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The Sacred and the Profane: Understanding the Motives of the First Crusaders

The Sacred and the Profane: Understanding the Motives of the First Crusaders

By Vincent Ryan

St. Austin Review, Vol.15:5 (2015)

The Four Leaders of the First Crusade (1095) - from François Guizot, The History of France from the Earliest Times to the Year 1789, (London, 1883)
The Four Leaders of the First Crusade (1095) – from François Guizot, The History of France from the Earliest Times to the Year 1789, (London, 1883)

Introduction: In one of his many rants against the bourgeoisie in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx proclaimed that “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, and establish connections everywhere”.  While Marx only made a single passing reference to the Crusades in his most famous treatise, the broader Marxist notion of economic interests and exploitation driving historical developments has had a significant impact upon how the Crusades are perceived: particularly the question of why people participated in these medieval expeditions.

On November 27, 1095, in the city of Clermont in central France, Pope Urban II called upon the faithful to join an expedition to aid eastern Christians and liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. The response to Pope Urban II’s famous sermon surely surpassed what the pontiff—even in his most optimistic mood—might have anticipated. Perhaps as many as 100,000 Europeans would participate in the campaign known to history as the First Crusade. And while it should be noted that this number only represented a small portion of the population of medieval Europe, the size of the response was remarkable and considerably larger than the numbers usually involved in medieval European warfare. Therefore, understanding the surge of enthusiasm for the nascent crusading movement has been the source of great scholarly endeavor and debate.

Various explanations have been proposed to explain why tens of thousands of medieval men and women would travel several thousand miles and endure great hardship in order to try to reassert Christian control over the Holy Land. For example, in his celebrated multi-volume study The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon claimed that many crusaders were inspired by an inherent bloodlust, for “war and exercise were [their] reigning passions”.  Some have utilized psychological concepts, like cognitive dissonance, to explicate what was propelling this crusading enthusiasm.  A PBS documentary series on Islam matter-of-factly asserted that anti-Islamic hostilities were what chiefly galvanized these early crusaders. But of all these problematic proposals, the most commonly cited motive to explain crusader participation is economic gain.

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