By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary
The High Middle Ages saw changing relationships between European kingdoms and other parts of the world. Unlike the Early Middle Ages, most of continental Europe was free of outside encroachment. In fact, European kingdoms began to encroach upon their neighbors. One of the best examples of European expansion during the High Middle Ages was the crusading movement, especially the First Crusade. From 1095 to 1099, a series of religious wars were initiated against the Islamic Empire in the eastern Mediterranean by the European kingdoms.
Why No One Had Any Concept of the First Crusade?
People who participated in the First Crusade were completely unaware that they were a part of it, as no one knew that there would be more crusades in the future. The main reason why people at that time had no concept of the First Crusade was that the term ‘crusade’ had not yet been invented.
When the First Crusade was launched in 1095, it was referred to as a ‘pilgrimage’. Individuals who took part in what is now called a ‘crusade’ were simply called ‘pilgrims’. They carried a wallet and a staff, the traditional symbols that pilgrims had to carry in medieval Europe to show others that they were on a pilgrimage.
The Latin term for ‘crusade’ and ‘crusader’ did not emerge until the late 12th century, approximately 100 years after the launch of the First Crusade. One of the popular terms for ‘crusader’ was signatus cruce that meant ‘signed with the cross’ in Latin. The term reflected the fact that crusaders had to wear crosses on their backs to identify themselves as crusaders.
They had to take public vows to signify their intention to travel to a specific destination. In the case of the First Crusade, the destination was Jerusalem.
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Spiritual and Legal Benefits Received by the Crusaders
During the First Crusade, crusaders received all the spiritual and legal benefits that pilgrims enjoyed. Spiritually, it was believed that the holy sites, especially Jerusalem, could increase an individual’s religious devotion.
Legally, all pilgrims had the right to expect hospitality, food and shelter, from any Christian they met along the pilgrimage path. They were all under the specific protection of the Church, during the time when they were on a pilgrimage. This meant, they were, theoretically, free from physical assault.
It also meant that their property was under the protection of the Church and they could not be sued while they were on a pilgrimage. This turned out to be a good way of avoiding or stopping litigation.
Crusaders were not just pilgrims, they were also participants in a holy war. Traditionally, pilgrims were supposed to travel unarmed wherever they went, although many usually hid a weapon for their safety. Crusaders, on the other hand, were armed and carried weapons.
They were, in fact, expected to use their weapons during their crusade. As participants in a holy war, crusaders received the privilege of martyrdom if they died during the Crusade. That is, if a crusader was killed during the Crusade, he was guaranteed immediate salvation, for that, was the reward for martyrdom.
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The Genius of the Crusading Movement
Before 1095, pilgrimages and holy wars existed independently. The crusading movement, especially the First Crusade, fused these two separate phenomena into a single entity, thereby creating a win-win situation for those who took part in the Crusades.
The benefits of pilgrimage belonged only to those who lived long enough to survive the pilgrimage. If they died en route, they had nothing to show for their pain. The benefits of participation in the holy war, on the other hand, only pertained to those who were lucky enough to die during the course of the holy war. If they survived, they had nothing to show for it.
However, if an individual was both a pilgrim and a crusader, then he would receive the benefits of pilgrimage as well as the holy war, whether he survived the Crusade or not.
In addition to the lucrative combination of pilgrimage and holy war and the benefits that pertained to each, crusaders received another benefit called the ‘plenary indulgence’. This benefit emerged as a result of the crusading movement.
Indulgences, especially plenary or full indulgences played an important role in post-medieval European history. Christians in Europe saw the Crusades as a path to salvation for those who participated in the holy war.
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Common Questions about the Concept of Crusade in the High Middle Ages
When the First Crusade was launched in 1095, it was referred to as a ‘pilgrimage’, and individuals who took part were simply called ‘pilgrims’.
Spiritually, it was believed that the holy sites, especially Jerusalem, could increase an individual’s religious devotion. Legally, all pilgrims had the right to expect hospitality, food, and shelter, from any Christian they met along the pilgrimage path.
Traditionally, pilgrims were supposed to travel unarmed wherever they went, although many usually hid a weapon for their safety. Crusaders, on the other hand, were armed and carried weapons. They were, in fact, expected to use their weapons during their crusade.