Understanding the Popularity of the First Crusade Among the Lay Society of the Medieval West

By Louis Platts-Dunn


The First Crusade, which lasted from 1095 until 1101, was an armed pilgrimage which set out from the Medieval West, marching towards Jerusalem, with the aim of freeing Christ’s Holy Land from who Pope Urban II branded as violent Islamic oppressors. Norman Housley divides the lay society which partook in this phenomenon into two predominant categories: a militarized aristocracy, and the peasantry, or ‘paupers’.[1] The popularity of the First Crusade among these two sections of Western medieval society has too long been solely attributed to spiritual and religious belief. Whilst I will analyse these separate societal groups accepting that religious belief was a main motivation in their enthusiasm for the Crusade, we need to recognise how this conjoined with other factors such as the prospect of material gain, in making the Crusade such an attractive prospect. As John France argues, the argument for the complete prioritisation of spiritual factors over economic motivation as the cause of the popularity of the First Crusade must be progressed.[2]

Firstly, the common religious beliefs held by the medieval Western laity must be examined; for with specific attention paid to the poorest in society, the joint nature of crusading as an absolution from sin and gaining material wealth becomes evident. For centuries, sin was a social concern; its omnipresence in the world was accepted and avoiding it was crucial.[3] Importantly, public penance was seen as the only effective manner of absolving oneself from sin; and Pope Urban II emphasised the First Crusade as the ultimate penitential act.[4] Norman Housley argues that the poorest in society believed their purity of intent would set them apart from the aristocracy on the crusade, thus making their penance more ‘genuine’.[5] This implies religious piety must have been the sole intention of such motivation to take up arms and disconnects any possible marriage between religious and material values. But to restrict the complex motives of nearly one hundred thousand people to the field of religious belief is unwise: as Housley astutely argues, the union of religious and material ideologies was seen through the desire to collect relics on the crusade. For the aristocracy, this would have signified familial prestige once they returned home; for a desperately poor peasantry, one can logically assume it meant justified profit.[6] This is reinforced by Jonathon Phillips, who has argued that those at the bottom of the feudal system were appealed to by Pope Urban’s joint promise of material wealth in the East and religious salvation.[7]

Of course, historians such as Jonathan Riley-Smith have referred to limitations in evidence with regards to discerning the popularity of the crusade amongst individuals.[8] This should not make one afraid to interpret the available evidence, however. Before 1096 for example, France had been struck by drought, causing a widespread famine; peasants formed the section of lay society which would have suffered to the greatest extent due to this, and as contemporary accounts show, they were thus easily persuadable to leave their homeland behind. [9] Therefore, whilst religious piety was at the forefront of the minds of many peasants in causing their enthusiasm for the crusade, the ability of material motivations to co-exist with this religious incentive is arguably understated.

Religious and economic motivations acting as joint factors for the popularity of the First Crusade is certainly applicable to the European aristocracy. The militarization of the aristocracy was founded both on political and religious expansions, and material greed. This originated from the expansion of Christianity towards Germany in the late Carolingian period. Germanic peoples were of pagan descent, and historian Carl Erdmann argues that they consequently possessed war-orientated morals, with war being practiced as a form of moral action.[10] Christian beliefs would not simply be integrated into German lay culture, and in fact, Germanic influence over the Christian Church began to be seen instead. For example, if the Church encountered a pagan faction which could not be suppressed, they would assimilate it, thus allowing the permeation of pagan beliefs into wider European lay society. [11] Meanwhile, the eighth century Carolingian society saw a descent into violence as the need to sustain economic wealth led to plundering; as the Empire fell apart, political rule fractured and regional rule became prevalent, and the militarized aristocracy turned towards communities in these regions to maintain their wealth. [12] This was a crucial juncture between the religious dimensions of the Church and the economically motivated violence of the aristocracy in France, as the former established ‘The Peace of God’ campaign, to reduce non-discriminatory violence within society. Not only did this begin the process of violence targeted at specific groups, but it also introduced the idea of aristocrats accepting orders from clerical authority, a crucial element of the First Crusade.[13] Additionally, as John France notes, this gave aristocratic knights a unique role in society, an empowerment that would prove crucial to their enthusiasm for embarking on this holy war. [14]

Thus, 300 years before the First Crusade, a European aristocracy that was initially economically driven to plunder communities, were given a religious dimension in which to channel violence. It is simplistic to believe that nobles simply replaced their desire for economic wealth through violence with religiously justified military campaigns. Rather, as evidence suggests the Church requested more military aid and benefactions from the aristocracy in the decades before the First Crusade, monetary necessity became inextricably linked with the concept of papal-approved violence, particularly as nobles are recorded to have invested four to five times their annual income in the Crusade.[15] The willingness to donate this money does imply strong religious commitment, but it is arguable that many nobles assumed they would be able to benefit economically from the Crusade as a reward. However, in his essay ‘Crusading as an act of Love’, Riley-Smith strongly argues that Christian values of charity and aiding one’s neighbour were crucial to the ideology of those who took up the cross. [16] However, one need only to look to the battle of Dorylaeum in 1097, to see the intertwining or religious and economic motivations, and that this was not a concept of monetary charity with which we are familiar, as raiding of the city’s treasury followed victory against the Turks.[17]  Therefore, there is no valid detraction from the argument that religion and material gain could not both be simultaneously present in the mind of the crusaders.

The shorter-term influences which affected the popularity of the crusade amongst both the aristocracy and the peasantry, are also explained too readily as overwhelmingly religious, with familial and feudal ties also playing a major role. It is true that in the mid eleventh century, monastic reform had led to a huge parish church building programme.[18] This allowed even the most isolated communities to be receptive to church influences, as ‘canons regular’ had the opportunity to preach ideas of penance and sanctified violence to the laity; the cartularies of the community of Aureil provide an example of this.[19] However, the majority of the evidence regarding the transmission of the Crusade message originates from sources which already knew of Pope Urban’s intentions, for example chronicles and contemporary letters.[20] Whilst they accurately describe Pope Urban’s intended message they do not explain how this translated into the crusade’s immense popularity amongst lay society. It is true to say that he drew significant crowds at his speeches, such as at Limoges, and contemporary accounts show the ideas he professed were popular.[21] The number of people present in this crowd, however, was arguably a small fraction of the number of people who embarked on the Crusade; and the erection of more parish churches does not equate to the spreading of Pope Urban II’s specific message regarding an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Those lay people with less power in society, who did not hear Urban’s message of taking up the cross, debatably had little choice but to follow their aristocratic masters on the crusading expedition, and judged it as an opportunity to escape this hierarchical system.[22] Indeed, regarding the aristocracy themselves, many nobles will of course have been aware of the religious value of the crusade; but as Riley-Smith argues, they were similarly influenced by familial ties and patronage.[23] The actions of dead relatives taking up the cross, for example with Pope Leo (who ruled from 1049 to 1054), who took an army of knights to defeat the Normans, were arguably at the forefront of many nobles’ minds before the First Crusade: the power of familial expectation should not be understated.[24] Indeed, given that the notion of a Crusade went against core Christian values, one must appreciate that other motivations were at play in the psychology of crusaders, aside from religious belief, when attempting to qualify the Crusade as a legitimate and worthwhile expedition.

This article has not attempted to displace religious ideology as the major contributing factor towards the popularity of the First Crusade amongst the Lay people of the medieval West, but has analysed it in accordance with other factors which were also undeniably prevalent. Religious and material motivations united when both the aristocracy and peasantry decided to take up arms and march towards Jerusalem to displace Islamic rule, and the origins of this interconnection reach back centuries before it occurred. Indeed, the presence of feudal and familial links in 1096 were, in conjunction with religion, powerful short-term motives which have seldom been compared with Pope Urban’s religious message of an armed pilgrimage and penance. It may be challenging to find sufficient evidence from this period, especially from the poor who left little behind. Nevertheless, there must be no fear in interpreting the evidence we do have, for only then can the complexity of the crusade’s popularity amongst the Medieval Lay West be understood.

[1] Norman Housley, Contesting the Crusades (Oxford, 2006), pp. 86-95.

[2] John France, Victory in The East (Cambridge, 1996), p. 11.

[3] John H. Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London, 2005), p. 162.

[4] Marcus Bull, Knightly Piety and the Lay Response to the First Crusade (Oxford, 1993), p. 257.

[5] Housley, Contesting the Crusades, p. 94.

[6] Ibid. p. 92.

[7] Jonathon Phillips, The First Crusade: Origins and Impact (Manchester, 1997), p. 16.

[8] Jonathan Riley Smith as quoted in Phillips, First Crusade: Origins and Impact, p. 10.

[9] France, Victory in the East, pp. 67-69.

[10] Carl Erdmann, The Origin of the Idea of Crusade (Marshall W. Baldwin and Walter Goffart trans.) (Princeton,1978), p. 19.

[11] Ibid. p. 20.

[12] Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (London, 1993), pp. 3-4

[13] Bull, ‘The roots of Lay Enthusiasm for the First Crusade’, History Vol. 78 (Oxford 1993), 357-358.

[14] France, Victory in the East, p. 7.

[15] Marcus Bull, The Lay response to the First Crusade, p. 5.

[16] Riley-Smith, ‘Crusading as an act of Love’, History Vol. 65 (Oxford, 1980), 190-192.

[17] Web address: http://www.historynet.com/first-crusade-battle-of-dorylaeum.htm (Last accessed 13/11/16)

[18] Riley- Smith, Idea of Crusading, pp. 3-4.

[19] Bull, Lay Response to the First Crusade, pp. 259-260.

[20] H.E.J Cowdrey, ‘Pope Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade’, History Vol. 55 (Oxford, 1970), 181.

[21] Bull, Lay Response to the First Crusade, p. 257.

[22] Phillips, The First Crusade: Origins, p. 16.

[23] Riley- Smith as quoted in Housley, Contesting the Crusades, p. 89.

[24] Riley- Smith, Idea of Crusading, p. 5


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