Faith and Warfare: Insights from Clermont
Council of Clermont
The Council of Clermont
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.
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.
There are six primary sources providing information on this part of the council:
A letter authored by Pope Urban himself in December 1095, referencing the council.
The anonymous work known as the Gesta Francorum (“The Deeds of the Franks”), dated around 1100/1101.
Fulcher of Chartres, who attended the council, documented it in his work Gesta Francorum Iherusalem peregrinantium (circa 1100–1105).
Robert the Monk, possibly present at the council, chronicled it in Historia Hierosolymitana (1107).
Baldric, the Archbishop of Dol, composed his account around 1105.
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.
Cartwright, M. (2018, October 22). Council of Clermont. World 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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