Pope Urban II and the Crusades (Part 2)

Read Part 1, or you will feel very lost!

Furthermore, Urban II’s motives also extended to a reconciliation between the Eastern and Western Churches. As early as 1089, reunion negotiations between the Eastern and Western churches were underway.12 In September 1089, a Byzantine synod was held to consider relations with the Pope.13 Although inter-church negotiations failed due to political power plays by rulers in Byzantium and the “anti-pope” who arose from the Grand Schism, Urban continued to have good relations with the Byzantine Emperor Alexius, who sought a favorable outcome to the synod of union in the first place.14 The defense of the Eastern Church was not unsolicited military aid, but was requested by Alexius in 1095.

According to Bernold’s report of the Council of Piancenza in March 1095, “An embassy of the emperor of Constantinople came to the synod and implored his lordship the pope…to bring assistance against the heathen for the defense of the holy church, which had now been nearly annihilated in that region by the infidels, who had conquered her as far as the walls of Constantinople.”15 Further, when news reached Urban II in 1098 that Asia Minor was recaptured by a joint union of crusaders and Byzantines, he summoned a council to discuss the disagreements between the Latin and Greek soldiers.16 Urban’s desire for reconciliation seems a more pressing concern than Jerusalem’s liberation.

On the other hand, most other accounts contemporary with Fulcher’s speech assert Jerusalem as the purpose of the crusade. The Gesta version, as the basis for most of the other records, affirms that a crusade to Jerusalem would be much like taking up one’s cross to follow Christ. The Gesta version affirms that pilgrimage to Jerusalem would be akin to suffering for Christ.17 This account gives a theological justification: if one wishes to save his soul, he will sew the cross on the right arm and take his weapons and armor to Jerusalem.18 For those who confess Christ – an allusion to fighting for Christ – there will be a great reward in Heaven.

The use of the Gesta version was certainly an influence on Robert the Monk, Guibert of Nogent, and Baldric of Dort in the writing of their accounts.19 The accounts derived from the Gesta supplement the original account with additional justifications: the necessity of retaking holy Jerusalem, the atrocities and irredeemable nature of the Muslim invaders, and the affirmation of Christ’s approval in the remission of sins and future reward. The problem of intra-Christian conflict is incidentally resolved by a holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Although Robert and Guibert attended the council, the Gesta was written around 1100-1101 C.E. by an anonymous crusader.20 This would place any account based on the Gesta five to six years after the Council of Clermont.

Fulcher personally attended the Council, but in all fairness, he began to write his Chronicle in 1101.21 However, his writing does not display many characteristics of the Gesta, including the focus on Jerusalem’s liberation. Fulcher himself was involved directly with the First Crusade, following the first expedition until Edessa, Greece.22 Furthermore, his relations with political powers such as the princes of Northern France and Baldwin of Bouilon, the first king of Jerusalem, meant his accounts would be scrutinized if they did not account to reality.23 Intentionally or not, Fulcher’s account mostly accords with papal concerns.

Some scholars have used accounts of Urban II’s message from second-hand sources to show Urban’s total focus on Jerusalem. There is a great chasm between what was spoken and what was heard, and the reverence attributed to Jerusalem during the Middle Ages might account for the confusion in Urban II’s beliefs. One cannot doubt, however, that medieval piety emphasized full devotion to Jerusalem as the holy city where Christ died and rose again.24 Urban II’s upbringing at a Clunaic monastery, where the image of Jerusalem and Zion as well as the end times prevailed in psalms and the like, would support an interpretation that suggest Urban’s main quest was Jerusalem’s liberation.25

However, this thought process assumes that a persons is causally determined, from his social environment, to think and act in a certain way – this is a form of invalid conjecture. In addition, one can also state that the idea of liberation for Jerusalem was tangible; a more abstract concept, such as the defense of a invisible universal church, might not motivate crusaders to battle. Urban II did not reject the idea of Jerusalem, for aligning the crusade with the Jerusalem pilgrimage enforced the religious objectives, but his motives seem sincere toward the reunification and salvation of Christendom.

In modern times, the tendency to label political leaders with unwarranted baggage continues. Modern opinions on the crusades have tended to view them as a purely political operation under the guise of religious piety – rather than understand the complexity of Urban II’s position as head of Christendom and the Western world (as well as being a pious believer), he is portrayed as a pragmatic political strategist who used Jerusalem for his own ends. American politics, in the same way, explain the actions of their leaders through denigration. When a person says “George W. Bush is an idiot”, this somehow explains all of his presidency. In the same way persons who believe that Barack Obama is not an American citizen, or that he is a Muslim, cite these as reasons why Obama’s first two years in office have been less than successful. This is the age-old game politics, where ad hominem attacks win the day rather than answers to real-world problems.

That does not mean that human political leaders do not make mistakes – the crusades, for example, caused huge losses of life and debt throughout Europe and the Middle East – but actual confidence and belief in the sincerity of government officials should be standard, unless they make their insincerity apparent. There is criticism, and there is cynicism, and America tends to fall into the latter category far too often. Perhaps sincerity, like Urban II in his medieval religious piety, should be respected, albeit with tempered expectations.

We Christians tend to lionize those with whom we agree, and disparage those we don’t. Time and distance separate us, so we sometimes feel that we can put down the Christians of the past for being less “advanced” than us. Truth is, we are very likely to be completely unaware of the hidden assumptions and presuppositions of our very own age. If you lived in the time of American slavery, chances are you wouldn’t be the one person who wasn’t a slave owner. If you were born in the South, that would just be part of your thinking about issues: slavery was there. Statistically, that’s true, but we often think of ourselves as the shining paragon or the white knight in the darkness while we do exactly the same thing in our own context without a second thought. We use smartphones and electronic devices with conflict minerals, and then dump our “old” phones into huge waste dumps – third world countries take the brunt of that trash. It’s always easy to compare our sins to others, especially when they can’t defend themselves.

That’s why I caution a look one way or the other against any figure of the past or any person in general. We can never know the whole story; we can only decide to give them the benefit of the doubt or judge them from a distance. We know our own human hypocrisy, so why should we assume anything different? Things are often more complicated then they appear, and only the winner’s history turns into our personal historical narrative. Let’s caution against hasty conclusions and see them as fellow human beings, not representations of concepts we don’t particularly like.


12Ibid, 319.

13Ibid, 319.

14Ibid, 320-322.

15Ibid, 325.

16Ibid, 326.

17Anonymous, “The Gesta Version,” in The First CrusadeThe Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials, trans. A.C. Krey, ed. Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1971): 5.

18Ibid, 6.

19A.C. Krey, “Introduction,” in The First CrusadeThe Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921), 7.

20Ibid, 7.

21Fulcher of Chartres, “The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres,” in The First Crusade Source Materials, 23.

22Ibid, 23.

23Ibid, 23.

24Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade, 22.

25Ibid, 22.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.