The First Crusade, also known as the Popular Crusade was one of the major events that changed the socio-political landscape of Europe in the High Middle Ages. The First Crusade would never have taken place if Pope Urban II had not called for it on November 27, 1095, at the Council of Clermont in central France. Why did he give this call? Did someone appeal him for help?
The Great Schism
Pope Urban II had several reasons to launch a Crusade against the Islamic Empire in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. One of the most important reasons was his desire to improve relations with the Byzantine Empire.
Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, included much of southeastern Europe — the Balkan regions, parts of Greece, as well as Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The Byzantine Empire was a part of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces and was officially Greek-speaking by the time of the First Crusade. Although it was Christian, by 1095 it became Orthodox rather than Catholic. As a result, a religious split occurred in 1054, known as the ‘Great Schism’.
In 1054, representatives of the Western Catholic Church negotiated with representatives of the Byzantine Church over differences in practice and language. The two areas, the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West, had developed different forms of liturgy.
The negotiations, however, ended in a disaster and led to the excommunication of the patriarch of Constantinople, the most important Byzantine religious official. In turn, the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the papal representative, and, by extension, the pope. This resulted in a religious split. The Byzantines no longer accepted the pope as the head of the Christian religion.
Learn more about those who prayed-the monks.
Alexius I Comnenus Appeals to the Pope for Help
The Great Schism of 1054 deeply affected Pope Urban II. An opportunity to heal the Great Schism arose in 1095 when the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Alexius I Comnenus, appealed to the pope for help.
The Byzantines had suffered a disastrous military defeat in 1071, in a battle called the Battle of Manzikert, in which most of the Byzantine army was annihilated. This led the Turks to overrun much of the empire. After this defeat, Alexius I Comnenus was desperate to recapture the lands that had been lost to the Turks in Asia Minor. However, he lacked the resources to launch such an endeavor.
Therefore, he asked for the pope’s assistance, playing on the theme of Christian unity, to help the Byzantines by taking part in an exercise of joint cooperation, in which the Byzantines and the Westerners would take back much of what had been lost to the Turks.
There is also the possibility of that he suggested to lead this expedition to Jerusalem the holiest city for Christians and take that back as well. Jerusalem had been lost by the Byzantine Empire to Muslims back in the seventh century and had been outside of Christian control for several hundred years.
Pope Urban II’s Call for Crusade
The pope believed that if he helped the Emperor, he would be in Alexius I’s good graces, and perhaps, would acquire the leverage needed to end the Great Schism. Pope Urban II also hoped to bring the Byzantine Empire back within the papal fold.
In his speech at Clermont, Pope Urban II devoted a lot of attention to the problem of aristocratic violence in Europe. He called to the knights in the audience to embrace warfare against non-Christians and to abandon warfare against fellow Christians. He perceived the Crusade as a way to channel knightly violence away from Europe and away from Church property toward a different part of the world.
Learn more about the chivalric code.
The Beginning of the First Crusade
Pope Urban II received a massive response to his appeal, but it was very different from what he had anticipated. Instead of a few hundred knights expected by the pope to assist the Byzantines, almost 100,000 people, who were peasants and artisans with very little fighting skills, took part in the First Crusade.
They were humbler folks, known collectively at the time as the ‘populous’ or the ‘people’. The first bands of crusaders to depart Europe consisted largely of members of the populous and is known by historians as the ‘People’s Crusade’ or the ‘Popular Crusade’.
However, the People’s Crusade was badly organized. Pope Urban II had set a specific departure date for all the crusaders — August 1096. The crusaders were supposed to leave then and rendezvous at Constantinople, to team up with the Byzantines, and then march down toward Jerusalem.
However, the first bands of the Popular Crusade left Europe too early. They began to depart in the spring of 1096, and before departing Europe they began to massacre the Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley. When they arrived in a town, the members of the Popular Crusade demanded that local Jewish populations either convert to Christianity or be killed.
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Reasons for the Massacre of the Jews
Money was one of the main reasons why the crusaders killed Jews. They didn’t have enough money to reach Constantinople and intended to take the property of the Jews who refused to convert to finance their expeditions.
The crusaders also had religious, especially millenarian considerations. ‘Millenarianism’ refers to the belief that the end of the world is imminent. For the crusaders who held these millenarian beliefs, the Jews of Europe had to be eliminated.
According to one popular strain of millenarian apocalyptic thought, before the world could end two conditions had to be met. First, Jerusalem had to be in Christian hands, and second, unbelief throughout the world had to end.
The launch of the First Crusade led the population to believe that the world was indeed going to end. However, the world could not end if there were unbelievers still residing in Europe. Thus, in a twisted way, it made sense that the Jews of Europe either all had to convert or be exterminated before the capture of Jerusalem.
The gruesome massacre of the Jewish people resulted in mass suicides of the members of the Jewish communities. They decided that rather than risk giving in and converting at the last moment in order to save their lives, they would simply commit suicide, instead.
Learn more about heretics and heresy.
The Failure of the Popular Crusade
The Popular Crusade went from bad to worse. In Hungary, the crusaders stole everything they could get their hands on because they had no money to feed themselves. A constant running battle broke out between the Christian inhabitants of Hungary and the members of the Popular Crusade.
The crusaders reached the Byzantine frontiers too early. Hundreds of impoverished people with no military skills proved to be futile against the Turks. They were not what the Byzantines had hoped for.
Also, the food and supplies that the Byzantines had intended to provide for the crusaders were not ready yet. As a result, the crusaders began to fight with the Byzantine troops who were sent to escort them.
In the autumn of 1096, the Popular Crusade reached Asia Minor, where it encountered the Turks. The Turks annihilated the majority of the crusaders.
According to the Byzantine sources, Alexius I advised the Popular Crusaders to wait in Constantinople for the arrival of knights, aristocrats, and those who were able to fight. He believed that they would be slaughtered once they got to Asia Minor.
However, according to Western authors, Alexius I, sick and tired of the rampaging of the Popular Crusade, tricked the Popular Crusade into crossing over to Asia Minor and watched them die. Unfortunately, it is impossible to say which side was telling the truth.
In conclusion, the Popular Crusade was unsuccessful in capturing Jerusalem and the Byzantine-Western relations got even worse. Due to its complex origins, the First Crusade took on a life of its own, and it proved to be impossible for any individual to control the actions of the Crusaders. As a result, it ended in a bloody fiasco.
Common Questions about the Popular Crusade
The Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Alexius I Comnenus, appealed to the pope for help because the Byzantines had suffered a disastrous military defeat in 1071, in a battle called the Battle of Manzikert.
In his speech at Clermont, Pope Urban II devoted a lot of attention to the problem of aristocratic violence in Europe. He called to the knights in the audience to embrace warfare against non-Christians and to abandon warfare against fellow Christians.
The people who participated in the First Crusade were humbler folks, known collectively at the time as the ‘populous’, or the ‘people’. This is the reason why the historians call the First Crusade as the ‘People’s Crusade’ or the ‘Popular Crusade’.