Jonathan Riley-Smith on the Motivations of the First Crusaders

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In any consideration of historians’ arguments about the appeal of the First Crusade  to the earliest crusaders (as well as the circumstances by which it came about), Jonathan Riley-Smith must be front and center. No other scholar has had as much of an impact on the field of crusade studies over the past forty years than the now retired Cambridge University historian. Indeed, it is not an understatement to note that Riley-Smith, as the author of more than a dozen influential books and many influential essays, has revolutionized the modern historiography of the crusades. This was accomplished not only through his many important publications, but also the many doctoral students he taught at Cambridge who are now also professors at various institutions in North America and Europe that reflect his influence.  His influence is also reflected in his role as a founder of the Society for the Study of the Crusades in the Latin East, the world’s leading scholarly society for the study of the crusades. 

As a religious historian Riley-Smith has unsurprisingly devoted much of his career to the religious motivations of the crusaders and the religious appeal of the First Crusade.[1] At least as early as 1977, he argued that the crusade was a special type of holy war that was differentiated from all previous Christian holy wars by its unique institutional and penitential nature, thus it had a special religious appeal to those who participated. It was at first associated with pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the most penitential goal of all, and a place where devout Christians went to die, which may be why so many of the earliest crusaders were old men.[2]

Indeed, in the same work, Riley-Smith defined the penitential nature of crusading as its most distinctive feature in comparison with other holy wars. “In particular, I have become much more aware of the penitential element in crusading and the way it coloured the whole movement. I now believe that it was its most important defining feature.[3] Twenty years later Riley-Smith reiterated the same view and highlighted the crusade’s ‘revolutionary’ character. He noted, “It is no exaggeration to say that the idea of penitential warfare was to be a revolutionary one, because it put the act of fighting on the same meritorious plane as prayer, works of mercy, and fasting….”[4]

Such thinking was crystallized in Riley-Smith’s stunningly titled 1980 essay, Crusading as an Act of Love.[5] Here Riley-Smith focused on how the pious idealism of the crusaders inspired them to join the First Crusade as an act of Christian charity or “love.” Thus, the earliest crusaders viewed themselves as engaged in a sacrificial effort to restore Christ’s patrimony and aid suffering Christians in the East who had been requesting military assistance from the west in their efforts to fend off widespread Turkish aggression.

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Indeed, as a result of the events of Manzikert in 1071, Muslim armies had conquered much of Christian Asia Minor and the surrounding areas in the years prior to the calling of the First Crusade. The ancient Christian cities of Nicaea and Antioch, for example, fell to Muslim armies in 1081 and 1084, with many Christians enslaved or subjected to dhimmi status as a result. Riley-Smith’s work on crusading charters demonstrated that many of the participants of the First Crusade cited concerns about the suffering of eastern Christians and the desecration of Christian holy places in explaining their reasons for participating.

In his highly regarded book The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, Riley-Smith highlights (see pages 23-24) the charter of two brothers written shortly before they embarked on the First Crusade. They noted that they were going on the crusade, in part, “…to wipe out the defilement of the pagans and the immoderate madness through which innumerable Christians have already been oppressed, made captive and killed with barbaric fury.” Thus, the first crusaders saw the First Crusade, during which around 1/3 of the knights who participated would give their lives, as a sacrificial “act of love,” fought on behalf of suffering and humiliated eastern Christians.

Riley-Smith also places a heavy emphasis on ecclesiastical sources. Indeed, his works are full of references to chronicles, letters and encyclicals written by priests and popes, and sometimes saints, all associated with the crusading movement at the highest and most intimate levels.

Beginning with Pope Urban II’s calling of the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095, for example, Riley-Smith uses ecclesiastical sources to claim that the pope based his appeal for the crusade on the necessity of Christian suffering and sacrifice. Rather than wealth or riches, the First Crusade, according to the pope, offered the perfect opportunity for redemptive suffering and sacrifice, as the crusaders, many of whom were not soldiers, would undoubtedly face numerous hardships as they trekked across continents fighting battles against their Muslim foes.[6]  Indeed, Riley-Smith suggests that Urban preached the crusade on the basis of Luke 14: 27, which reads, “Whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

In keeping with the theme of sacrifice, rather than material gain, other clerical sources record how Pope Urban II cited the Gospel of Matthew to warn crusaders against having concerns for how their homes and families might do in their absence.

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And everyone that hath left house or father or mother or wife of children or lands for my name’s sake shall receive a hundredfold and shall possess life everlasting. (Matt 19:29)

Riley-Smith bases these claims on several well-known early 12th century clerical accounts of the Council of Clermont, including those of Baldric of Dol, Ekkehard of Aura, Robert of Rheims, and Fulcher of Chartres (among others). Although these sources were recorded years later, it is likely that people who were present at Clermont for the pope’s speech and had access to earlier documents from the council authored some of them. Importantly, these sources suggest that the Pope’s approach worked, as it had a massive appeal to his listeners, many of whom rushed forth to take crusading vows amid cheers of “God wills it!”

Perhaps more importantly, Riley-Smith also cites sources written by laymen to support his point and give a sense of the religious appeal of the crusade. In addition to crusade charters, as mentioned above, he points out how the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum, who is believed to have been a lower ranking knight, opened his narrative of his experiences during the First Crusade with “a moving reference to the subject.”

When already that time drew nigh, to which the Lord Jesus draws the attention of his people every day, especially in the Gospel in which he says, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’, there was a great stirring throughout the whole region of Gaul, so that if anyone, with a pure heart and mind, seriously wanted to follow God and faithfully wished to bear the cross after him, he could make no delay in speedily taking the road to the Holy Sepulcher.[7]

Riley-Smith also points out how such views carried over into the era of the Second Crusade (and after). Among his sources, he cites a letter by Bernard of Clairvaux authored after Muslim victories in the East over Latin Christians at Edessa and other places became known in the 1140s. Bernard argued that Christians should take up the cross for a new crusade [the Second Crusade] not to gain wealth or riches, but as a means of showing their love for fellow Christians suffering in the East.[8] Likewise, Riley-Smith also cites Pope Eugenius III’s crusade era encyclicals, in which the pope declared that crusaders were “fired by the zeal of charity” as they sought to cleanse the Holy Land of impurity.

So then, in sum, the evidence for Riley-Smith’s arguments for the “pious idealism” of the crusaders is not limited only to ecclesiastical sources, but sources written by non-clerical participants in the First Crusade as well. Clerics framed and sold the crusade as a spiritual venture, one that sought to provide aid to suffering Christians in the East and to restore Christ’s patrimony in the Holy Land. Far from suggesting personal enrichment during the First Crusade, clerics warned, or even boasted, of the hardships the crusaders would endure, but they celebrated the effects of such suffering as a means of bringing redemption to all participants who redeemed the crusading indulgence. Such an appeal carried over at least until the era of the Second Crusade, as Pope Eugenius III and Bernard of Clairvaux successfully appropriated both the religious philosophy and language that had led to the birth of the First Crusade, and without which the crusading movement might never have been born.

Yet modern cynics might question the religious appeal of the First Crusade by opting for a more realistic “follow the money” approach as a more reliable indicator of crusader motivations. Pious pronouncements about sacrificing for Jerusalem or to atone for sin can conceal greedy intentions, after all, and so one must also follow the money trail before the crusaders can be exculpated from charges of greed. Riley-Smith addresses such concerns head on through his innovative use of crusading charters to show that crusading was enormously expensive for the families of most crusaders and the material costs of crusading far outweighed any material benefits.[9] Indeed, first in a strongly worded 1995 article for the Economist and then in his 1997 book The First Crusaders, he showed that a crusade, far from amounting to a get rich quick scheme, could last for several months, if not years, resulting in enormous financial hardships and the risk of injury or death. During this time, it was usually the crusader and his family who were responsible for providing for the crusaders’ material needs and often, as the charters show, they had to sell property or take out mortgages to do so. Additionally, the crusaders’ abandoned family had the added challenge of managing businesses or farms at home in his absence, a concern also often alluded to in the sources.

Such conclusions, suggesting the expense of crusading for the typical crusader, have implied a greater spiritual motivation than previously thought. Indeed, the fact that the overwhelming majority of early crusaders immediately returned home, many in dire financial straits, after the completion of their vows, suggests the urgency with which they knew they needed to address varying problems on the home front caused by their prolonged absence.[10]

If later scholarship has shown that the crusaders did not profit from the crusades, nor even expect to profit, then this begs the question of how earlier scholars came to such radically different conclusions? In part the older view that crusaders were motivated by economic gain comes from the so-called “younger sons” thesis associated with the work of respected French social historian Georges Duby. In 1977, Duby had argued in his The Chivalrous Society, that because inheritance went to first born sons this left many younger second and third sons in a tough spot, without a chance to inherit their own lands. Thus the crusading enterprise suggested a means by which these additional sons could go carve out a place for themselves in the Holy Land.[11] Yet Riley-Smith has highlighted the weakness of this argument by showing that Duby based his popular and long held argument on sources involving only one family.[12] To the contrary, through the examination of wills and charters, Riley-Smith has shown no variation in the participation of first or second born sons on crusades, as they seem to have participated on an equal basis.

Riley-Smith’s arguments have been well received by other historians. Indeed, in a 1998 review of Riley-Smith’s The First Crusaders, Professor William Jordan of Princeton University effectively summed up the view of many current scholars of Riley-Smith’s research, when he wrote, “Riley-Smith has, I hope, laid to rest for all time the contention that crusaders profited from the wars. They did not, or at least the vast majority did not. Nor did they say that they expected to profit materially….”[13]


[1] Frankly, I am not very comfortable categorizing Riley-Smith as only a “religious historian.” He has shown he is equally comfortable working in a variety of areas. Regardless, if one were forced to situate him into a particular category, it seems it would be religious history.

[2] Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades? (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977),  7.

[3] Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades?, xii.

[4] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 48.

[5] Jonathan Riley-Smith. “Crusading as an Act of Love.” History 65 (1980), 177-92.

[6] Indeed, things got so bad at times during the First Crusade that some starving crusaders, on one or [possibly] two occasions, resorted to cannibalism.

[7] Cited in Riley-Smith, Crusading as an Act of Love, 33-34.

[8] Riley-Smith, Crusading as an Act of Love, 33. Specifically, Riley-Smith quotes from Bernard’s “Epistolae”, PL. cixxxii, no. 364. Bernard asked, “If we harden our hearts and pay little attention [to Christian losses in the East]…where is our love for God, where is our love for our neighbor?”

[9] See The First Crusaders and Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Religious Warriors. Reinterpreting the Crusades.” The Economist, December 23, 1995. He notes “More recently those still looking for an economic explanation of the crusades have argued that rising populations forced European families to take measures to prevent the break-up of their estates, either through primogeniture or through the practice of allowing only one male of each generation to marry. These measures, it was said, produced a surplus of young men with no prospects, who were naturally attracted by the hope of adventure, spoils and land overseas. Yet there is no evidence to support the argument – nor, even, that younger sons tended to crusade rather than older ones. And it can be shown from documents that foremost in the minds of most nobles and knights was not any prospect of material gain but anxiety about the costs. Warfare is always an expensive business; and this was war of a type never experienced before. The crusaders were volunteers, at least theoretically. Those not ensconced in the household of a great crusading noble had to finance themselves. Meeting the bills often meant raising cash on property or rights. It was to alleviate this burden that European kings, shortly followed by the church, instituted systems of taxation (including the first regular income taxes) to provide subsidies. The argument that the crusades were a response to economic conditions at home turns out to be grounded on dubious assumptions.”

[10] While the First Crusade resulted in the establishment of four crusader states, Latin rulers immediately had to deal with the problem of depopulation, as the vast majority of their crusading armies returned home almost immediately.

[11] George Duby, The Chivalrous Society. (London: 1977),120.

[12] Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 21, etc…

[13] William Chester Jordan, “Review of The First Crusaders, 1095-1131.” Church History 67:2 (1998), 359-361.