Humanity’s tendency to make massively important decisions with no evidence is not reserved to certain types of people. It is, in essence, a gamble. The only difference between some of our biggest blind guesses and betting on a roll of the roulette wheel is that you at least know there is a chance the roulette ball will land on your number, you know the wheel and ball exist, and usually you have to actually set foot in the casino before you place your bet. Such was not the case for one of the biggest bets. biggest payoffs, and worst losses humanity had ever suffered- it was called the Crusades. In particular we should look to the first crusade, the one that set the stage for two hundred years of bloody warfare that pitted Christians against Muslims and Christians against Christians.
In November in 1095 C.E., Pope Urban II delivered a sermon in Clermont, France in which he described the disasters and abuse that the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem had suffered since the Turks had captured the city. There was a sense of urgency to his plea, which is somewhat surprising since Jerusalem was captured four hundred years earlier. What was more pressing and what might have been part of the reason he gave the speech was that the Eastern Christian kingdom of Byzantium was losing territory to invading Turks at that time, and the ruler, Alexios I, had sent emissaries to ask Urban for military help. There was much more to the First Crusade than providing military aid to christian allies in Constantinople. Pope Urban knew this, but perhaps even he did not know the magnitude of what he had set in motion.
In the spring of 1096 an untold number of crusaders left Europe and headed for the holy land. The crusades were in part a kind of pilgrimage, which was an accepted and not uncommon practice of the time. Unlike earlier pilgrimages in which small groups would go to the holy land to worship and be humbled, crusades were armed pilgrimages meant to wrest the holy lands away from infidels. The first wave of crusaders were relatively unorganized and made up of commoners. The few that survived the journey where torn to shreds by the Turks. In the autumn of 1096, however, a contingent of tens of thousands of crusaders began the same journey, but were led and organized by well-known knights who acted something like allied generals.
They suffered greatly, many dying in battle but more due to disease and famine, however they did eventually succeed in their mission. In 1099, the year the Pope Urban II died, the first crusaders captured Jerusalem. The news of this great victory quickly spread back to Christian Europe and spawned the beginnings of a second crusade, but at the same time it was a defeat for the first crusaders. Their preconceptions about the Muslim Turks and the state of the holy land had to be reevaluated. They were still the enemy, of course. But now they were more human. The Christians who remained in Jerusalem eventually found that they only considered a Muslim an enemy if he was raising a sword against them. They mostly got along with neighboring Muslims even though they had slaughtered every Muslim in the city when it was captured. When the second and third crusades came, they found this tolerance in their fellow Christians strange. After two hundred years of fighting, Christian control of the holy land would be completely removed and the Crusades would come to and end.
The consequence was a complete change in the world. Instead of ending Muslim control of the holy lands, Pope Urban’s sermon started a chain reaction that opened up trade and exchange between the Muslim and Christian world. It led to greater Muslim control of the Near East, and created a strained relationship between Muslim’s and Christian’s that still effects us today. Perhaps the most surprising part of the crusades was that it was based solely on the idea that Muslim’s were destroying sacred lands, staining them with immorality. The only evidence, if it can even be called that, were reports from foreign Christians who were often asking for aid. The people of Europe who had contact with Muslims, Spanish and Sicilians, didn’t really participate in the crusades. It was quite possible that in any of the armies there were only a few people, if any, who had ever met a Muslim.
It was more that the stories all fit with a familiar narrative that European Christians had come to believe was true of Muslims. Add to that that the Pope offered not just salvation for your soul, but forgiveness of debt, and it is not so hard to believe that so many answered the call to ‘bear the cross.’
Two hundred years of blood shed based on questionable rumors.
1. Fighting for Christendom, Christopher Tyerman, Oxford University Press, 2004
2. Fighting for the Cross, Norman Houseley, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2008
3. The Popes, Claudio Rendina, trans. Paul D. McCusker, Seven Locks Press, Santa Ana, CA, 2002
4. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, ed. Jonathan Riley-Smith, Oxford University Press, 1995