Faith and Warfare: Insights from Clermont

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The First Crusade The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials
The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials by Edward Peters

Council of Clermont

The Council of Clermont and Pope Urban II’s Call

In November 1095, the Council of Clermont in central France became the stage for Pope Urban II’s historic call to launch the First Crusade, aimed at recapturing Jerusalem from Muslim rule. During the council, Pope Urban II’s speech resonated as he promised participants the remission of their sins, targeting both the church hierarchy and the lay audience at Clermont. Urban II’s strategy of absolving Crusaders of their sins found immense favor among Europe’s nobility and knights, leading to its adoption by subsequent popes for all future crusades. The Council of Clermont’s actions initiated a chain of events that would fuel centuries of conflict between the East and West, impacting states involved for generations to come, and reverberating into the present day.

Prelude to the Crusades

In August 1071, a momentous event unfolded as the Muslim Seljuks, a Turkish steppe tribe, decisively defeated a Byzantine Empire army at the Battle of Manzikert in ancient Armenia. This pivotal clash set in motion a series of events that would shape centuries of East-West conflict, deeply rooted in religious ideologies—the era of the Crusades.

The Seljuks went on to establish the Sultanate of Rum and, by 1078, had conquered Byzantine territories in Edessa and Antioch. In 1087, they achieved a significant conquest by capturing Jerusalem from their fellow Muslims, the Fatimids of Egypt, although the city had been under Muslim control since the 7th century.

Realizing the strategic value of Seljuk expansion into the Holy Land, Alexios I Komnenos, the Byzantine emperor reigning from 1081 to 1118, saw an opportunity. In March 1095, he sent a direct appeal to Pope Urban II. His aim was to seek the assistance of Western armies in his quest to regain control over Asia Minor.

Little did Alexios know that both Pope Urban II and Western knights would respond to his plea with a commitment that far exceeded his expectations.

Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II, who assumed office in 1088, was renowned as a reformer committed to expanding Christendom. Hailing from a noble family in northern France, he would go on to become one of the most influential popes in history. Previous popes had not hesitated to engage in military action; for instance, Pope Leo IX in 1053 dispatched armies against the Normans in southern Italy, while Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) had explored the concept of a Holy War. Urban II himself had already sent troops in 1091 to aid the Byzantines against the Pecheneg steppe nomads encroaching on the northern Danube region of the empire.

Once again, Urban II was inclined to offer military assistance to the Byzantines for various reasons. Reclaiming the Holy Land for Christianity was a primary goal, safeguarding significant sites like the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and protecting Christians living there or making pilgrimages. Additionally, a crusade would enhance the Papacy’s prestige as it led a unified Western army, while also securing its position in Italy, where previous Holy Roman Emperors had posed serious threats, prompting popes to relocate from Rome. Urban II aspired to establish himself as the head of a united Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Christian church, transcending the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Given the stage to articulate his ambitions, Urban II convened a council of church elders in November 1095, with Clermont in central France chosen as the venue.

The Council of Clermont

Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, given a late Gothic setting in this illumination from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer, of c 1474 (Bibliothèque nationale)

Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, given a late Gothic setting in this illumination from the Livre des Passages d’Outre-mer, of c 1474 (Bibliothèque nationale)

From November 18 to 28, the Council of Clermont convened, gathering an impressive assembly of 13 archbishops, 82 bishops, and 90 abbots. Chaired by the Pope himself and held in the city’s cathedral, this event foreshadowed significant developments.

Following nine days of ecclesiastical deliberation, 32 canons were promulgated, including the reaffirmation of the ban on clerical marriage and the elevation of the see of Lyons above Sens and Reims in terms of authority. Additionally, the Bishop of Cambrai and King Philip I of France (r. 1059-1108) were both excommunicated – the former for selling church privileges and the latter for adultery. While these issues were fairly typical for the medieval Church, it was the 33rd and final canon that would have far-reaching consequences.

The Indulgence

On November 27, a gathering of prominent French clergy and a multitude of laypeople assembled in a field near Clermont for the council’s culminating event. It was at this juncture that Urban II delivered his now-famous speech, meticulously prepared in advance. This address, known as the Indulgence, specifically targeted Christian nobles and knights throughout Europe. Urban II pledged that those who defended Christendom and captured Jerusalem would embark on a sacred pilgrimage, absolving them of all sins and promising immeasurable rewards in the hereafter.

To alleviate concerns, a team of church scholars later formulated a theological argument, referencing select passages from the Bible and the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to justify a campaign of violence. Further justification for this war emphasized that it aimed at liberation rather than aggression, with objectives deemed just and righteous.

Urban II struck a resonant chord across Europe with a compelling concept that intertwined the prevailing themes of the era: religious zeal, profound concern for the afterlife, a fondness for pilgrimage, and the nobility’s thirst for martial adventure. This potent combination would be employed repeatedly by Urban’s successors to garner widespread support for numerous subsequent crusades over the following two centuries.

Speeches

There are six primary sources providing information on this part of the council:

  1. A letter authored by Pope Urban himself in December 1095, referencing the council.

  2. The anonymous work known as the Gesta Francorum (“The Deeds of the Franks”), dated around 1100/1101.

  3. Fulcher of Chartres, who attended the council, documented it in his work Gesta Francorum Iherusalem peregrinantium (circa 1100–1105).

  4. Robert the Monk, possibly present at the council, chronicled it in Historia Hierosolymitana (1107).

  5. Baldric, the Archbishop of Dol, composed his account around 1105.

  6. Guibert de Nogent’s work Dei gesta per Francos (1107/8).

These five different versions of the speech exhibit significant variations in their details. Fulcher’s account, being an eyewitness to the council, is generally regarded as the most trustworthy.

In Urban’s own letter from December 1095, addressed to the faithful “awaiting in Flanders,” he mourns the devastation inflicted upon the churches in the East by a “barbaric fury.” He mentions Jerusalem, describing how it has fallen into “intolerable servitude.” Urban calls upon the nobles to “liberate the Eastern churches” and designates Adhemar of Le Puy as the expedition’s leader, set to depart on the Assumption of Mary (August 15, 1096).

The Gesta Francorum briefly mentions Urban’s speech, stating that he urged all to “follow the path of the Lord” and be prepared for suffering, promising heavenly rewards. It highlights how news of Urban’s call to arms swiftly spread by word of mouth, inspiring the Franks to sew crosses on their right shoulders, signifying their unified commitment to follow Christ’s footsteps and secure their redemption from hell’s grasp.

Fulcher’s Account of Pope Urban’s Speech

Fulcher of Chartres, an eyewitness, chronicled Pope Urban II’s speech in his work “Gesta Francorum Jerusalem Expugnantium” around 1100-1105. In his prologue, Fulcher stressed that he recorded events he personally witnessed, adopting a style akin to 11th-century papal orations.

In Fulcher’s rendition, Pope Urban commenced by admonishing the clergy, emphasizing their roles as shepherds and the need for vigilance, integrity, and avoidance of corruption. Simony and adherence to church laws were underscored. Urban lamented the lack of justice and public order in the Frankish provinces and called for reinstating the truce safeguarding clergy from harm. There is historical debate over whether this pacification of the Frankish realm was intended to accompany the “export of violence” against eastern adversaries.

Fulcher reported unanimous agreement among the attendees with the pope’s proposals and their commitment to church decrees. After addressing these matters, Urban shifted his focus to the suffering of Christians elsewhere.

In the latter part of his speech, Urban urged Frankish Christians to restore peace and righteousness in their land and then extend aid to Eastern Christians, who were under attack by the Turks. The Turks had recently conquered Byzantine Anatolia, including the “Arm of Saint George” (the Sea of Marmara), causing widespread Christian suffering. Urban called on the clergy to spread his call to arms widely, urging people of all ranks, nobles and commoners alike, to come to the aid of the besieged Christians. He concluded with the words, “Christ commands it,” framing the crusade as both a defensive just war and a religious holy war.

Urban promised immediate absolution to those who perished in battle against the infidels. He linked this call to arms with his earlier call for peace in Gaul, encouraging those who had engaged in unjust warfare against fellow Christians to now fight against the barbarians and earn eternal honor.

Robert the Monk

Some historians prefer Robert the Monk’s account of the speech found in his Historia Iherosolimitana, written in 1107. Robert provides a more vivid narrative, encompassing an elaborate sermon and the passionate response of the audience, who spontaneously cried out “Deus vult.” In Robert’s rendition, Pope Urban II urges the Frankish people to embrace Christian orthodoxy, reform, and submission to the Church. He implores them to aid Greek Christians in the East. Like Fulcher’s version, Urban promises forgiveness of sins to those who embark on the Eastern journey. Robert’s portrayal of Urban’s speech carries the rhetoric of a stirring “battle speech.” Urban’s emphasis in Robert’s account is on the reconquest of the Holy Land, a facet absent in Fulcher’s rendition and thought by many historians to be an addition influenced by the First Crusade’s success.

Both Robert and Fulcher detail the dire situation of Christians in the East under recent Turkish conquests and the promise of remission of sins for those who come to their rescue. However, Robert’s version provides a more graphic depiction of the atrocities committed by the conquerors, describing the desecration of churches, forced circumcision, beheadings, and gruesome torture of Christian men. It alludes to the horrific rape of Christian women.

With hindsight, Robert suggests that only knights should undertake this mission, discouraging the elderly and feeble, as well as priests without their bishops’ permission, citing them as hindrances rather than help. He advises against women embarking on this journey unless accompanied by their husbands, brothers, or legal guardians.

Aftermath of the Council

Following the council, Pope Urban II launched an extensive recruitment campaign, sending letters and touring France in 1095-6 to enlist crusaders. He embellished his message with exaggerated tales of Christian persecution and desecration of monuments. Churches like Limoges, Angers, and Tours became recruitment hubs, echoing the Clermont speech. Rural churches and monasteries also gathered funds and recruits. In 1096, about 60,000 crusaders, including 6,000 knights, prepared to depart for Jerusalem on August 15.

The First Crusade proved remarkably successful. Nicaea fell in 1097, a significant victory at Dorylaion followed. In June 1098, Antioch was captured after a lengthy siege, defeating a Muslim relief army. The ultimate goal, Jerusalem, was seized on July 15, 1099. Another Muslim relief army was vanquished at Ascalon in August. Caesarea and Acre were taken in 1101. The Holy Land was back in Christian hands, fulfilling the Council of Clermont’s objective. However, Urban II passed away on July 29, 1099, unaware of the campaign’s success. The challenge now was to maintain these gains, a task that would ultimately prove too daunting for European monarchs, despite their vast resources and support.

Sources

  • Cartwright, M. (2018, October 22). Council of ClermontWorld History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Council_of_Clermont/

  • Internet History Sourcebooks: Medieval Sourcebook. (2023). Fordham.edu. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/urban2-5vers.asp‌

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, July 11). Council of Clermont. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Clermont

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