The First Crusade and Development of “Holy War”

The concept of a “holy war” played an integral role in the development of events leading up to the First Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land.  First summoned by Pope Urban II in 1095, the Crusades proved to be a major period of transition and growth in European history.  The immediacy as well as the large scale of the response to the call for a Crusade by Urban and other popular religious figures, indicates that they were already receptive to the idea of a Crusade.  Still, there remains the question of how important the concept of holy war was to the First Crusade, and whether it only arose as a latter justification for engaging in warfare.

This paper will specifically focus on the factors in Medieval Europe that contributed to the development of the concept of holy war, and traces its impact on European society in the buildup to the First Crusade.  Holy war was a dynamic doctrine set forth by Pope Urban II, which appealed to the needs and desires of the original Western European Crusaders.  An examination of the religious, political and social factors that contributed to the continual process of revision and redefinition of the concept of holy war, through to the eleventh century, will demonstrate its overwhelming importance in understanding the origins of the First Crusade.  Entire generations of political and religious leaders were convinced of the spiritual benefits of a war fought for God and the Holy Land.  Holy war was perceived as more than a scholarly doctrine: it was an active reflection of the prominent attitudes and mores of Western Europe prior to the Crusade period.  The development of the idea of holy war is extremely significant to understanding the origins of the First Crusade, and provides a deeper cognizance of the nature of politics and society in Europe during the Middle Ages.

In order to trace the development and theory of holy war during the Crusades period, it is important to first examine the origins of the idea.  The conceptual roots of Christian holy war can be traced back to the Old Testament of the Bible.  In its most simplified form, holy wars are conflicts ordained by God and fought against the enemies of His divine plans for the world.  In the Book of Exodus, God commanded Moses to lead the Jewish people into the Holy Land of Canaan.  However, as Moses and the Jews “prepared to enter the Promised Land, God told his people that they would have to engage in a ruthless war of extermination” against the current peoples living there.[1]

This forms the basic archetype on which all future holy wars would be modeled.  When the Jews entered the Biblical Holy Land, “the Canaanites were obstacles to Jewish fulfillment,” of their goals, and as such “had to be exterminated.”[2] This was the start of a series of holy wars that spans much of the Old Testament in the Bible.  Karen Armstrong argues that many of these first Jewish holy wars were characterized by intolerance of the enemy, something that would remain an essential part of holy wars, Jewish or Christian, throughout history.  Confronted with their divinely ordained enemies and filled with a sense of “religious siege” and uncertainty, the Jews are depicted in the Bible as feeling as if “they could only fight their enemies to the death” in order to fulfill God’s wishes.[3] The Jewish struggles throughout the Old Testament forms the nucleus of the original conception of holy war, characterized by a level of fanaticism and violence justified by God’s divine sanction.

The emphasis on war and violence in the Bible, particularly in the attitudes espoused in the Old Testament towards holy war, appears to contradict most of the ethical and moral messages found within Judaism and Christianity.  In Christianity this tension between worldly violence and religious pacifism, specifically in the teachings of Jesus Christ, presents a daunting theological problem for scholars.  One of the most famous attempts to reconcile these opposing factors is found in the writings of the celebrated church scholar and theologian St. Augustine of Hippo.  St. Augustine set out to understand and articulate the conditions under which it was possible for Christians to resort to violence.  His writings came at a time when “Christian morality and doctrine were refined according to the needs and mental attitudes of the time,” particularly considering the “vacuum created by the disappearance of Roman imperial authority.”[4] The result of his attempt to reconcile the violence of daily life with the pacifism of Christianity is referred to as the concept of the “just war,” which argues that violence can be morally justified under very specific conditions.

St. Augustine viewed the motivations of war as a major factor for its justification.  Drawing on the Old Testament, he reasoned that the wars of Moses were “a just and righteous retribution,” as “the just warrior restrained sinners from evil, thus acting against their will but in their own best interest.”[5] He also delved into the notion of what constituted a “just war” itself.  St. Augustine’s focuses on the notion of charity, and his “texts on ecclesiastical coercion contain a view of loving one’s enemy that opposes unnecessary violence,” where “the holy war seeks to bring back lapsed or heretical brethren into the fold of the Church, to save their souls if not their bodies.”[6] St. Augustine’s influential definition of “just war” would set a theological standard for defining European holy wars throughout the Crusade era.

The framing of the Crusade as a holy war resonated with the militaristic nature of Europe during this period.  From the fall of the Roman Empire to the time of St. Augustine, Europe had become a violent battleground.  Life was often short, harsh and uncertain.  Leading up to the First Crusade, “warfare was endemic in Western Europe in the eleventh century,” consisting not of major battles but of “small-scale localized conflicts.”[7] It is important to note that this violence was not related to a social breakdown or the existence of an anarchic state.  Rather, it illustrates the lack of an enforceable legal standard within medieval Europe.  For many, “warfare was an inescapable part of being a property owner,” where the usage of “violence was not a last resort, but an opening gambit in the political discourse.”[8]

In the context of medieval Europe, violence was not merely indiscriminate but a widely accepted and used political instrument.  This all-pervasive socially and politically motivated violence would have a considerable impact on the development of the Church throughout the early medieval period.  The framework established by the medieval Church for dealing with violence admitted:

that the moral rectitude of an act could not be judged simply by examining the physical event in isolation: violence was validated to a greater or lesser degree by the state of mind of those responsible, the ends sought, and the competence of the individual or body which authorized the act.[9]

Thus, throughout the medieval period the clergy recognized that violence was a natural part of life.  Church scholars, like St. Augustine before them, faced with a growing dichotomy between the use of violence and the practice of spirituality, began to reexamine Christian rationalizations of violence. Increasingly they emphasized the separation of the violent act from the motivation that drove one to commit the act, reflecting the root of the current legal approach to criminality in the west today.  It was this separation that would allow the further development of holy war under the auspices of the Church in the years to follow.

Prior to using these intellectual justifications for holy war, the uneasy pairing of ‘religious violence’ had a long history in medieval Europe related to several contemporary movements within the Church, particularly in the new religious duties of the knighthood and the Church initiated Peace of God Movement.  During the tenth and eleventh centuries the knights of Europe “acquired a direct ecclesiastical purpose,” with the development of the idea of chivalry; a “war in the service of the weak came to be regarded as holy and was declared to be a religious duty not only for the king but also for every individual knight.”[10] The Catholic Church was thus giving the knighthood a purpose in Europe, and entrusting them with an important role in the establishment of stability within society.

The Church came to wield a heavy influence over the medieval knights in part because of the political fragmentation of Europe.  From the time of Charlemagne, the kingship had been regarded as a divinely ordained position.  However, during the pre-Crusade era, “the gradual establishment of feudalism and the decline of state power,” that accompanied it prompted the Church to transfer “to the knighthood as a whole, some aspects of the semi-ecclesiastic function that it had previously attributed to the head of state.”[11]

This partial relocation of ecclesiastical responsibility onto the knightly class would have a major impact on their actions: from that point forward they would be held to a higher standard of morality.  An example of this higher standard can be found in the failed Peace of God movement in the early eleventh century.  Historian Carl Erdmann argues that the Peace of God movement was the “most significant illustration”[12] of changing attitudes towards violence.  The goal of the movement was the creation of peace leagues, led by “secular lords” who would be enjoined to maintain the peace and “punish those who contravened their oaths by engaging in violent acts outside the set terms.”[13] This represents a pivotal point in the development of holy war.  The terms around which the Peace of God movement was organized allowed for the first time “nothing less than a new form of war, one provided for this time by the church itself.”[14] Through the Peace of God movement the Church took full authority for deciding what constituted a “just war.”  Later generations of historians were skeptical of Erdmann’s assertion that the Peace of God movement had a tangible impact.  The movement was significant to the development of holy war, and is an example of the growing attempts by the Church to set the parameters for violence to suit Christian purposes and ideals.

Along with the emergence of increased interrelations between church and state came new reflections of religious violence in church culture and documents. In Western Europe “around the turn of the millennium, the attitude of the church towards the military class underwent a significant change”[15] and the Church began to integrate religious worldviews with the violence of the temporal world into a seamless and comprehensible doctrine.  In particular, the acceptance of ‘soldier-saints’ illustrates a new relevance in Western Europe of religious figures who doubled as warriors.  Men such as St. George were immensely popular during the Middle Ages and had numerous devotees.  Though there was often a clear delineation between their saintly and soldierly qualities, many had become clergymen after serving as warriors; their growing popularity indicates the positive reception these archetypes had in medieval society.

During the “eleventh and twelfth centuries violence perpetuated under the patronage of saints” became a common “feature of culture,” where the saints’ militarization was understood in the context of “self-help…because arbitration was so often ineffective.”[16] To Europeans, living in the midst of pervasive violence, it followed logically that sometimes it was necessary for everyone, even saints, to bear arms to protect themselves and their ideals.  The advantage of this position for the Catholic Church was that it allowed them to harmonize their attitudes with those of the secular lords and kings in order to exert greater influence in the countryside.

Throughout this period the clergy began to give its tacit consent to acts of force against others.  Though “churchmen condemned the use of force to secure material ends,” the clergy was beginning to show signs of having “tolerated, or even encouraged, certain expressions of pious violence,” partly due to the common breeding of clergy and lords “in the same world as the layman …and party because most of them were convinced that the use of force was justifiable when the fighter was performing a service to God.”[17] Given the growing familial and social linkages between the knightly classes and the expanding clergy, the growing integration of violence into religiously justified ideals represents a struggle within the Church both for cultural relevance and influence on the knightly classes.

The language of the Catholic Church also changed during this period in relation to the rise of Christian militarism.  Terms such as the soldiers of Christ, “miles Christi or militia Christi,” which had been in use since the New Testament of the Bible were “used to describe laymen, especially armed warriors who supported papal policies” by the Papacy and clergy and thus came to a greater prominence.[18] Monks, to whom the term miles Christi was originally applied could not, even in this period, bear arms or fight.  Rather, it would be the “warriors of the First Crusade” who would adopt “many of the spiritual goals and some of the ascetic exercises characteristic of monks.”[19] The evolution of the language and imagery of the Church during the tenth and eleventh centuries evolved through the adoption of a more militant tone and by grafting it onto preexisting religious doctrine.  This was an essential factor in the cultural acclimation of Europeans to a revised concept of holy war.

As the role of the Catholic Church in society began to increase during the papal reforms of the tenth and eleventh centuries, conceptions of holy war changed to reflect the new aspirations of the medieval papacy.  Papal reforms and the consolidation of the Catholic Church had a lasting impact on conception of holy war.  Evoking the imagery of martyrdom, the idea of suffering for one’s religion to the point of death, “Pope Leo IX was believed to have proclaimed to be martyrs those who died in his army against the Normans.”[20] Pope Leo’s actions did not occur in isolation.  In 1063, Pope Alexander II granted to the Christian knights in Spain “a remission of the penance required for their sins,” part of papal policy to support the Reconquista against the Moors.[21] This absolution for soldiers demonstrates a fundamental shift in Church policy, namely the introduction of clemency for soldiers fighting in a war deemed just or holy by the papacy.  The sanctioning of holy war was now firmly under the control of Church authority.

The writings of Bishop Anselm of Lucca, one of the most devoted followers of Pope Gregory VII, are illuminating given his position as “the most incisive writer on the morality of warfare in the immediately pre-crusading years.”[22] Anselm’s most famous work, the Collectio canonum, further developed a justification for papal-invoked holy wars.  Integrating numerous works from the Old Testament through to St. Augustine, Anselm argued that “the church could perform persecution, i.e. could invoke force, including armed force, to restrain evil and compel virtue,” even suggesting that when backed by a just motive “those who fought might be righteous.”[23] Anselm of Lucca’s work further developed the notion that church backed war could be justified on religious grounds.

Examples from Gregory’s papal career illustrate further attempts to reconfigure holy war to suit his own religious and political agenda.  Gregory’s primary aspiration as pontiff was to “emancipate the papacy from dependence on the secular ruler for military aid”[24] and increase papal influence over European affairs.  Gregory’s desire to intervene in foreign affairs was shown in his failed attempt to organize a papal-sponsored mission to the Byzantine Empire in 1074.  Gregory had contacted “several western princes, in particular the Emperor Henry IV,” informing them of his intention to “aid Christians who had suffered from the Turkish invasion” of Byzantine, which would “culminate in a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre.”[25] To promote his plan he reconfigured the concept of “penitential warfare,” which argued “the premise that fighting itself can be meritorious, whatever the fate of the fighter.”[26] While Gregory’s plans fell through, the idea he introduced would prove to have considerable longevity.  Throughout the rest of his papacy, while “Gregory regarded peace as the preferable condition, and his interventions favoured appeasement,” he still firmly believed that bloodshed could be “justified at any time for his ecclesiastical aims and for the rights of the papacy.”[27] Gregory VII’s papal reforms proved to be instrumental in the redefinition of holy war, and though they were not immediately accepted, they would define the reign of his successor.

The speech of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont is a key moment in the history of the Crusades.  By 1095, when Urban called for a crusade to the Holy Land, his idea was neither revolutionary nor innovative.  It was a natural progression towards an outcome that the papacy had been striving to achieve for at least a century.  The revision of holy war accomplished during the pontificate of Gregory VII meant that:

by the start of Urban’s pontificate in 1088, the concept of holy war had been formulated.  The Latin west had been acculturated to the idea that certain classes of violence might be justified, and was slowly waking up to the notion that warfare directed by the papery might have a penitential character and thus be capable, in some sense, of cleansing the soul of sin.[28]

Although there is no definitive written source, Urban’s appeal at Clermont was brilliantly crafted in its approach.  Through his combination of “violence with a transcendent moral imperative, Urban appealed to a form of ‘primitive religious nostalgia’ embodied in the ambiguously liminal Holy City of Jerusalem,” which had been “lost to Christendom since its capture by the Muslims in 638 yet central to Christian imagination as the scene of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.”[29] Despite the magnitude of Urban’s appeal at Clermont, it is important to reiterate that Urban was not introducing radically new ideas.  Urban’s address also raises the question of his motivation and the reasons behind his call for a Crusade.

Though he attempts to portray holy war as being grounded in theology, it is evident that his address was shaped more by political than religious considerations.  The notions of a “just war/holy war concept inherited by the eleventh century was not rudely shattered by the reform papacy nor was it revolutionized by the crusades…Urban II for some deep-seated reasons chose at Clermont to ignore the message of the canon law texts.”[30] Urban was clearly drawing on more than spiritual considerations in his appeal for a Crusade at Clermont.  Rather than “exaggerate the dynamic leadership supplied” by Urban II it is important to realize that “he codified and articulated existing trends rather more than initiating new ones.”[31] The Council of Clermont was the culmination of holy war revisionism, part of a continuum that originated with the social and political development of medieval Europe.

The appeal of his summons is clearly demonstrated by the immense and immediate response to Urban’s call all across Europe.  According to many of the contemporary historical sources, the popular reaction to Urban’s summons to holy war was perhaps the largest single mobilization of men in European history up to that point.  Guibert de Nogent, in his The Deeds of God through the Franks, describes the “burning desire” of the Frankish nobility to depart, who along with the “middle-level knights were bursting to set out” to the Holy Land.[32] The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres evokes similar imagery, describing those in the audience for Urban’s speech at Clermont as “fervently inspired” and “thinking nothing more worthy than such an undertaking…many in the audience solemnly promised to go.”[33] This enormity of the popular response to the call for the First Crusade has prompted debate over the historical connections between holy war and the First Crusade.  The inquiry into why thousands of knights, vassals, priests and pilgrims would abandon their homes and make an arduous and dangerous trek to the Holy Land is one of the most important historical debates in the modern study of the Crusades.

An important explanation for this is the strongly penitential character of Western Europe in the eleventh century.  It provided an extremely receptive environment for Urban’s summons, illustrated by the speedy mobilization of the first wave of crusaders.  Delivered in the context of a penitential and spiritually redeeming holy war, Urban’s sermon struck a deep chord among the pious and deeply religious Europeans.  The religious fervor felt by the Christians of Western Europe during the pre-Crusades period was pervasive and affected all aspects of daily living.  Urban’s call for a Crusade was not only a noble Christian call to duty; the first crusaders to the Holy Land saw an unsurpassable opportunity for penitence.

Urban’s conception of a holy war “on Christ’s behalf as a penitential devotion with Jerusalem as its goal”[34] offered what was presented as eternal salvation.  According to H.E.J. Cowdrey, “no reader of eleventh-century sources, especially those relating to the Crusade, can fail to be struck by men’s insistent preoccupation to secure the remission of sins.”[35] Western Christians obsession with obtaining religious penance for their sins not only explains the massive popularity of penitential exercises such as pilgrimages, but also would have provided a strong motivation and impetus to participate in a Crusade to the Holy Land, no matter what the cost of the expedition, financially or otherwise.  In a society so outwardly obsessed with penance:

Urban’s decree explicitly proclaimed a holy war in which the effort of the campaign, including the fighting and the inevitable slaughter, could be regarded as equivalent to strenuous performance of penance provided it had been undertaken devoutly.  The cause may have been seen as just, but that was not the point.  This was an act of total self-abnegating faith demanded by God.[36]

In that context, the development of holy war had opened up new opportunities for worthy European knights and peasants alike to achieve eternal life; even more enticing was the sanctioning of violence, the most commonly understood and pervasive medium of expression in Western Europe.

The tremendous support of the pilgrimage as an instrument of penance during the Middle Ages in the pre-Crusade period, is a prominent reason for the acceptance and enthusiasm that followed Urban’s call for the Crusade.  Pilgrimages were perhaps the most popular individual and group activity in the medieval period.  Of the vast number of sites visited, one of “the most important of these from the start,” was Jerusalem’s “Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”[37] With reaching Jerusalem as the stated goal of the First Crusade at Clermont, holy war was thus strongly attached to the tradition of pilgrimage, albeit an armed one.

There are numerous similarities between the traditions of the pilgrimage and the practices of the Crusades.  The term crusade was not coined until “the thirteenth century,” and “neither Latin nor the vernacular languages had any world for ‘crusade.’”[38] Instead, the Crusade was referred to as a peregrinatio, a pilgrimage.  The high levels of “contemporary piety encouraged the almost feverish obsession” among western European Christians “with the holy places,” a practice “which was to be one of the marks of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.”[39] The idea of holy war as proposed by Urban II, presented as “a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with appropriate spiritual benefits, provided a framework into which a holy war against the Muslim was now fitted.”[40] The integration of traditional pilgrimage rituals into the practices of crusading illustrates the subtle yet powerful way that holy war captured the imagination of eleventh century Europe.

The idea of a crusade to the Holy Land, divinely inspired and guided by the Church and the faithful, fulfilled the powerful religious, political and social desires of Western Europe in the eleventh century.  The development of the holy war as an ideal, from its initial biblical conception as a war fought in accordance to God’s divine will, to a theologically backed Church doctrine was an important catalyst in European historical development.

The expansion of the power of the clergy in medieval Europe and its integration within secular society meant that over the period culminating in the eleventh century, the Church began to tacitly support the militarization of Christian ideals.  Religious, cultural and political developments such as the “warrior-saints” illustrate this process of mutual acclimatization.  At the same time, the Church reforms of the tenth and eleventh century, initiated by the Papacy, started a parallel programme of Church centralization.  Pope Gregory VII in particular was instrumental in this process of revision that resulted in the articulation of doctrines on pious violence, and the idea of indulgences for fighting on the Church’s behalf.

The evolution of the changes in Church attitude ultimately allowed for Pope Urban II to justify a crusade to the Holy Land, and by utilizing popular imagery and themes, he appealed to a vast cross-section of European society. Although a major historical debate still rages over the precise motivation of the early Crusaders, the concept of holy war had a key role in the evolution of medieval history.    Holy war evolved from a biblical absolutism where the act of war was ordained by God, and developed into a moral relativism, altered both by the rapidly changing socio-political atmosphere of pre-Crusade Europe and the ambitions of medieval power brokers.  The history of holy war is a study of how the Church used its power and influence through the promulgation of thinly veiled justifications.  They sanctioned an age of violence that shaped the lives and aspirations of a whole society.


[1] Karen Armstrong,  Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World,  (New York: Anchor Books, 2001), p. 7

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p. 8

[4] Frederick Russell,  The Just War in the Middle Ages, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.)  p.1

[5] Ibid, p. 17

[6] John Gilchrist, “The Erdmann Thesis and the Canon Law, 1083-1141,”  in Crusade and Settlement ed. by Peter W. Edbury. (Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press, 1985.)     p. 39

[7] Andrew Jotischky,  Crusading and the Crusader States. (Toronto: Longman, 2004)      p. 31

[8] Ibid.

[9] Marcus Bull, “Origins,”  in  The Illustrated History of the Crusades.  ed. by Jonathan Riley-Smith. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.) p. 16

[10] Carl Erdmann,  The Origin of the Idea of Crusade.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.)  p. 57

[11] Ibid, p.58

[12] Ibid,  p.59

[13] Jotischky, p. 35

[14] Erdmann, p. 63

[15] Ibid, p. 57

[16] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.)  p. 41

[17] Ibid, p. 43

[18] James. A. Brundage, “Crusades, clerics and violence: reflections on a canonical theme,” in The Experience of Crusading. ed. by Marcus Bull, et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.) p. 147

[19] Ibid. p. 150

[20] H.E.J. Cowdrey,  “Christianity and the morality of warfare,”  in The Experience of Crusading.  Ed. Marcus Bull, et. al.  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.)     p. 178

[21] James A. Brundage,  Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.)  p. 24

[22] Cowdrey, p. 179

[23] Ibid, p. 181

[24] Russell, p. 35

[25] Jean Richard, The Crusades, c.1071-1291. trans. by Jean Birell. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.)  p. 22

[26] Riley-Smith, p. 49

[27] Erdmann, p.180

[28] Thomas Asbridge,  The First Crusade: A New History.  (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004.)  p. 31

[29] Christopher Tyerman, Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades,  (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004.)  p. 30

[30] Gilchrist, p. 4

[31] Tyerman,  The Invention of the Crusades.  (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1998.)       p. 35

[32] Guibert De Nogent,  The Deeds of God through the Franks.  trans. by Robert Levine, (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1997.  p. 46

[33] “Chronicle of Fulcher of Chatres, Book I,”  in The First Crusade.  ed. by Edward Peters.  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.)  p. 54

[34] Riley-Smith, p. 55

[35] Cowdrey,  “The Genesis of the Crusades,”  in Holy War ed. by. Patrick Murphy, (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976.)  p. 21

[36] Tyerman,  Fighting,  p. 29

[37] Jotischky,  p. 34

[38] Cowdrey,  “Genesis,”  p. 26

[39] Riley-Smith,  p. 26

[40] Cowdrey, “Genesis,” p. 26

2 responses to “The First Crusade and Development of “Holy War”

  1. Tyler Graham

    Very good essay. You should get some works by Rene Girard and followers. I recommend “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” for starters.

    Do you have any recommended works on the issue of infallibility in the Claremont proclamation of sin-remission?

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