World History 1 210 - 13.3.3 The Rhetoric of Holy War

The use of religion to justify war was not new in Christianity, or in human history. For Christian theologians, however, acts of violence put believers in the difficult position of committing a grave sin and endangering their soul. Most Christian thinkers, like Augustine of Hippo (354–430), had argued that some forms of violence had to be tolerated for the good of the community, such as punishing criminals and defending against invasion. Above all, a recognized public authority like a king was needed to publicly call for war. From this point of view, Christians had tried to identify what would be an acceptable or “just war,” but the idea of a “holy war” did not exist until the crusading period. A crusade, then, was a “just war” called by the pope, who offered spiritual rewards.

This technical definition of crusade does not mean that Christian rulers had always sought the pope’s blessing before attacking their non-Christian enemies. Very little prevented earlier rulers from claiming God supported their military efforts, especially against non-Christians, or from believing God condoned specific acts of violence. Charlemagne claimed as much in his wars against non-Christian peoples, forcing Saxons to convert to Christianity when he was victorious. But the idea of fighting a war against other religions was outside the boundaries of classical Christian thinking. The Christian view of violence was that it should be as limited as possible and justified as defensive. The Crusades made that technical definition problematic, and the earlier notion of crusade expanded to include Muslim kingdoms in Spain or elsewhere, non-Christian settlements in Europe, and even the domains of the pope’s political enemies in Europe. The result of the Crusades was a belief that warfare on behalf of God, even if it was neither defensive nor approved by the people, was a “just war.”

The images conjured by Urban, Peter the Hermit, and others implied that the Muslim occupation of the Holy Land was unjust and oppressed the Christian community. This idea of Christian suffering was linked to the earliest days of the church when, as members of an underground religion, Christians were persecuted by Rome.

Dueling Voices

The Rhetoric of Holy War

There were no newspapers, radio, television, billboards, or social media to promote the Crusades. Preachers needed to speak over and over to multiple crowds and stir the individuals in them to join. To do so, they relied on several tactics to inspire anger, fear, or fervor.

We do not have an exact copy of Urban’s speech in Clermont that launched the First Crusade, but others grafted their own ideas onto what they had heard, what others said they had heard, or what some people thought Urban should have said. We do not know how accurate any of these texts are. One version, the earliest, has Urban emphasizing that the crusade will be good for the souls of those who go to Jerusalem. In another, written by Robert the Monk, Urban tries to stir his audience with tales of persecution, saying Christians are being forced to accept circumcision and “blood of the circumcision they [the Seljuk Turks] either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font.” He tries to inspire them with tales of Charlemagne and other kings, who in their time “have destroyed the kingdoms of the pagans and have extended in these lands the territory of the holy church.” Finally, he deplores the violent tendencies of the aristocracy by pointing out “that you murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds.” Pity for the victims, hunger to revive glorious deeds, and a call for unity are all employed to inspire warriors to go on crusade.

  • Although we cannot definitively know the content of Urban’s speech, what rationales did commentators offer for going on crusade in the years following the call in 1095?
  • In what ways do modern public speakers rely on these same methods of persuasion to change people’s minds?

Link to Learning

You can read the exact texts of the speeches attributed to Urban II by various authors to see the way they attempt to persuade the audience to answer the call to crusade. You can also read the arguments made by a Muslim scholar Ali ibn Tahir Al-Sulami, and compare his approach to persuading rulers and warriors to fight against the Christians.

Although some historians have speculated that it was only the younger sons of aristocrats, those who could not hope to inherit anything from their fathers, who fervently joined the crusade, the reality was more complicated. Commoners (even poor ones), women, the sick, and the elderly all joined alongside knights, and powerful nobles also answered the call. Many sacrificed their own land and property to gain the resources needed to join the crusading movement. The trek to Constantinople alone was arduous, with few amenities or roads to guide the way. Some may have hoped to gain land if they remained in the Holy Land, and others were motivated simply to see the earthly Jerusalem as a way of experiencing the heavenly Jerusalem that awaited them when they died, and then returned home.

Others had less altruistic motives. The rhetoric preached about non-Christians made Jewish communities, like those in the Rhineland, vulnerable to attack by crusaders seeking plunder, who extorted bribes from Jewish communities to leave them in peace. Even those whose motivations were clearly religious, like Peter the Hermit, compelled German Jewish people to render supplies for their crusading bands. Although the church condemned violence, the Crusades mark the beginning of precarious times for Jewish communities in Christian Europe, when they were subject to abuse, expulsion, and sudden violence.

Unlike classical Christianity, Islam from its earliest days had a concept of holy war called jihad. Jihad, meaning “struggle” in Arabic, can have different meanings or uses. For the Sufi mystics, the struggle against internal doubt and weakness could be a form of jihad. In other circumstances, the struggle was against evil, in which Christians, Muslims, and Jewish people could participate as allies. Defining jihad is similar to the problem of defining crusade and distinguishing it from other conflicts. In the Quran, Muslims were enjoined to avoid conflict with Christians and Jewish people unless they provoked Muslims in some way. Like the notion of “crusade,” jihad had to be called by a proper authority, such as the caliph or a high-ranking Muslim cleric. In some ways, then, jihad is similar to the idea of a “just war” for Christianity. In practice, however, Muslim rulers, like Christian rulers, could certainly wage war against their nonbelieving neighbors without a formal declaration of jihad, while still claiming their actions were for the benefit of Islam and supported by Allah.

According to Islam, Jewish people and Christians should be tolerated because they are monotheistic. In most instances, though, the idea of endeavoring to realize the will of God meant that armed conflict and conquest were also options. A ruler who was not concerned with striving against non-Muslims was viewed as failing in his duties. Similar ideas began to color Christian views of their own conflicts with Islam, especially in places like Spain. One such thought was that territories that had once been Christian should always belong to Christians, and this was considered particularly true of the Holy Land, even though the area was significant to Muslims and Jewish people as well. It was difficult to find nuance when attempting to carry out the will of God.

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