Almost anyone these days with even a small background in history or religion has heard of the Crusades... and it goes without saying that many people hold strong views on the subject. But very few people really know more than a few basic facts: that the Catholic church started Crusades to remove heretics and 'Christianize' the Muslims, etc... What is clear is that without the idea and experiences that we now call the First Crusade, there would not have been any more of this particular brand of religious battle. The First Crusade is really a blend of religious fanaticism, political shrewdness and expediency, greed, desperation and human frailty.... and not simply a religious war. This post will cover some of the basics of the First Crusade and the people in power who created this difficult and deadly conflict. From the idea that Jesus himself led the Christian armies into battle and the reality that the majority of the deaths were actually caused by Christians against fellow Christians... this war is not a simple two dimensional vision.
The beginnings of this war actually started about twenty years before in the Eastern Roman empire. Over this period of time, groups of Turks moved into a part of the territory ruled by Byzantine Emperor Alexis. He eventually decided that he wanted to kick out the Islamic Turks, but Emperor Alexis didn't feel he had enough resources or soldiers to be successful in his attempt. It was also economically prudent for him to remove the Turks as the lands that had been taken over were rich in resources and potential military members. So Alexis decided that he would write the Pope/Bishop in Rome to try and get some help. His desire was based on an inappropriate assumption that the Pope or Bishop of Rome was a high ranking Byzantine official and so the emperor expected that what would happen was that this official would work to help raise some funds and hire some soldiers for him. Unfortunately for the world itself, this assumption was truly incorrect.
The true nature of the Roman Catholic Pope and his church was not really as simple as the idea of the Pope being a 'Byzantine official'. In reality, the Pope was truly an ambitious politician who was hopeful of building himself and his lands into a superpower. The last few 'Bishops' of Rome had worked to create huge and radical reforms for the position of 'Pope' giving themselves more political power. It was hoped by these churchmen to make one 'greater church' that would control and supervise all churches and other churchmen and all Christian souls on earth- a very ambitious goal indeed. Popes had begun to demand that Bishops should be free from pressure from secular leaders, but under the firm authority of the Pope... that men in armor were ultimately ruled by God... and therefore the Pope as God's representative on earth... and other very extreme demands. All of these demands were for the ultimate goal of making the Pope the true head of a state – the state of Christendom- and truly changed the nature of the papacy itself. This would also allow the Pope to have authority over all other secular leaders on earth who were Christian... which was quite a large swath of people. :)
The Pope at this time was Pope Urban II. When he got the letter that had been written by Emperor Alexis, Urban II used this letter as an excuse to create and raise his own army to conquer the 'heathen' East. What he meant by liberation wasn't 'liberation' in the sense that we think of that word. What the Pope meant was that the lands and people in the Holy Lands should be brought under the political, physical and spiritual control of the papacy.... which certainly isn't the same as 'liberation', is it. ;-) Pope Urban gave a speech on November 27, 1095 complaining about the Turks and their 'perceived' ill treatment of fellow Christians in the Holy Land- he might have stretched the truth quite a bit. But in the end, his speech could be summed up in one sentence- “God wills it!”
To be a Christian knight (then and now) was to live in a difficult quandary of the mind. A knight is a hired warrior- a man who is hired to kill other people and to do so at the whim of his sovereign, the man who pays his salary, etc... Sometimes they were admonished to kill every member of the enemy's family as well. As a job it was physically dangerous and emotionally and psychologically exhausting. However, being a believing Christian adds a whole other level of difficulty to this job. Jesus Christ, the savior and the first leader of the Catholic church, was very specific about killing... it was wrong, period. You were to turn your cheek to your enemies, love your enemies, be meek to enter the kingdom of God, not practice unrighteous dominion... to name a few of the savior's sayings. How a person was able to deal with this dichotomy was and still is a personal endeavor. Pope Urban solved that dilemma by stating that Jesus Christ only meant that you followed those creeds with other Christians... and that war against non Christians was not only OK, but it was holy, and necessary. The Pope's speech pretty much equated war with penance such as prayer and devotion … the sacraments that would save your soul. In essence, it was good to 'kill for God'. In fact, it was almost a 'get out of hell free' card. If you went out on this fight, then you were absolved of all your sins in this life and the next. No worries about purgatory for you. :)
The Crusade would never have been able to happen without the cooperation and volunteering of ordinary people and the 'warrior' aristocracy. One reason that people were so willing to do this was that the church had a power over people that they did not truly understand. People believed in an actual heaven and hell... and that these places were very close and simply a breath away. They believed that the Pope was God's mouthpiece on earth and so that when the Pope spoke, he was speaking God's commands... that the judgment day was coming, that hell was at hand.... and hey, lots of treasure to be gained from the infidels as well. Many hoped to gain positive eternal life in heaven, many wished for earthly treasures and wealth, as well as earthly status and fulfill earthly needs. The majority of the volunteers were peasants who didn't really have any stability or way to fulfill their basic daily needs so the idea of a Crusade gave them hope. The inspiration to do what 'God wills' was not a small motivation at all and the gift of a direct ticket to heaven must have been a very strong inducement. The pope didn't just raise the army that he had hoped for- he sparked a mass migration! (I need to state that there isn't a problem with the belief in heaven and hell and its literal existence... I believe in it myself actually.)
As people headed toward the Holy Land and Jerusalem, people looks for inspired leaders to follow. One leader of small note was the divinely inspired goose that led a group of people for a short period of time towards the goal. :) Another important leader was an eccentric tramp known as Peter the Tramp or 'Peter the Hermit'. Peter gathered almost 15,000 people to follow him to the Holy Land... some historians suggest that he may have given speeches which might have also caused the first crusade to happen. These groups traveled over four months towards Constantinople with no planning and preparation for the trip at all. The pilgrims would become thieves in their quest for food and needed supplies such as shoes and clothing; in fact, many were willing to fight the local people in the places they were traveling by for the goods the pilgrims felt they needed. These needs of the pilgrims could backfire... sometimes causing large amounts of casualties and riots... certainly not 'civilized' behavior. By the time Peter the Hermit showed up to the city of Constantinople, he arrived with around 60,000 people. The Emperor Alexis found this mass of people a 'headache' and he advised Peter the Tramp to not march on to Jerusalem until the Pope's real army arrived, but Peter insisted on continuing. When his group arrived on the shore towards their goal, the crusaders couldn't get in the city fortress and so a large group tortured and murdered and plundered the goods of the people of Nicea. Unfortunately for the goals of the crusaders, all the victims were Christian. Others in the group went on to try and conquer other cities with various levels of effectiveness until most of the members of these groups were massacres or sold as slaves by the conquering Turks. Peter the Hermit did a good job at unifying and inspiring people, but he did not have good planning and contributed to the failure and death of most of his followers. His group is also called by the name of the 'Peasant's Crusade.'
It should come as no surprise that the Pope's words condemning pagans could be construed as to condemning Jews as well and contributing to the entrenched anti-semitism in Europe. After all, it is true that the Jews were not part of the group that was currently accused of 'torturing' Christians... but they (the Jews) were the group that killed Jesus Christ. How could the pagans be any worse than the group that martyred the Savior? And to add to this unfortunate rationale, it must be noted that the Turks and the Holy Land was three thousand miles away... while Jews tended to be in all the villages in Europe so you didn't have to go very far to find them. All you had to do was wear a cross... So people who were unscrupulous and looking for easier targets closer to home began to slaughter local Jews and taking the 'spoils' from these heathens. This attitude caused massacres of whole Jewish communities- and the first pogrom during the First Crusade is sometimes called the first 'holocaust'. And it was in this way that anti-semitism was made almost a permanent institution in Europe. And any time a Crusade was called for in the future, pogroms would happen in Jewish communities. We can see that this 'disease' hasn't yet been eradicated as the massacres of Jews in the 1940's during WWII in the state of Germany and beyond their borders can testify to.
The Peasant's Crusade was an abysmal failure... not really sure there is another way to describe it. It was a great crowd led by Peter the Hermit and a few others. As mentioned above, almost no planning had been put into this project and was really very much almost an emotional movement. Most of the members of this 'movement' were peasants- they had no goods, hadn't been well fed at any recent time in their lives and almost all had never fought in any kind of battle before. Many of the members were women and children- certainly children were probably not the best soldiers. Thousands of people- as many as 60,000- traveled the thousands of miles to first reach Constantinople. Without supplies, they were forced to steal or beg the required provisions from towns and villages along the way... and this did not always happen peacefully or without difficulty. Upon finally getting to Constantinople, Emperor Alexis was fairly dismayed- at least not pleased- to see this army and after warning them about the Turks, he quickly helped the 'pilgrims' across the waterway and on their way toward Jerusalem. (It is known that he did warn Peter the Hermit that the 'group' should wait until the Pope's main fighting forces arrived to engage the enemy.) After crossing the waterway, some groups divided off ethnically from the larger total group and attacked nearby towns causing great death and devastation to the inhabitants of the towns (who appear to have been all Christians) or causing their own death and devastation by the Turks who offered them death.... or the opportunity to convert to Islam and live as a slave. (That was a bit of an irony.) Peter the Hermit no longer had much control as the groups divided and so they were easily divided and conquered. By the end of all of this, including a successful trick and ambush by the Turks, the peasant's crusade was over with very little loss of life on the part of the Muslims and near total annihilation of the Christian Crusade participants.... only a couple of thousand people lived to be able to share their story of the Peasant's Crusade.... one of whom was Peter the Hermit. I imagine Alexis breathed a sigh of relief in some ways.
It was the Pope's original intention to have Adehmar, bishop of Le Puy lead his 'army' in the crusades. The Pope's official forces were led by a few different individuals who were meant to combine their troops and work together. Hugh of France was the first to arrive at Constantinople with his army. Raymond, Count of Toulouse led almost 15,000 troops. Duke Godfrey of Lorraine came to Constantinople with around 20,000 foo soldiers and with most of his property sold and mortgaged to the church to pay for his 'ticket' to ride. Bohemond of Taranto led an Italian and Norman army with his nephew Tancred. Emperor Alexis was fairly pleased to see these armies, but also was intelligent enough to recognize that they came at a risk to his rule and also might not give him the land they conquered... if they managed to actually conquer it! So emperor Alexis would quickly move the arriving army across the waterway so that the armies wouldn't all be sitting in his city at one time- certainly a prudent move after some of the behavior from the earlier peasant groups. :) Alexis also had each of these leaders swear an oath to him that any land that the crusaders were able to conquer was his (Alexis) as well as an oath of allegiance. It must be said that the emperor still didn't trust them because after the crusaders had fought off all the defenders of the city of Nicaea, and were going to attack the next morning, Emperor Alexis came into the city through the nearby waterway and convinced the city's inhabitants to surrender to him. For these concessions, he would protect the city from the Crusaders- the city took the deal and the Crusaders themselves were angry and not pleased at this turn of events... (suggesting Alexis was right not to trust them.)
If nothing else is looked at about the Crusades but sheer numbers, it is clear to see that the power that the Catholic Church had over the inhabitants of most of Europe was HUGE! Look at the massive numbers of people who simply left and headed to the Holy Land in the Peasant's Crusade alone (60,000)... to the numbers that came with the 'official' army from the pope (60,000+). The First Crusade also opened up more information about the East to Europe and helped reopen some trade and knowledge that had been lost over time from the collapse of the Roman empire. Even with all the death and savagery of the crusaders with little gain, this 'war' was considered a success in Europe... setting the stage for more calls in the future for Crusades by future Popes.