinkers. At any rate, interest in the crusade was rekindled and publishers began to commission new general histories of the crusading movement. I do not think, however, that anything has appeared to modify my basic arguments, although I am now certain that Pope Urban's original message was more radical than I supposed, because I have become convinced that the most important element in it was the call to war as a penance.

* * * *

The books are best known—and controversial—for their empathetic treatment of the crusaders. They represent an approach which, as far as I am concerned, was first introduced forty years ago by Jean Richard in a preface to a little book of translated texts, in which he discussed briefly the themes of charity and penitence which have so absorbed me since. Other recent examples of this way of considering early crusading are books written by Marcus Bull and William Purkis, and Professor Bull, in an article which is greatly admired by many young historians, has eloquently described what he has been trying to do. This historical approach involves taking seriously the ways the crusaders and their contemporaries wrote about themselves and about others, in relation to the world in which they lived, bearing in mind not only obvious factors, but also many other, much more intangible, ones, which made up the "the mental spaces that people . . . themselves inhabited," in the words of Marcus Bull. These include memory and memorialization, and what Bull has called "the underlying assumptions and instincts which up to then may not have found any dedicated outlet but could now assume a central importance."

The approach has been described as one that starts with the premise that motivation was 'primarily spiritual.' This is an oversimplification. The forces moving many people were an amalgam of beliefs, senses, emotions, prejudices and predispositions that were rooted in society as well as in religion. A starting point for those of us trying to get into the heads of the crusaders is the near absence of evidence for the profit motive among them and their families, and the large number of references which confirm the importance of ideas, in the broadest sense, to their recruitment. Of course evidence rarely gives the whole picture and nearly all the material at our disposal, whether from narrative sources or from hagiographical texts or from charters, relates to the arms-bearing, landowning classes. We know next to nothing about the motivation of the poor. But we can only work on the basis of the evidence that is available to us, however imperfect it may be.

Sometimes one can become too focused on the details. The need to look beyond particular incidents has been graphically illustrated for me by a challenge to my explanation of the pogroms associated with the first wave of crusaders leaving for the East. My arguments that the crusade was a form of vendetta and that notions of vengeance for the crucifixion contributed to the persecution of the European Jews, although justified by the evidence, are not sufficient, because Susanna Throop has convincingly questioned my conclusion that such feelings peaked with the First Crusade and declined thereafter. She has shown that on the contrary vengeance was a fairly restrained theme in First Crusade sources and that it that grew dramatically as the twelfth century progressed.

It looks now as though notions of vengeance played a relatively minor part and it seems that they should be given not much more prominence than millenarianism; it is noticeable that in spite of the interest in eschatology manifested in the years leading up to 2,000, nothing new was discovered in relation to the crusade. A difference, of course, between vengeance and millenarianism is that the former had a future in crusade thinking, whereas the latter did not.

* * * *

Norman Housley has drawn attention to the way socioeconomic and economic factors have become less significant to historians than religious ones in the treatment of motivation, which he prefers to call "intention." Materialist explanations, which were so influential fifty years ago, are less in evidence. They have played, in fact, an odd role in crusade historiography. It was Liberal economic historians, not Marxists, who in the 1920s and 1930s began to interpret the crusades, stripped of their ethic, in social and economic terms. They believed that crusading was an early example of colonialism and assumed that such a powerful movement could only have been generated by economic forces. They do not seem to have understood that they were adopting unquestioningly the point of view of those nineteenth-century imperialists who had looked back on the crusaders as their precursors. Specialists on the subject had played no part in the development of the materialist interpretation and no one had even half-proved it by research. It seems to have gained currency among crusade historians only in the 1950s, when in the vanguard were the Israelis, particularly the best-known of them, Joshua Prawer, for whom the portrayal of the crusaders as forerunners of colonialism accorded with a Zionist reading of the history of the Promised Land since the diaspora.
In the absence of serious research, the arguments that the prime causes for the First Crusade were economic and that the chief motivating force was a desire for profit, or at least for an escape from dire financial circumstances at home, rested on sand. This may account for the way critics of empathy have expressed their opinions in private and rarely in print, and for the fact that when counter-statements have occasionally surfaced they have tended to be asserted without engagement in debate. It is only now that a serious interpretation of the First Crusade in the context of Historical Materialism has appeared. Conor Kostick divides the crusaders into the two classes of nobiles and pauperes and he analyzes the actions and inter-reactions of these classes in an attempt to show how they determined the course of events. He engages with real passion in a critique of what he calls 'the "act of love" contention'. I may well be the wrong person to give an objective judgment, but it seems to me that there are obvious limitations in an approach, which involves bundling up heterogeneous groups of men and women into two classes, and that Dr. Kostick cannot escape the perennial problem, which I have already identified, of lack of evidence.
* * * *
There is consensus that the First Crusade really marked the start of the crusading movement. If it had failed there would never have been another, because senior and influential churchmen in western Europe would have come out of the shadows to condemn the idea of penitential warfare of this sort. Its success transformed it from the foolhardy enterprise it must have seemed to many contemporaries to an example of divine intervention. Later crusades were often very unsuccessful, but the memories of that original triumph and the lessons perceived to have been learned from it became embedded in Catholic tradition.
On the other hand, it is hard to provide the crusading movement with a terminal date. It now looks old-fashioned and blinkered to concentrate on the central middle ages and ignore the centuries of intense activity that followed 1300. It is quite common for historians to end crusading in the late sixteenth century and some have argued for a terminal date of 1798, when Malta, the last active military-order-state, fell to Napoleon. It is becoming clear, however, that crusade ideas were not entirely dormant in the nineteenth century. The air was filled with clouds of pseudo-crusading rhetoric, particularly in relation to imperialist adventures which had nothing at all to do with the original reality. There was some paracrusading activity, containing elements of the old movement, although chosen selectively and distorted. And there was at least one authentic expression of crusading, the foundation by Cardinal Lavigerie in 1890 of a true military order, L'Institut Religieux et Militaire des Frères Armés du Sahara. The Institut was anachronistic and did not last long, but its existence demonstrates that the wash generated by the First Crusade could still be felt almost within living memory.