What were the motivating factors for crusaders, from the Pope to the humblest warrior?
By Mark Cartwright
The Crusades were a series of military campaigns organised by Christian powers in order to retake Jerusalem and the Holy Land back from Muslim control. There would be eight officially sanctioned crusades between 1095 CE and 1270 CE and many more unofficial ones. Each campaign met with varying successes and failures but, ultimately, the wider objective of keeping Jerusalem and the Holy Land in Christian hands failed. Nevertheless, the appeal of the crusading ideal continued right up to the 16th century CE, and the purpose of this article is to consider what were the motivating factors for crusaders, from the Pope to the humblest warrior, especially for the very first campaign which established a model to be followed thereafter.
Who Wanted What?
Why the Crusades happened at all is a complex question with multiple answers. As the historian J. Riley-Smith notes:
It cannot be stressed often enough that crusades were arduous, disorientating, frightening, dangerous, and expensive for participants, and the continuing enthusiasm for them displayed over the centuries is not easy to explain. (10)
An estimated 90,000 men, women, and children of all classes were persuaded by political and religious leaders to participate in the First Crusade (1095-1202 CE), and their various motivations, along with those of the political and religious leaders of the time, must each be examined to reach a satisfactory explanation. Although we can never know exactly the thoughts or motivation of individuals, the general reasons why the crusading ideal was promoted and acted upon can be summarised according to the following key leaders and social groups:
- The Byzantine Emperor – to regain lost territory and defeat a threatening rival state.
- The Pope – to strengthen the papacy in Italy and achieve ascendancy as head of the Christian church.
- Merchants – to monopolise important trading centres currently under Muslim control and earn money shipping crusaders to the Middle East.
- Knights – to defend Christianity (its believers and holy places), follow the principles of chivalry and gain material wealth in this life and special favour in the next one.
The Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire had long been in control of Jerusalem and other sites holy to Christians but, in the latter decades of the 11th century CE, they lost them dramatically to the Seljuks, a Turkish tribe of the steppe. The Seljuks, already having made several raids into Byzantine territory, shockingly defeated a Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert in ancient Armenia in August 1071 CE. They even captured the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071 CE), and although he was released for a massive ransom, the emperor also had to hand over the important cities of Edessa, Hieropolis, and Antioch. The defeat astonished Byzantium, and there followed a scramble for the throne which even Romanos’ return to Constantinople did not settle. It also meant that many of the Byzantine commanders in Asia Minor left their commands to stake their claim for the throne in Constantinople.
Meanwhile, the Seljuks took full advantage of this military neglect and, c. 1078 CE, created the Sultanate of Rum with their capital at Nicaea in Bithynia in northwest Asia Minor, which was captured from the Byzantines in 1081 CE. The Seljuks were even more ambitious, though, and by 1087 CE they controlled Jerusalem.
Several Byzantine emperors came and went but some stability was achieved during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118 CE), himself a veteran of Manzikert. Alexios could not stop the Seljuks though, and he had only himself to blame for his territorial losses as it was he who had weakened the military provinces (themes) in Asia Minor. Alexios had done this in fear of the rising power, and thus potential threat to himself, of the theme commanders. Instead, he had bolstered the garrisons of Constantinople. The emperor had also been doubtful of the loyalty of his Norman mercenaries, given the Norman control of Sicily and recent attacks in Byzantine Greece. Seeing the Seljuk control of Jerusalem as a means to tempt European leaders into action, Alexios appealed to the west in the spring of 1095 CE to help kick the Seljuks out of not just the Holy Land but also all those parts of the Byzantine Empire they had conquered. The sword of Christendom could prove a very useful weapon in preserving the crown of Byzantium.
Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099 CE) received Alexios’ appeal in 1095 CE, but it was not the first time the Byzantine emperor had asked and got papal help. In 1091 CE the pope had sent troops to help the Byzantines against the Pecheneg steppe nomads who were invading the northern Danube area of the empire. Urban II was again disposed to assistance four years later for various reasons. A crusade would increase the prestige of the papacy, as it led a combined western army, and consolidate its position in Italy itself, having experienced serious threats from the Holy Roman Emperors in the previous century which had even forced the popes to relocate away from Rome.
Urban II also hoped to reunite the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Christian churches, with himself at its head, above the Patriarch of Constantinople. The two churches had been split since 1054 CE over disagreements about doctrine and liturgical practices, particularly the papacy’s elevation of Jesus Christ to the same level of God in the idea of the Holy Trinity. The Crusades could be given wider appeal by playing on the threat of Islam to Christian territories and the Christians living there. Most important of all though was the loss of Christian control of the Holy Land with its unique sites of historical significance to Christianity, particularly the tomb of Jesus Christ, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. On top of that, Spain was a reminder of how precarious the Christian world’s situation really was. By 1085 CE half of Spain was back in Christian hands, and the Normans had wrested Sicily back to the Christian fold, but the Muslim threat in Europe remained a potent one, something Urban II could now remind people of. The appeal of Alexios I Komnenos had all sorts of political and religious advantages.
On 27 November 1095 CE, Urban II called for a crusade in a speech during the Council of Clermont, France. The message, known as the Indulgence and aimed specifically at knights, was loud and clear: those who defended Christendom would be embarking on a pilgrimage, all their sins would be washed away and their souls would reap untold rewards in the next life. In medieval Europe, Christianity permeated every aspect of daily life, pilgrimage was common, monasteries were full and the number of newly created saints booming. The idea of sin was especially prevalent and so Urban II’s promise of immunity from its consequences would have appealed to many. Crucially, too, the church could condone a campaign of violence because it was one of liberation (not attack) and it had a just and righteous aim.
Urban II embarked on a preaching tour in France during 1095-6 CE to recruit crusaders, where his message was spiced up with exaggerated tales of how, at that very moment, Christian monuments were being defiled and Christian believers persecuted and tortured with impunity. Embassies and letters were dispatched to all parts of Christendom. Major churches such as those at Limoges, Angers, and Tours acted as recruitment centres, as did many rural churches and especially the monasteries. Across Europe, warriors gathered throughout 1096 CE, ready to embark for Jerusalem.
Merchants, although not so involved in the First Crusade, certainly became more involved from 1200 CE as they wanted to open up trade routes with the East, even to control such prosperous trade centres as Antioch and Jerusalem. Further, merchants could make a handsome profit from ferrying crusaders across the Mediterranean. Indeed, from the Second Crusade (1147-1149 CE), lucrative contracts were drawn up beforehand to ship armies across to the Middle East. The Italian trading states of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, as well as Marseille in France, were particular rivals, and each was eager to gain a monopoly on east-west trade. It should be remembered, though, that these cities also provided plenty of religious zealots keen to fight for the Christian cause and not just make cash from it.
By the 11th century CE society in medieval Europe had become increasingly militarised. Central governments simply did not have the means to govern on the ground across every part of their territories. Those who did govern in practice at local level were large landowners, the barons who had castles and a force of knights to defend them. Knights, even kings and princes, too, joined the crusades for religious principles, a reward in the afterlife perhaps or the pure ideal that Christians and Christian sites must be protected from the infidel. It is important perhaps to note that there was only a very limited racial or religious hatred specifically against those who had usurped the Holy Land. Although the clergy certainly used the tools of propaganda available to them and delivered recruitment sermons across Europe, the fact that Muslims were virtually unknown to their audience meant that any demonisation had little value. Muslims were the enemy because they had taken Christian holy sites, not directly because they were Muslims. This important point is stressed by the historian M. Bull in the following terms:
Popular understanding of the crusades nowadays tends to think in terms of a great conflict between faiths fuelled by religious fanaticism. This perception is bound up with modern sensibilities about religious discrimination, and it also has resonances in reactions to current political conflicts in the Near East and elsewhere. But it is a perspective which, at least as far as the First Crusade is concerned, needs to be rejected. (Riley-Smith, 18)
For willing knights there was also the chance to win booty, lands, and perhaps even a title. Land might have to be sold and equipment was expensive, though, so there was certainly a major financial sacrifice to be made at the outset. Monasteries were on hand to arrange loans for this who struggled to meet the initial costs. There was, too, the idea of chivalry – that a knight should ‘do the right thing’ and protect not only the interests of their church and god but also those of the weak and oppressed. In the 11th century CE the code of chivalry was still in its infancy and so was more concerned with upholding a brotherhood of arms. Thus the relevance of chivalry as motivation to join the First Crusade is perhaps more to do with the importance of being seen to do what was expected of one by one’s peers, and only in later crusades would its moral aspects become more prominent and the message fuelled by songs and poems of daring crusader deeds.
Many knights, too, were simply obliged to join their baron or lord as part of the service they performed to earn a living. Technically, crusaders were volunteers but one can imagine that staying at home to tend the castle fireplace while one’s lord and benefactor rode off to the Middle East was not a practical option for knights in service. In addition, many knights followed their fathers or brothers as ties of kinship and mutual protection were strong. As the Crusades continued, traditions and expectations were established within families so that at least one member of each generation was expected to continue to fight for the cause.
Besides knights, the idea of a crusade had to appeal to ordinary foot soldiers, archers, squires, and all the non-combatants needed to support the cavalry units of knights when on campaign. That the ideal did appeal to ordinary folk, including women, is illustrated by such events as the people’s army led by the preacher Peter the Hermit which gathered and arrived in Constantinople in 1096 CE. The unruly army, sometimes referred to as the “People’s Crusade”, were promptly shipped by Alexios I Komnenos to Asia Minor, where, ignoring the Byzantine’s advice, they were ambushed and wiped out near Nicaea by a Seljuk army on 21 October 1096 CE.
Besides the prestige and honour of ‘taking up the cross’, so called because crusaders wore a badge on the shoulder on their tunic or cloak, there were some practical benefits for ordinary citizens, at least by the 13th century CE. These included a delay in feudal service, a court case might be speeded up before departure, an exemption from certain taxes and tolls, a postponement of the repayment of debts, and even a release from excommunication.
As the historian C. Tyerman points out in his God’s War, in many ways 1095 CE was the 1914 CE of the Middle Ages – a perfect storm of moral outrage, personal gain, institutionalised political and religious propaganda, peer pressure, societal expectations, and a thirst for adventure, which all combined to inspire people to leave their homes and embark on a perilous journey to a destination they knew nothing about and where they might meet glory and death or just death. The fervour did not dissipate either. If anything, the success of the First Crusade and the recapture of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099 CE only inspired more people to ‘take the cross’. The idea of crusading spread to such endeavours as liberating Spain from the Moors (the Reconquista) and attacking minority targets in Europe such as the Jews, pagans, and heretics (the Northern Crusades). Orders of knights were created to defend the territories gained in the Middle East, and taxes were continuously raised to fund the crusades which followed as Muslim and Christian armies enjoyed both successes and failures, constantly keeping cartographers busy for the next four centuries.
- Asbridge, T. The Crusades. (Ecco, 2011).
- Gregory, T.E. A History of Byzantium. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
- Mango, C. The Oxford History of Byzantium. (Oxford University Press, 2002).
- Phillips, J. The Crusades, 1095-1204. (Routledge, 2014).
- Riley-Smith, J. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. (Oxford University Press, 1995).
- Rosser, J.H. Historical Dictionary of Byzantium. (Scarecrow Press, 2001).
- Runciman, S. A History of the Crusades I. (Penguin Classics, 2018).
- Shepard, J. The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500-1492. (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
- Tyerman. C. God’s War. (Belknap Press, 2009).
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 07.04.2018, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.