Despite Pope Urban II’s specification that only trained fighting men—namely nobles, knights, and other soldiers—ought to take up the cross, the army of the First Crusade was awash in unwashed masses. By Conor Kostick’s estimate, of the approximately 90,000 total crusaders in the army, 40,000 were pauperes—a term employed by contemporary chroniclers to refer to hordes of peasants and other lowly civilians untrained in warfare. (Kostick 288)
Spirituality and the Poor
By most accounts it is clear that, even from the outset, this large group of poor crusaders understood the mission of the endeavor in far different terms than it had been first preached at Clermont. Although the primary and official intention of the crusade had been to aid the Eastern Church in its battles against the Turks, the primary objective, by which the pauperes were “intoxicated”, was the recapture and purification of the city of Jerusalem. While for centuries both Jewish and Christian religious scholars had been building a literature and tradition which ascribed divine and apocalyptic significance to a metaphorical, and mystical “New Jerusalem” which, in the ‘end times’ would decent to earth and serve as the capital of Jesus’ messianic rule. So pervasive had been the mentions of this “heavenly city” in sermons and theological works in this period that many of Christendom’s uneducated poor tended to confuse and equate the temporal city in Palestine with the “heavenly city.” Operating in this mindset, the pauperes hearing of the crusade came to view the prospect of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in increasingly millenarian terms. (Brundage 36)
These sentiments and misconceptions, already prevalent in the population, were stirred to fever pitch in 1095 by “holy men” like Peter the Hermit, who claimed, among other things, that Jesus himself had ordered him to lead the Christian poor on a mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (Brundage 35) The success of Peter the Hermit and others like him in gathering thousands to their cause gives insight into the minds of Christendom’s poor. For the peasants who followed Peter on the “People’s Crusade”, or the tens of thousands who followed shortly after, joining the First Crusade, the movement appeared to present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bear witness to, and play an active role in, a mission ordained by God himself. While warriors and nobles saw the crusade primarily as a military campaign, the pauperes seemed to view the journey as “a collective imitatio Christi,” the efforts and sacrifices of which would ultimately yield a grand spiritual climax upon the taking of Jerusalem. (Brundage 38)
This is not to suggest that the spiritual concerns of the pauperes were their sole motivations for crusading. Temporal factors served as an effective carrot-and-stick mechanism to prompt peasants both to join up in the first place and to sustain the momentum of the campaign through the Holy Land. According to the annalistic accounts of multiple regions throughout Christendom, the decade preceding Urban II’s sermon at Clermont had been disastrous for medieval Europeans. These years had been rife with widespread floods, famines, and plagues, and, as is often the case with such calamities, the poorest sectors were the hardest hit. (Kostick 100) By 1095, as Europe was just beginning to emerge from this state of misery and disarray, it would have been no great undertaking to for men like Peter the Hermit to convince thousands to drop everything and set out for a land supposedly flowing with milk and honey. A brief entry from the contemporary Annals of St. Blaisen exaggerates, but only slightly, in its claim that these plagues and famines created the movement to Jerusalem. (101)
It should be noted, however, that the crusade was more than just an escape from calamities imposed by nature. In the highly-segmented social structure of feudal Europe, the crusade presented itself to Christendom’s lowest orders as an opportunity for something approaching social mobility. Several accounts of subsequent crusades make explicit mention of escaped former serfs making up a sizeable portion of the ranks of crusading pauperes. Though this phenomenon is not directly mentioned in First Crusade chronicles, the passage from the Monte Cassino chronicle which claims that, “the dominus did not dare restrain the servus [in taking up the journey to the Holy Land]” suggests that, just as in subsequent crusades, in 1095, those who were bound to the land in disenfranchised misery stole away to the crusade as a means of gaining freedom. (105)
Although the extent to which poor Europeans joined the First Crusade in order to free themselves from medieval social structures is a matter of debate, it is clear from multiple chroniclers that temporal gains were of paramount importance in motivating pauperes to press onwards once the campaign was already underway. It had been agreed upon by the princes and clergy early on in the journey that the crusader army would operate on the ‘law of conquest’, meaning that no knight or nobleman could deprive a man of lesser status of any booty or plunder he had first claimed for himself. (131) Whereas, in the conflicts typical of the medieval period the rich were wont to take from the poor with impunity, this stipulation opened up the possibility that the even the lowliest sectors could have access to the spoils of war. (130) Although chronicles make mention of a handful of peasants cavorting with their horses and extravagant garments purchased from this looting, for most pauperes, looting—and the crusading that enabled it—was a matter of life and death. (Brundage 38)
Starvation was a constant threat throughout the First Crusade—such a massive army consumed resources at an alarming rate and on several occasions found its stores entirely depleted. While the knights and nobles were typically wealthy enough to keep themselves provisioned in these difficult times, such was not the case for the tens of thousands who had set out for the Holy Land with practically nothing. Long marches in the harsh desert, and long periods of siege and encirclement pushed these men and women to the brink of starvation and often over it. (Kostick 135) However, with this ‘finders-keepers’ rule in place, if a starving pauper could get his hands on loot, he could sell it for food and keep himself alive. Given this, it is no small wonder that, at times such as the siege of Antioch, when the First Crusade lost its momentum and idly drained resources, the pauperes were typically the most vociferous advocates of resuming hostilities against the cities and peoples of the Holy Land, and their voices were often heard. (136) As much as these peasant crusaders’ role in killing and conquest was motivated by reverence for God, it was motivated by the worldly desire to stave off starvation by the only means at their disposal.
Brundage, J.A. The Crusades, Motives and Achievements. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1964. Print.
Kostick, Conor. The Social Structure of the First Crusade. Boston and Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2008. Print.