World History 1 209 - 13.3.2 Pope Urban II and the Council of Claremont

In 1095, facing invasion on all sides, the Byzantine ruler Alexios I sent ambassadors to plead for help from the pope and an opportunity for a reconciliation between the two churches. Pope Urban II was a supporter of church reform, and that put him at odds with German emperors like Henry IV, who insisted on his own right to appoint bishops, even the bishop of Rome. To avoid being in Italy when Henry was, Urban traveled throughout western Europe, preaching repentance from sins and obedience to the church. He answered the Byzantine emperor’s call for aid, but in a way Alexios was probably not expecting.

Urban II presented his idea of religious war in response to the Byzantine request for aid at a council in Clermont, France, in 1095. While the council was ostensibly about reform, Urban also issued a call for Christians from all walks of life to undertake an “armed pilgrimage” to liberate the Christian Holy Land (the lands of the eastern Mediterranean associated with the life of Jesus and the biblical prophets, including Jerusalem) from “Turkic” control. Urban’s goal at this point was to free the Holy Land from non-Christian rulers in defense of the Christians living there; it was not a blanket endorsement of violence against Muslims. These limitations were later eased, however, as the popes discovered the power of calling repeated crusades to promote the reforming goals of the church and to compete with political rivals in Europe, like the German emperors.

While the Byzantine emperor wanted aid for his realm, Urban instead sent the crusaders to Jerusalem. Urban’s directive to “liberate Jerusalem” and support the Christians in the Middle East was clever. Few Europeans knew or cared about the problems of Constantinople, but the church’s reforming and educational efforts had made the life of Jesus in Jerusalem and the early Christian community there a focal point in people’s imaginations. Catholics prized relics of saints as a means of fostering their devotion and bringing them closer to the divine, and Jerusalem was in effect an enormous relic, a gateway to heaven itself. Preachers like Peter the Hermit whipped up crowds of men and women with the idea of a glorious pilgrimage to the most sacred of cities (Figure 13.17). The call to crusade stirred western Christians into action, soldiers and knights as well as poor peasants and zealots.

An image of a painting is shown. In the image a man in long black robes, long, brown hair and beard holding a cross in his raised arms is standing on the top step of a stone building. An image of a man in a loincloth on a cross hangs to his left on the ornately decorated building. A mass of people surrounds him down the steps and out onto the cobbled stone street. The people are dressed in varying styles of colorful robes, from simple cloths to richly decorated outfits. Some wear hoods, head coverings, or headbands. They range in age from babies in their mothers arms to the aged. Many have their arms raised to the man at the top of the steps and some wield swords in their raised arms. One man sits in a red robe and black hat on horseback toward the back of the crowd. Next to him is a bronze colored tall pedestal with a statue of a rider in a warrior outfit with a helmet and spear sitting on a horse with its two front legs raised over a serpent with its teeth bared. In the background of the painting, tall beige buildings can be seen with windows and archways in front of a blue sky with white clouds. People can be seen looking through the arched balconies.
Figure 13.17 This painted illustration from a world history published in the early twentieth century imagines Peter the Hermit giving a rousing speech to attract men and women to go on crusade. In many ways, it is representative of a modern perception of the popularity (and virtue) of the crusading movement from the perspective of western Christian society of the period. The reality, however, was much more nuanced. (credit: “Peter the Hermit Preaching the First Crusade” by Cassell’s History of England, Vol. 1 (of 8)/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Urban also hoped to restore unity to the church by offering help to the Byzantine Empire. What we know of his speeches shows how he tied this effort together with his reform program. Freeing Jerusalem from “the wicked” would mirror the rallying cries to free the church from aristocratic control. After all, the reason Urban called for the crusade while in France was that he had to contend with a rival pope, supported by the German emperor, who had occupied Rome since before Urban became pope. Urban was also likely concerned about guarding the frontiers of Christianity, which compelled him to insist that Spanish Christians should not go on this pilgrimage because they were needed at home in the persistent struggle against Islam in the Iberian Peninsula.

Finally, Urban’s ability to inspire the people of Europe signaled the influence he wielded over Christians at large. The popes had no armies, and they often had to depend on the unreliable aristocracy for protection when disagreements over church policy resulted in armed conflict with the princes of Europe. If they were to maintain their control over the church in contests with kings and emperors, it would be useful to see what happened when a pope rallied common Christians to a religious cause as a test of faith. Thousands were willing to stitch a cross onto their clothes, a sign that they were on this special pilgrimage and the source of the word “crusade.”

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax