At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II preached for the First Crusade as an ‘armed pilgrimage’: a penitential war that imitated the suffering of Christ whilst recapturing the Holy Land of Jerusalem from the Muslims. This appealed to many different members of Western European society, from lowly peasants who normally worked on their feudal lords’ lands, to devout monks looking for the ultimate way to cleanse their sins and fight in the name of God. It was also seen as honourable for the youngest sons of lords who would inherit no land and normally would be sent away to monasteries for clerical work.
The radical change in attitude by the Church, now in favour of this ‘just’ war, shows the influence of new monasticism upon the way piety was expressed by Christian followers. Before Pope Gregory VII’s (r.1073-85) revision of the papal attitude to religious warfare and his backing of the Militia Christi (‘Christ’s Knights’), the Church was not in favour of any kind of earthly warfare. For example, William of Normandy carried out his conquest of England in the name of the Church, and had their support, on the condition that he did penance for his sins in battle: spiritual warfare to counteract earthly warfare and the spilling of blood.
The spiritual warfare of monks before the 1090s consisted largely of prolonged prayer and fasting to free them of the sins of their inner demons. Conversely, after Gregory VII, the Church changed its view to one of inherently ‘good’ warfare. This was in the name of the Lord, physically and mentally challenging for those taking part, and also eradicating non-Christian groups that had settled in the Holy Land. The backing of the Church can therefore be seen as the underlying attraction for many Western Europeans to the Crusades.
Promise of entry to heaven was good enough for many. So much so that, despite the First Crusade being poorly controlled and lacking in long-term planning for settlement, the conquest of Jerusalem was very successful and attracted more to the crusading mission. Most enticed by the new crusading form of spiritual warfare were those who chose to become Knights of the Holy Orders, usually already minor lords or at least well-connected upper classes.
The systemisation of the Cistercian Order of monks was central to the Second Crusade (1145-49) in which knights played the biggest part. Famously branching from the Cistercians were the Knights Templar and Hospitallers, becoming known as ‘fighting monks’. Branded as Militia Christi, these knights stood to gain indulgences after the Crusades holding prominent positions within society, or would be blessed with martyrdom if they died in battle in the service of the Lord.
The knightly ideology of ‘chivalry’ is one that has lasted and cemented itself in modern memory. Yet in reality, these knights became so accustomed to warfare and strict order of conduct that they caused a significant change in societal class ideals in the 12th century. Knighthood was a permanent occupation, so traditional soldiers who were called to battle by their lords and returned to resume their normal lives afterward were largely replaced by knights. These professional warriors felt they were due their own lands, castles and spiritual rewards and they associated themselves with the lordly classes of the aristocracy. This was not always welcome, such as in the case of the infamous lord-turned-knight Thomas of Marle, who was given the title ‘the worst man who ever lived’ in historical clerical records. This due to his scandalous brutality both on and off the battlefield.
Many knights were left in the Levant – the geographical area encompassing near-eastern Mediterranean countries including Cyprus, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon – to defend the recently conquered Jerusalem. The area was already home to an already hugely ethnically and religiously diverse population. Hence, conflict became inevitable after their setting up of the ‘Crusader States’ in an attempt to convert locals to Western Christendom.
The Crusades were a major part of medieval European and Near-Eastern heritage, giving many members of Western society the opportunity to change their lives and become part of the lifestyle of knighthood and chivalry, as well as marking a fresh, bloody, chapter in the history of the Christian Church.