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Defending the First Crusade Part 1

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

By Luke Lancaster

Many believe that the Crusades were brutal Christian attacks upon peaceful Muslims minding their own business. They think that Christians should look upon the Crusades with a sense of embarrassment and sorrow. Yet this is a false understanding of the Crusades, and it severely overlooks the historical context. Christian in the West went assist the Christians in the East, not to attack the Islamic homeland of Arabia, but to defend innocent Christians. The Crusades were a reaction to the constant offensive attacks of the Muslims, for Christians had lived in and controlled the Eastern Byzantine lands for centuries.

Why did the First Crusade get Called?

To understand why the First Crusade was called, one needs to understand the conquests by Islam. The religion of Islam was founded by Muhammed in the 7th century. He promised a heavenly brothel for those who followed his religion and who fought militarily to expand the dominion of Islam (called “jihad”). Islam subsequently gobbled up 2/3’s of the Christian world, taking over Christian lands in Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Asia Minor. Their objective: bringing the world under the dominion of Islam. They even reached into Western Europe, launching raids from Spain and collecting Christians as slaves. Particularly devastating to the Western Christians was when Islam conquered Sicily (Italy) in the 9th century, a land so close to home that it made modern-day Europe very uncomfortable.

Leading directly up to the Crusades, various actions by Islam ramped up the West. The Muslim Caliph Al-Hikim bi-Amr Allah almost destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the tomb of Jesus) in 1009 AD. The Muslims killed 12,000 German-Christian pilgrims in route to Jerusalem in 1065 AD. Islam conquered the central lands of the Eastern Byzantine Empire (a Christian nation), and defeated the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 AD. By 1078 AD, Muslims were dangerously close to Constantinople itself, the capital of Eastern Christendom. Islam seemed to be on the verge of taking over Constantinople and were closing in on the rest of the Western Christians. With Islam already launching offensives into the Western Christian European lands from Spain, the future of Christian Europe looked fragile. The time was ripe for the West to react militarily in what is known as the Crusades.

The First Crusade

The Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), sent emissaries to the West begging for help against the Muslims, and that was the spark which the West needed. Pope Urban II called a Crusade in 1095 AD by preaching at the Council of Clermont, and all over France for that matter, to save the Byzantine Christians. Pope Urban II rallied the Christian knights together by speaking of the crimes committed by the Muslims in the East, suggesting that it was time to do something to protect their innocent brothers and sisters. There was also a need to protect Christ’s sacred city of Jerusalem, the city of His death, burial, and Resurrection. So, the Pope called upon the lords to band together, help the Byzantines, and free the place where Christ was buried.

To give an incentive, Pope Urban II promulgated an indulgence to the trained knights of the West. It said, “Whoever from devotion alone and not for the purpose of gaining honors and wealth shall set out for the liberation of the church of God at Jerusalem, that journey will be reckoned in place of penance.” Thousands of Christian knights agreed, and chanted “Deus Vult,” meaning “God wills it.” The indulgence did not forgive sins, but rather replaced the penances due for previously forgiven sins. Sins required the sacrament of Confession to be forgiven, but penance was required after Confession, to show sorrow for one’s sins. The concept is similar to a child who gravely disobeys his parents and, out of sorrow for his disobedience, cleans the garage to appease them.

Motivations for going on Crusade

1. Healing the Christian East and West. The request from the East to the Pope for help was significant, for the East and West had excommunicated each other in 1054 AD, which is commonly called the Great Schism. This excommunication was lifted by Pope Urban II, and he thought that the opportunity to help the East on Crusade would heal the Great Schism. Pope Urban II wanted the Crusade to be led by the Byzantine Emperor and to go down in history as the West helping the East. Both the West and the East would be fighting together in a common mission.

2. Indulgence. The people of Western Europe had massive penances to complete, for knights were killing each other all of the time. So, an indulgence was motivating to everybody, for they were good at killing people! It was an opportunity to lessen their penances due for their many sins.

3. Love for Christ. The feudal system of government involved lords and vassals, and since Jesus was the highest lord within the feudal system, and His land/tomb had been captured, then the vassals of Western Europe needed to defend Him. Such a Crusade out to the East was not cheap. Each lord financed his own army. Gathering enough men, horses, and food would bankrupt them. Yet many loved Christ more than this.

4. Love for Neighbor. They considered themselves courageous pilgrims that were doing a good work of fighting for their lowly, persecuted, Eastern brothers. That this was done out of love can be evidenced from the fact that most of them (who did not die from the Crusade) actually returned home with practically nothing. They had spent everything in attempting to help the East.

5. Love for the Holy Sepulcher. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the tomb of Jesus) was in Jerusalem, which is the spot of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. For Western Christians who loved relics, this was the ultimate relic. Many Christians would visit this Church on a pilgrimage. It was built by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, along with his mother, St. Helen, in the 4th century. Islam, on the other hand, called it the “church of the dung heap.” The Muslims destroyed the Church in 1009 AD and were in control of the city. The French Christians loved Jerusalem, though, and often named their daughters after the city, so they were not going to let this go on forever.

People’s Crusade

Unfortunately, some people did not follow what the Pope said to do. The Pope only offered the indulgence to trained knights, yet various men, such as the fiery preacher named Peter the Hermit, gathered thousands of ordinary Western Christian peasants to re-take Jerusalem themselves. They left before the scheduled start date given by the Pope and were not backed by the Church. It mostly consisted of women, children, elderly, and a few warriors. This disorganized mass committed numerous evils in disobedience to the Pope, pillaging, and stole food everywhere they went. One such evil was the Rhineland Massacre in 1096 AD. The people figured that, since the Jews had killed the highest feudal lord, Jesus, way back in 30 AD, then they needed to attack innocent Jews as well. This was of course condemned by the Popes, the Eastern Byzantine Emperor, and most of the bishops in the Rhineland. Anti-Semitism is never allowed. Yet it must be remembered that their leader, Peter the Hermit, was “most likely not endorsed by the papacy” (Thomas Asbridge, “The First Crusade: A New History, (Oxford, 2004), p. 79). The people’s Crusade were easily wiped out by the Muslims. Such a disobedient group has left a stain on the 1st Crusade, but we must remember that they were never commissioned by the Pope.

Continued in Part II here.

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