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Religious Motivations for Going on the First Crusade: Analytical Essay

Urban II and his proclamation of the First Crusade at Clermont have been at the centre of controversy for centuries as historians have disagreed about which were the key motivations for going on Crusade. On the 27th November 1095, Urban used his oratory skills and knowledge of the religious western society in the late eleventh century to create a speech that not only clearly outlined his goals of the capture of Jerusalem and removal of the Muslim threat from the Holy land but also tapped into society’s religiosity and obsession with the concept of the afterlife. Throughout the several different accounts of his speech by the likes of Fulcher of Chartres and Robert the Monk, there is evidence to suggest many different types of motivations, which are interchangeable in terms of primary relevance to each person who went on crusade. Indeed, as historians have analysed accounts and documents regarding the First Crusade and the varied types of people who embarked on the journey, as well as their motives, they have each come to different conclusions as to which can be considered as the main reason, whilst still appreciating and giving credit to other arguments. There is no doubt that among different classes of people, different motivations come into play.

Marcus Bull argues that it was the speech’s fundamental understanding of medieval society, from a religious and non-religious perspective, that helped encourage many to embark on the perilous journey to the Holy land. He uses examples of the knightly class and Cluniac Reform of the time which were key in the rapid preparation and embarkation of the crusade, as well as its effectiveness. Christopher Tyerman on the other hand, argues for Urban’s motivations and political ambitions being the primary factor in mass crusade participation, due to his manipulation of the circumstances of his proclamation and inclusion of several key motivations to ensure a seismic response. Finally, Thomas Asbridge ultimately argues that the motives of many who left were not selfish, but largely pious. He claims that the complete devotion of the Crusaders to their task came largely as a result of the high levels of religiosity at the time, and their belief that completion of the task would grant them complete remission of sin. This could be argued as the most significant factor in recruitment due to its connection with the other factors, as well as its validation when considering the extremely pious society at the time.

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It is important, however, to consider that whilst there is convincing evidence to support each argument on the origin of the First Crusade’s appeal, the evidence referred to is likely to be inherently biased due to the political and social climate of the time. Asbridge argues that ‘we must exercise some caution’ on ‘partially filtered’ information as he explains that virtually all surviving documents were physically hand-produced by monks, who would likely have censored non-religious explanations in favour of upholding the image of papal supremacy through religious motivations. As well as this, Raymond of Aguiliers, a key chronicler of the First Crusade, admits to gaps in the telling of events, explaining ‘It seems too tiresome to write of each journey’ with Tyerman saying that ‘there is much about the First Crusade that is confused or irrecoverable’, due to a lack of objective primary evidence. As such, it should be considered that information within the very few sources available, could have been subtly altered to cater to the monks’, and society’s ‘intensely Christian outlook and fanatical obsession with spiritual devotion’, implying that the monks would not have accepted any non-religious explanations as to why people went on crusade.

Whilst this does not diminish the importance of religiosity in crusader motivations, it could be argued that it overshadows other, more selfish motives that do not paint the crusaders in such a noble light. Tyerman claims that ‘the story of the march to Jerusalem obscured much that failed to fit an accepted literary and theological pattern’, in that, due to the nature of the success of the Crusade corresponding with the statements of Divine will in Urban’s speech, there was no cause for contemporary sources to suggest any other explanation. Indeed, the miraculous nature of some of the events of the First Crusade, such as the 8-month siege of Antioch in 1098, which left crusaders resorting to a religious frenzy of divine relics and visions to improbably defeat the Muslim attackers supports this view, and suggests that the crusaders themselves became entranced by it. As such, despite there being discrepancies to do with possible religious bias in the First Crusade documents, religious motivations were arguably the key origin of the vast levels of initial recruitment, with Jonathan Riley-Smith describing the crusade as ultimately ‘a penitential war-pilgrimage’, suggesting primarily religious origins. As well as this, the religious nature of the source material available to historians examining the First Crusade might influence many to argue that religious factors were the main motivator. More nuanced reading is possible considering society and Urban’s speech although religious explanations dominate the historiography.

Asbridge argues unequivocally for religious motivations being the key factor in mass crusade participation, and that the aristocratic response to Urban’s speech ‘strongly suggests that spiritual concerns dominated the minds of Latin nobility as they took the cross.’ Indeed, the spiritual motivations mentioned in the various accounts of Urban’s speech were numerous, due to the extreme level of religiosity during the period, where all attended church and feared God with ‘an almost morbid concern with sinfulness.’ This was due to the Cluniac reform and rising levels of monasticism of the period, which Karen Armstrong claims was ‘one of the most dramatic results of the reform movement’. Asbridge comments that eleventh-century nobles looked beyond parish or local priests for spiritual guidance, instead looking ‘for succour from monastic institutions like the Cluny.’ Asbridge claims religious indulgence to be one of the primary religious motivations as it tapped into one of the most primal medieval Christian concerns; their fate after death, especially prevalent within pious nobles.

This is likely due to the source material he focuses on in his work, which primarily comes from the sermons of bishops of which indulgence would have been a focus, stemming from Urban’s speech, which he also cites explaining his stance. He argues that during this time it was ‘deemed inevitable that every normal human would need to endure at least a period of purification in the hereafter.’ It was assumed that every person had sinned to such an extent, that without a period of divine purification which would grant them at least partial remission of sin, they would be confined to eternal purgatory. As such, medieval society would have responded well to the offer of guarantee of eternal glory in heaven, implying religious concerns to be highly influential in convincing the masses to go on crusade.

Indeed, the motivation of indulgence often appears to be recognised as highly significant by many historians’ works, likely due to the religious undertones and bias within the documents of the First Crusade. Bull identifies the religiosity of the period to be a key factor, claiming that medieval folk were ‘conditioned by reactions to sin and an appreciation of its consequences’. He claims that the Christian church took advantage of a ‘something-for-something religious mentality’ which allowed the church to offer Christians significant reward though glory in heaven. Whilst by modern standards, this kind of power would be considered as the type of act only God could perform, Bull argues that ‘In the closing years of the eleventh century the belief remained that penitential acts could suffice to wash away sin’, which gave Urban a quick and effective recruitment tool. He also identifies that the First Crusade was ‘preached at a time when many people were sensitive to communal pressure’, with those who did not conform being isolated and scorned. As such, it is clear to see why there was such a mass response to the crusade from different classes of people, as it was largely considered essential to cleanse one’s sins, suggesting pious motivations to be the primary factor in crusade recruitment.

Asbridge claims that the religious factors such as indulgence were far more widespread than the argument that selfish, non-religious motivations were the key to people going on crusade. Indeed, crusading costed from four to six times a knight’s annual income, with no guarantee of monetary profit from the journey, making these selfish motives unlikely to be the primary motivator, with Asbridge describing the act as ‘intimidating and costly.’ He quotes Urban: ‘Whoever for devotion alone, not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance’, suggesting that not only were there crusaders without pure, religious motives but that the crusaders were aware that those without would not receive the remission of sin detailed in Urban’s speech, as it would devalue the meritorious act of Crusading. Bull too denounces the view that ‘lay religiousity in the Middle Ages was superficial and literalistic’, arguing that the way in which devout Christians should behave cannot be judged by post-Reformation standards. It should therefore be acknowledged that Indulgence was likely a critical factor in the decision of many to go on the First Crusade, and whilst there were other significant factors at play, they worked in conjunction with the appeal of indulgence, rather than against it.

Asbridge, however, fails to mention several key religious motivators, which tie into the period of Cluniac reform. Frankopan argues extensively for religious motivations to be key in the recruitment of crusaders. However, he also mentions the threat of the Muslims, and how the appeal of defending their Christian brothers inspired Western Christians to fight back against the ‘atrocities being committed in the east by the ‘Persians.’ He quotes Urban’s Clermont speech, which describe the brutal acts that Muslims supposedly performed on the Eastern Christians, despite there being no evidence of this during the period. Urban describes the Muslims to ‘pierce their [Christians’] navels, pull out the end of their intestines’ and indulge in ‘appalling treatment of women’. He argues that these descriptions of ‘the vile race’ not only served to alienate and dehumanise the Muslim enemy but to stir up the religious frenzy that would help ensure mass participation, as the crusade became an act of liberation and vengeance. In this way, ‘Urban did not mean to inform the crowd that had gathered, but to galvanise it,’ carefully orchestrating his speech, even describing the crusade as a ‘quest by the force of good against evil,’ adding to the growing concept of Holy War against an existential threat. As well as this, whilst crusading involved sinful acts such as murder, that were against traditional Christian values, concepts such as the Just War Theory excused the First Crusade’s violence, whilst also appealing to the militaristic Knightly Class. Consequently, the glory associated with carrying out God’s will in liberating the Holy land can be considered as a significant factor behind the frenzy of crusade participation.

This crusading frenzy was largely responsible for the passionate devotion to the cause, stemming from religious honour and nobility, as they believed, according to Bull, that ‘these rites set them apart from the rest of society,’ describing the actions of Abbot Baldwin and others in branding a cross ‘into the flesh of his forearm’. This pursuit of glory can also be seen in the urgency of the Peasant’s Crusade, which set off almost immediately after Urban’s speech with little planning or organisation, ultimately leading to its downfall. Bull also mentions the importance in the religious and historical significance of Jerusalem, claiming that medieval people had a ‘profound attachment to a sense of place’ and that a pilgrimage to the city where Christ had lived and died was regarded as a ‘exceptionally meritorious religious experience,’ having such significance in the bible and providing the crusaders with a clear goal of which they could strive towards, despite the extremely perilous journey. Finally, with the second chapter of Asbridge’s work The First Crusade: A New History being titled ‘Afire With Crusading Fever,’ it is clear to see that he places great value upon this factor, and focuses this chapter on the telling of the merits of the argument, perhaps explaining his focus on this point rather than others. When considering the extensive breadth of discussion between historians on the various religious factors, it is clear to see that religious indulgences and motivations extensively detailed in Urban’s speech were crucial in recruitment. However, it is also important to consider other factors, such as that of the socio-economic, which were relevant to different classes of people, as well as inter-weaving with religious factors to create a movement that was intent on achieving their goal.

Bull argues that whilst religious factors were very successful in their appeal, they came as a result of the social circumstances of the late eleventh century. However, due to the nature of his singular chapter within The Oxford History of the Crusades, it is unlikely that he would be able to give equal discussion to each argument, despite his title of ‘Origins’, possibly explaining why his discussion focuses on the Socio-Economic factors in Crusade participation, with religious motivations discussed more generally. Bull first details the extremely violent European society, where ‘brutality was so common it could be ritualistic’ largely due to a complete ‘militarisation of society’ which came as a result of its inherent feudal nature. He explains that society at this time was filled with ‘warriors elites whose sins were considered most numerous and notorious’, referring to the knightly class, who were able to use their power and influence to buy private armies, allowing brutality to thrive. Bull claims that ‘Legal disputes, for instance, were often solved by means of trial by battle’, marking violence and disorder as a key feature of late eleventh-century Europe. Bull’s argument is that these key features of society allowed the First Crusade to happen, as Urban used the culture of violence, paired with the grotesque images of Muslim savagery to inspire an armed pilgrimage. As such, an already militaristic and substantially trained force was easily conjured, and Urban was able to shift the violence of the region to the Holy Land where it was of better use. As well as this, feudal society at the time was governed by the localities of each region, often tenants of significant amounts of land and vassals.

Bull explains that ‘Peasants found themselves subjected to increasingly burdensome rent and labour obligations’, and many would have taken the offer of relief of pressure from rent by their feudal lord by joining them on crusade. Bull also explores the significance of chivalric values, ultimately concluding that ‘full blown chivalry was a development of the twelfth and subsequent centuries’, and as such was not a significant factor in the First Crusade participation. However, the society of the knightly class ensured that there was at least a ‘shared culture of warrior toughness, honour and skilled horsemanship’. Asbridge uses the example of Godfrey of Bouillon, who had ‘no particular reputation for personal piety’ and was ‘among the least self-serving of the Latin princes’, suggesting that he was primarily pursuing the glory that a successful crusade would bring, as he is described to have been the ‘most committed in completing the pilgrimage to the Holy Land’. As such, it is important to recognise that whilst religious motivations for going on the First Crusade were important, vital too were the social structures of feudalism and the knightly class, as they allowed crusade participation to bolster due to the feudal chain of command, and a high level of military expertise.

Bull does not mention, however, how the social situations at the time pandered to more affluent crusaders’ selfish needs and motivations, as well as addressing reasons as to why people may have wanted to leave Europe for the Holy Land. Asbridge, whilst ultimately arguing that religious motivations were the key motivation for the majority of crusaders, also appreciates that nobles who led the crusade saw opportunity for personal gain as well as penitential. He details the importance of feudalism in the recruitment of crusaders, referring to Urban’s speech; ‘to tap into this pool of military manpower and expertise, he directed his preaching, first and foremost, at the lay aristocracy’, in the hopes that with the aristocracy on board for the cause, their vassals, knights and infantry would follow. This ‘Domino effect’ took advantage of the feudal system, which, involving feudal vows and obligations, would hopefully ensure that there was enough manpower for the journey. However, it is more than likely that for some nobles, power and monetary gain from the east was a significant motivator.

Tyerman argues as such, claiming that there was ‘internal bickering over precedence and land’ throughout the journey, as crusading princes disputed over whom captured cities would go to, such as with Raymond of Toulouse and Bohemund of Taranto over Antioch in 1098. Asbridge argues that this yearning for influence in the east may have come as a result of the social system of primogeniture, detailing how Bohemund’s wealth was given to his half-brother, which was a ‘significant blow to Bohemund’s prospects’. This issue likely critically affected younger born brothers in nobility and their decision to join the crusade, often militarily trained throughout their upbringing, such as with Bohemund, who had ‘joined the crusade already a gifted and experienced military commander’. This military competence and lack of wealth made nobles particularly receptive to ‘crusading fever’, as there was opportunity for the gaining of assets in the east. As such, many nobles, like Bohemund and Baldwin of Flanders, stayed in the Holy Land after the crusade’s conclusion and gained the cities of Antioch and Jerusalem respectively, implying that some crusading princes aquired enough influence to justify settling in the East and that their motivations were not wholly pious.

Asbridge also mentions the contextual elements and ‘wretched standard of living’ of eleventh century Europe, such as ‘severe drought’ that ‘afflicted much of France in the years before 1096’, leading to poor harvests and famine, as well as outbreaks of ergotism. This would likely have encouraged nobility as well as common folk, who were particularly susceptible to these issues to leave Europe in search of ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’. It is important to recognise, however, that with Bull focusing on the ‘origins’ of the crusade, he does not discuss the events of the crusade and how they showcased the crusaders’ religious passion, such as at Antioch, perhaps explaining his interpretation.

It is also vital to consider the origin of crusader motivations and how, Urban II was responsible for inspiring people to answer the call, to serve his own wider political motivations. Indeed, it can be argued that Urban’s skilled craftsmanship of the proclamation and its circumstances were vital in recruitment due to his great oratory skill, with Guibert of Nogent describing the ‘richness of his speech’ to be ‘no less than that of any lawyer’. Tyerman argues extensively in the particular importance of this point, claiming that Urban used Alexius I’s letter requesting aid in the fight against the Turks as an ‘opportunity to his own purposes’, with Alexius having expected only a few hundred knights rather than several full crusading armies. Tyerman argues that this request and opportunity for expansion of papal influence came at a time of papal consolidation of power, with the Roman church consolidating ‘its position in Italy, France and Germany’, especially with the Investiture Contest at the time between the church and the Holy Roman Empire, which had begun with Urban’s predecessor, Gregory VII. As such, an opportunity to gain a lead in this race and to unite the eastern and western churches would have been a vitally important chance not to be wasted. As well as this, Tyerman notes that the request from Alexius came at a time of new levels of papal assertiveness, which would have given Urban further confidence, using the example of the ‘Council of Piacenza, a clear demonstration of papal power’, which ‘witnessed Gregorianism in action’. Key to Urban’s capitalisation of this opportunity was his remarkably well organised campaign, vital in the mass recruitment of crusaders.

Tyerman claims that Urban capitalised on the grandiose and spectacle of his extensive tour of France to inspire commoners and to bring power and significance to his words, with his tour being ‘the first by a Pope for almost half a century’. As well as this, with his rallies being attended by significant numbers of monastic and papal members, it was ensured that the word would be spread, with the Council of Clermont being ‘attended by thirteen archbishops, eighty-two bishops, countless abbots and a host of other clerics’ . This, in combination with the high levels of ‘Cluniac monasticism’ in the late eleventh century, resulted in Urban’s message being exposed to a larger mass of people, as monks and monasteries relaying the proclamation were part of everyday life for medieval man, especially noblemen, which made up a ‘high proportion’ of recruitment. Ultimately, Tyerman argues that the combination of all these factors resulted in a speech that was enormously significant due to its deliberate inclusion of motivating factors that were contextually highly effective in medieval Europe, with ‘the ceremonial of commitment, confession, penance, oath, and cross’ proving ‘iconic and effective’ in encouraging people to go on the First Crusade. Tyerman even titles the second chapter of his work ‘The Summons to Jerusalem’, immediately implying that his focus and interest is directed on the origins and motives behind the speech, and how effective they were in recruitment, rather than the motives of the Crusaders themselves.

Indeed, Tyerman, Asbridge, and Bull all accept the importance of Urban’s speech, citing the motivations that arose from the proclamation as being key factors in mass crusade participation. It is evident that the way Urban engineered his speech to tap into political and social contexts of the time directly resulted in an enthusiastic response, explaining the high proportion of crusaders originating from his campaign trail. Asbridge highlights the pedantic extent of Urban’s micro-management of his campaign, using the example of Bishop Adhemar, who was among the first of the crusaders to take the cross, and was ‘effectively planted in the audience to ensure that the Pope’s words were met with warm reaction’. He also highlights Urban’s directing of the crusade towards the knightly class, quoting Urban in saying that ‘we were stimulating the minds of knights to go on this expedition’. This displays that Urban was keen for military success, and therefore appeased knights with messages of indulgence, aimed at their pious and militant nature, as well as allowing him to export Europe’s inherent violence to the Holy Land. Bull also argues the societal changes at the time which Urban utilised to inspire a religious response, with the culture of Cluniac reform, which was a ‘revolution which had overtaken the western Church since the middle of the eleventh century’.

As such, he gained resources, enthusiasm, and communication from the church, meaning he already had a collective body of support, sensitive to papal initiatives. Bull also highlights the increased impact of Urban’s speech due to his tour of southern and western France through the autumn of 1095 into ‘areas which had seldom seen a king for decades’, meaning he was able to draw more attention to his message as well as allowing a more widespread audience due the message being spread by members of the church, primarily monks, who acted as recruitment agents. It should however, be noted that whilst Urban’s speech appears to have been very effective in recruitment in Western Europe, there is little evidence that countries from further afield, like , Wales, Scotland, and Ireland contributed ‘any sizable force to the Christian armies travelling overland to the East’, suggesting that his speech was primarily directed at the Franks who he preached to. Despite this, Asbridge argues that the First Crusade was a ‘significant feature of his evolving reform agenda’, with Urban using it as means to achieve the unification of eastern and western churches, and to win the investiture contest as a part of the wider movement of Gregorian reform, in which the ultimate goal was papal supremacy over state. Tyerman’s consideration of these wider political situations within Urban’s motives with the benefit of hindsight has likely led to his conclusion of Urban as the primary factor. However, to achieve his goal, it was vital that Urban used the opportunity of the proclamation to increase his chances of success, by including multiple key motivations, that would attract crusaders from all walks of life.

Overall it is clear when exploring and analysing historian’s perspectives on the significance of the motivations of the First Crusade, that whilst they may have different views on which are the most significant, they all include other key counter-arguments and stress the importance of the links between them in recruitment. Religious motivations come as a direct result of Urban’s own motivations and planning, in attempt to win mass support, who also considered socio-economic and contextual factors in the recruitment of the crusaders. As well as this, crusaders were all subject to separate and personal motivations, which undoubtedly differed based on their class and background. However, when considering the motivations of the crusading majority, it could be argued that religious motivations, such as the promise of glory in heaven from Urban, were most significant, due to the extremely pious nature of medieval Europe at the time. Whilst socio-economic factors were undoubtably significant, the ‘crusading frenzy’ and eagerness to defend Christendom from the Muslim threat, as well as dedication in reaching the end goal, suggest largely religious origins and with many of the crusaders returning to Europe after the crusade, there was little gain for them save for the penitential and pious. As well as this, whilst Urban was no doubt almost completely responsible for such mass participation, it was the religious indulgences that he promised that were vital to recruiting so many from such different backgrounds, and as such, can ultimately be considered as the main motivating factor.

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