On Nov. 27, 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called for a Holy Crusade to liberate Jerusalem from Islam.
Perhaps in his late 50s or early 60s in 1095, the pope came from an aristocratic family in northern France. He had risen to the papacy in 1088, a time of deep division between the church and the holy Roman emperor in Germany. In this contest of competing prerogatives, Urban had been only partially successful in reasserting the traditional authority of his office.
The Council of Clermont had been called to settle several issues within the church, not the least of which was to come to a decision on the excommunication of the king of France for adultery. The main reason that Urban called the council, however, was to share the plea of the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus, for help against the incessant Turkish attacks upon the empire.
In his book, “The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land,” Thomas Asbridge writes, “The Greek emperor's request appears to have chimed with notions already fermenting in Urban II's mind, and through the spring and summer that followed the pope refined and developed these ideas, envisaging an endeavor that might fulfill a broader array of ambitions: a form of armed pilgrimage to the East, what is now called a 'crusade.’ ”
In a field just outside the town of Clermont, the pope offered a rousing speech in which he listed the reasons for the crusade. Among the hundreds there to witness the pope's special sermon were 12 archbishops, 80 bishops and 90 abbots. The war against Islam would not only liberate the Holy Land, Urban said, but also secure Christian Europe against the Turkish attacks upon the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople.
The pope began his speech by recounting the terrible details that had recently befallen Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. Many had been tortured, raped or murdered by the region's Islamic rulers. Then he shared Alexius' plea for help with the crowd.
According to the medieval chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, Urban said, “For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania (the Byzantine Empire) as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire .”
Urban also addressed the problems of rampant violence among the feudal lords of Western Europe, and his hope to channel it into the effort of the crusade.
In his book “God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades,” Rodney Stark writes, “At this point Pope Urban raised a second issue to which he and his illustrious predecessor Gregory VII had devoted years of effort — the chronic warfare of medieval times. The popes had been attempting to achieve a 'truce of God' among the feudal nobility, many of whom seemed inclined to make war, even on their friends, just for the sake of a good fight. After all, it was what they had trained to do every day since early childhood. Here was their chance!”
Stark writes of the reaction to the pope's plea for a crusade: “Now, shouts of 'Dieu il volt!' (God wills it!) began to spread through the crowd, and men began to cut up cloaks and other pieces of cloth to make crosses and sew them against their chests. Everyone agreed that the next year they would set out for the Holy Land. And they did.”
In 1099, the crusader army captured Jerusalem, slaughtering most of its inhabitants, and created the Outremer (Overseas) kingdoms along the Eastern Mediterranean coast. The crusades would continue for the next 200 years as Christians and Muslims fought for control of the Holy Land.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org