Religion in Middle Ages

Category: Religion
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“There is no greater reason for why men have fought during the middle ages more than religion. Religion is a divisive issue, and one that stands in the way of diplomatic interactions between diverse societies. In this paper, we will examine the history of the pilgrimage that became to be known as the First Crusades. We will determine the justification of violence, and the non-justification of violence in some scenarios, according to the perception of the people of the time.

Ideology of Holy War

Pope Leo IV declares that anyone who dies in battle for the defense of the Church would surely be rewarded in heaven.[1] This gave rise to an idea that religious leaders, who have God’s authority, can communicate God’s will to the people. Later, Pope John VIII, states that to those who die in battle, their sins will be remitted. [2] It is interesting that before this time religious leaders did not preach about achieving the reward in afterlife by effectively causing and using violence. This gives wave to the idea of “papally-sacntioned violence” that we will delve into later. Both of these ideals will be key during the Crusades. At the time of the Council of Clermont in 1095, Turkish forces are progressing into Christian land. They now possess the eastern regions of the Byzantium Empire. Consequently, in his speech at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II urges his listeners to have Western Christendom march and fight for the rescue of Eastern Christendom, to help reclaim lands once held by the Byzantinnes. Urban appeals to the crowd in a few ways. One way is he proposes the idea that instead of the factions of Christians fighting amongst themselves, they should instead unite for a righteous war, which God would lead. He also echoes the promise of Pope John VIII. Urban states “You will be blessed, indeed, if the Lord shall find you faithful in stewardship.”[3] The crowd responds with chants of ‘Deus le volt!’ (God wills it!) Also, the Bishop of Le Puy, in front of everyone, kneels at the throne of Urban and begs permission to fight. The crowd follows the Bishops lead.[4]Some scholars suggest that Pope Urban is effective because of his “scare stories, exaggerations, and stereotyping of the enemy.”[5] What seems particularly interesting about Pope Urban II is that he uses familiar ideas, but he mixes it with the idea of “papally- sanctioned violence”[6]. The idea that violence is justifiable if it comes from a spiritual leader such as the Pope. One would assume that in a religion seemingly based on peace and love, and whose first commandment being “Thou shall not kill”, that religion wouldn’t accept violence of any kind. However, from researching the First Crusade, we find that violence was in fact justifiable if it was brought forth by a spiritual leader. This definition is what is meant by papally sanctioned violence. Someone with the Popes authority and holiness can seemingly declare a war, where tens of thousands will be killed at the hands of Christians, and it is justified. Urban makes the Bishop of Le Puy “leader” of the crusades, and always refers to him as the leader which further exemplifies that it is a spiritual war, and not a political war.

Peasants Crusade

Emperor Alexius makes preparations for the large force of Frankish armies that will navigate his land. He must keep the crusaders from pillaging his land and robbing his people. He sent Byzantine forces to meet each army and lead them to Constantinople. Alexius received knowledge that the Pope called for the departure date to be on the 15th of August 1096. He figured he had adequate time to prepare for the thousands of people that would be coming. Peter the Hermit was preaching the crusades. According to Albert of Aix[7], Peter was very successful in recruiting people to the cause. However, many of the crusaders were anxious to keep moving. But Peter wanted to utilize the wealth of Cologne. Walter Sans- Avoir led a legion that broke away from Peters army, of a few thousand men to head to Hungary. King Colomon allowed Sans- Avoir and his men to pass through his kingdom. At the Belgrade border they were unprepared for an army so soon. Belgrade had the army stay in the countryside while they awaited permission from Alexis. It was in May 1096, he received news that there was a Crusading army in the Empire already. [8]

This Frankish army was enthusiastic to fight, and now they will be left waiting. This would prove to be a problem. Walter demanded food for his followers. The harvest of the crops had not occurred yet so early in the year, so Belgrade didn’t have abundant food to give them. Pope Urban II knew when the harvest season was, and planned accordingly. So those that left early could not be cared for. The thousands of people who departed before the noblemen who are the crusaders, are known as Peasant Crusaders. They are a very diverse group who are made up of mostly non-combatants. They were very ill-prepared for the journey, and for the military activity that would ensue. The army pillaged the countryside. This understandably causes tension. Peter later arrives at the Hungary border. King Coloman allows Peter and his men through, but warns him of the pillaging that Sans- Avoir and his men have done. All was well until there was an argument over one of Peter’s men and a shoe merchant. The argument led to a riot. Peter’s men were uncontrollable and attacked the town. It is estimated that 4,000 Hungarians were killed. One point that can be made is that the Peasant Crusaders were supposed to be helping the Byzantine Empire. Instead, they are pillaging and killing their people on their way to the Holy Land. Johnathan Phillips says, “The pope’s original conception of the crusade was for a compact contingent of knights to assist Emperor Alexius of Byzantium in his struggle against the Seljuk Turks of Asia Minor before marching on to the Holy Land.”

They pillaged as they continued. They arrived to territory that was held by Turkish forces, but whose citizens were Christians that were previously Byzantine. Peter lost support of his men, and Rainald became leader. Against Peter’s advice, the crusaders attacked. They made it as far Nicea, a very important town. Here they pillaged, they tortured the Christian population and roasted babies.[10] After the battle of Nicea was over, Gesta Francorum soon writes about the dead “Avenge, Lord, our blood which has been shed for thee, who are blessed and praiseworthy forever and ever. Amen.”[11] The Gesta Francorum was a chronicle of the events of the First Crusade, because the author is unknown, we will refer to them simply as Gesta. Even after the wicked violence that the group of Christians have brought, Gesta shows that from the soldiers perspective, they were still doing this in God’s name and with what they believed was God’s will. Their faith that God will renounce all their sins as the Pope has said is incredible and admirable.

One interesting story of the Peasant Crusades was the German group who went beyond Nicea into Xerigordon. As they marched, they again pillaged. They captured the castle and found that it was stocked with many supplies. The Turkish forces knew that the city’s water supply was located outside of the castle, and the Turks were able to capture it. This led the German crusaders without water. Runciman wrote “The besieged grew desperate from thirst. They tried to suck moisture from the Earth; they cut the veins of their horses and donkeys to drink their blood; they even drank each other’s urine.”[12] He goes on to say that the priests tried to comfort the people, but soon the legion surrendered. This is a pretty horrific picture that is painted by Runciman. Rainald, the leader that took over Peter’s army, received a promise that his life would be spared and he would renounce Christianity. All of his men who did not renounce, were slaughtered.[13] Emperor Alexius realized that this group was not the army he had been waiting for. He ships them across the Bosporus, and they are soon annihilated by Turkish forces. It is important to note that from here on out we will be discussing the noblemen that captured Jerusalem, as they are members of the First Crusade.

Why Crusade?

Crusading was very expensive. Some estimates say that it would cost 4 years annual income.[14] In order to go on a crusade, it was often necessary to mortgage or sell land. They felt a true devotion to go Crusading. The Popes message set it off. But then you would have people such as Peter the Hermit and others preaching the crusade. These forces motivated Christians to take up the cross. However, there were other factors that scholars point out. Johnathan Phillips states that ties of allegiance and the desire of land were other reasons for them to crusade. [15] Pope Urban II did say however “The possessions of the enemy, too, will be yours, since you will make spoil of their treasures and return victorious to your own.”[16] However, the intrinsic motivation to them seems much more than the extrinsic motivation.”

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Religion in Middle Ages. (2021, Apr 02). Retrieved from

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