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Why the Crusaders Went

This post is the third in a series about the most prevalent modern myths about the Crusades and how to refute them.

Anna Comnena was the thirteen-year-old daughter of Emperor Alexius I when the initial group of Crusaders marched into Constantinople during the First Crusade in the late eleventh century. Later, as a woman in her forties, she wrote the Alexiad, an account of the events of her father’s reign. In describing the arrival of these warriors from the West, Anna expressed the skeptical belief that the Crusaders (or at least the knights) had come simply to “get richer” and with the “ulterior purpose… to seize the capital [Constantinople] itself.”[1]

Anna had no way of knowing that this comment would evolve over the centuries into one of the main myths about the Crusades: that they were undertaken to increase the wealth of Crusaders and the Church.

Costly Crusades

This charge can be easily debunked with the simple fact that going on Crusade was an extraordinary expense—costing a knight four to five times his annual income.[2] From being enriched, the vast majority of Crusaders suffered financial hardship as a result of their participation. Indeed, in order to finance such an expensive undertaking, many knights and their families sold or mortgaged their land and possessions.

Once the Crusading movement had taken root in Christendom, alternative means of finance helped shift some of the burden from the individual Crusader. Kings instituted taxes on their subjects, for example, and popes taxed bishops and the clergy in order to raise necessary funds. But even these efforts did not usually generate enough resources.

So, if Crusaders were far more likely to lose money than profit, why did they go?

Across the Sea in Service of Christ

Although Crusaders responded to the papal call to engage in armed pilgrimage for a multitude of reasons, there is one motivator that outweighed all others: faith. Medieval people were steeped in the Catholic Faith; it permeated every aspect of society and their daily life. Above all, love of God, neighbor, and self drove participation in the Crusades.

Love of God and the desire to serve him dominated the themes of Crusade preachers. Popes and preachers used the image of a Crusader denying himself and taking up the Cross in imitation of the Savior to motivate warriors. Bl. Urban II told the assembly at Clermont that “it ought to be a beautiful ideal for you to die for Christ in that city where Christ died for you.”[3] St. Bernard, while preaching the Second Crusade, told warriors that God seemingly “puts himself into a position of necessity, or pretends to be in one, while all the time he wants to help you in your need. He wants to be thought of as the debtor, so that he can award those fighting for him wages: the remission of their sins and everlasting glory.”[4] Those who chronicled the Crusaders and their actions highlighted the inherent sacrificial nature of Crusading: “It is a sure sign that he burns with love for God and with zeal when for God’s sake he leaves his fatherland, possessions, houses, sons and wife to go across the sea in the service of Jesus Christ.”[5]

Relief of the East

Love of neighbor manifested itself as concern for the safety of Eastern Christians (as well as Western pilgrims) threatened by Islam. Pope Urban II’s preaching at the Council of Clermont focused on the plight of Christians in the Holy Land, who were subject to cruel tortures and punishments at the hands of the Turks. His graphic description of Turkish atrocities was designed to elicit a visceral response from his hearers so that they would take up arms to liberate their Christian brothers and sisters.

The brothers Geoffrey and Guy responded to Urban’s call and sold property to the abbey of St. Victor in Marseilles in 1096 in order to finance their expedition. In the charter documenting the sale, they explained why they were joining the Crusade: “[for] both the grace of the pilgrimage and under the protection of God, to exterminate wickedness and unrestrained rage of the pagans by which innumerable Christians have already been oppressed, made captive, and killed.”[6]

Penance and Salvation

Love of self (i.e. concern for one’s salvation) was the prime motivator for the vast majority of Crusaders. Bl. Urban II granted an indulgence to anyone who “for devotion alone, not to gain honor or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God.”[7] Medieval people saw this spiritual benefit as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that outweighed the substantial risks.

In a vicious and violent age most medieval laymen, especially the nobility, believed it was extremely difficult for those not in a monastery to go to heaven. The Church constantly warned warriors that warfare over land holdings against fellow Christians placed their souls in danger. As a result, many Catholic warriors were drawn to the Crusades by a desire to perform penances for their sins and by the opportunity to utilize their martial skills in the service of Christ and the Church. Odo of Burgundy, who participated in the minor Crusade of 1101, wrote that he undertook “the journey to Jerusalem as a penance for my sins…”[8] Another knight, Ingelbald rejoiced that through the Crusades “God has spared me, steeped in many and great sins, and has given me time for penance.”[9]

Those who went on Crusade did so for varied reasons, of course, but contrary to the popular myth, perpetuated by Hollywood and the media, they did not go principally to get rich. There were simpler and less dangerous methods to accomplish that goal closer to home. The vast majority who went on Crusade did so because of the greatest of virtues: love.

By Steve Weidenkopf









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2 comments

  1. Barbara Negus Reply

    Where can I find the first two articles on why people went on crusades?

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    This seems to boil down pretty succinctly to a case of killing in the name of God, as though that makes it right.

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