Today In History: First Crusade Begins

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Today in 1095, Pope Urban II made a speech entreating all European Christians to go to war with Muslims in the Holy Land. The speech inaugurated the first Crusade.

Since the 6th Century, European Christians had made pilgrimages to the Holy Land. But when Jerusalem came under Turkish control, Christians were no longer permitted to enter the city. The Turks then threatened to conquer Constantinople, compelling Byzantine Emperor Alexius I to seek aid from the Pope.

Urban took the opportunity to shore up his power. He called for a united front of European Christians to “take back” the Holy Land.

The Pope delivered his famous speech at the Council of Clermont, France. He spoke before hundreds of high-level clergy and nobles, entreating them to set aside sectarian differences in support of their Christian brothers in the Holy Land. Urban’s hyperbolic speech vilified the Muslims. He also pledged total absolution of all sins for any Christian who died in the war.

Somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Christians joined Urban’s Crusade from across Europe. The carrot of plunder and expanded land holdings also propelled many nobles to join the cause.

The Crusade was met with severe violence. The Crusader army, composed largely of untrained European peasantry, was totally outmatched by the Turks. The Christians eventually turned the tide back in their favor through an advantage in numbers.

The First Crusade established the “crusader states,” Edessa, Antioch, Jerusalem and Tripoli in Palestine and Syria.

Pope Urban II died in 1099, only two weeks after his Crusading forces conquered Jerusalem. However, he never learned the news, as it hadn’t reached Europe. Crusaders were considered heroes in Europe.

Urban’s Crusade was only the first of seven. The Crusades spanned two centuries and consisted of seven campaigns. The Crusades set the stage for ensuing centuries of conflict in the Middle East, and a legacy of violence that continues to affect life for every person alive.

The Crusades consolidated papal control of the Latin Church and also vastly expanded the clergy’s tolerance for violence. The Crusades also established the system of indulgences that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. The Crusades also made the Medieval Inquisition possible.

The Crusades also drove a wedge between the Latin world and Islam and Orthodox Christianity. The West came to be seen as a place of thwarted aggression. Interestingly, there is a general consensus among historians that the Renaissance would not have been possible without the cultural influence of the Muslims.

The Roman Catholic Church beatified Pope Urban II in 1881.

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