Civilisation: Pope Urban II (1035/42 – 1099)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

Pope Urban IIUrban II was always going to be an achiever. Born into a wealthy, aristocratic family sometime between 1035 and 1042 he became the most powerful religious figure in Western Christendom, beat his rival, Clement III in a Papal popularity contest, almost healed the Great schism separating East and West and launched the only successful Crusade to the Holy land. That’s quite a list of achievements for one man.

Not only that, he almost solved the problem of lay-investiture (Simony) and managed to keep the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV (who had appointed Urban’s rival, Clement III) at bay both before and during his papacy.

For all that it is the launching of the First crusade that Urban is best known for. He was the pontiff who, in order to further other political objectives planned to persuade a few thousand knights to Constantinople to help Eastern Christians fight off encroaching armies in the Middle East. Constantinople was losing important territories such as Antioch and Edessa and the Eastern emperor, Alexius I needed help. Urban II was only too happy to provide it.

If he could save the Eastern empire he might heal the rift between East and West. If he could heal the rift he would undoubtedly be seen as the true Pope over the claims of the usurper Clement III. If he could do that he could heal the rift within the Western church. Now there’s a legacy worth leaving.

So it was that on November 27th 1095 (the last day of the council of Clermont) Pope Urban II gave one of the most disastrous and infamous sermons in the history of Christianity. He called for brave warriors to go to the defence of Constantinople and its territories. It is just possible that he also called for the retaking of Jerusalem but as we have explored in a separate post that seems unlikely. Quite how Jerusalem became top of the Crusaders’ list is unclear but it probably had more to do with prevailing pilgrim culture than any request from Urban II. Taking Jerusalem wouldn’t have helped his wider political aims and it wouldn’t have helped Emperor Alexius either.

Urban II seems to have been a pretty empathetic and persuasive character. Not only did he garner significant support from diverse and traditionally opposing factions within the church, he also managed to carry many noble families along with him too. This allowed him to implement some of the most far-reaching reforms to the medieval Roman Catholic church, not least regarding the practice of Simony) although conflicts with Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury meant his influence in England was more limited than elsewhere in Western Europe. This is ironic given Anselm’s support for reform but despite his personal preferences and disagreements the old Archbishop remained loyal to his King.

Urban II died on July 29th 1099, two weeks after the First Crusade captured Jerusalem but before news of the victory could reach him. His most dramatic achievement, chosen by accident rather than design, happened without his knowledge. Perhaps that was God’s punishment for Urban II refusing to travel to the Holy Land to lead the Crusades himself. Or perhaps it wasn’t.

The Crusading Barons had asked Urban II to provide ‘on the ground’ spiritual leadership following their successful capture of Antioch but, unsurprisingly he refused, leaving that particular task to the Papal legate, Bishop Adhemar instead. Sadly (for Adhemar) that decision cost the legate his life. Crusading was a risky business.


You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

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Civilisation: Peter the Hermit

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.


Peter the Hermit was a French monk who lived from around 1050 to 1131. One of the original (but unofficial) ‘Crusade preachers’, Peter was responsible for recruiting and then leading close to 100,000 European peasants to their destruction in ‘The peoples’ crusade’ of 1096. A fate he did not share but for which he clearly was responsible. Pious, impatient, impetuous and tactically extremely inept, he found it hard to control the massive force he’d garnered and quite impossible to save them.

Peter almost certainly was present when Pope Urban II gave his famous sermon launching the First crusade. As the Holy Father sent out the call for knights (not peasants) to go to the aid of the Eastern Christian empire the Hermit would have taken up the Latin chant, “Deus vult” (God wills it”)  and may well have taken up the cross that very day, November 27th 1095.

Over the next few months he travelled through France and Germany, collecting more and more followers as he went until by April 1096 he was at the head of a huge horde of untrained, ill-equipped, unprovisioned and unfinanced men, women and children. With Peter in charge, riding his donkey they set off for the Holy land. The disastrous details of their futile diaspora across Eastern Europe will be covered elsewhere. For now it’s enough to understand just how easily a mob can be stirred to hate their fellow man and how rash that mob can become when religion assures the victory.

We don’t know for sure how the target of the First crusade shifted from the defence of the Western empire to an assault on Jerusalem. We do know that it wasn’t what the Greeks had requested. It may have been Peter himself who changed the terms of this unprecedented, violent Pilgrimage. Or it may have been one of the many other Crusade preachers who used the whole enterprise as a way to raise donations (most of which seem never to have made it past the preachers’ own pockets). We do know that the consequences for Peter’s flock were disastrous.

Peter himself survived the final massacre that saw the bulk of his rabble slaughtered or enslaved by The Turkish army who must have been amazed at the poor quality of the force arrayed against them . Once again the Crusading battle cry, “Deus vult” was heard although presumably what God willed was not what the Westerners had expected. At the time, Peter was safe  in Constantinople where he’d apparently returned to ‘discuss tactics’ with the emperor.

After the massacre of the Peoples’ crusade, Peter did what the Emperor of Constantinople had advised him to do all along and awaited the arrival of the proper Crusade. These were the knights that had actually been requested but who weren’t due to leave Europe until several months after the Hermit’s rash enterprise. The Pope had set a departure date of August 15th 1096. Peter must have known this as he led his followers to their deaths the previous April. Such is the stupidity of those who follow a man convinced of his own righteousness against all common sense and advice. Eventually, inevitably they will come to grief.

The barons arrived with their proper army, organised into military divisions with proper commanders and Peter joined them under the command of Godfrey of Buillion. He followed the knights throughout the long campaign to Jerusalem, deserting them once and having to be returned to camp by force, all the while claiming to possess a letter from Heaven assuring him of victory. This letter which had persuaded so many to follow Peter to their deaths apparently didn’t cut quite so much ice with the old charlatan himself.

After the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 Peter left the Holy land and returned to France where, perhaps unfairly he lived out the remainder of his long life in peace – unlike his followers.

You can find links for each post in the ‘Civilisation’ series here


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Civilisation: The 1st Crusade

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

The ‘First Crusade’ is actually a bit of a misnomer. In truth it comprised of 2 distinct and discrete waves known as

1 The peoples’ Crusade

An unprepared but massive exodus of peasant pilgrims, armed with little more than farming tools and faith. Led by a handful of nobles along with the infamously stupid ‘Peter the Hermit‘ they poured across Europe, attacking just about everyone except the Muslims they were intended to confront. Eventually the few peasants who survived the trip made it across the Bosporus into Asia minor where they were either slaughtered or enslaved by their somewhat nonplussed Muslim ‘victims’.


2  The Barons’ Crusade

This ‘second wave’ set off in August 1096. It was better armed, better funded, better trained and altogether better prepared that the Peoples’ Crusade. Unfortunately it had real trust problems with the Byzantines, coming hard on the heels of the rabble that preceded it.

Led by the seemingly honourable Raymond of Toulouse, the Barons’ Crusade also ran into some difficulties of its own and experienced lengthy delays, almost being wiped out completely at Antioch. The Barons’ Crusade did eventually lead to the successful capture of Jerusalem in 1099 but the damage it did to the Byzantine Empire along the way left the Eastern Orthodox church weakened and vulnerable. The unnecessary and gratuitous slaughter of Jerusalem’s many Muslims and Jews, who had hitherto co-existed peacefully with their Christian neighbours is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Christianity.

We’ll deal with both these ‘waves’ of the First Crusade seperately in this series.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here


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Labelling & prejudice starts early

This video really got to me. Not because little kids can be prejudiced – we all know that children tend to have some very fixed, black and white opinions. That’s the only way that their little heads can make any sort of sense of the nuanced world around them. They make snap decisions based upon very limited information because they have to. We evolved to do that as adults but even more so as kids.

What really pissed me off is the consistency of colour prejudice across different races. Even the black kids were dismissive of blacks and saw whites as somehow better. What are we teaching our children (and by ‘our’ I mean all human children) about themselves and each other?

View this short video here

racism something very wrong children video

It’s true that as they grow these kids will become more subtle in their thinking. They’ll start to understand that the world is more complicated than that and they’ll develop their opinions accordingly. But the early lessons don’t go away – they stick around to influence adult opinions too.

What have we done to these children?

More importantly – are we prepared to change it?

It’s incumbent upon us all to challenge prejudice in all its forms, be that colour, race, nationality, religion, gender, whatever whenever we come across it. Let both adults and children know that it’s neither correct nor fair to judge others or ourselves upon irrelevancies like skin colour.

People are just people – let’s make sure we treat them accordingly!

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Civilisation: The great schism (1054 AD)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

Although officially dated to 1054 (the year of mutual excommunication), the Great schism between the Eastern (Greek orthodox) and Western (Latin) churches began very much earlier. To make sense of this it helps to stop talking about the Byzantine empire for a while and think instead about the Romans.

The Great SchismThe first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine ruled over a united empire that included parts both of Europe and of Asia minor. The Christian church was a single, unified whole, even though Western worshippers would hear the mass in Latin and Easterners would hear it in Greek. Both adhered to the same Nicean creed (defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD) and both looked to the same emperor for support.

As the Western empire shrank and the Roman legions left to defend the East, the church in Rome and its head, the Pope began to take a more dependent, subservient role. European Christians looked to the East for military support and as a consequence accepted political and doctrinal direction too. In return the Emperor in Constantinople the Greek Patriarch defended the Latin church from attack.

Then in the 7th and 8th centuries the Eastern empire itself came under attack. Pagans, Muslims, even fellow Christians launched successive attacks on the church’s territories in Asia minor and the beleaguered Easterners found themselves less and less interested in the defence of their Western brethren. They had their own problems to deal with. The centuries old deal was beginning to break down. Perplexed by the overwhelming successes of Muslim armies the Eastern church began to search for reasons why God would allow such a thing. They hit upon the idea that God favoured the lack of icons in Mosques and was punishing the Christians for their graven images. The Patriarch in Constantinople decreed a policy of iconoclasm (destruction of sacred art) to win back God’s favour but the Western church refused. Relations broke down still further.

Lacking any clear reason to remain subservient, the Latin church began to break away. With the aid of Norman settlers the Eastern occupiers were driven out of their territories in southern Italy and Popes in Rome declared themselves independent of the Patriarch. No longer would they need the approval of the East before taking office. No longer would Western Popes allow Eastern Patriarchs to dictate doctrine. The schism, although not yet great was definitely beginning to open.

By the 1050s, this growing rift had blossomed into a full-blown spat, ostensibly about doctrine but really about power, land and authority. There were two main issues…

1.      The Westerners used unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The Eastern Patriarch thought this ‘too Jewish’.
2.      The westerners added the words ‘filio que’ to their version of the Nicean creed, signifying the assertion that the Holy spirit ‘proceedeth from the father AND THE SON’. The Easterners thought this blasphemous and unacceptable.

Both sides thought theirs was the correct version of the Nicean creed and neither would back down.

In the end the Latin Pope, Leo IX sent an envoy, Humbert of Sliva Candida to Constantinople to try to make peace with the Eastern Patriarch. This may not have been the wisest move. Although brilliant, Humbert was also arrogant, impatient and intolerant. Not the best choice of diplomat in the circumstances.

When Humbert arrived the Patriarch kept him waiting for several weeks before granting him an audience. Then he refused to budge at all on the issues, demanding instead that the Latin church return to its former subservient status and grant the more senior, Greek church the respect it deserved.

Hagia SophiaHumbert’s reaction was both predictable and devastating. He excommunicated the Patriarch during a Mass at the famous cathedral of Hagia Sophia!

The Greeks retaliated by excommunicating Humbert, his entourage and the Pope in Rome. This finally confirmed the schism that had taken centuries to develop and that would last until the modern age and presumably beyond.

So much for the idea of a unified church!


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LibDems’ hands are dirty already

This evening I had the misfortune of watching a Party Political Broadcast by the Liberal Democrat Party. That’s three minutes of my life that I won’t get back. Don’t worry if you missed it – you haven’t exactly lost out.

The bulk of the presentation was taken up with local LibDem councillors wittering on about how nice and dedicated local councillors are, explaining futile, late night attempts to ‘rescue’ perfectly happy pussy cats from trees and nipping down the shop for a pint of milk. There was nothing at all about LibDem policy (presumably because they haven’t decided who is going to dictate it to them yet) and nothing specific to the LibDems at all. Essentially the LibDems agenda in making this PPB seems to have been to get people to like them as people. Let’s face it – they’ll never achieve that by discussing policy.

LibDem betrayal Farron PPB 2016

What really struck me though was the hypocrisy. There was one representative wearing what looked suspiciously like a university scarf (lucky him) and another, an immigrant who conveniently seems to have forgotten how the coalition government of 2010-2015 kicked those who came after him to make a life here. Another talked about how people don’t like having their benefits  cut without the slightest recognition of the LibDems’ role in facilitating the starvation of so many as part of that same coalition government.

The greatest irony though was reserved for Tim Farron, right at the end. Looking straight to camera in an attempt to convey seriousness Farron stated that it’s time politicians got their hands dirty.

I have news for you, Farron – your hands will never be clean again! They’re too deeply stained with the blood of those driven to suicide by the ConDem government you were happy to be a part of for five, sorry years.

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Don’t stand by

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. There’s a reason why the anniversary of the mass slaughter of 6 million Jews along with countless communists, gypsies, blacks and dissidents is held on January 27th. This is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Beginning in 1939 Hitler’s Nazis systematically persecuted and eventually murdered all those that their megalomaniacal leader blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I. Unable to accept the inevitable consequence of that prolonged war of attrition, Hitler chose instead to believe the German people had been betrayed by a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. The result was the Holocaust with its industrialised genocide and brutal enslavement of innocent people.

This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day comes with a theme, an idea to spread as we remember the horrors of 20th century Nazism…

Don’t stand by.


Modern UK faces a rise in far right, genocidal fervour not seen since the 1930s. From immigrants and asylum-seekers to Muslims and Jews, neoNazism is once again raising its ugly head to target those least able to defend themselves. Our nation is becoming deaf to the cries of those fleeing the wars our governments have fostered. Many of our fellow Brits blame these desperate victims, even arguing for extreme violence against women and children. This is the politics of fear and fear is fertile ground for Nazism.

EDL Islam is evil placardMany of us have watched in mounting horror as our fellow countrymen ignore the lessons of the past and move closer and closer to the callous politics of the far right. Europeans become progressively less aware of the awful truth of Nazi genocide with every generation. Those who remember are becoming fewer and their warnings seem less important in a world of computerised bravado and ready made ‘off the shelf’ ideologies. There are even those who doubt whether the holocaust happened at all, or seek to justify its genocide with propaganda straight from the official media of the Third Reich.

If you are one of the doubters I urge you, harrowing though it is, watch this collection of contemporary films shot by those who liberated the camps and think carefully about what you see. This could so easily happen again.

Today, and every day we need to be prepared to argue against the modern neoNazis who would see our nation descend into prejudice and genocide.
We need to speak out against racial hatred and religious intolerance.
We need to challenge the victim-blaming culture that seeks to justify discrimination and hatred aimed at our fellow citizens.

In memory of the holocaust and in the name of all that’s decent ..

Don’t stand by.

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Islamic Holy War

 Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

Islam pray muslimsThose of us who grew up under the influence of the Western, Christian tradition are often tempted to accept, however blindly, the idea of Islam as a religion based upon violence and conquest. Like the medieval crusaders themselves, many Westerners know little or nothing about Islam beyond the inaccurate and superficial stereotyping of popular culture.

Back in the 11th century popular culture ignored completely the role of Christian Byzantines in maintaining the ‘back and forth’ hostility and ever changing boundaries of the opposing Muslim and Christian held territories around the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. To the gullible Westerners of the day the threat to Eastern orthodoxy was entirely the result of aggressive Islamic attackers bent upon destroying God’s innocent people. That narrative of aggressive Islam has continued for a millennium until the modern Western world finds itself far too ready to assume that all Muslims are bent upon conquest, holding up the dubious ‘proof’ of a minority of Islamist terrorists who actually slaughter fellow Muslims in far greater numbers than they kill anyone else.

The reality is though that Holy War really is an aspect of Islam. Mohammed and his early successors were no strangers to the battlefield and the history of the Ummah is peppered with wars of conquest, of defence and of expansion from the very beginning. Violence in the name of Allah has been just as much ‘a thing’ over the centuries as has violence in the name of Jesus. Like other religions, Islam and Christianity are both perfect vehicles for creating conflict and bloodshed but they are also both capable of spreading peace.

JIHADThe purpose of this post is to try to understand how the Islamic doctrine of Holy War, of Islamic Jihad came to be. In an earlier post we noted how Christianity, beginning from a position of weakness embraced peace during its early days, only adopting the viciousness of the oppressor once it found itself in a position to wield power. The story of Islam is different.

Arabia in 622 was made up of rival tribes, factions and societies. The nomadic culture Mohammed knew was full of violent attacks on trade caravans (he and his first wife Khadija were traders) and feuds were commonplace. Anyone not prepared to fight would be unlikely to live long enough to start a family, let alone a religious community.

So, of course, early Muslims were no strangers to warfare. The rejection they experienced from Jews and Christians, the assassination attempts prior to the flight to Medina during Mohammed’s lifetime and the wars between Sunni and Shia immediately after his death meant that the tradition of Jihad as Holy war was ingrained in the Islamic mindset from the very start. This is true but it would be superficial to assume that this is all that needs to be said.

Like Christianity, Islam has the fundamental aim of spreading itself throughout the world. Also like Christianity it has been immensely successful in this endeavour. Both religions insist that there is only one God (actually the same God, differently worshipped) and that His domain is universal. The obvious, consequent duty is to spread the faith far and wide. The Islamic conception of this is based upon the conception of the world as consisting of two ‘houses’ or ‘abodes’.

There is the Islamic Ummah (the ‘Dar ul Islam’ or House of Peace) and the non-Islamic world (the ‘Dar ul Harb’ or House of War). This distinction reflects the fact that Mohammed and his followers sought to establish a peaceful society from the violent, tribal communities of 7th century Arabia. Given the nature of their time and place they quickly found themselves attempting to bring peace through warfare (an irony that seems to many 21st century observers to be just as nonsensical in the case of Islam as it was and is in the case of Christianity). Happily, modern Islam recognises a third house, the ‘Dar ul Ahd’ (House of covenant) to describe those nations which whilst not part of the Ummah are not hostile or in opposition to Islam. Here in the UK we would fall under that latter category, despite the best efforts of some of our more disreputable countrymen.

knightsIslam contains two types of Jihad (Arabic word for ‘Struggle’). The lesser Jihad (warfare in the name of Allah) and the Greater Jihad (a spiritual struggle for self-improvement). It is this latter version of Jihad, the Greater Jihad that most modern Muslims think of first, a Jihad that tends to encourage peaceful relations with others and the spiritual work of bringing oneself closer to God. But that’s not the form of Jihad that was most significant in the years following 1095 when a vast Christian army launched its campaign of extermination against the Ummah. For the ensuing couple of centuries the lesser Jihad was vital for Islamic survival and the Muslims of the time embraced it wholeheartedly. They had to. Islamic Holy War was the only survivable antithesis to the Christian Holy War being waged against them.

This is the context of the infamous ‘sword verses’ which modern Islamophobes constantly quote as evidence of Muslim aggression. These verses relate to the lesser Jihad, the violent Jihad of conquest and of defence. But there’s much more in the Quran than these few verses. There are also clear elements  of the greater Jihad, the spiritual Jihad, even in the context of warfare. There are injunctions against attacking non-combatants or of slaughtering defeated, surrendered enemies. There is the injunction against forced conversion. There is, in deference to their shared, Abrahamic God the description of Jews and Christians as ‘People of the book’ whose religious freedoms should be respected. These communities should be left unmolested so long as they don’t attack the Ummah or attempt to draw Muslims away from Islam.

Like Christians, Muslims believed that to die in Jihad was to enter paradise and the presence of Allah. Like Christians, Muslims saw the defence of their religious community as a sacred duty and like Christians, Muslims were prepared to sacrifice themselves (and others) in the name of their God. Also like Christians, some Muslims are still prepared to fight, to kill and to die for their religious beliefs. From my 21st century, atheist perspective they’re both as bad as each other (then and now) but these people were pre-enlightenment and it’d be unfair to judge them by modern standards. Modern Christian and Muslim terrorists…. Now there’s a different story. We’ll get to them too but that’s for much later in the series.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.


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Crusades – Death and indulgence

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

Hieronymous bosch the order of timeThe Christian church has no shortage of sticks with which to beat believers. The God of the Old Testament, the Jewish YHWH was bad enough but at least He only persecuted humans until they died. With the New Testament and the rise of Christianity there came a whole new way to terrify the faithful into submission. Christianity gave us Hell and Pope Urban II knew exactly how to use it. The threat of eternal torture, combined with the promise of a full and complete pardon for those who died on Crusade became the perfect coercive ‘carrot and stick’.

This was especially attractive to knights. The noble mercenaries of medieval Europe often racked up plenty of sins as they went about their everyday business extorting money and goods from the defenceless peasantry. Crusading offered them a chance to do what they were good at, to fight and kill and to wipe the spiritual slate clean at the same time. What’s not to like?

3 medieval estatesIt’s important to remember that the medieval world of the late eleventh century was still very much organised around the ‘three estates’ model consisting of:

Those who work (the majority);

Those who pray (the clergy);

Those who fight (aristocratic knights and their military retinues).

The latter two groups were supported entirely by the labours of the first. Priests and nobles lived off the backs of serfs, peasants and tradesmen. Cripplingly high taxes were used to finance the lavish lifestyles of professional soldiers, nobles, monarchs and priests. In the narrow confines of feudal life each man had his place and each was supposed to know it. A knight could no more work for a living without facing strict social censure than a peasant could become a nobleman.

Knights and nobles, ‘those who fought’, in other words needed some way to fulfil their function without incurring the wrath of God. Urban II’s call for the first crusade was a gift. If they lived they had the chance of plunder. If they died all their sins would be forgiven and they’d go straight to Heaven, regardless of any sins they may have committed in life.

pilgrimsThere had been other ways to obtain indulgences before 1095. St. Augustine of Hippo complained about indulgences in respect of pilgrimage as far back as the fourth century. For Augustine salvation was the consequence of devotion – not travel. In the intervening centuries indulgences came to be granted for a range of activities from pilgrimage to good works and even (crucially) cash payments. Remember that precedent. It will become extremely important when we discuss the redeeming of crusading vows and the clerical office of ‘Pardoner’ in the late twelfth century.

The complete remission of sins provided by the Plenary indulgence was something new to the Crusading era though. This was the Rolls Royce of Christian forgiveness and lots of people wanted it. Some even went on Crusade specifically seeking their own martyrdom, thus securing for themselves a place in Paradise.

crusaderIt’s not certain that this promise of the complete cleansing of the soul, this Plenary indulgence was actually the brainchild of Urban II or even that it was offered at the time of the first Crusade. The fact is that we don’t really know who first came up with the idea. We do know that within just a few decades of the First Crusade the Plenary indulgence was an uncontroversial and accepted part of the Crusade preacher’s arsenal. We also know that something persuaded up to 100,000 people (both peasants and nobles) to take up the cross, leave Europe and set off to attack ‘The Saracen’ in the East. Something persuaded them to answer the call and the promise of guaranteed salvation may well have been it.

The only records we have of Urban II’s original rabble-rousing sermon were written years later, after the fall of Jerusalem in 1099. They were written retrospectively with the benefit of hindsight and presumably a good deal of post hoc justification for subsequent events.

Whether the Pope meant it or not, the development of indulgence doctrine was to have profound implications, not only for the crusades but for Christendom as a whole.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.


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Civilisation: Why Jerusalem?

Pope Urban IIWhen Alexis I, the Byzantine emperor approached Pope Urban II for help early in 1095 the Christian conquest of Jerusalem wasn’t even on the agenda. The turbulent politics of the region had seen Byzantines, Turks and assorted Arabs feuding back and forth over territory for generations. It wasn’t really about religion per se (although that’s how it was sold to the Pope). The reality was that Byzantine Christians regularly fought alongside Muslim allies in the ‘to and fro’ territorial conflict of that permanently unstable border between two competimg empires. They’d even invaded Christian Italy in a bid to assert authority over the Latin church as well. Jerusalem was a long way South of that equation and its recovery would have done little to help the Eastern Christians anyway. The Holy city had been in Muslim hands for over four centuries by 1095 and wasn’t contested. The Byzantines wanted help to secure Antioch and other recently contested cities – not Jerusalem. The threat was from Turks who were threatening the Byzantine empire itself. The conquest of Jerusalem had nothing to do with any of that.

pope clement iiiFrom Urban II’s perspective, Jerusalem wouldn’t have been a sensible target either. He had bigger fish to fry. He was interested in nothing less than unifying the whole of Christendom. And he had his work cut out for him. Quite apart from the East/West schism Urban II also hade a rival much closer to Home. He wasn’t even the only Pope! Pope Clement III also enjoyed significant support and the rivalry between the two pontiffs was tearing apart the Latin church from the inside. Something had to be done.

If Urban II could heal the rift with the Eastern church that would be seen as a sign of Divine approval for his Papacy. Clement would be consigned to the status of usurper and heretic and the entire church (Eastern and Western) would be stabilised under Urban’s leadership. It seems extremely unlikely that Urban II would risk such a prize with a distracting trip to Jerusalem.

We have no contemporary record of Urban II’s highly choreographed sermon in Claremont. The few extant copies disagree with each other and all were written long after the first crusade was over, complete with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. Hindsight may be a wonderful thing but ‘victors’ bias’ doesn’t exactly guarantee reliable history. So it remains possible that Urban II spoke about retaking Jerusalem but it seems unlikely.

It’s far more likely that the idea of Jerusalem was the invention of crusade preachers like Peter the Hermit. Along with the official crusade clergy led by Adhemar, Bishop of Le Puy (the first to take up the cross in November 1095) a plethora of self-appointed preachers, mystics and cranks also took up the cause, preaching Holy war and deliverance not only in France but across most of Europe too. One of these, Peter the Hermit was to achieve particular notoriety as leader of The Peoples’ Crusade, bringing tens of thousands of peasants and serfs to their deaths in Asia minor.

peter the hermitFor Peter the Hermit and his bloodthirsty brethren the fact that Urban II described the new venture as a ‘pilgrimage‘ was a gift. The pilgrim tradition was well established in medieval Europe and had been for centuries. Although few pilgrimages (even those performed as penance for sins) were all that specific about worthy destinations one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims had long been Jerusalem. In part this was due to the medieval reliance on relics of Christ and the saints to invoke spiritual and practical benefits. Then as now charlatans were rife and fake counterfeits were common. Medieval Christians believed that the best, most authentic relics were to be found in the Holy Land where Jesus and his apostles lived and preached which made the region extremely popular. But there was a problem…

Authentic pilgrims were supposed to travel unarmed. The Pilgrims emblems, the scrip (a type of pouch) and staff weren’t the best defence against bandits and many died on their way to the Holy land. And failure to reach the designated destination meant that the anticipated spiritual rewards weren’t attained either. The newly announced Holy war solved this problem in two ways. First crusading pilgrims went armed – they could defend themselves. Secondly, those pilgrims who died on Crusade automatically were granted plenary indulgence, their sins were forgiven in this world and the next. They escaped both purgatory and Hell.

Nobles benefitted in the opposite way. For them the fact that the crusade was a pilgrimage meant that they achieved their indulgence even if they DIDN’T die. They could be armed, they could still be pilgrims and they could earn their ticket to paradise without having to forfeit their lives on earth.

For ‘crusader pilgrims’, Muslim controlled Jerusalem was a much more ‘natural’ destination than Christian Constantinople.  It also had the benefit of prophecy to recommend it.

Jesus second comingEleventh century Christians would all have been very familiar with the prophecy of the Emperor of the last days. According to this widely circulated apocalyptic prophecy the last days would be ushered in by a Christian king (the Emperor) becoming ruler of Jerusalem. He would be slain by Satan who in turn would be killed by Christ who would return shortly after. This would mark the beginning of ‘the millennium’, a period of 1,000 years during which the righteous would enjoy all the benefits and privileges of Adam and Eve before the fall. For many the call to crusade was the first step in the creation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the brief but vitally important reign of the Emperor of the last days.

For all these reasons it was almost inevitable that the first crusade would be diverted away from Constantinople and toward Jerusalem.  We’ll explore the disastrous implications of this unofficial change of plan shortly.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here


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