Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Crusades and the Dawn of Christian Conflict

Nearly every man among the 20,000 or so gathered there had never experienced the intensity of real desert heat. Many of them were blistering on the back of their necks and thighs. Suddenly, they were exposed to 106 degrees by late morning, rising to 115 in the afternoon. These were knights, pilgrims, monks, and serfs who hailed from northern climes such as Gaul, Brittany, and Germany. Back home, the lakes and seas were still cool for swimming, even on a hot day in July.

They’d never known seasickness or delousing, and now were expert in both. Their mothers, their sisters, and their wives were still in those lovely places back home, raising their children, baking bread, tending gardens, keeping the houses running, while these men stood on the sands of the Arabian Peninsula in surcoats and the armor over it. Actually, only those lucky enough to have armor were wearing it. They held in their hands swords and hatchets, implements well-blood-crusted from what had happened before they ever got to this God-forsaken place.

The Blessed Place

“This place isn’t God-forsaken!” the priests who were there kept reminding the 20,000. Quite the opposite. They had to keep telling themselves that. They were standing on the edge of the Holy Land, near the sands where our Lord and Savior had once walked with his disciples. That’s what made the place holy. Christ was also crucified, buried, and resurrected from this blessed place.

The priests kept urging the men to recall, with intense and pious devotions, the redemption accomplished for them through the suffering and blood of Christ, right here. “Most especially, let the Holy Sepulchre [in Jerusalem] of Our Lord the Redeemer move you—in the power as it is of foul races—and the holy places now abused and sacrilegiously defiled by their filthy practices,” preached one of the warlike vowed religious, Robert the Monk, in order to motivate recruits and justify this holy war. That’s why they were here. 

Learn more about the Upper Room in Jerusalem.

But it didn’t feel blessed. This relatively tiny piece of land—situated between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—had been essentially lost to Christian civilization for centuries. First, Muslim Arabs took it from Byzantine Christians, and now it was being militarily controlled by Muslim Seljuk Turks.

First Crusade LeadersThis was the summer of 1099. The event was what we know as the First Crusade. These 20,000 Christian soldiers, filthy-faced and suffering from both persistent malnutrition and serious boredom, were finally turning their attention toward what they were told mattered most: recovering the land for Christendom. Edessa and Antioch, where Christians went away with a booty of 15,000 camels, had already been conquered. Now the siege of Jerusalem was underway.

Crosses were sewn onto the men’s clothing. Calling themselves “crusaders,” they had sworn a vow to persevere all the way to Jerusalem. They’d traveled a long way, by ship and by land, in order to get here, the outskirts. Years had passed since most of them first began, but then the entire enterprise was temporarily blinded along the way when they encountered their Eastern Christian (Byzantine) cousins in and around the city of Constantinople.

Sinners in the Holy Land

Some of their leaders, including the enigmatic Peter the Hermit, another warlike religious, a priest from Amiens with a startling ability to motivate men, showed little respect for their Christian cousins there. So when the Patriarch of Constantinople failed to house and feed the crusaders who arrived at his door, the Western men became restless and ruthless. They found jewels and icons, silver and gold, in the ornate city. They plundered and pillaged and even murdered.

Although one of the purposes of this First Crusade was to support the Byzantine Empire in its battles against encroaching Muslim kingdoms, the men on the ground didn’t easily see “Christian” or “cousin” in the faces of their Eastern brethren. They killed thousands of them. Then, some of these same crusaders wanted to stay behind in Constantinople; in the midst of the pillaging they’d claimed homes for themselves, and women. The idea of traveling all the way back through the burned towns where they’d left other awful, indiscriminate trails of death in their wake seemed much less appealing. They imagined that very little was waiting for them back home anyway. They might as well start anew.

Crusaders throwing heads of Muslims over RampartsThose who continued on said they were marching to Jerusalem to free the city and to experience its everlasting peace. But there would never be peace in Jerusalem after the events of the siege of 1099. The crusaders would succeed in their goal: liberating the city and taking charge over it, as well as all of the Levant. Safe passage was thereby guaranteed for Christian pilgrims (it would remain so for nearly two centuries, until 1291), but at the enormous cost of everything precious. More than one chronicler makes reference to seeing the sea flooded with body parts when the battles were over. Then, the holy places had to be protected by armed guards, since the land was occupied by foreign settlers. As the crusading princes complained to Pope Urban II after their victory, “We have driven out the Turks and pagans; the heretics, however, Greeks and Armenians, Syrians and Jacobites, we cannot expel.” This wouldn’t change—and goes a long way toward explaining the pain in this part of the world even today.

What an embarrassment to Christians, this chapter in our history, which we review to understand why we fight with each other over religion the way we do. We Christians and we secularists are the children of these ancestors.

Before the Saint and the Scholar

The story of the siege and “liberation” of Jerusalem at the hands of the soldiers of the First Crusade is foundational for understanding the era of Bernard of Clairvaux (the saint) and Peter Abelard (the scholar). Why? Their generation felt a sense of destiny. Before their fathers marched to Jerusalem, it had been centuries since the average Norman, Sicilian, or Saxon had felt that he would make a mark on the world or discover anything new. Now, they were intimately formed and deeply affected by this massive undertaking and bitter endeavor, preached as holy by the Church, enacted the generation before them.

Get the book to learn more about the saint and the scholar!

The known world then spread from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, fishing villages in England, Brittany, and the Iberian Peninsula, to the more mysterious larger and hotter cities of Arabia. It was an area that included parts of three continents, from the Upper Nile of Africa to Baghdad on the Asian subcontinent.

There was a sense even then of the more ancient lying in the East, not because they understood the evolution of our species but because in the East were the sites of the events of the biblical people of Israel, the earliest history they understood. Great cities, familiar cities, had been lost to Christendom for centuries and caliphates ruled where Roman Caesars once stood. Until, that is, the First Crusade in 1095–1099. Important was the fact that, of the cities that had been home to the five Christian patriarchs, only two remained: Rome and Constantinople. The other three had become part of Muslim empires by the seventh century.

Crusading would become essential in the centralizing of power that took place in the papacy in the figure of the Bishop of Rome. When Pope Urban II asked Christians to take up arms and fight for the faith, what had been a Church that mostly adhered to teachings of peace was suddenly and forever transformed. The pope made killing the infidel into an actual indulgence, or special penance for the remission of sins. He promised heavenly rewards. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem had long been an indulgence, but now, if the way was blocked for that pilgrimage, an indulgence would be granted to all those who helped to unblock it.

As a result of the Christian military victory, what became the twelfth- and thirteenth-century feudal Crusader States were at their greatest extent in the decades before Bernard and Peter met in Sens. Christians controlled more of the Holy Land than they ever had before, and ever would again, each area overseen by appointed counts, governors, and generals.

This swath of the Middle East extended from north to south from the County of Edessa in modern-day Turkey, to the Principality of Antioch (Syria), into the County of Tripoli (Lebanon), as well as the Kingdom of Jerusalem in most of what is Israel and Palestine, and some of Jordan and Egypt, today.

The Violent Religious

Bernard was born in 1090, Peter in 1079. They were just five and sixteen years old when the crusaders left for the East. They were ten and twenty-one when they returned. They thus inherited a Church forged in battle, a Church that took a proprietary, combative approach to defining itself, an era dominated by the Crusades—when Christians, motivated by greed, adventure, and occasionally God, set out on violent campaigns, declaring combat as God’s desire. Their century would witness popes, cardinals, and everyday Catholics who were schooled by fighting. Their armies committed atrocities, all while believing they had a divine mandate to do it.

Peter the HermitRobert the Monk and Peter the Hermit were a breed apart from monastics of previous generations content to live like angels in cloisters, singing praises to God. Monks, bishops, cardinals, and popes were among the most violent perpetrators in these wars, leading armies themselves as generals and fellow combatants, following in the ghost-like footsteps of Canaanites, Amorites, and Hittites who had fought over the same land many centuries earlier. Some of the vowed religious, when it was all over, were even declared saints. This was a time, to quote the twentieth-century Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton, “when the Christians began to look at Christ as Prometheus”—like a warrior, one who loves to fight, more of a Greek god than a suffering servant.

With a backdrop such as this, any story that centers around two men arguing about ideas seems tame by comparison, and for good reason. But, it wasn’t just that Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard held differing opinions when they met. Their dispute wasn’t, in fact, primarily about ideas.

The saint and the scholar represented two divergent ways of approaching a life of faith. Both were, in their separate ways, however, filled with that crusading spirit, and, in their fighting, both of them were wrong. Bernard and Peter never met in actual combat, but crusading formed them. How precisely that happened is the subject of the chapters that follow, and the result is that the crusading spirit remains with us. The ways that a medieval monk soon-to-be-saint and scholar-intellectual fought each other haven’t been entirely unlearned, even today.

Excerpted from The Saint vs. the Scholar: The Fight Between Faith and Reason. To learn more and buy the book, click the image below.

The Saint vs. the Scholar


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