The year was 1095. In the east, the Greek speaking Byzantine empire – inheritors of what had been left of the eastern Roman empire – had experienced a huge loss of territory to the Seljuk Turks.
These nomads had swept down from central Asia, first taking Islamic domains including the city of Baghdad and then seizing most of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) from the Byzantines. They now found themselves holed up in their capital of Constantinople with the Seljuks, who had by then converted to Islam, on their doorstep.
Jerusalem and the holy places of Christianity had originally been ruled from Constantinople but lost to the Islamic caliphate in the seventh century AD. But Asia Minor had remained under Byzantine control, up until the eleventh century. Now it seemed as if Christianity would be snuffed out completely in the east.
Not that all was well in terms of relations between eastern and western Christians. The version of Christianity being observed in the Byzantine empire was the Greek rite – what we now call Orthodox – and the patriarchs of the east had fallen out big time with Rome. So much so that a bull of excommunication had been slapped on the altar at the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) casting out the entire eastern church as heretical.
This came to be called the Great Schism and happened in 1054. The Byzantines continued on their own religious path and ignored Rome’s threats until they lost a disastrous battle to the newly arrived Turks at Manzikert in 1071. Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes was forced to grovel before the Turkish leader for his life – an act of great shame to the ancient empire.
But forty years later, another emperor – the more astute Alexios I Komnenos – wrote a begging letter to Pope Urban II asking for urgent assistance against the Turks. Alexios knew that the once mighty Byzantine empire (and it had experienced a very successful period in military and economic terms in the 10th and 11th centuries) could not act on its own. He developed a policy of diplomacy and duplicity that the Byzantines would become notorious for.
Rome took up the offer but not in terms of rescuing Byzantium – so much as regaining control of the holy places in the Levant – Jerusalem in particular. At the Council of Clermont, Urban addressed a huge crowd and urged them on to essentially kill for Christ.
The concept of just wars had been initially developed by Saint Augustine in the fifty century AD and would be extended by Bernard of Clairvaux during the ensuing crusades. Bernard advanced the ethically questionable theory that when you kill non-Christians in battle, you are killing evil and not wrong-doers – therefore, you are not committing homicide (a sin) but malecide (not a sin).
Confusing, several version of Urban’s speech exist and the nuances are different. My old friend Fulk of Chartres pops up with one account of the speech. Here’s a bit of Urban’s rousing rhetoric:
All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor. Behold! on this side will be the sorrowful and poor, on that, the rich; on this side, the enemies of the Lord, on that, his friends. Let those who go not put off the journey, but rent their lands and collect money for their expenses; and as soon as winter is over and spring comes, let hem eagerly set out on the way with God as their guide.
Robert the Monk’s version details some atrocities for the faithful – just to get them a little angrier:
They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent.
The result of all this – the badly organised First Crusade that would give rise to the foundation of the Order of the Temple.