The medieval crusades are a series of religiously motivated military activities that took place mainly between 1095 – 1291BC, in an attempt for authority in the middle east to be restored to the Catholic Church and the papacy. The first crusade is widely agreed to have been initiated on the 27th November 1095 following Pope Urban II’s speech at Clermont, and although continuing in some capacity up until the late 16th century crusading momentum was lost by the end of 1291.
Historians broadly agree that at the core of the crusades the desire was to access the shrines associated with the life and ministry of Jesus, and above all retain access to the church in Jerusalem reported to contain the body of Christ. John Phillips notes in “The Crusades, 1095 – 1197” (2008) how the first crusade was propagated by Urban as an armed pilgrimage, with absolution from sin and eternal glory being promised to those who accepted the call – with many hoping to expand there own individual wealth and influence in addition. The popularity of the crusades was undoubtable, with the first crusade reporting numbers of between 60,000 – 100,000 embarking on the journey. Numbers unprecedented by Pope Urban himself. Its success – the recapture of Jerusalem in 1099 can be perceived as the catalyst for further crusades throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, with later generations determined to seek there fortune in the holy land in addition to the salvation archived by their forefathers.
The widely accepted view taken by historians, and supported by contemporary sources from the time such as the Gesta Francorum (1101), is that religion is the primary reason people chose to embark on crusades throughout the 12th – 13th centuries, without Papal authorisation, first issued by Pope Urban at Clermont in addition to the promise of crusader privileges and indulgence, the catholic core of medieval Europe would not have embarked on the crusades. The argument for religion as the primary motivator is challenged by historians such as A Latham in his paper “Theorising the Crusades: Identity, Institutions, and Religious War in Medieval Latin Christendom”(1996), who argues that whilst religion was the primary motivator for the fist crusade, as the crusading developed it evolved beyond its religious roots becoming nothing more than a “timeless pursuit of power by self interested actors seeking a share of the spoils”, using the examples of the sack of Constantinople to argue that needless violence was exercised due to the protection given by crusader privileges however as I will argue in this paper, the reasons people chose to crusade remained firmly rooted in religion, the desire for an expansion of wealth and power only ever came second when placed next to the motivator of eternal salvation promised upon the compilation of crusader vows.
For those choosing to embark on crusade throughout the 11th – 13th century, religion was undoubtably a dominating factor influencing their decision. The catholic religion dominated early medieval Europe, christianity was the universally accepted religion and its doctrine impinged on all aspects of life(Powell J, ). Phillips notes in his book “The Crusades. 1095 – 1197” how Pope Urban II constructed the idea of crusading within the existing religious doctrine (Phiilips J, 2008) so that the connection between salvation and war made rational sense to those wishing to embark on crusade. One of the key promise made by Pope Urban in his speech at Clermont was his promise of “Remission of sins will be granted for those going thither” (Fulcher of Chartes, 1941; pp.15). Urban II built on the catholic idea that Sin could be cancelled out by activities such as confession, prayer and pilgrimage, propagating the crusading movement as an armed pilgrimage to the holy land where they could embark on a righteous struggle to purge their souls of sin by embarking on “salvation through slaughter” (Baldwin M, ), many crusaders strongly believed that there crusade actions where meshed with spiritual concerns. The they where to be pilgrims doing gods work, Milites Christi. This notion of spiritual concerns being key factors as to why people chose to crusade, is supported by Robert II, Count of Flanders, in addition to other charters written by the gentry of medieval Europe, who on return from the first crusade wrote how he had felt compelled “To liberate Gods church…..By divine instigation” Without justification being found within the catholic doctrine it would have been highly unlikely that many would have endeavoured to join the crusader movement, the church preached that sinful warfare led to damnation, and fear of eternal suffering would have caused many to ignore the call. In the book “The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land” (2012) Asbridge argues that it was “devotion that inspired europe to crusade” (Asbridge T, 2012) many who joined the crusader movement did so under the belief that christianity was under threat from an expansionist muslim empire. An empire which had taken control of Jerusalem and had forced many eastern christians into slavery. in his speech at Clermont, Urban II referred to the muslim people as “alien to god”, the Crusader Ideology (Acuto M, 2010) presented the Muslims of the middle east as savage and barbaric people that had been placed on the earth as a punishment for the sin of the christian people. Again this leads into the belief held by many that by embarking on crusade they where purging their souls of sin, Tyerman writes how many embarked to the Holy land believing that the “Crown of Martyrdom” would reward their sacrifice as their battle was against an unjust and alien oppressor.
Historians argue that whilst the primary motive for many choosing to crusade may have been religion, many got side tracked by their individual greed and lust for power. Fischer writes in his article “Feudal Europe, 800-1300: Communal Discourse and Conflictual Practice” as the crusades progressed “Campaigns to the Holy land became little more than a timeless pursuit of power by self interested actors seeking a share of the spoils” (Fischer M, 1992) this claim is supported by needless exercises of power by crusaders throughout the 11th – 13th century, the slaughter of fellow Christians in Constantinople, or the needless sack of Edressa during the first crusade (Phiilips J, 2008). A city not on the route to Jerusalem which was not home to any religious cites. Examples such as these have led many to claim that the crusader vows where taken advantage of by many in order to justify personal gain and allowed for the expression of the very worst in human nature. In support of this France writes in “The Crusades and The Expansion of Catholic Christendom, 1000-1714” that the desire to retake the holy land in the name of Christendom was balanced out equally by participants with a desire for expansion of wealth and land (France J, ) – western europeans had always held a strong desire for the wealth and luxuries of the east and perceived the crusades to be the perfect opportunity to capitalise upon them, Urban did little to prevent those with purely self serving motives from going on the first crusade, despite being clearly aware that the expedition embodied more than the simple religious appeal to many. Furthermore Latham argues the point in his paper “Theorising the Crusades: Identity, Institutions, and Religious War in Medieval Latin Christendom” that the success of the first crusade and the recapture of Jerusalem exposed the European clergy to the riches that could be found in the middle east (Latham A, ), noting how whilst there where no monarchs involved in the first crusade they took direct authority over the second, third and fourth crusade (Latham A, ) – from this it can be interpreted that the rulers of medieval Europe did not perceive a crusade to the middle east to be justifiable purely on the jurisdiction of religion alone, however upon hearing of the riches and wealth that could be achieved in making the expedition east perceived It as a profitable venture in order to expand their own individual wealth and power.
Furthermore when trying to denote the motives behind why many chose to crusade many contemporary sources tend to focus predominantly on the gentry and clergy of medieval europe, the majority of those who went on crusade rarely speak to us, it is only the leaders who we know a great deal about
In conclusion, the primary motive behind why many chose to embark on the crusades was under the belief of religion, and want to restore access to the religious cites of the Holy land to the catholic church, the eternal salvation promised to all those who fulfilled their crusader vows was an attractive prospect for any member of medieval European society, and Without the insurance provided by the crusader vows the crusades would not have received the unprecedented levels of support they did. However what also cannot be denied is that the desire to increase individual wealth and a lust for power also played a pivotal role in why many took the crusader vows and travelled to the middle east. The catholic church did little to dismay those with self serving motives as they understood it would boost there numbers, giving the cause further legitimacy