November 27, 1095 – Pope Urban II, speaking before a large council of French nobles and clerics, exhorted his audience to invade the Middle East to recover Jerusalem for Christendom, thus ordering the first crusade.
By the end of the 11th Century, Christianity (Catholicism in particular), headed by the Papacy in Rome, was in spiritual control of nearly all of Western Europe (with the exception of Spain, then mostly under control of the Moors). In the East, what remained of the former Roman Empire still remained in control of Byzantium, a small outpost of Eastern-Orthodox Christianity centered in Constantinople. The rest of the Near and Middle East, however, was firmly in control of the Moslem Seljuk Turks (Sunni) and Arab Fatimid (Shiite), divided into several Caliphates.
The Catholic Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church of Byzantium had split in 1054 over such burning issues over the nature of the Holy Spirit and whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in Church rituals (yes, really). Still, both the Papacy and Eastern Orthodox Church remained in contact, and both hoped that the split, or schism, would be resolved and the two churches reunited once again. By 1090 both Pope Urban II and the Byzantium Emperor, Alexis, were in regular contact and the schism had greatly thawed.
In early 1095, Emperor Alexis, testing this new opening, sent a request to Pope Urban for military help against the Turks. Urban received the request positively, as it would be a way for him to accomplish two long sought goals. One was ecclesiastic: he could use military aid as a way of healing the schism on his terms, and bring the two churches back together, united under Rome’s rule.
The second was more secular: at the time, Europe was crawling with armed men with no wars to fight. 1088 had seen an end to two major armed conflicts in England and Saxony, leaving thousands of men-at-arms looking for a fight with none to be had; as a result, armed banditry and violent lawlessness had become a major civil issue. By giving these soldiers an enemy to fight, Urban reasoned, he could solve two problems at once.
On November 27, 1095, Urban held a council in Clermont, France, where he gave an impassioned speech to a large assembly of French nobles and priests, urging them to go on a holy crusade to beat back the Turks and recover the holy city of Jerusalem for Christendom. As an added incentive, he offered a full pardon of all sins to anyone who died during the undertaking. According to legend, the crowd responded enthusiastically with shouts of “Deus Vult!” (“God wills it!”).
Before the official crusade even began, however, a charismatic priest named “Peter the Hermit” led a “People’s Crusade” of peasants (and a few minor nobles) towards Jerusalem in the spring of 1096. Not surprisingly for an expedition following a guy called “the Hermit,” the People’s Crusade ran into trouble even before reaching the Middle East. In Hungary they fought with locals over food; when they finally arrived outside of Constantinople as an unruly mob, they sacked and pillaged the countryside. Alexis, eager to rid himself of these “crusaders,” quickly ferried them all across the Bosporus to Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) within a week. Once there, the People’s Crusade continued its pillaging until they ran into Seljuq soldiers, who swiftly and mercilessly massacred them. Peter, who had wisely stayed behind in Constantinople, however, survived.
Also before the expedition to the Holy Land embarked, the religious fervor unleashed by Urban prompted some would be Crusaders to first turn their attention to a traditional and easier target: the Jews in Europe. Long a target for European Christians, Jewish communities had suffered from attacks and pogroms for centuries. In early 1096, as a kind of Spring Training for the slaughter they would inflict on Moslem (and Christian) civilians in the Holy Land, Crusaders –including Peter’s mob — attacked unarmed Jewish communities in Germany despite official church policy decrying such actions.
Entire Jewish communities were destroyed, with unarmed civilians slaughtered and synagogues sacked. These “Crusaders” appeared to have had two goals in mind: force the Jews to convert to Christianity (or die) while simultaneously relieving them of their money. While some converted at the point of a sword, an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 were murdered. Subsequent crusades over the next 300 years yielded similar massacres against European Jews, anti-Semitism proving to be as enduring as the Pyramids. Deus Vult indeed.
The official crusade – the “Prince’s Crusade” – finally began in August of 1096. Following Urban’s call in November, church officials spread out across Europe enlisting volunteers. While powerful nobles were to lead these Crusader armies, and thousands of knights enlisted, most of the volunteers were actually peasants with little military training. These men were divided into four separate armies (based on what part of Europe they came from) under the command of French nobles; in total, approximately 30,000 soldiers marched towards Jerusalem in August of 1096.
After reaching Constantinople the Crusader army was ferried over the Bosporus in early 1097. In the late spring of 1097 they scored their first victory, capturing the city of Nicaea after a siege, showing great self-restraint by managing not to loot the city after it surrendered. From there the army laid siege to the key city of Antioch. In May of 1098 the long siege finally ended when the Crusaders were able to somehow bribe a guard to leave a gate unlocked. Once inside these soldiers of God began a widespread and indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of the city’s inhabitants – Christian and Muslim alike. After defeating a Seljuq army sent to besiege them, the Crusaders were in firm control of the City.
Following a nasty epidemic that thinned the army out to about 12,000 men, and surviving a winter where they resorted to killing and eating the Arab population of a local town (yup, the town of Ma’arra), in early 1099 the Crusaders moved towards their ultimate target – Jerusalem – then under the control of Arab Fatimid rulers. Without enough men or supplies to lay siege to the city, the Crusaders opted instead for a full-scale assault, which they began in July. After several days of attacking the City’s walls, the Crusaders finally made it in on July 15, 1099.
At that point a slaughter of civilians began that made Antioch’s pale in comparison. The City’s rulers had previously expelled all Christians as the Crusaders approached (worried about a “fifth column” inside the walls), which meant the Crusaders could hack away at the Jews and Muslims who remained without pity. None were spared; Jews seeking refuge in the city’s synagogue were burned alive when Crusaders torched the building, and Muslims in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, who had been promised protection by one of the Crusader leaders, were all murdered as well.
After defeating a Fatimid army sent to recapture the City, the Crusaders had secured the Holy City of Jerusalem and achieved their original goal. In the aftermath of the First Crusade, Europeans established a series of “Crusader States” in the Middle East: the Kingdoms of Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli and Syria. Over the next 200 years the military situation in the region would shift back and forth between the Christians and Muslims, and several other Crusades would be launched to retake land lost to the Seljuqs and Fatimids. Eventually all the Crusader states, including Jerusalem, would fall back into Muslim hands, and by 1291 no Christian states would remain in the Middle East. Apparently Deus non Vult after all.