Crusading as a Form of Pilgrimage

Because some level of merit historically had been attached to Christian warfare under limited and less defined circumstances, it was not particularly hard for clerical promoters of the First Crusade to convince Christian knights that fighting in defense of fellow Christians on God’s behalf was a virtuous act. Indeed, as Riley-Smith has demonstrated, the charters of knights participating in the First Crusade sometimes explicitly referenced the desire to aid eastern Christians suffering under Islamic rule as one of their motivations for participating. A charter of two brothers, for example, written shortly before they embarked on the First Crusade, notes 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.”[1] In this case, Muslims were depicted as barbarians without reason and self control, dominated by rage, which of course was in contrast to what clerics were now asking knights to do, namely refrain from indiscriminate violence as they put their military skills to use in defense of fellow Christians.

In calling on Christian knights to go to the aid of their fellow Christians, Urban II’s rhetoric on behalf of what would become the First Crusade was not particularly new or revolutionary. What historians have argued was unique about the First Crusade, its most radical and defining feature, was that it was penitential.[2] Because the penitential nature of the First Crusade made it a unique form of holy war, clerical authorities reasoned, it also required a different type of warrior.[3] The reformed clergy thus dictated the framework for this model of warrior by borrowing in significant part from, of all places, the pilgrimage tradition. Indeed, the combatants who took part in the First Crusade were technically considered to be pilgrims and were required to take pilgrim’s vows, thus taking part in no less than an armed penitential pilgrimage.[4] According to Robert the Monk, for example, who attended the Council of Clermont in his capacity as the Abbot of the monastery of Saint-Remi, Pope Urban II at Clermont (1095) referred to the crusade as a ‘holy pilgrimage’ (sanctae peregrinationis) and demanded the same vow from the crusaders as was expected from pilgrims.[5]

The idea of a crusade as a form of pilgrimage was well in keeping with the notion, promoted by clerical leaders, that the anticipated hardships of the First Crusade represented a type of redemptive suffering for those who participated.

In Fulcher of Chartres’ account of Urban’s speech at Clermont, for example, Urban made clear that the proposed crusade involved warfare with a holy purpose, pleasing to God, who would generously reward crusaders with the remission of their sins (remissio peccatorum) for their efforts and sacrifices.[6] Indeed, according to Urban and many crusades preachers who came after him, participation in a crusade, and enduring all the hardships and dangers that came with it, represented no less than an act of love for both God and fellow Christians.[7]

Moreover, as Jonathan Riley-Smith has highlighted in a number of works that consider the reactions of knights to the calling of the First Crusade, many of those who volunteered for the crusade also understood its penitential character as demonstrated in either their charters to religious houses composed before they embarked or letters they wrote during the course of the crusade.[8] In one instance, for example, two brothers wrote that they were taking part in the crusade “for the grace of the pilgrimage.”[9] Another crusader’s charter enthusiastically described the crusade solely in pilgrimage terms, emphasizing its penitential effects, noting, “Considering that God has spared me, steeped in many and great sins, and has given me time for penance, and fearing that the weight of my sins will deprive me of a share in the heavenly kingdom, I, Ingelbald, wish to seek that sepulcher from which our redemption, having overcome death, wished to rise.”[10] Consider also the example of Raymond of Saint-Gilles, who abandoned his position as one of the richest and most powerful men in France to participate in the First Crusade.[11] Riley-Smith has convincingly argued that his actions are hard to understand without considering his spiritual motivations.[12] Indeed, Raymond himself explained his decision by noting he was “… going to Jerusalem on the one hand for the grace of the pilgrimage and on the other, under the protection of God, to wipe out the defilement of the pagans…”[13]

Furthermore, at Clermont, the pope also drew a clear distinction between the crusade and the wars in which knights had typically engaged during this period. Urban reportedly admonished western knights for their violence against one another and called on them to abide by the rules of the Peace and Truce of God.[14] Urban then warned the knights in his audience that previously they had “waged wrongful wars” against other Christians for which they “deserved only eternal death and damnation.”[15] After rebuking knights for their violence against one another, which was a key marker by which knights defined their masculinity in the era, Urban then framed his proposed crusade as a holy alternative to the sinful inter-Christian conflicts he had just condemned. In doing so, Urban directed his listeners’ attention on the abuses of Christians and desecration of important Christian holy places in the East, thus providing knights with an alternate avenue, acceptable to God, by which they might employ the tools of their trade in a worthy cause.[16] The pope’s words seem to have hit their mark, as the sources agree that they had a powerful effect on his listeners.[17]

The major difference, or innovation, that distinguished the crusader from the traditional pilgrim was that the crusader carried weapons. Thus, the First Crusade, was considered a pilgrimage, but an armed pilgrimage, just as the first crusaders were considered pilgrims, but armed pilgrims.[18] Indeed, the very term “crusade” was not used at the time to describe the expedition, which was instead commonly referred to as a pilgrimage in letters written by crusaders, who described themselves as pilgrims, while on the march.[19] The unknown knight who authored the Gesta Francorum, for example, the earliest surviving account of the First Crusade, which was mostly composed during the course of the crusade and completed no later than the year 1101, complained that the crusaders had trouble buying provisions during their march because the people of Macedonia did not believe that the crusaders were pilgrims, but thought that they had come only as soldiers to lay waste to their land and kill them.[20] Moreover, once Jerusalem had been successfully conquered in 1099 during the First Crusade, many surviving crusaders reportedly threw away their weapons and armor and returned to Europe carrying only palm fronds as a symbol that they had completed their pilgrimage.[21]

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[1] Translation in Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, 23-24. Riley-Smith cites St. Victor of Marsailles: B.E.C. Guérard, Cartulaire de l’abbaye de Saint-Victor de Marsailles, 2 vols. (1857), 1, p. 167.

[2] See Riley-Smith, What Were The Crusades, 55.

[3] Perhaps some of the best examples of a clergyman citing the necessity of a new type of warrior to take part in a crusade are found in the various versions of Pope Urban’s speech at Clermont. See, for example, Guibert of Nogent, The Deeds of God, 43.

[4] For an excellent overview of the pilgrimage origins of the First Crusade, see James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 3-29. Brundage also points out how the now popular term crucesignatus, or “crusader,” only much later became the normative term to describe those who participated in a crusade, as the term peregrinus, or “pilgrim,” was instead commonly used in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. See Brundage, Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader, 31. For a primary source example, see the lay authored Gesta Francorum, the earliest surviving account of the First Crusade, in which the participants of the First Crusade are called “pilgrims” rather than crusaders. This Gesta’s use of this term is considered more fully later in this chapter. Anonymous, Gesta Francorum et Aliorum Hierosolimitanorum: The Deeds of the Franks and the Other Pilgrims to Jerusalem, ed. Rosalind Hill (London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Toronto, and New York: Thomas Nelson, 1962), 8.

[5] Roberti Monachi, “Historia Iherosolimitana,” RHC: Occ 3, 729. On Robert’s attendance and role at the Council of Clermont, see Sweetenham, “The Textual History of the Historia Iherosolimitana,” 2-7.

[6] See Riley-Smith, What Were The Crusades, 55-56. In the original, see Fulcherio Carnotensi, ‘Historia Iherosolymitana,’ RHC Occ 3, 321-324.

[7] On the concept of crusading as an act of love, see Riley-Smith’s influential article, Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Crusading as an Act of Love,” in The Crusades: The Essential Readings, ed. Thomas Madden (Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 31-50.

[8] See, for example, Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, 23-24 and Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 67-68. See also Riley-Smith, “Crusading as an Act of Love,” 31-50.

[9] St. Victor of Marsailles, 1, pg. 167. See Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, 23-24.

[10] Riley-Smith cites St. Vincent of Lemans: R. Charles and S.M. d’Elbenne, Cartulaire de l’abbaye de Saint-Vincent du Mans, 2 vols. (1886-1913), 1, col. 69. Translation in Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, 23. Riley-Smith also notes that this charter is “almost certainly” to be dated to 1096. See fn. 51.

[11] On Raymond’s background, see Hill, John H., Laurita L. Hill, and Francisque Costa. Raymond IV de Saint-Gilles, comte de Toulouse, 1041 (ou 1042)-1105 (Toulouse: Privat, 1959).

[12] Jonathan Riley-Smith, “The First Crusade and St. Peter” in B. Z. Kedar, H. E. Mayer, R. C. Smail (eds.), Outremer: Studies in the Crusading Kingdom of Jerusalem presented to Joshua Prawer (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Institute, 1982), 41-63, see page 49. See also Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, 36-37.

[13] B. É. C. Guérard (ed.), Cartulaire de l’abbaye de Saint-Victor de Marseille. 1, 683-1050 (Paris 1857), no. 169 (1096), transl. J. S. C. Riley-Smith.

[14] A consideration of four prominent accounts of Urban’s speech at Clermont is included in Holt and Muldoon, Competing Voices, 3-22.

[15] Guibert of Nogent, The Deeds of God, 38.

[16] In Robert the Monk’s Historia Iherosolymitana, for example, which claims to provide an eyewitness account of the Council of Clermont, Urban described the desecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and, in graphic detail, the rape and torture of Christians at the hands of their Muslim persecutors.On Robert’s background and attendance at the Council of Clermont, as well as the dating of the Historia Iherosolimitania, see Carol Sweetenham. “The Textual History of the Historia Iherosolimitana.” in Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade: Historia Iherosolimitana. Trans. Carol Sweetenham (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 2-7. For Robert’s portrayal of Urban’s remarks on the abuse of eastern Christians and holy places, see Robert the Monk, Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade: Historia Iherosolimitania. Trans. Carol Sweetenham (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 79-81.

[17] Robert the Monk, for example, notes that at the end of Pope Urban’s call for a crusade, “all present were so moved that they united as one and shouted ‘God wills it! God wills it!” See Robert the Monk, Historia Iherosolimitania, 81. As historian Thomas Madden has noted, “For knights steeped in a culture of militant Christianity, these were stories to make the blood boil.” See Thomas F. Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham: Rowman, 1999), 9. See Riley-Smith, “Crusading as an Act of Love,” 33.

[18] Mayer, The Crusades, 14-15 and Brundage, Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader, 31.

[19] See Riley-Smith’s consideration of the contemporary terminology used to describe the First Crusade and its participants in, The First Crusaders, 67-69.

[20] The author of the Gesta notes, “…eo quod ualde timebant nos, non putantes nos esse peregrinos, sed uelle populari et occidere illos.” See Anonymous, Gesta Francorum et Aliorum Hierosolimitanorum: The Deeds of the Franks and the Other Pilgrims to Jerusalem, ed. Rosalind Hill (London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Toronto, and New York: Thomas Nelson, 1962), 8. On the dating of the Gesta Francourm see, Rosalind Hill, “Introduction,” in The Deeds of the Franks and the other Pilgrims to Jerusalem, ed. Rosalind Hill (London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Toronto, and New York: Thomas Nelson, 1962), ix. “It is divided into ten books, of whicht he first nine appear to have been composed before the Author (whose name is unknown) left Antioch in November 1098, and the tenth, which is the longest, at Jerusalem, not later than the beginning of 1101, and probably soon after the battle of Ascalon.”

[21] See Riley-Smith’s consideration of this in Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, 30.

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