The year is 1095 CE. We stand at the Council of Clermont. All the great names of Europe are witnessing this, both the secular and the ecclesiastical. For a moment there’s a hush. The last words of Pope Urban II’s fiery speech, extolling nations of Christendom to retake the holy land from Muslim invaders, hangs in the air. Then someone in the crowd shouts “Deus vult”, which stands for “God wills it”.
Every man in the crowds shouted “Deus vult”, only until the council interferes to calm the voices down. Then, out of the crowd, a bishop named Adhemar rushes up and falls to his knees before the Pope, claiming that he will lead any willing Christian to reclaim the holy land for Christ. And thus, the First Crusade began.
There’s just a little problem. by this point, Muslims had actually occupied the Holy Land for nearly 400 years and there was little evidence of the various atrocities Urban invoked in his speech to incite Europe to the crusade. In fact, the church had never seemed very concerned about the occupation before now and pilgrimages to the holy land had continued practically uninterrupted since Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands in 637.
earlier that year, Alexius Comnenus, the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, an empire that had fallen a long way since the days of Justinian, had sent envoys to the Pope asking for help from the West against the Seljuk Turks. These Turkish Muslims coming out of the East had practically pushed the Empire to its limits, forcing them out of nearly all of Anatolia, the traditional heartland of his empire. Alexius Comnenus had hoped for supplies, arms, and a few thousand well-trained men so that Byzantium could continue to serve as the bulwark of Christian Europe against the Muslim east, or really so he could just win this war retake his territory and strengthen the Empire he was the head of.
Pope Urban had a slightly different idea, the Pope wasn’t in the most secure position. The church was fighting a war with the Roman Emperor. Meanwhile, another Pope named Clement III had been positioned in Ravenna and claimed to be the rightful Pope. In fact, Urban couldn’t even enter Rome. Hence, why he was kicking around in France because the Holy Roman Emperor and the antipope held it against him. So Urban thought: “Maybe let’s unite all of Christendom to fight somebody else”.
And thus the First Crusade began. But Urban was a smart man, he knew how to motivate people by his words. He knew how to gather a force larger and more cohesive than any nation in Europe could muster. He would offer to those who have spent their life fighting, those who had spent their lives committing mortal sins, one chance, one opportunity for absolution. And he would offer that opportunity for doing the thing they did best: going to war.
This is the first time a pope to take such a decision. Never before had a plenary indulgence been offered for Marshall’s action, and this innovation drew a lot of people. And the truth is “though I may have my suspicions about some of the motivations of the leaders of this movement, In a world as motivated by faith as medieval Europe, I think that faith and a hope for absolution was the reason that so many people bankrupt themselves just so they could join the crusade”.
unfortunately, this offer was so good that a lot of people who signed up weren’t quite the people the Pope meant to get.
the Pope had set a date of August 1096 for the Crusaders to leave from Europe, so that nights and barons could get their affairs in order and so that they could prepare what in the Middle Ages counted as “supply and logistics”. But that wasn’t fast enough for some people. In France, there was a fellow by the name of Peter the Hermit who began whipping up the peasantry he talked of the atrocities he’d witnessed in the Holy Land. (Although there’s a fair amount of evidence to say that he never actually went there) And he told tales of his divine appointment by Christ to lead the spiritually pure who would be protected by heaven to Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of people left their farms to join Peter, although they had no money for the journey and didn’t even know how far it was from their homes in Western Europe to the Levant. Few of them were soldiers, and fewer still even owned weapons. But as Peter preached, word of this peasants crusade began. And while Peter was still gathering his tide of peasants at Cologne, Other groups decided that they were just going to set out on their own. And this is where the people’s crusade becomes one of the most unmitigated messes in the history of History.
- First there’s the group from France under a fellow named Walter Sans-Avoir. They left ahead of Peter and made it through Hungary all right, but when they showed up at Belgrade, The doorstep of the Byzantine Empire, the local governor was very confused. He’d been told that the Crusaders weren’t supposed to show up for another half a year at least. And weren’t they supposed to be soldiers? This was just a mob led by a few impoverished knights. So he didn’t let them in, He told them he was going to send a letter back to Constantinople and if could they just wait patiently until he got his instructions in order.
How do they respond? By pillaging the countryside! In all fairness to the Crusaders, they were probably starving. They hadn’t thought to bring enough supplies with them, and you’ve got to remember: this is spring in medieval Europe, it’s not like they had refrigeration and rapid transport. The bulk of the food for the year comes in during the fall harvest which is exactly why Urban scheduled his crusade to start in the middle of august, so it could be easy to resupply as they went. But by springtime, there’s just not very much food around so it’s unlikely the Crusaders had been able to really stock up on spare provisions on their trek through Hungary So the Crusaders went on a pillaging spree. They destroyed homes and farms they even came to blows with the local Byzantine garrison. Some of them even went back to Hungary, which they’ve managed to cross through before without doing any harm, and tried to loot a local market. They tried… but the town’s folk kick them out and the local byzantine garrison beat them down too and soon cowed, these first Crusaders were brought under escort to Constantinople.
2- Now we should talk about the second splinter group of the people’s crusade : a group from Germany led by count Emicho of Leiningen. This count had heard of Peters preaching’s, and had gathered his own group to go crusade. They were to head off to the Holy Land from Germany but – well they only got a few miles before they seem to decide that : “you know, the local Jews are a lot closer and less well-armed !” And so they went from town to town through Germany sacking their own cities slaughtering the Jewish population and stealing any money they might find. Now this was opposed almost unilaterally by the Catholic Church this wasn’t at all what urban had called for. Even if you argue he didn’t care about Jews there’s no question he wanted the fighting out of Christendom at the very least. not only did priests and monks preach against this sort of violence but there are actually heroic stories of Bishops opposing these marauding Crusaders and trying to protect their local Jewish communities. The Bishop of Speyer gave them his protection, The Bishop of worms brought the local Jews to take refuge in his home and even tried to fortify the place but the Christian Crusaders attack and stormed the bishops house slaughtering some 800 Jews hiding there. The Bishop of Menz did the same and even ordered the town bar against the Crusaders. In fact, there the local Jewish population even raised a great deal of gold to give Emicho if you would just go away. But Emicho took the bribe and then attach the city anyway. When word of the attack reached him the bishop raised his personal guard and rushed to join forces with the governor’s militia and the force of local purchases who had come out armed to defend the local Jewish population. After fierce fighting, the locals drove the Crusaders off. But the Crusaders gathered more men recruited some sympathetic or bribable town’s folk, and attacked again.
This time the defenders broke and fled. In the aftermath, thousands of Jews were slaughtered. Emicho’s band massacred their way through Germany until at last, they ended up at the Hungarian border. By this time Peter and his crusade had already passed through Hungar. But when the king of Hungary saw Emicho’s marauding band he decided that: No, he was having none of this. And refuse to let them into his country. The Crusaders decided to force their way in any way and promptly laid siege to the Hungarian, Christian, city of Moson, where they were promptly defeated by the city garrison and slaughtered almost to a man. And thus the First Crusade began.