11. A Holy War: Political Opportunism, not Idealism

Gain a Kingdom or Die in battle and Go to Heaven

Further the Pope had given them the perfect rationale – a concept that reverberated with primal beliefs. After conquering Western Europe and establishing themselves as the hereditary rulers, the Northern tribes converted to Roman Catholicism with their Pope and system of bishoprics to better establish control of the populace. In the cultural merger Jesus the pacifist of the New Testament was transformed into Jesus the military messiah of the Old Testament. This military aristocracy also brought with them their tripartite caste system, which morphed into Europe’s feudal system. Due to the Crusades, occurring at the beginning of the 2nd millennium, an important ingredient to the Nordic/Christian merger was added, which has added a lasting, if destructive influence.

With his call for a Crusade Pope Urban II also brilliantly completed the marriage between the Nordic military aristocracy and the Christian Church. The Pope guaranteed his Christian soldiers a spot in heaven if they died fighting the Moslems, ironically another Biblical culture. This fit in perfectly with the residual beliefs of the Nordic warrior culture. According to their mythology the warrior leaders only got to go to heaven if they died in battle. Who they battled against was of little consequence. But they weren’t going to Valhalla, Viking heaven, unless they died this unnatural death. So going directly to Christian Heaven after dying in battle fighting the Muslims was an excellent fit with their traditional beliefs based around the warrior cult.

The Pope’s call for a Crusade also satisfied another desire of the military aristocracy – kingdom building. The Christian knights, who responded to the Pope’s call, especially the Normans, were much less interested in spreading Christianity and more interested in carving out their own political niche. The Norman knights cared little about religion; they just wanted to be kings. They were thinking kingdom, not Christianity.

The Normans were the last wave of Viking invaders that had been an omnipresent part of the European landscape for the last 200 years of the first millennium, roughly 800 to 1000 CE. The Normans, the dominant military force in the West at the turn of the millennium, had invaded and settled first in France; then moved to conquer England; then to conquer and rule Sicily and Southern Italy. With the Pope’s call for a Crusade they now set their sights on claiming more of Greek Byzantium’s territory presumably for the Latin Holy Roman Empire, but actually for their militaristic familial gene pool.

The greatest hero of the First Crusade was one of these Normans, whose father, Robert Guiscard, had conquered much of Southern Europe from the Byzantium Empire. With the Pope’s call for a Crusade, Guiscard’s oldest, but bastard son, Bohemond, found the perfect opportunity to continue the Norman invasion of Byzantium. The wolf had found a way into the house of the three little pigs. Greeks, beware of Latins bearing gifts. In short the Normans were delighted when Pope Urban II enlisted their military prowess to free Jerusalem from the grips of the infidel Moslems because it gave them the opportunity they needed to seize more land from whomever.

Migration of European Peasants

Pope Urban II’s call for a Crusade succeeded beyond his wildest imagining. The many poor and homeless joined the Crusade to re-conquer the Holy Land to give meaning to their lives. Further many of the aimless knights seeking fame and fortune joined the invading army. More importantly certain Norman royalty joined on with the specific intention of establishing their own kingdoms. Some of these were secondary sons who had no hopes of inheriting a kingdom because of the custom of primogeniture, which stated that the power and land went to the first son, rather than being equally divided amongst the siblings.

While the Nordic knights were looking to establish themselves as the ruler of a kingdom or go straight to heaven if they died in battle, just like their old time religion, the unwashed homeless peasants were fighting to expand their own culture with its unique brand of Papal Christianity. Of course Jesus’ pacifist philosophy played no part whatsoever in the motivations of these lower classes. Rather than finding common ground with their fellow Christians these European peasants were asserting their cultural identity. (As mentioned this was not true of the Normans, who just wanted to conquer and rule.) For them this was more of a mass migration to escape European population pressures than a military invasion. They had no intention of assisting their fellow Christians from Muslim attack and then going home. They were searching for a new home, a new Catholic kingdom. What better place than Jerusalem, the heart of the Bible?

A Pilgrimage to Jerusalem?

So the Emperor of Byzantium asks for help from a rival, who inadvertently sends warriors looking to establish a Latin kingdom in their Greek Empire and a peasant migration looking for a new home. As can be imagined this turned out to be a big mistake, which was eventually a major factor in the fall of their Empire. However at the time it seemed like a good idea as Urban II, like his predecessor Gregory VII, were taking steps to heal the Great Schism between Latin and Greek Christendom. Further his letters indicate that his intent was to assist in the defense of Eastern Christianity from the Islamic encroachment led by the Seljuk Turks.

Although this seemed to have been his intent, the Pope framed his message to the Europeans in terms of the recapture of Jerusalem from the Infidel, perhaps for persuasive reasons. Although Byzantium was just an abstract idea in Europe, Jerusalem was tangible and a growing sore point in recent decades, but not because it had been recently conquered by the Muslims. In fact they had taken charge of Jerusalem in 637 CE, within 15 years of the hegira, and remained in control for over 400 years – until the end of the 1st Crusade.

Due to their clemency they actually permitted the continuance of a Latin Church in Jerusalem. Note that Islam during this period was tolerant of any monotheistic religion, especially Judaism and Christianity. This tolerance was part of Mohammed’s teachings, as their religions were all based in the same Bible. Further the Muslim rulers allowed and actually encouraged a steady flow of European Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, as these pilgrimages provided a great source of revenue. As an indication of the benevolent and constructive relation between the Islamic overlords and the Western Christians, Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, founded a hospital and a library there due his excellent relation with the Latin Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem. Further King Alfred of England and King Louis of Germany sent financial contributions.

This benign state of affairs lasted until the beginning of the first millennium, when a fanatical caliph destroyed the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulcher (1010 CE) and control of the Holy Places passed to the Byzantines (1021). Presumably due to the Great Schism (1054) the Byzantines made it even more difficult for the Latin pilgrims by charging them exorbitant fees. Then in 1071 the rougher Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem from the business-like Arab Muslims, who had ruled for centuries. This was due to a turf war between rival Islamic sects (the Shiites based in Egypt, the Sunnis in Baghdad). As the Turks were not as accommodating the Arabs the European pilgrimage to Jerusalem had just become even more difficult. Further due to European plagues and famines more pilgrims than ever wanted to make the trip. Note: up to this point the Muslims and Christian had co-existed peaceably in Jerusalem.

Although no blood had been shed between the three Biblical sects in this historic city, the Latin Christians felt exploited by the Byzantines and treated arrogantly by the Turks. Their spiritual pilgrimages to this ancient religious center had become ever more difficult. Although probably not his intent, Urban II’s call for a Crusade ignited this growing frustration. Peter the Hermit’s fiery oratory fanned the small blaze into a roaring fire of tens of thousands French and German peasants – all intent on securing Jerusalem for Western Christendom in a mass migration.

The Christian Emperor of Byzantium requested help against the Muslims from his erstwhile ally, the Christian Pope in Rome. Instead of an army, the Pope issued a call to all Europeans to enter a Crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the Infidel. This catalyzed the European peasantry to such an extant that they marched hundreds of miles across hostile territory - not to help out the Byzantine Empire - which was just as foreign as the Muslim Empire to them - but to liberate and inhabit Jerusalem. They couldn’t lose as the Pope had promised them they were going direct to heaven if they died in battle. A win-win situation for the peasantry. Better to die in battle and go to heaven than stay at home and rot to death.

In many ways the Crusades could be called an almost spontaneous solution to population pressures. The European peasantry had experienced famine and a shortage of work, while the trained knights had nowhere to go. They enthusiastically embraced the Pope’s directive as a way of easing tensions at home. Go to war. The fit survive. The weak perish. God’s Will be done.

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