[In November 1095, Pope Urban II delivered a famous sermon at the Council of
Clermont in which he called for Christians to unite and recapture the city of
Jerusalem from Muslims, inciting the First Crusade.]|
What Pope Urban II had in mind when he preached the First Crusade was, I think,
a variety of quite practical things. He hoped for the reunion of Christendom,
which at that time was divided between the Latin Church and the Greek Church.
He hoped also to recapture Jerusalem, which had been under Muslim rule for many
centuries. And it was also a matter of giving the largely unemployed and
over-aggressive nobility of France something to do, get them out of Europe and
stop them devastating the ... lands. All these factors played a part in his
mind. Whether he himself had any particular beliefs about the imminence of the
End, that's really doubtful. But that is what was read into his speech by many
uninformed people. ... He undoubtedly wanted the knights to go on this great
military expedition. He had not foreseen that they would be followed by a mass
of upstart peasantry. That, however, is what happened. And it was the
peasantry which wreaked the great destructions, the murder of the Jews all down
the Rhine and the savage assaults on Muslims by those who got to Jerusalem.
What had Urban offered to the knights? What kinds of incentives did he
Well, from his point of view, it was, I think, a matter of salvation, that they
could earn their eternal salvation in this way. What many of them looked
forward to was getting an estate somewhere in the Holy Land, which many of them
indeed managed to do.
Tell me about those hordes and masses who joined along. And tell me a
little bit about the destruction they wreaked, and where it happened, and about
the first mass killings of the Jews that took place.
The first mass killing of the Jews was carried out by the so-called People's
Crusade, which attached itself to the army of knights and followed on behind
them ... . They came largely from Flanders. [But] they proceeded down the
Rhine, where there had been large Jewish settlements, ever since Roman times,
the oldest Jewish settlements in Europe. And they were really destroyed by
these hordes, who felt that as a necessary preliminary to the Second Coming, it
was necessary to kill all Jews. This was not the official Church doctrine.
The official doctrine was that all Jews must be converted to Christianity
before the Second Coming. But one way of settling this matter was to kill
them, and there would be no unconverted Jewish left. And that's what they did,
in very horrible massacres ... .
I often describe the Crusades as the foreign policy of the new reformed papacy
of the late 11th and the 12th century. It was the
papacy's attempt to reunite Christendom by bringing Eastern Christians back and
by reconquering the Holy Land and especially the sacred city of Jerusalem from
Islam. And in that sense, it was the genius really of Urban II to create a new
form of lay piety. Whether we like this or not, it was an important form of
lay piety that combined holy war with the idea of pilgrimage, and perhaps with
certain eschatological and apocalyptic overtones, that so galvanized Europe
that hundreds of thousands went off marching to the East to recapture the
sacred apocalyptic city.
What are the apocalyptic overtones of the Crusades?
Some scholars have argued that the First Crusade was fundamentally an
apocalyptic event, and that those who went believed that they were initiating
the end times. I don't think the evidence supports that. One of the accounts
of Pope Urban's speech does indeed have him emphasizing apocalyptic motifs, but
that particular account of his speech was written some 15 years after the
speech. And we have five different accounts of his speech, and they all
emphasize different motifs. I do think the image of the apocalyptic city was
probably important for some of the Crusaders. But I think that the reconquest
of Jerusalem, the conquest in the year 1099 (we're just celebrating the
anniversary) did a lot for emphasizing the centrality of Jerusalem in later
apocalyptic traditions. And that may be the most important contribution of the
Crusades to the apocalyptic mentality of Europe. Not so much that the Crusade
itself was an apocalyptic event, the First Crusade; but that the reconquest of
Jerusalem emphasized its centrality. And then when Christians lost the city to
Saladin in 1187, the necessity of reconquering it often took apocalyptic
aspects or apocalyptic overtones.
Did Urban have a certain kind of war or crusader in mind?
Pope Urban wanted only the knightly class to go off on the Crusade, and he felt
that he was appealing to their religious motivation to become both pilgrims and
warriors. But what he got was something quite different. He got a vast mass
movement, which we know included many, many thousands of people who were not
part of that knightly class. And I think that shows us just how significant
the appeal to the Crusade actually was among all ranges of European society.
For a knight, there were indulgences of a certain kind being offered. But
did peasants see it in another way?
Well, I think it's quite possible that some of the masses of peasants saw the
Crusade in a rather different sense, and perhaps had a much more apocalyptic
dimension to them. We have to remember, the status of the peasant in Europe at
the end of the 11th century was really quite a difficult and
impossible one. And the vision perhaps of going to Jerusalem and in some way
sharing in some kind of millennial kingdom may have been far more
powerful with the peasants than with the knights. But once again, our evidence
is in many cases rather fragmentary about what motivated the peasants
especially. We often know much more about what motivated some of the knightly
What happened in some of those cities, particularly around the Rhine?
crusaders massacred jews along the rhine
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the whole crusading movement, of course,
was the fact that it marks, as many scholars have maintained, a significant
change in the relationship between Jews and Christians, and some of the
beginnings of the most savage persecution of Jews by the Christians in the
massacres that took place along the Rhineland cities as the crusading peasant
groups especially-- not so much the soldiers who wanted to get money from the
Jews, but the peasants-- took on the terrible task of pogroms that slaughtered
many thousands of Jews. Now again, if that can be tied to apocalyptic
expectations, as some have argued, that is extremely significant. But the
evidence is doubtful.
What were the motivations for those massacres?
I think the motivation for the massacres is really tied to the sense of "us"
and "them." And if Christians were going off to reconquer the Holy Land from
Islam, seen as the enemy of Christianity, it was a very easy but terrible step
to take that any enemy of Christianity therefore was in the way, and should be
Do these massacres mark the beginning of a tradition of
I think that the great slaughters, the terrible pogroms of the First Crusade,
are a significant stage in the anti-semitism of later Western history. Now
again, there's been some debate over that recently among historians. But
nevertheless, the intensity of these forms of opposition, I think, is
significant for history getting worse in terms of relationship of Jews and
What happened when the crusaders conquered Jerusalem?
Well, I think what's amazing when we think about it here as we celebrate the
900th anniversary of that conquest--July the 15th,
1099--is that it succeeded. Because of course, to march armies of tens of
thousands, both of knights and non-combatants, all the way across Europe, to
have maybe one in 20 survive, and then to conquer the city of Jerusalem, seemed
like a miracle. It even seems like a miracle to us today. But it was that
miracle, of course, which gave Christians--unfortunately, I think--in the
12th century this sense of divine providence, that the city of
Jerusalem was theirs; and of course then when the city was lost in 1187, made
it an even more critical moment in Christian views of history and its coming
When the crusading armies arrived at Jerusalem finally in mid-June of 1099, one
of the things that they did was to immediately have a religious procession
around the whole city, a penitential rite, because Crusade was also pilgrimage;
and then to have an immediate assault on the city, because they felt again that
God was on their side. That assault failed. And so then the Christians began
to build siege machines in order to attack the city over the next few weeks.
And then finally, in the middle of July (July 12th and
13th through the 15th) the siege machines enabled the
city to be breached, the crusaders to rush in, and then the most terrible thing
to happen: a slaughter, almost universal slaughter of Muslims and Jews in the
city, which is still the worst stain on the Crusade, I think, that history
leaves to us.
How many people killed?
It's difficult to know exactly how many people were slaughtered at the conquest
of the city, but it seems to have been some tens of thousands. ... Crusading
chronicles say that the blood from the slaughtered reached up to the knees of
What is the legacy of the taking of the city for Christian apocalyptic
Well, we have to remember that the city of Jerusalem is the apocalyptic city
par excellence. And it's not just the heavenly Jerusalem, but it is the earthy
Jerusalem. And so the miracle of the conquest of the city in 1099, and having
it once again back in Christian possession, I think, enhanced the position of
the earthly Jerusalem as the apocalyptic city, and gave it then a centrality
that was even more powerful than it had previously.
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