The Christians of Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre and the Origins of the First Crusade

The Christians of Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre and the Origins of the First Crusade

By Andrew Jotischky

Crusades, Vol.7 (2008)

Introduction: Crusader historians and Byzantinists have traditionally not agreed on very much, but on one point they have generally seen eye to eye. Crusading origins, notwithstanding the role of Emperor Alexios Komnenos in manipulating Western military aid, must be sought in the West, not the East. “The origins of the First Crusade lay in developments that took place within Catholic Christendom,” as a recent historiographical survey of crusading has underlined, and Byzantinists have agreed that crusading as a practice and set of ideals lay outside the Byzantine temper and understanding.

In the synthesis accepted by most historians, Alexios’ appeal for Western military support was intended to serve the aim of reconquering the lost territories of Asia Minor. Although the appeal to Pope Urban II at Piacenza in the spring of 1095 was only part of a network of contacts that he had already established with influential leaders of Western society, it remained for the pope to transform that appeal into an armed pilgrimage for the liberation of Jerusalem. That Urban II was able to do so is indicative of the orientation of Western piety in the late eleventh century, which looked toward Jerusalem. The increasing frequency of organized pilgrimage to Jerusalem, much of it deriving from Benedictine inspiration, the interest of reforming popes both in the physical relics of the Holy Land and in an ideology of liberation, and the aspirations of the laity to fulfil the requirements of penances, all appear to have combined to produce the crusade.

This synthesis, which explains neatly the incentives and aspirations of those who initiated and executed the crusade, makes sense of contemporary Western discussions of the expedition. Once the objective of Jerusalem had been attained, the chroniclers could present it as a justified cleansing of the Holy City; as a pilgrimage of the faithful to show their devotion to God by delivering Jerusalem from bondage; even as a singular event in the history of human salvation. In so doing, they made much in their reports of Urban’s preaching at Clermont of the threat posed by the Seljuq Turks to Christians in the East. But the role, aspirations and needs of those whom, according to most Western chroniclers, the expedition was intended to help – the “eastern Churches” referred to by Urban according to Fulcher of Chartres, Baudri of Bourgeuil, Robert the Monk and Guibert of Nogent – have been all but forgotten in current crusading historiography.

The prevailing view is that the chroniclers’ reports of Turkish atrocities are part of a pattern in which the enemy was demonized by employing stock descriptions of barbaric behaviour. Yet one of the fullest near-contemporary accounts, the chronicle of Albert of Aachen, makes the origin of the First Crusade hinge on the perceived injustice of Seljuq treatment of the indigenous Christians, and this version was taken up by William of Tyre, the twelfth-century historian of the Crusader States who has always enjoyed a reputation for serious-mindedness. It is also told in the Chanson d’Antioche, which is now acknowledged to have been one of the very earliest texts available to Albert as he wrote his chronicle. How, with this weight of evidence behind it, has this version come to be abandoned by historians?

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