By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary
The participants of the holy war, or crusaders, attacked the Islamic Empire in the eastern Mediterranean, thereby strengthening the Christian faith in the region. The motives of the crusaders for joining the holy war were mainly based on the benefits that the participants in a holy war received. What were these benefits?
Penance and Confession during the High Middle Ages
A very lucrative benefit that emerged as a result of the crusading movement was the ‘plenary indulgence’. However, to know what a plenary indulgence was, it is important to understand how penance and confession worked during the High Middle Ages.
Sinners who wished to avoid eternal damnation for their sins had to confess their sins to a priest while repenting for their sins. Although confession to a priest helped avoid eternal damnation, one still had to undergo punishment to atone for their sins. This was known as ‘temporal punishment’. It was called temporal because it was limited in duration rather than eternal.
Temporal Punishment during the High Middle Ages
Temporal punishment took two forms. One form was penance in this world that included a pilgrimage, during which an individual had to survive by eating bread and water for years and practice sexual abstinence.
The other form of temporal punishment included time spent in purgatory. Ideally, if one’s penances were sufficiently harsh in this world, he or she wouldn’t have to spend time in purgatory in the next. However, one could never know whether one’s penances had been sufficiently rigorous.
Even before the First Crusade, pilgrims had occasionally been allowed to substitute their pilgrimages for a different form of penance. For example, if one didn’t want to live on bread and water for ten years, one would be allowed to go to Jerusalem instead.
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A plenary crusading indulgence, however, involved a remission of all the temporal penalties due to sin. It meant that all the penances that one had accumulated and all the time in purgatory that one owed for all the sins one had committed and confessed up to that point, were remitted.
A lot of controversy surrounds the question of whether Pope Urban II, who launched the First Crusade, actually granted a full plenary indulgence in 1095. Even though the origins of the plenary indulgence remain unclear, by the time of the Second Crusade, the Church had largely accepted the legitimacy of indulgences. The indulgence was an offer that was simply too good for most Europeans to refuse.
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Material Benefits of the Crusade
It would be wrong to assume that the crusaders were motivated solely by the spiritual benefits. The Crusade beautifully combined the spiritual and material incentives with familial ties and feudal obligations. This created a symbiotic effect that lured many people into the Crusades.
Apart from spiritual benefits, crusaders also hoped to win tangible material benefits. The Crusade permitted knights, aristocrats, and others to fight in a way that would benefit their souls rather than jeopardize them.
The First Crusade was followed by the Peace and Truce of God movement that emphasized peace and discouraged war. However, the First Crusade permitted crusading knights to maintain their current lifestyle and fight to their hearts’ content, as long as they did it someplace else, and against individuals who were not Christians.
Whatever they won by virtue of fighting in a crusade had no moral stigma attached to it. Thus, crusaders believed that they would be richer participating in the Crusades and would be spiritually better off.
This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Driving Force of Crusaders
The main driving force of the crusaders has long been a topic of debate among historians. Whether crusaders were driven by monetary or religious benefits, the reasons are still unclear.
Research shows that most crusaders got into heavy debts trying to finance their participation in the Crusade. They would be gone for many years and had to support themselves, their retinue, and their followers, which required a lot of money. As a result, many crusaders suffered financially for participating in the Crusade.
But there was more to the participation in a Crusade than money and salvation. There were many crusaders who had feudal obligations. If one was a vassal of a lord, and his lord went to Crusade, he might have to follow his lord, irrespective of his religious beliefs.
Research has also shown familial ties to be an important reason for participation in Crusade. Some families developed veritable crusading traditions, and if one member of that family went, it was common for other family members to volunteer as an expression of family solidarity.
To conclude, many Europeans participated in the Crusade, although the reasons for their participation differed. Some joined the Crusade to attain salvation, while some participated for monetary benefits or familial ties.
Common Questions about the Motives of the Crusaders
During the High Middle Ages, confession to a priest helped avoid eternal damnation, but one still had to undergo punishment to atone for sins. This was known as temporal punishment. It was called temporal because it was limited in duration rather than eternal.
A plenary indulgence involved a remission of all the temporal penalties due to sin. It meant that all the penances that one had accumulated and all the time in purgatory that one owed for all the sins one had committed and confessed up to that point, were remitted.
According to research, most crusaders got into heavy debts trying to finance their participation in the Crusade. They would be gone for many years and had to support themselves, their retinue, and their followers, which required a lot of money.