Crusaders in Crisis: Towards the Re-assessment of the Origins and Nature of the “People’s Crusade” of 1095-1096

Crusaders in Crisis: Towards the Re-assessment of the Origins and Nature of the “People’s Crusade” of 1095-1096

By Philip Slavin

Imago temporis: medium Aevum, Vol.4 (2010)

Abstract: Many explanations have been offered for the commencement of the crusading movement in the late eleventh century. However, the ecological and socio-economic background of the 1090s has been, largely, neglected by scholars up until today. The current paper surveys and analyzes the ecological and economic crisis of 1093- 1096, as the prelude to the First Crusade, chiefly in its “popular” form. The pestilence of 1093-1094, drought and famine of 1095 have increased the religious zeal and social violence of the popular masses in regions of Germany, the Low Countries and France. This combination has turned into the (failed) crusade. The collective behaviour of the crusading rustics reflects their economic distress, religious zeal and violent mood, at the same time.

Introduction: In his Historia Ierosolymitana, completed within one generation of the First Crusade, Albert of Aachen tells a curious story about some rustics, guided by divinely inspired goose and a she-goat to take the holy path to Jerusalem. The rustics followed their animal leaders wholeheartedly. For Albert, and some other contemporary authors, it was “abominable wickedness” of “stupid and insanely irresponsible mob pilgrims” (scelus detestabile in hac congregatione pedestris populi stulti et vesane levitates). This anecdotal episode, popularized by Terry Jones in his 1995 TV series The Crusades, though may be regarded as a curiosum, reflects, in fact, the popular mentality and collective concerns of the earliest crusades, consisting of rustic masses. Although the origins of the early crusading movement and of the First Crusade (1095/6-9) in particular, have been a subject to much scholarly debate and investigation, the roots of the popular crusading movement have yet to be studied at length. This reflects, to a certain degree, the tendency of the crusading scholars to look at long durée causes leading to long durée consequences; namely to concentrate on long-term processes and contexts, structures and conjonctures, affecting collective mentalités into which the long-term concept and movement have been born. It could be rewarding, perhaps, to consider and analyze the histoire événementielle, consisting of immediate events and facts leading to the mass human movement of 1096. The present paper examines the environmental and socio-economic background of the earlier 1090s, as a prelude to the popular crusading movement of 1095-6. A close analysis of the sources, both written and proxy may reveal the roots and causes of the “People’s Crusade” in particular, and of the early crusading movement in general.

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