Warriors of Christ or Soldiers of Fortune? Modern Interpretations of the Motivations of the Early Crusaders

The question of what compelled so many to abandon their homes for a perilous journey to distant Jerusalem in the Middle Ages is one that has fascinated for centuries. There exists today two popular interpretations of the motives that drove the Crusaders forth; that they sought new land, which was at a premium in Europe, and that they sought both wealth and fame. Both of these arguments have enthusiastic popular backing, either publicly or across various internet forum’s, yet are largely discredited amongst professional historians. Why the disparity between popular interpretation and that held within the historical community of the guiding ethos of the early Crusaders? And what did inspire so many to depart, along with their families, for an unknown future?

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A great deal of debate on the nature of the Crusading movement has been stirred by recent events. Before his ousting, Colonel Ghaddafi frequently decried Western intervention in Libya as being in terms of a “Crusade”. The term has also been similarly used by Vladimir Putin in condemning Western military activity in the Middle East. The West, they implied, whilst declaring  itself as defenders of the peace and protectors of the oppressed, instead sought only land and wealth in the Middle East at the expense of its largely Muslim inhabitants.

This interpretation of the Crusades, though once popular, is largely dead in academic circles. The idea of the Crusade as an early form of European imperialism had its birth in post-1871 France, but was quickly largely discredited elsewhere. The Crusades were not a French novelty; as many Germans participated in them as Franks, even if the majority of Crusading chronicles poorly reflect their contribution, and a nominal ‘French’ mentality could hardly be used to describe the Crusader states, split as they were between langue d’oil and langue d’oc, and the pullani (those Franks who were born in Outremer) and the newly arrived Franks from the West. Similarly the portrayal of the Crusaders as being driven by material gain owes far more to our own interpretation of their motives, coloured by contemporary capitalist culture, than any existing documentary evidence.

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So what motivated the Crusaders if not land and money? The Crusading period is extraordinarily well documented by contemporary narrative histories, but unfortunately they are unable to tell us much of the mentality of its participants. One piece of documentary evidence, however, does provide a great deal of insight. Although four versions of the momentous speech given by Urban II at Clermont, November 27, 1095, which gave birth to the Crusading movement, exist, only one of their authors, Fulcher of Chartres, was actually present that day and his record was written at least twenty years after the event. However, Bishop Lambert of Arras is known to have been present that day and records of the Canons passed by the Council of Clermont were preserved by him in the Church of Arras. Contained within them is this notable passage, the only one that refers to the event the Council is most famous for;

Whoever for devotion alone, not to obtain honour or money, shall set out to free the church of God at Jerusalem, that shall be counted to him for all penance”.

There are two important points to note in the above. Firstly that honour relates to a landed estate, rather than fame and respect. The second is that participation in the Crusade granted only penance. This is important as in later letters written by Pope Urban II promoting the movement, this was substituted for remission of all sin. The difference is subtle but important. Penance can only be made on known sins. But since man is an inherently sinful creature he cannot possibly comprehend all of his sins. Remission of sin offered a complete clean slate, a far more attractive proposition than mere penance.

 

We therefore know two things about the Crusades. Firstly that those who participated in them did so in return for remission of all their sins and, secondly, that the pursuit of either land or money automatically precluded them from the above reward. Therefore, the two most common interpretations of Crusader motivation are rendered null and void. Certainly there may have existed some who still crusaded in the pursuit of the above, but we not only lack documentary evidence of this intent, but studies of the costs involved in crusading indicate that anyone who embarked on the expedition in the hope of enriching themselves would have done far better by simply staying at home.

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So what was the motivation of the Crusaders if not land and wealth? The answer must lie in the remission of sin. We know, from extensively researched prosopographies, that the majority of those who departed on the Crusade were milites, professional soldiers. The attitude of Christianity towards warfare is an uneasy one and war can only be considered ‘just’ if it occurs within a strict set of conditions, as defined largely by St. Augustine of Hippo. In order to be compatible with contemporary society, war needed to be considered in terms of Christian belief. Warfare by Christians must only be undertaken in legitimate defence of aggression and be in direct proportion to the injury suffered. A soldier was permitted to kill another man on the battlefield only as an act of Christian charity, that is, as suitable chastisement for his foes sins. If a soldier loved his enemy as he killed him upon the battlefield, his action was justified.

This definition of just war became blurred in the late eleventh century. Europe was becoming dominated by stone keeps and battlefield engagements were increasingly rare. Contrary to common perception, castles are not primarily defensive in nature, but rather strongpoints from which attacks can be launched. Campaigns, therefore, descended into what we would regard as economic warfare; raid and counter raid aimed at undermining the authority of an enemy lord and avoiding the danger of a long, drawn out siege. Raiding defenceless villages and farms replaced battlefield engagements as the primary form of contemporary military conduct.

Those who engaged in this new warfare, pillaging defenceless peasants rather than engaging in just combat on the battlefield, must have been intensely aware of the sinfulness of their conduct. The numerous Papal movements against this this new type of war, such as the Peace of God and the Truce of God, could only have confirmed this idea. In the stratified world of Medieval Europe a change of career was out of the question. Disqualified from joining the nobility, lacking the education required for the Church, and with the work of peasantry, which included trade, looked down upon as inferior, the only option that remained was seclusion in a monastery. Anyone who is aware of the draconian regimes followed by medieval monasteries would know how unattractive a proposition that was to all but the most devout.

The Crusades offered to these soldiers a means of escape from their predicament. They would be afforded remission of their many sins through the exercise of their arms in a just cause. Increased prospects of fame and fortune may have been an attraction, but the primary lure was the offer of an effective spiritual clean slate. It is this mentality that sustained the Crusaders on their journey towards the Holy Land, despite the suffering experienced en route. The distant lure of gold or land would not have compelled the Crusaders to have continued in the face of starvation and disease in the Anatolian highlands, constant attack from Balkan and Turkish raiders, and the severe privation as experienced, for example, during the Siege of Antioch during the First Crusade.

That most modern interpretations of the primary motivations of the Crusaders overlook or dismiss the spiritual aspect of the journey is surely a reflection of our contemporary society. We live in a world ruled by money and have difficulty in understanding one where faith was the primary denomination of contemporary society. As Leslie Poles Hartley wrote, ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’. Has there been any popular recognition of the primary motivations of the crusaders that compelled them to depart for the Holy Land? Well yes, actually, there has. And as with many things, we must turn to Rock ‘N Roll for the answer, and in particular a passage from Neil Young’s 1995 album, Mirror Ball;

The holy war was slowly building

Heroes leaving for the great crusade
Seek reward in the ever after
Ever after

Ever after.

And the name of the song? Act of Love.

For anyone interested in further reading on the mentality of the Crusaders, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading by Jonathan Riley-Smith is an excellent place to begin. For the military side of the Crusades, Victory in the East by John France is a comprehensive modern contribution. Incidentally, the author also whole-heartedly recommends the rest of Neil Young’s back catalogue.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.