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Europe and the First Crusade

The Pope from 1088 to 1099, Urban II, was bothered by Muslim rule in the Holy Land. He wished to see the Holy Land under Christian rule. He and others were more confident about the power of Christendom than had been previous generations. To Christians, the Muslims appeared to be growing weaker. Christians had been expanding against Muslims since Charlemagne took Barcelona in 801. In Spain the Kingdom of Leon-Castile had expanded southward to Toledo in 1085. In 1091, Normans conquered Sicily, ending Muslim rule there, and in 1094 the Kingdom of Aragon expanded southward to Valencia.

Success by Christians against the Muslims was not universal. In 1071 Constantinople had lost against the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert, between the Black and Caspian Seas. And following this defeat the Turks took much of Constantinople's territory in Asia Minor. Alexius, the emperor at Constantinople, wanted to win back former empire, including Palestine – which had been lost to Islam in the 600s. Alexius appealed to the West for help. Then there was a disappointment for Alexius: the Turks overran Jerusalem. There was talk in Christendom about relics in the Holy Land having been profaned and of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem having been mistreated or sold into slavery. Pope Urban spoke "of 'the base and bastard Turks ... an accursed race.'" note8

Emperor Alexius was interested in promoting Christian unity, and he recognized the growth of power in western Europe. Pope Urban II responded to the call for help from the emperor at Constantinople and organized what was to become known as the First Crusade. Urban II said Christ would lead any army that went to rescue the Holy Land. He promised a cancellation of debts, exemption from taxes and eternal life to all participants. Those who died in the Crusade, he announced, would go to heaven. He described going on the Crusade as a religious duty, and in preparing for the Crusade he ordered all feuding among Christians to stop and threatened to excommunicate those who did not. He hoped that warring for the cause of Christianity in the Holy Land would be a substitute for warring in Europe.

Enthusiasm for the Crusade spread to Scotland, England, Castile and Scandinavia, and among the enthused were common people. Before Urban II could organize his crusade, peasant mobs, hoping perhaps for eternal life and heaven, began to march in the direction of the Holy Land. Many had sold their land to pay their way.  Mostly the peasants bought their food, but some pillaging took place. Many did not reach  Constantinople – the major city on route to the Holy Land. To prevent looting, officials at Constantinople rushed the Crusaders out of town on their way to the Holy Land through Asia Minor, and there the Crusaders were exposed to attack by the Turks.

From five to ten thousand knights, mostly from France, volunteered for the First Crusade, along with twenty-five to fifty thousand additional soldiers. French and German nobility were in a mood for conquests and loot. For the knights the Crusade was an opportunity to emulate the great deeds of Charlemagne. Western Christendom was looking upon the Eastern Christian Church as not much better than paganism, and members of the Roman Church believed that conquering the Holy Land would elevate their church and end the schism between the Western and Eastern churches, with the Western Church absorbing the Eastern Church.

Crusaders passing through some European towns sought contributions from Jews. Jews were attacked and murdered.  At Metz (in France) in early May 1096, some Jews who refused to be baptized were murdered. At Speyer (along the Rhine River) thirteen Jews were killed. There a Catholic bishop, John, gathered the Jews under his protection, and it is said that anyone he could catch who had killed Jews would be punished by having their hands cut off. note9 ┬áLater that month at Worms (also on the Rhine) perhaps 500 or more Jews were killed after Crusaders broke into the Episcopal palace where the Jews had taken refuge. Another massacre occurred along the Rhine at Mainz. And more were killed at Cologne.

The cry of the Crusaders on their way to combat Islam and liberate the Holy Land was "God wills it!" The knights were more successful than the peasant armies at arriving in the Holy Land, and there the knights conquered. They seized gold, silver, horses and mules and invaded houses in search of loot. Convinced that they were fighting the devil they cut down all before them. Any Muslim who did not flee Jerusalem was among those who might be cut down. In the Holy Land were many Jews. The knights, exuberant in victory and believing that the Jews had killed Christ, exercised a collective punishment and massacred Jews where they found them. Jews who took refuge in Jerusalem's main synagogue were burned to death. And some Crusaders were sickened and shamed by the brutality.

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.