The period just after the death of Pope Gregory VII is another of history’s hidden linchpins, when events could have gone in a very different direction from the version of history that we know. Just as European Christianity as we know it today could easily have wound up being of the Arian rather than the orthodox stripe had things played out differently at an earlier point in time, the Catholic Church’s current official rolls of popes could in an only slightly changed timeline have included Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV’s choice of Clement III, with Gregory listed as his disgraced and deposed predecessor. The knock-on effects of such a development would have been considerable to say the least. For example, if Clement had won out, Catholic priests might still be allowed to marry today.
For a while there, it seemed that Clement and his patron had indeed gotten the last laugh, that Henry’s preference for an accommodating and subservient Church had won out over Gregory’s push for internal reforms and his insistence on papal supremacy in matters of political as well as spiritual import. Gregory’s supporters were so demoralized after his death that they didn’t select a replacement for him for fully two years. And yet, against all the odds, his faction and his vision of Catholicism made a comeback.
That was thanks to Pope Urban II, surely one of the most politically astute characters ever to occupy the office. He was the successor but one to Gregory VII. (Gregory’s immediate successor Victor III was pope for less than six months before dying.) With Rome still in the hands of Henry’s antipope, Urban II was elevated to his station in the town of Terracina, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Rome, on March 12, 1088. He immediately began to tack a more conciliatory course than that of the inflexible Gregory, without abandoning the substance of the latter’s reform agenda. On the subject of clerical marriage, for example, he hewed to those famous words of Saint Augustine: “Give me celibacy, but not yet!” He added a grandfather clause to Gregory’s strictures, allowing priests who were already married to keep their positions whilst insisting that new ones remain unmarried, rather than presenting existing priests with an unpalatable choice between God and their families.
His willingness to walk a middle path won over even many former supporters of Clement inside the Church; after all, Clement’s toadying subservience to Henry IV did nothing for the dignity of the institution to which they all belonged. Even Henry himself was gradually mollified. In late 1093, Urban dared to take up residence in Rome proper without suffering any untoward consequences. From here, Clement was gently eased out of power, and the single official line of papal succession that we know today was restored. As a wise person once said, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
So, already by 1095, Urban was widely recognized as the real leader of Western Christianity as a whole, even if many disputes, like that of the investiture of bishops, were far from completely settled. It was thus to him rather than the sidelined Clement that a team of ambassadors came from out of the East in the spring of that year, bearing with them an urgent message and an urgent plea for help. They said that the Byzantine Empire was on the verge of crumbling under the most concentrated Muslim onslaught in more than 400 years, this one the work of a warrior people known as the Turks rather than the Arabs who had established the Muslim caliphates of old. They begged the Christians of the West to help them hold back the horde.
But wait, you might be thinking. Why on earth should the Catholic Church help the branch of Christianity it had declared heretical just 40 years earlier? Knowing that Urban would be asking himself the same question, the delegation was ready with an answer. If the Byzantine Empire fell, they said, Western Christendom would lose its eastern buffer zone, could expect the Turks to begin pouring into its own territory sooner rather than later. And then there was also the matter of Jerusalem. The city had been in Muslim Arab hands since 638, but Christian pilgrims who wished to visit the place where Jesus had been crucified had generally been treated fairly there. In 1073, however, the Turks, who were as happy to make war upon their fellow Muslims as Christians, had conquered Jerusalem. Now there were reports of atrocities committed against Christian pilgrims, of the city’s few remaining Christian churches being ransacked and burned. Christianity was not a religion as rooted in a specific holy place as were its brother faiths of Judaism and Islam; when Jesus had spoken about God’s temple on earth, he was generally understood to have been speaking metaphorically rather than literally. Nevertheless, it had long rankled some Christians that Jerusalem belonged to what they considered a race of heathens. In the process of safeguarding their own realms against these same heathens, they could at long last correct that cosmic injustice.
Further, for Urban the project had tempting implications in the domain of realpolitik. His departures from Gregory VII had more to do with means than ends; like Gregory, he took the Donation of Constantine at face value, strongly believed in the supremacy of the Church over all the kingdoms of Europe. By stirring up all Europeans for a holy crusade against the heathens — something no mere temporal king or even emperor could ever hope to accomplish — he would make a palpable demonstration of that supremacy and put the Church’s recent humblings at the hands of Henry IV behind it once and for all.
Urban thus promised the Byzantine delegation everything they could possibly have hoped for, promised not to rest until he had raised the greatest Christian army in history to push back the Turks and free the Holy Land. A lively and engaging speaker, he set off on a barnstorming tour across Western Europe to drum up support for the cause. Henry IV and his fellow monarchs couldn’t have quenched the swell of enthusiasm that he left in his wake if they had tried. It all culminated in November of 1095 in the French town of Clermont, where tens of thousands assembled in a carnival atmosphere to hear Urban’s booming voice.
O race of Franks! Race beloved and chosen by God! From the confines of Jerusalem and from Constantinople, a grievous report has gone forth that an accursed race, wholly alienated from God, has violently invaded the lands of these Christians, and has depopulated them by pillage and fire. They have led away a part of their captives into their own country, and a part they have killed by cruel tortures. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanliness. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them, and has been deprived of territory so vast in extent that it could not be traversed in two months time.
On whom, then, rests the labor of avenging these wrongs, and of recovering this territory, if not upon you — you upon whom, above all others, God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great bravery, and strength to humble the heads of those who resist you? Let the deeds of your ancestors encourage you, the glory and grandeur of Charlemagne and your other monarchs. Let the Holy Sepulcher of Our Lord and Savior, now held by unclean nations, arouse you, and the holy places that are now stained with pollution. Let none of your possessions keep you back, nor anxiety for your family affairs. For this land which you now inhabit, shut in on all sides by the sea and by mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; it scarcely furnishes food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage wars, and that many among you perish in civil strife.
Let hatred, therefore, depart from among you; let your quarrels end. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from a wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. Jerusalem is a land fruitful above all others, a paradise of delights. That royal city, situated at the center of the earth, implores you to come to her aid. Undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, and be assured of the reward of imperishable glory in the Kingdom of Heaven!
With this speech or one much like it — the version given here is, although the document containing it stems from the Middle Ages, almost certainly a reconstruction rather than a direct quotation from the scene — the Crusades well and truly begun.
Kings and peasants alike found the idea of holy war as appealing as did Urban, for reasons he hinted at in his speech. Europe was afflicted from end to end by petty instabilities, many of them the work of proverbial second sons: the offspring of great families who couldn’t expect to inherit much in the way of land and titles of their own, who were even in the best case of absolute filial obedience a significant drain on their kingdoms’ coffers. In the worst case, they were the fomenters of constant, troublesome insurrections. What better way to be rid of them than to send them riding off to a foreign war with promises of earthly and heavenly glory ringing in their ears? Whether they succeeded in establishing new fiefdoms of their own there or died trying, Europe would have seen the last of them. Meanwhile for the ordinary peasants who joined the cause — who could expect to walk rather than ride to the Holy Land, often whilst being “armed only with bad breath,” to steal a line from Monty Python’s Terry Jones — the Crusade was a chance for freedom and adventure, perhaps even riches, in a life that otherwise held out only the prospect of backbreaking toil in the fields. Urban’s promise that all who joined the cause would get a nonstop, all-expenses-paid ticket to Heaven sealed the deal; again, I can hardly emphasize enough how real the prospects of Heaven and Hell were to the Medieval mind.
That said, the rhetoric Urban deployed to forward the Crusade was unprecedented. “The notion of holy war entered Christianity in the eleventh century,” notes Diarmaid MacCulloch, to be ironically directed “against the religion which from its earliest days had spoken of holy war, Islam.” Prior to Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century, Christians had made a virtue if not a fetish of complete pacifism and the martyrdom that sometimes followed it, as befitted a savior who had urged them to “turn the other cheek.” But by now, writes MacCulloch, “Christian warfare could actually be seen as the means to win salvation.” The change had been gradual, as subtle as the growth of a tree over a scale of centuries. Yet at last, the religion had reached a place where the lambs of God could continue to give lip service to the words of Jesus and the sacrifices of the martyrs at the same time that they girded their loins and armed themselves for bloody battle, assured that doing so was the fastest, surest route to God’s favor in these fallen times. “God wills it! God wills it!” the people shouted.
So, the Crusaders set off eastward, a motley assemblage of 100,000 or more men and even some women, traveling in groups segregated by language and social class, with those groups composed mostly of peasants guided more by the rising sun than by any more precise means of navigation. They lived off the land, stripping it ruthlessly bare everywhere they went, even in countries inhabited by other Christians. Emperor Alexios I of the Byzantines was a bit unnerved by them when they started to show up outside the gates of Constantinople, as well he ought to have been; some of them would have been happy to start the war against the heathen right here in the seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, an impulse Alexios headed off only by talking up the easier pickings that lay still further to the east. And so off they went again.
As they moved into the unforgiving landscape of Asia Minor, they began to die in large numbers of hunger and thirst and heatstroke. The Turks were rather baffled by the Crusaders; they didn’t know what to make of these strange, disorganized invaders, and seem to have had trouble taking them seriously. That was a mistake, for the Crusaders had numbers on their side despite the appalling losses they sustained, along with a go-for-broke fury born of the knowledge that they had already laid waste to everything behind them, that the only remaining sources of sustenance lay in front of them. They reached Antioch, the largest city between Constantinople and Jerusalem, in late 1097, and laid desperate siege to it for eight months, the people outside and inside its walls starving equally. Antioch finally fell on June 3, 1098, whereupon a priest entered the city’s biggest church and came out brandishing what he claimed to be the Roman spear that had been used to probe Jesus for signs of life as he hung on the cross. (“One of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water,” says the Gospel of John.) Duly inspired, the Crusaders prepared for the last leg of their long journey.
By the time they reached Jerusalem in June of 1099, casualties and defections had reduced their numbers to just 12,000. Nonetheless, after a 40-day siege they took the city where Jesus had been crucified. What followed still casts its shadow over relations between the world’s two biggest religions today. The Christians who poured through the walls of Jerusalem ran amok, with, so they believed, God’s full sanction. One priest wrote approvingly of the
wonderful things to be seen. Numbers of the Saracens [this name was used by the Crusaders as a generic term for all Muslims] were beheaded. Others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers; others were tortured for several days and then burned in flames. In the streets were seen piles of hands and feet. One rode about everywhere amid the corpses of men and horses.
Reports tell of women gang-raped and then stabbed to death after they were no longer of any use for that purpose, of babies tossed off the city’s walls or dashed head-first against them. The city’s Jews, who were now firmly enshrined in Medieval lore as the murderers of Jesus even though Jesus was also one of their number, were herded into a synagogue which was then set on fire. Viewing the apocalyptic scene, some made reference to the Book of Revelation and its promise that the armies of Christ would scour the heathens of the world until the blood on the ground reached as high as their horses’ bridles. Sated at long last, the Crusaders joined hands in Jerusalem’s central Church of the Holy Sepulcher and thanked God for the deliverance of the Holy Land. Another enterprising priest soon produced a relic even more awe-inspiring than the spear that had pierced Jesus’s side: a fragment of the very cross on which he had died. The blood-splattered warriors of Christ all gathered round to pay it their respects.
The triumph of the First Crusade is one of the more improbable events in the history of warfare. There was no reason to expect that such a rudderless rabble, with no training and few weapons or supplies and in many cases little idea of where they were even going, should actually succeed in marching across over 2000 miles (3200 kilometers) of often hostile terrain and capturing two such well-defended cities as Antioch and Jerusalem. Historians today attribute much of the achievement to infighting in the Muslim sphere of influence, which kept the Turks too preoccupied to pay proper attention to the European threat until it was already too late. At the time, however, Christians believed the cause of the First Crusade’s success to be the simple fact that God had willed it so. It served as a proof that Pope Urban II and his Catholic Church really did speak for God.
Urban himself never learned of the conquest of Jerusalem; he died two weeks after the city fell, but before news of the blessed event could reach Rome. Still, he must have been able to sense at the time of his death how successful his papacy would be judged by history. Both of his projects had come to a fine fruition: the immediate, more practical one of reclaiming Jerusalem for Christianity, and also the more abstract but ultimately even more significant one of healing the schism within the Catholic Church on his own terms, whilst cementing its claim to worldly authority over the kings of Europe. Henry IV, who was still alive and still reigning over the Holy Roman Empire at the time of Urban’s death, must have sensed he had been outmaneuvered somewhere, even if he wasn’t quite sure where.
The Crusaders in Jerusalem set about making that holy city the centerpiece of a new outgrowth of Catholic Christendom, one that also included or would come to include such cities as Beirut, Tyre, Acre, Ascalon, Tripoli, and of course Antioch. By now, the post-Classical interregnum of technological progress in the Western world was over. Recent advances in metallurgy, along with the invention of the horse-borne lance and the humble stirrup, had made the knights in shining armor that we all associate with the Middle Ages a reality. These were the times of chivalric orders like the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights, the shock troops of Christ (and the fodder for a million future conspiracy theories).
But the patchwork of Crusader States, as we call them today, was more vulnerable than such advance guards might lead one to suspect. For it lacked a central arbiter able to corral its many wayward kings and warlords, even as it was hemmed in by implacably hostile neighbors who had heard all too many tales of the Jerusalem massacre of 1099 and other real or alleged Christian atrocities against Muslims. By 1145, the Crusader States were increasing the extent of their territory no more; on the contrary, the Turks had begun to win back land from the Europeans. And so the plea went out from the Holy Land back to Europe: God had need of another influx of soldiers.
For all that historians and others with axes to grind have often wanted to portray the Crusades as a titanic, even genocidal clash of civilizations, they invariably had as much to do with the internal politics of Europe as they did with any perceived need to subdue the Muslim heathens. The Second Crusade was no exception. The current pope in Rome, whose name was Eugenius III, wasn’t having an easy time of it, being forced to contend with factions inside and outside the Church who kept trying to replace him with antipopes of their own choosing. He saw the plea for help from Jerusalem as a way to shore up his own supremacy and alongside it that of the legitimate Church, by harking back to one of the highest points in the history of the papacy, one still well within the living memory of the people. Repeating the actions of Urban II almost in pantomime fashion, he told the people that Christianity was in sore need of the spiritual renewal of another holy war, that all who joined up to become soldiers for Christ would, like their venerated fathers and grandfathers, be guaranteed a place in Heaven.
Alas, this time all of the failings of strategy, tactics, and logistics that should have undone the First Crusade came home to roost; this campaign went exactly as the laws of warfare say it ought to have gone. The Second Crusaders arrived in the Holy Land starving and already more than half defeated, having endured a degree of impoverishment on the journey far more extreme than even that of their predecessors of half a century earlier. Not really sure what to do at this point, they decided to lay siege to the great Muslim metropolis of Damascus. It proved a fiasco; they never even made it up to the city’s walls, were sent scurrying back where they had come from by the defenders while still trying to pick their way through the orchards that surrounded them.
This ignominious defeat was as disastrous for the Church back in Rome as the First Crusade had been fortunate. The pope had promised the Crusaders that victory was assured, that God would see to it. And yet here they were, vanquished by the heathen. The Church could only claim after the fact that the defeat was down to a lack of inner zeal on the part of the Crusaders themselves, that they simply hadn’t believed hard enough. Still, its moral authority was badly weakened.
In 1159, in the midst of these bleak times, there came yet another conflict over who should be the next pope. Following the death of Pope Hadrian IV, who is historically notable chiefly for being the only Englishman ever to hold the office, two different factions within the Church chose two different successors: the majority opted for Alexander III, while a vocal minority insisted on the would-be Victor IV. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, a descendant through marriage of the troublesome Henry IV, saw a chance to assert his own power by playing the role of king-maker — or rather pope-maker. He invited both candidates to come to him and lay their claims before him, after which he would decide the issue. Victor agreed; Alexander haughtily refused. Frederick then proclaimed Victor pope by default, leading to a flurry of excommunications flying in both directions. History now repeated itself, with only the names changing. Alexander III instead of Gregory VII released Frederick I’s instead of Henry IV’s citizenry from their religious duty to obey their monarch — and, indeed, told them it was their duty to God to rebel against him.
But Alexander’s position was weaker than even that of Gregory before him. He was still suffering the after-effects of the failure of the Second Crusade, still facing a populace less willing to accept at face value the words of a pope in Rome than it had been in several generations. But then he got lucky.
His deliverance took shape in far-off England, which in 1066 had been conquered by the appropriately named Norman duke William the Conqueror, who contributed the final ingredient to the cultural stew that is the modern nation of England (and, for that matter, the modern language of English, which is an unusual blending of Old German, courtesy of the Saxons, and Old French, courtesy of the Normans). From 1154, the king of England was Henry II, an energetic, ambitious character who did much to strengthen his country economically and militarily. He was great chums with a courtier named Thomas Becket, a jovial fellow who, although an ordained priest, saw no reason that his higher calling should prevent him from enjoying the good things of this world while he awaited his Heavenly reward. He became one of Henry’s most favored ministers, typically traveling with a retinue that was itself downright kingly: eight chariots, 40 horses, 200 different servants, drivers, grooms, guards, and secretaries, all in appropriately stately livery.
In 1162, Henry abruptly elevated his boon companion to the post of archbishop of Canterbury, making him the highest clergyman in all of England. The fact that he had the ability to do so at all was, you’ll remember from the previous chapter, a constant source of irritation for the Church in Rome, but one that even Pope Urban II had not been able to remedy uniformly across all of Christendom. That said, on this occasion it was King Henry who got something he hadn’t bargained for. Becket changed overnight from a slick and genial lover of luxury to a repentant ascetic of the most extreme type. He dressed only in a hair shirt that chafed his skin red, ate only raw vegetables and grain and drank only water, lashed his own back bloody every morning as absolution for his countless sins of the previous 24 hours, and knelt down to wash the feet of thirteen beggars every night. Worst of all from Henry’s perspective, he proclaimed himself and his Church to be above any mere king, declared null and void all of the many laws the English kings had made respecting its activities. He took to excommunicating those bishops who still lived as he used to, replacing them with true men of God of his own choosing.
In all of this, he received the enthusiastic backing of Pope Alexander III, who was embroiled in his own struggle with the forces of this world. After much back and forth, matters came to a head on December 30, 1170, when a group of Henry’s soldiers pounced upon Becket as he was kneeling down in prayer and ran him through with their swords.
The fate of Thomas Becket now demonstrated that Christian martyrs could still be more useful than warriors for God in the right pinch. A hue and cry went out across all Christendom over the brutal murder, one which Alexander did his best to amplify. The pope excommunicated the king, and wasted no time in declaring Becket a saint. Like Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV before him, King Henry II of England could only watch haplessly as his authority evaporated around him. He too saw no choice in the end but to debase himself in a bid to regain it. He walked three miles to Becket’s tomb over a gravel road without any shoes on. Once there, he touched his forehead to the ground and begged for forgiveness, while monks lashed his back with heavy whips. He promised to keep in place all of Becket’s reforms and to never again challenge the supremacy of the Church, if only his temporal kingdom would be restored to him. Alexander acquiesced, retracting the writ of excommunication.
This victory paved the way for an even greater one to come. The reinvigorated Alexander’s Papal States made an important ally out of the Lombard League, an alliance of northern Italian city-states that was growing rapidly in wealth and might. (The Lombard League is not to confused with the Lombards, the Germanic people who conquered much of northern Italy after the dissolution of the Roman Empire, only to be driven out by Charlemagne. The league is rather named after the Italian region of Lombardy, which in turn took its name from the original Lombards.) On May 29, 1176, Frederick I’s cavalry met the Lombard League infantry near the Italian town of Legnano. Much to everyone’s surprise, the infantry won the day. Exhausted by some fifteen years of roiling rebellion, Frederick agreed to sign the Treaty of Venice the following year, in which he renounced his antipope and promised to submit to the real pope henceforward in most matters, including the investiture of bishops. In return, he was granted the reversal of his excommunication and restoration to his post of Holy Roman Emperor in the eyes of God and man alike. If the treaty wasn’t quite a royal humiliation equal to that of the two Henrys, it was close enough.
Together, Gregory VII, Urban II, and Alexander III had gone a long way toward establishing the Church’s preeminence over all that went on in Western Europe and now in the Crusader States as well, in matters both spiritual and temporal. But the best — as far as the Church was concerned, at any rate — was still to come. For they had merely set the stage for Innocent III, by many historian’s reckoning the most powerful pope ever.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)