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The Significance Of The Papal Response To Alexius Comnenus In The Years 1095-1120

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To understand how the papacy was able to persuade thousands upon thousands of nobility and peasantry alike to unite under one cause and venture east towards Jerusalem, one must be aware of the political environment of 11th and 12th century Europe in regard to the papacy. The range and influence of Islamist forces was rapidly increasing, and the strength of the Byzantine Empire was declining. The Byzantines acted as a buffer against the Islamist threat and Pope Urban knew that the fall of Constantinople would result in Christian Europe being open to invasion from the Seljuk Turk advancing from the East. Furthermore, the Pope was politically at odds with Henry IV, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Urbans predecessor Pope Gregory VII had been dragged into a war against Henry IV and had even been exiled from Rome (under Imperialist control) with an anti-pope established there in his place. This exile continued under Urban’s pontificate and consequently Urban was constantly facing opposition from the leading forces of Europe. It is possible Urban used his response to Comnenus’s plea as an opportunity to demonstrate his papal authority to Henry IV and also to redirect the attention of Holy Roman forces from the pope and instead towards retaking Jerusalem. Lastly, roughly 40 years prior to Urban’s call to arms, the Greek Orthodox Church had severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church. It is a logical assumption that Urban utilised Alexius Comnenus’s appeal to attempt subjugate the Greek Orthodox Church under the control of the Catholic Church. All of these political conundrums facing Urban could all be rectified by a successful campaign in the east so with this context I hope it is clear why Urban was so dogmatic in rallying support for the First Crusade.

In March 1095, while ‘presiding over an ecclesiastical council’ in Northern Italy, ambassadors for the Byzantine Empire approached Urban with an appeal from Alexius Comnenus, the Byzantine Emperor from 1081 to 1118. Comnenus, fearful of marauding Turks who were threatening the city of Constantinople, the last major city of Christendom in the East, appealed to the West and Pope Urban II for military aid. Comnenus, by all accounts a competent and wise ruler, had managed to restore Byzantine influence in that region but constant attacks from the Turks from Asia Minor were becoming costly. The Byzantine Emperor probably hoped for a small band of well-trained Frankish mercenaries who he could control to be dispatched to the Middle East, instead flocks of Christians arrived intent on reclaiming the Holy Land and achieving salvation. Within this call for aid Pope Urban saw an opportunity to not only ‘defend Eastern Christendom and improve relations with the Greek Church’ but also to increase Urban’s and his papacy’s political influence and to, as Asbridge states ‘harness and redirect the destructive bellicosity of Christians living in the Latin West’. Following this realisation, Urban set about attracting the necessary support for what would later be called the First Crusade.

In this essay, I shall attempt to explain why I feel the response of the papacy to Comnenus’s appeal was significant. In this context, the term ‘significant’ refers to whether the papal response had a causal relationship with the numbers (support) seen during the First Crusade and the level of participation from the noble class and simply whether, without the response from the papacy, the crusade would have been successful (i.e. seizing the city of Jerusalem) without Urbans’s restless campaigning. To do this, I will consistently refer to three core texts throughout this essay. My first core text, The Crusades: A Short History by Jonathan Riley-Smith argues that the papacy’s response led by Pope Urban II was significant for it ‘spearheaded the intense evangelisation of the faithful, out of which came the conviction that the very aggressiveness that had broken up society could be put to good use’ thus kickstarting the Crusade. Riley-Smith, however, has doubts regarding the effectiveness of Urban’s call to arms with a fraction of Europe’s wealthy elite (i.e. Knights) actually departing to the Middle East. My second core text, Thomas Asbridge’s: The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land argues that the papacy was significant in providing the necessary spark for the crusading movement through their explicit dehumanisation of Islam. Finally, Steven Runciman, in A History of The Crusades I: The First Crusade emphasises that it was Urban’s canny appointment of competent leaders such as Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy that was pivotal in the response to the Byzantine Emperor’s appeal.

Condemnation of Islam and appointment of leadership

This tour began with the Council of Clermont, France, in 1095. This council, attended by ‘some three hundred clerics were present’ including twelve archbishops, roughly 80 bishops and 90 abbots and covered a wide array of topics, including the extension of Philip I of France’s excommunication. Towards the end of the meeting, Urban conducted a speech calling upon the Latin West to take up arms and venture East. Urban spoke of two goals: providing support for the Byzantine Empire urging his audience ‘to run as quickly as you can to the aid of your Christian brothers on the eastern shore’. But aiding the defence of Constantinople wasn’t all Urban had in mind and in a ‘visionary masterstroke…one guaranteed to stir Frankish hearts…he unveiled an expedition that would forge a path to the Holy Land itself, there to win back possession of Jerusalem’ Jerusalem, as Urban described, was ‘the navel of the world…in which Christ lived and suffered’. Here Urban had a problem and it is here he first displayed his papacy’s significance in regard to the response to Comnenus’s plea, Urban had to turn an apparently pacifist religion into warrior pilgrims capable of defeating the Turks. ‘With no single atrocity or immediate threat to draw upon’, Urban demonised the enemy in order to fire up the would-be crusaders. Muslims were therefore described as ‘subhuman savages, bent upon the barbaric abuse of Christendom’ who were ‘laying waste to the kingdom of God’, enslaving Christians by ‘sword, rapine and flame’ and unfairly taxing wealthy Christians whilst simultaneously torturing the poor. Of the manner the Muslims treated women, Urban refused to comment reportedly stating it would be ‘more evil to speak than to keep silent. It is through this explicit dehumanisation of Islam that Urban procured the necessary catalyst for the Crusading movement.

This movement, however, needed a leader and here, as the historian Steven Runciman argues, Urban again highlighted his significance. Urban appointed the Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy as his representative for the first Crusade. Adhemar was from nearly all accounts one of the most important members of the First Crusade as Runciman states: ‘He commanded respect as the Pope’s representative, and his own character won him the affection of the whole army. He was charitable and cared for the poor and the sick. He was modest and never aggressive; but he was always ready to give wise advice, even on military matters; as a general he was both courageous and shrewd’. Many victories against the Seljuk Turks have been attributed to Bishop Le Puy’s competency such as the victory at Dorylaeum and the infamous siege of Antioch. As representative of the papacy on the First Crusade his significance in regard to the success of this expedition cannot be understated. Urban also managed to recruit a number of notable lords, including Count Raymond of Toulouse (‘southern France’s richest and most powerful secular lord) and Tancred of Hauteville. The Pope achieved this through the remission of sin (vital to the aristocracy) and manipulating Just War theory.

Remission of sin through utilisation of Just War doctrine and Indulgences

I have already discussed how the papacy’s demonisation of Islam provided the necessary flames of retribution to kickstart the expedition eastwards but now the papacy had to overcome the issue of fully weaponising the followers of a supposedly pacifist religion. To do this, Urban and his aides utilised the Augustinian principle of ‘Just War’. Asbridge highlights the three criteria of a just war: ‘proclamation by a ‘legitimate authority’, such as a king or bishop, a ‘just cause’, like defence against enemy attack or the recovery of lost territory, and prosecution with ‘right intention, that is, with the least possible violence’. Urban worked off this principle but tweaked it slightly by proposing the Crusades would be just because the crusades would be directed against an infidel enemy in the Muslims, not because it was to be executed with moderation. This was immensely significant as it meant western Christians could now embark on the Holy Land with supposedly clear conscience and fulfil the papacy’s aforementioned goals.

Jonathan Riley-Smith believes that the papacy’s significance was also demonstrated by how they managed to make the long, arduous trek to Jerusalem attractive to Christians in the West. Urban did this by the granting of indulgences in exchange for travelling to the Holy Land. As Riley-Smith explains, this was the idea that penances (‘self-imposed punishments for sin’) could ‘outweigh the punishments God would impose in this world or in the after-life for sin’. In regard to the Crusade, Urban made clear towards the end of his speech at Clermont that ‘the crusade would be so arduous and unpleasant that it would make good all penance owed to God by individual sinners’. To understand why this move by the Catholic Church was so significant, one must imagine the experiences of many in the 11th and 12th centuries. As Runciman states ‘life for a peasant in north-western Europe was grim and insecure. Much land had gone out of circulation during the barbarian invasions…Dykes had been broken, and the seas and rivers had encroached onto the fields’. This, coupled with poor harvests, resulted in thousands starving, not helped by a rapidly increasing population. Furthermore, ‘a village unprotected by a lord’s castle was liable to be robbed or burnt by outlaws or by soldiers fighting petty civil wars. These issues were touched upon by Urban at Clermont when he is reported to have said ‘In this land, you can scarcely feed the inhabitants. That is why you use up its goods and excite endless wars amongst yourself’. Thus, for many people emigration seemed very attractive and this was enhanced by the prospect of an afterlife free from all these woes. This yearning for salvation was made worse by the constant reminder from the Church of the extreme anguish awaiting you in hell if you were a sinner.

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This moral conundrum was arguably amplified for the upper-class nobility for all knights were in daily contact with sins such as violence and the pursuit of monetary gain yet were still expected to remain spiritually pure. Knights were therefore doomed, their secular obligations made sin unavoidable but were constantly warned about the repercussions of such sin (i.e. eternal damnation/torture). Thus, Urban’s proclamation (via the granting of indulgences) of the crusade serving as adequate penitence the made the crusade almost irresistible. For many knights their response to the Church and ultimately Comnenus’s original appeal was electric. One case of the Knight Tancred of Hauteville has even been recorded by Ralph of Caen; ‘After the judgement of Pope Urban granted remission of all their sins to the Christians going out to fight the Gentiles [non-Christians], then at last, as if previously, [Tancred’s] vigour was aroused, his powers grew, his eyes opened, his courage was born. For before…his mind was divided, uncertain whether to follow in the footsteps of the Gospel or the world’. Urban had essentially provided a new route to the kingdom of heaven and the crusading forces now had the military skill to face the Seljuk Turks and provide support for the struggling Byzantine forces, and also the religious zeal to eventually reclaim Jerusalem. As many scholars have noted, ‘on the road to Jerusalem the First Crusaders…most powerful weapon was a shared sense of purpose and an indestructible spiritual resolution’ – in other words united by their hatred of Islam and their new-found path to salvation, the Crusaders were at last a formidable force and this was largely thanks to the papacy’s response and handling of Comnenus’s appeal.

On the other hand, it should be acknowledged that the papacy’s response wasn’t exactly radical in nature and many of its elements can be found in the practice of the various popes prior to Urban II (e.g. Pope Gregory VII had already dabbled in the concept of ‘just war’). In addition, as Riley-Smith states; ‘many western Europeans did not respond at all to the Pope’s summons’. This is made clear by the small proportion of knights who actually heeded the call and travelled to Jerusalem. For example, within the noble class only half of the 13000 respondents to Urban’s appeal had departed. When you consider, according to Riley-Smith, England had circa 5000 knights and France and its various colonies had over 50000, it is clear a mere fraction of the noble class heeded Urban’s message and set forth thus suggesting the insignificance of the papacy’s response to Emperor Comnenus’s initial plea for aid. Next, one could also argue that those who did depart to the Holy Land were not prompted to do so by religious duty. Riley-Smith states that within 11th century ‘systems of inheritance and marriage practices were being put under severe pressure’. This prompts the argument that the papacy’s response was irrelevant and that the eventual crusade was a solely colonial enterprise with the crusader’s intent on both territorial and monetary gain.

This argument, however, faces scrutiny when basic logic is adopted. For instance, Riley-Smith states how it is unlikely the Crusaders, of at least the first wave in 1096, were ‘motivated by crude materialism’. Riley-Smith’s reasoning is that travelling 2000 miles for a small chance of material gain in the East was a ‘stupid gamble’. Instead it is far more likely that these crusaders were genuinely swayed by the papacy’s call to arms and ventured forth East out of simple Idealism and a want to rid the Holy Land of whom they deemed to be invasive un-believers. Also, regarding not all knights joining the Crusade, many Knights came from areas Urban personally visited, suggesting a relationship between his preaching and noble support. What is more, although it is difficult to judge the precise numbers, Riley-Smith estimates ‘136,000, of which less than 10 per cent would have been knights’ departed to the Middle East’ – a very substantial number for that period of time. This all suggests Urbans preaching was highly effective. These members of the knightly aristocracy left for Jerusalem after the People’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit (a failure) and with them came their cavalry, archers and thousands of foot-soldiers. It was these well-trained soldiers which proved decisive in making the First Crusade a relative success and Urban was pivotal in bringing them on board.

Ties with Greek Orthodox Church

Another key point of initiating the First Crusade was increasing influence in the East, as the Greek Orthodox Church – who were at that time separate from the Catholic Church and its authority – were the dominant Christian force in that region. There was definite tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church with the Greek Church having split from the Latin Church in 1054. The two subdivisions of Christianity disagreed over many facets of the faith, most notably the supposed supremacy of the Roman Pope. Initially Adhemar of Le Puy (Urban’s chosen representative) was ‘determined to cooperate with the eastern Christians, as his master, Pope Urban, undoubtedly wished, and he saw the danger of offending Byzantium’. Thus, Le Puy, under instruction from Urban, threatened the Greek Orthodox Church with a respect that, Runciman argues, ‘belies the theory that the Pope envisaged the Crusade as a means for bringing them under his control’. Runciman acknowledges that relations rapidly deteriorated but feels this was not intentional. Riley-Smith, however, argues that the papacy saw an opportunity to regain authority in the Middle East. To do this, wherever a territory had been claimed by the Crusaders (such as Ramle in Palestine in 1099 by Raymond of St Gilles) this settlement was ‘accompanied by the foundation of a Catholic bishopric’ which essentially acted as a command post. This policy was soon changed fairly drastically for as Riley-Smith states ‘the toleration of existing Orthodox bishops had begun to break down. At Christmas 1099 the Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem, Daimbert, consecrated Catholic archbishops of Tarsus…and a Catholic bishop of Artah’. These locations had large native Christian populations which implies these new appointments replaced pre-existing Orthodox positions. Riley-Smith argues that this political move was almost certainly done so ‘by virtue of his legation from the pope’. Many of these towns and cities also had strategic worth, Tarsus and Misis ‘commanded the roads in and out of Cilicia’ (now southern Turkey) for example. Furthermore, Riley-Smith states ‘it is clear that the setting up of lines of Catholic bishops in place of existing ones was a response to military and political pressure from the Byzantine government’. Thus, the papal response was significant because it allowed for the increase of influence of the Catholic Church in the Middle East via the gradual erosion of Orthodox authority which in turn boosted the Crusading forces military dominance in those regions.

Evaluating my Core Texts

Both Jonathan Riley-Smith and Steven Runciman agree that the papacy’s use of noble support was pivotal in making the First Crusade a relative success and I feel similarities such as this were because they were from similar eras (late 20th century). When evaluating Riley-Smith specifically, one should remember that to many he was ‘quite simply the leading historian of the Crusades [of his generation] anywhere in the world’, the fact he is so highly respected lends favourably to his credibility. Riley-Smith was a professor at various prestigious universities, including Cambridge and Royal Holloway, University of London. Consequently, Riley-Smith had access to a plethora of information regarding the Crusades meaning that his works, including my chosen core text, are full of a multitude of sources and data resulting in a holistic account of, in this instance, the papacy’s response to Emperor Comnenus. Riley-Smith was a convert to Catholicism so potentially biased in regard to matters spiritual (such as the policy on Just War) but I feel after reading The Crusades: A Short History that this criticism is void as Riley-Smith maintains a neutral, balanced tone throughout. Less can be said about his counterpart, Steven Runciman. Runciman was a self-confessed admirer of the Byzantine Empire and thus viewed the Crusaders with disdain believing them to be barbarians and believed the whole crusader cause to be ‘nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost’.

Consequently Runciman is viewed by some contemporary historians as biased. It should, however, be acknowledged but much of Runciman’s bias against the Crusaders is in regard to the Fourth Crusade, in which the Crusaders sacked Constantinople (Runciman described this as the greatest war crime in human history, bizarrely after the tragic events of World War Two). Thus, I feel, in relation to the question at hand, this potential bias does not occur in regard to the events of 1095 to 1120. In fact, Runciman often speaks favourably of the Crusaders especially characters such as Adhemar of Le Puy and Count Raymond. Another criticism of Runciman is that, according to Riley-Smith, Runciman considered himself “not a historian, but a writer of literature”. Therefore, my core text is arguably romanticised with some aspects exaggerated yet I feel, again, that this is false as Runciman often draws directly from sources such as that of Anna Comnenus (the Byzantine Emperor’s daughter) and his latter interpretation often is not all that radical and certainly not ‘literature’ or fiction. My last core text is from Thomas Asbridge who is much more modern than my other two selected authors (i.e. he is alive today) and a scholar at Queen Mary University of London. Asbridge emphasises the role of the papacy but acknowledges the Muslim perspective whom at first largely ignored the first crusaders, potentially implying the papacy’s rallying was not wholly effective. This is because Asbridge has a much more modern view of the Crusades – instead of viewing the Crusades as Christians reclaiming their rightful property, Asbridge acknowledges the invasive nature of these Frankish troops. A criticism shared by all three historians is that they are all Western males so are potentially biased or have a narrow scope. Riley-Smith in fairness acknowledged this shortcoming believing that our understanding of the Crusades would be transformed if more historians acknowledged Islamic accounts even going onto question how many Crusader historians bother to learn Arabic. Altogether, however, all three core texts agree with my view that the papacy’s response to Alexius Comnenus in the years 1095-1120 was significant for it was pivotal in gathering the numbers of Crusaders necessary to adequately aid the Byzantines and face the well drilled Muslim forces.

To conclude, I agree with the viewpoint that the Pope’s condemnation of Islam provided the first Crusaders with the necessary spirit to actually venture to the East and that the papacy’s promise of salvation only aided this. Data regarding the proportion of nobles actually departing, as made clear by Riley-Smith, must, however, be acknowledged. Furthermore, I feel that the papacy’s handling of the Greek Orthodox Church helped to, perhaps accidentally, increase the Crusader’s influence in whichever region(s) they conquered. I agree greatly with Runciman’s perspective regarding the significance of the papacy’s appointment of competent leadership such as Adhemar of Le Puy. This is because when you compare the success of the second wave of Crusaders (led by largely Frankish nobility and, of course, Bishop Le Puy) to the disastrous People’s Crusade of 1096 led by Peter the Hermit you realise their importance. This prelude to the First Crusade was decisively defeated by the Seljuk Turks a few months after departing and I feel that this was because this first wave acted independently from the papacy’s influence. In contrast, the second wave of organised, well-drilled soldiers led by experienced knights was successful in siezing many key cities and, of course Jerusalem in July 1099. The holy city was in Crusader control for 88 years which, when you consider its location, was a very successful culmination of the First Crusade. Two weeks after the taking of Jerusalem, and before the news could reach him, the chief architect of the First Crusade, Pope Urban II, died but his significance prior to this was monumental.


  1. Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land. Published in 2010 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.
  2. Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History. Published in 2004 by The Free Press.
  3. Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History. Published in 1987 by The Athlone Press.
  4. Steven Runciman, A History of The Crusades I: The First Crusades. First published by the Syndics of the Cambridge Press in 1951 and then by Penguin Classics in 2016.
  5. Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of The Crusades. Published in 2006 by the Penguin Group.
  6. Christopher Tyerman, How to plan a Crusade. Published in 2015 by Allen Lane.
  7. Andrew Jotischky, The Crusades. Published in 2015 by Oneworld Publications.
  8. Douglas James, Christians and the First Crusade. Published in History Review Issue 53 December 2005.
  9. John Haywood, The First Crusade Collapses. Published in History Today Volume 49, Issue 7 July 1999.
  10. Jonathan Phillips, The Crusades: A Complete History. Published in History Today Volume 65, Issue 5 May 2015

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