The Image of Saladin in the Arab World


“The Crusades are seen as a movement of imperialism, the first in a long series of territorial rapes of the Muslim homelands” [1].

                 -Carole Hillenbrand in The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives 

If one accepts that view, then Saladin becomes the defender and protector of Muslim homelands against an imperialist West.  Certainly in the Islamic world, the name Saladin conjures up images of the noble military leader who united a religion against a barbaric Christian enemy.  But to the typical westerner, the name Saladin may not evoke a reaction at all.  And yet, Saladin figures prominently in both medieval history of the Crusades and contemporary Islamic politics.  Looking back over the past century and a half, it would seem as if Saladin had maintained a central role in the Muslim memory since his unification of the pan-Muslim world over 800 years ago.  One finds, however, that the widespread understanding of Saladin as a symbol of Muslim unity and the similarities drawn between the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries to contemporary struggles, is a relatively recent phenomenon.  From Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad’s commission of a statue of Saladin in front of the citadel in Damascus in 1992 to Saddam Hussein’s self-declaration as the incarnation of Saladin,


Saddam/Saladin Stamp

the 20th century saw a reemergence of memory that served modern Islamic leaders and their political ends.

These references to Saladin and his image from both the Western and Eastern perspective are often positive but not comprehensive because they fail to understand Saladin’s context, cultural background, and his ultimate political and religious aims. Thanks in part to the 18th century Western romanticization of the Crusades and a reshaping of the Muslim view of the Crusades in the late 19th and 20th century, Saladin reemerged as a Muslim hero. Both the Western and Arab worlds have generated an image of Saladin that honors his dedication to the unification of the Muslim world, his piety, and his moral code.  Western and Eastern popular culture and Arab leaders have employed this image of Saladin to serve their respective objectives.  While this portrayal may accurately represent the great political and religious leader of the late twelfth-century, it also lends itself to misinterpretation of his motives and can be used to justify the growing rift between the Middle East and the West.  

Saladin was a Kurdish Sunni, which made him somewhat of an outsider in Egypt.  Because of Nuredin’s efforts to unify the Muslim world, he was able to rise up through the military hierarchy in Egypt, take command in Cairo and oust the Fatimid Shiite ruler.  In 1174, Saladin succeeded Nuredin as sultan of Egypt and Syria.  As a leader, Saladin embodied piety, military acumen, and the spirit of the counter-crusade.  Religiosity became central to Saladin’s message after a life-threatening experience led to a religious awakening.  Saladin continued and strengthened the idea of jihad, initially stressed by Nuredin, and aimed to remove Christians from Jerusalem and all of the Holy Lands.  Additionally, he further accomplished Islamic unification after marrying the Sunni Turkish and Fatimid Shiite areas of the Middle East.  He was undoubtedly one of the most successful Muslim Crusade-era leaders because of both his unification efforts and expulsion of Western forces.  Moreover, he was an extraordinarily fair leader whose just and forgiving attributes earned him the respect of Crusade leaders. Saladin’s military conquests, namely the Battle of Hattin on July 4th, 1187 and the retaking of Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders on October 2nd, 1187, are the pinnacle of his military accomplishments.  Today and despite his Kurdish ethnicity, he is embraced as “an exemplar” for all Arabs and as “leading the jihad of the Arabs” [2].

For an interactive look at medieval and modern perspectives of Saladin, view the following map: Interactive Map!

Because the Crusades were for a long time an event that did not occupy the memory of the Muslim world, the image of Saladin as having a perpetual role as a Muslim hero is a modern construction.  Instead, other past leaders like the Mamluk Sultan Baybars featured more prominently in Islamic memory.  But around the time of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Western European colonialists imported romanticized ideas of the Crusades into the Middle East, which reintroduced the memory of the Crusades and Saladin as a central and celebrated figure.  Predominantly in the 20th century, Arab leaders like Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Hafez al-Assad have employed Saladin as a rhetorical tool to serve political goals or advance movements using the idealized version of Saladin as the hero warrior who united Muslims against the Christian West.  Especially in light of the creation of Israel in 1948, Arab leaders have employed Saladin’s memory as a tool to inspire anti-Western and anti-Zionist sentiment.  Leading historian on the Crusades, Carole Hillenbrand notes that in the 20th century Arab world, Saladin has received attention as a heroic ancestor and as “the prototypical religio-political fighter against foreign oppression” [3] .  This legacy of Saladin has led many modern day Arab rulers to strive to become the “Second Saladin” [4].  

Physical representations of Saladin employed by members of the Islamic community, either subtly or overtly, unavoidably lend themselves to drawing of comparisons between the medieval warrior and contemporary leaders or movements.  Visual representations of Saladin that range from films and animated television series to statues of leaders done in his likeness portray him as an infallible warrior, merciful hero, and unifier of religions.  Moreover, Saladin’s inextricable role in the Crusades, defeating the Christians to take back Jerusalem and the idea of jihad that was preached under his rule have become challenging historical references that pit good against evil, the West against the East.  

In Youssef Chahine’s 1963 film, Saladin the Victorious, the Egyptian director depicts the events prior to the Third Crusade where Saladin reconquered Jerusalem.  The film focuses on the nationalistic idea of uniting the Arab population against the “evil Christian Crusaders.”  When the audience is first introduced to Saladin, the Muslim leader emphasizes his dream to “see the Arab nation united under one flag.”

 In actuality, Saladin’s goal and lasting accomplishment was to unite the Muslim world under one flag.  Indeed, a contemporary of Saladin, Usama Ibn Munqidh refers to his “lord the Victorious King, Salah al-Dunya wa’l-Din, Sultan of Islam and the Muslimin” as the “unifier of the creed of faith” [5].  Chahine was evidently catering to Arab nationalistic ideals of President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser who himself sought to unite the Arab world. Indeed, Nasser often utilized Saladin in speeches, drawing comparisons between himself and the 12th century ruler to further his goal of pan-Arab unity. He claimed that westerners “had never forgotten their defeat [by Saladin]” and wanted revenge in another “fanatical, imperialist, crusade”[6]. In this light, Nasser is portrayed as Saladin struggling against the modern crusaders

Saladin, a Malaysian-made animated series from 2009 portrays an idealized version of Saladin in a manner accessible to children.  Although the series is fictional, it is inspired by the life of Saladin and paints the Crusaders as a malicious enemy who attack the peaceful Muslims. 

The way in which Saladin is depicted forces the audience to subscribe to the idea of Saladin as benevolent leader and the Crusaders as evildoers.  This in turn serves to exacerbate the dichotomy between good and evil where the Muslim world is associated with the former and the Western world is associated with the latter.  More Information on Movies and the Crusades

Modern day Muslim leaders have looked to emulate Saladin’s successes against the West.  Saddam Hussein, for example, carefully constructed a personality cult that drew on Saladin, jihad, and Crusader themes.  The four bronze statues of Saddam that are found in the courtyard of the Palace of Peace portray the Iraqi President wearing a helmet that is unmistakably the Dome of the Rock of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem which was liberated by Saladin in October of 1187, is the ever contested Holy city of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  Saddam’s reference to the city evokes this struggle.  Saddam also constructed two identical equestrian statues that were found in Tikrit, the birthplace of both Hussein and Saladin.

 Saddam’s accoutrements that blur the “distinction between medieval leader and modern day leader” overtly link the two [7].  Saddam, who saw himself as Saladin incarnate, makes use of visual rhetoric that casts Hussein’s political objectives in a historicized and noble light and lends credence to his own campaign.   

Like many before him, Osama Bin Laden also strived to unite the Muslims in a “global war against the West and Christianity” [8].  Bin Laden’s speeches equated Americans to “high tech, modern Crusaders” and highlighted the need for a defensive jihad similar to the one that Saladin engineered at the end of the Second Crusade [9].  

In Syria, the visual rhetoric of Saladin played less on the Holy War aspect of Saladin’s past and instead was used to evoke a nationalistic sentiment.  In 1992, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad commissioned an equestrian statue of Saladin to be placed in front of the citadel of Damascus.  The victorious and formidable Saladin is surrounded by three fellow Muslim warriors whose shields depict the “eagle of Saladin.”  At the rear base of the statue are two enchained Crusaders: King Guy of Lusignan and Raynald of Chatillon.  In 2008, the phrase “Jerusalem’s Liberation” was inscribed in the base in several languages.  This striking representation of Saladin is rendered even more singular due to the fact that in Syria, there is no “indigenous tradition of public sculptures of historical subjects” [10].  


Damascus Statue of Saladin

The statue is meant to highlight Islamic unity against the infidel.  Abdallah al-Sayed who created the sculpture, explains that “the group represents Saladin not as an individual warlord but as a leader who embodies a wave of popular feeling against the Franks” [11].  Furthermore, the statue finds itself in close proximity—not even 100 meters away—from a portrait of the President of Syria.  Visitors to this site can draw a parallel between the “ancient and modern defenders of Islam” [12].  Hillenbrand argues that Saladin’s position as subjugator of the Franks is “powerful symbol which is easily understood by the man in the street”[12].  In a modern context, Israel has become the new Crusader state which calls on Muslim leaders to continue their fight against the West. Assad’s deliberate use of Saladin appropriates the Crusader hero in an effort to repurpose a medieval conflict for his modern anti-Zionist message.  In this statue as in all of the visual uses of Saladin, the medieval leader is placed on a pedestal as a Muslim to emulate.  

In contrast to the Muslim world, the memory of Saladin has had a much longer history in the West.  As Thomas Madden points out, “Saladin may have been forgotten in the Middle East, but he was very well remembered in western Europe” [13].  That the manners and actions of Saladin aligned closely with Christian crusader’s ideals of a chivalric knight is one reason for this somewhat peculiar positive memory of an enemy of the Crusades.  Even today, though Saladin does not possess the kind of name recognition that he does in the Muslim world, the idealized perspective of the great Islamic hero persists.  

One of the most notable examples of Western idealization of Saladin was in 1898 when Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Saladin’s tomb in Damascus.  While there, he lauded Saladin’s heroism and extolled him as “a knight without fear or blame, who often had to teach his opponents the right way to practice chivalry’’ [14].  The significance of this glorification are twofold.  First, the themes of Western exaltation and reverence for Saladin’s heroic status were transferred, through colonization, to the Arab world allowing Muslims to take advantage of his past accomplishments to further their own ideological message. Second, in light of today’s ongoing conflict with the Middle East, it is particularly remarkable that the West has continuously acknowledged and venerated Saladin’s legacy.  

Along the same lines as Chahine’s and the animated series’ portrayal of Saladin but from a Western perspective, Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven shows Saladin as the consummate moral hero and a conqueror who succeeds without spilling blood, further glorifying his role as a Muslim leader.

In Scott’s interpretation of the Muslim leader in this powerful scene of surrender, Saladin is the epitome of merciful conqueror.  In promising safe conduct to every Christian soul—which in fact the historical Saladin did—he asserts himself as morally superior to the Crusade leaders.  

Conversely, despite this positive memory of Saladin, the invocation of Saladin by contemporary Muslim leaders begins to demonize the great leader.  Saddam Hussein’s self comparison to Saladin, for one, did a disservice to the medieval Muslim ruler.  In a January 1991, New York Times op-ed, the writer warns of the dangerous association between Saladin and Saddam. The author urges the need for distinctions to be made between Saddam’s current actions and his use of Saladin’s memory to validate his rule due to the fact that association of the two “suggests abysmal ignorance of Saladin’s code in dealing with foes, infidels and prisoners of war” [15].  The author concludes by pointing out that because of ethnic differences alone and Saladin’s Kurdish background, Saddam’s actions, such as nerve gassing populations, would horrify the noble figure.

With the advent of al-Qaeda and ISIS, many western journalists have begun to link current terrorist activities with Saladin.  The Islamic State’s treatment of enemy combatants, namely beheadings, is an eerie and uncomfortable similarity to the beheading of the Knights of the Templar after the Battle of Hattin.  In addition, when questioned about the killing of fellow Muslims, members of ISIS compared their action to those of Saladin during his conquests of Egypt and Syria where he shed Muslim blood [16]. More information on ISIS and the Crusades

The contemporary Western view of jihad is often associated with terrorism. However, the medieval notion of jihad as cemented by Saladin, focused on the defense of the Muslim homeland. The military jihad articulated by Saladin contained ideas of a lesser and a greater jihad where the greater jihad was the struggle against oneself to be a good Muslim and to combat bad individual characteristics.  Lesser jihad, the struggle against an external enemy, was theoretically subordinate to greater jihad.  Because of Saladin’s use of certain gruesome military tactics that ISIS employs today, the idea of lesser jihad has been morphed into an association with modern day terrorism.  Due to Saladin’s use of the term jihad, some believe that he laid the foundation for terrorist tactics [17].  The most evident misinterpretation of this term can be seen in accusations that Saladin is to blame for 9/11. Writers such as Robert Spencer claim that September 11th is a continuation of the Muslim crusades and attempted purification of the Middle East from Western control [18]. Western misinterpretations of Saladin in conjunction with the use of his name and rhetoric by Muslims leaders and terrorist groups have precipitated the deterioration of the long-time glorified figure.  Malappropriation and an understanding of either extreme of Saladin muddies his actual historical significance.

Saladin’s legacy is complex but has left lasting impressions on both the West and East.  In the Middle East, the Arab community has embraced the Western idealization of Saladin, reintroducing the pan-Islam unifier into their memory after centuries of having forgotten him and his accomplishments.  This resurgence has generated a slew of representations of and references to Saladin, from TV series, films, and books to statues, banknotes, and use of his rhetoric that continues to glorify his name and actions.  In contrast in the Western world, there is duality to Saladin’s memory.  On one hand, he is admired for his morality, piousness, and military conquests.  However, the link between his memory and contemporary leader’s and group’s actions presents an alternate extreme.  Problematic within both of these extremes is the justification for brutal military tactics or irreconcilable differences between the West and the Middle East.  In addition, the use of Saladin’s memory points to a larger trend of Crusader themes in cultural and political discourse. The memory of Saladin and the Crusades was reconstructed so that history could merge with contemporary needs. That the Crusades have been recreated in the memory of Islam is indicative of growing anxiety about external expansion or intervention in the Middle East. The invocation of the Crusades suggests an underlying blame on the Western world for the the “decline of the great medieval Islamic civilization” [19].  


[1] Hillenbrand, Carole, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives, (New York: Routledge, 2000), 611.

[2] Ibid., 594.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 595

[5] Usāmah Ibn Munqidh and Paul M. Cobb, The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades, (London: Penguin, 2008), 179.

[6] Jonathan Phillips, “The Image of Saladin: From the Medieval to the Modern Age.” European Receptions of the Crusades in the Nineteenth Century: Franco-German Perspectives, 2011. Accessed May 14, 2016., p. 6.

[7] Stefan Heidemann, “Memory and Ideologry: Images of Saladin in Syria and Iraq,” in Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East, 57-81, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 67.

[8] Loretta Napoleoni, Terrorism and the Economy: How the War on Terror Is Bankrupting the World, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2010), 56.

[9] Ibid., 41

[10] Hillenbrand, Crusades, 596.

[11] Ibid., 598.

[12] Ibid., 600.

[13] Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 202.

[14] Hillenbrand, Crusades, 593.

[15] “Saddam Hussein Is No Saladin,” The New York Times, 1991, Accessed May 30, 2016,

[16] Jay Sekulow, Jordan Sekulow, Robert W. Ash, and David French, The Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore, (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 37.

[17] Napoleani, Terrorism and the Economy, 56.

[18] Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), (Washington, DC: Regnery Pub., 2005), 184.

[19] Hillenbrand, Crusades, 612.



 Works Cited:

Heidemann, Stefan. “Memory and Ideology: Images of Saladin in Syria and Iraq.” In Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East, 57-81. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Hillenbrand, Carole.  The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives.  New York: Routledge, 2000.

Hillenbrand, Carole. “The Evolution of the Saladin Legend in the West.” Accessed May 15, 2016. Staff. “Saladin.” 2012. Accessed May 29, 2016.

Madden, Thomas F.  The Concise History of the Crusades.  Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.  

Munqidh, Usāmah Ibn, and Paul M. Cobb. The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades. London: Penguin, 2008.

Napoleoni, Loretta. Terrorism and the Economy: How the War on Terror Is Bankrupting the World. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2010.

Orfali, Mahmoud, and Kamil Othman, prods. “Saladin: The Animated Series.” Jeem TV. 2009.

Kingdom of Heaven. Directed by Ridley Scott. Performed by Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, and Ghassan Massoud. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 2005. DVD.

Phillips, Jonathan. “The Image of Saladin: From the Medieval to the Modern Age.” European Receptions of the Crusades in the Nineteenth Century: Franco-German Perspectives, 2011. Accessed May 14, 2016.

“Saddam Hussein Is No Saladin.” The New York Times. 1991. Accessed May 30, 2016.

Saladin the Victorious. Directed by Youssef Chahine. Egypt: Assia, 1963. Online.

Sekulow, Jay, Jordan Sekulow, Robert W. Ash, and David French. The Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Spencer, Robert. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Washington, DC: Regnery Pub., 2005.


Crusader Motivations and Motives — ‘Pauperes’: Europe’s Poor in the Holy Land

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)

La Nouvelle Jerusalem

14th-century tapestry depicting Jesus reigning over the world from his base in the ‘New Jerusalem.’

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)


Peter the Hermit inspires a crowd to take up the cross and follow him to the Holy Land

Worldly Motives

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)


Medieval serfs laboring under the yoke of their master

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)


Crusaders of all social strata enjoy the plunder of the city of Jerusalem

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.   

Works Cited:

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.

Crusader Motives and Motivation — Vocabulary of the Crusades

Vocabulary of the Crusades:

Understanding Motivation Through Language


Imitatio Christi

St. Francis regarded his stigmata as an imitation of Christ.

St. Francis regarded his stigmata as an imitation of Christ.

Imitatio Christi is a  Latin phrase which translates to what it sounds like: imitating Christ. The phrase, which grew in currency during the time Crusades, signifies one of the most pervasive and characteristic motives of medieval spirituality, to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

Beginning in the eleventh century, European Christians grew increasingly interested and devoted to the details of Christ’s earthly life, as well as his behavior, and appearance. Because of this interest in Christ’s life, mimetic gestures such as the embroidered crosses on crusader garments or pilgrimages to Jerusalem were especially poignant. Scholars measure this increased interest based off of corresponding period artwork, which depicted the passion of Christ. These depictions became predominant and replaced other artwork which projected Christ as a victorious savior.

Among the many promoters of the Imitatio Christi motive, one of the most important was Bernard of Clarivaux. In his sermons and treatises he speaks of following and imitating Christ, effectively impacting the theology of many medieval Christians.

Expeditio, iter, labor

Pope Urban II used the Latin words expeditio and iter in his letters describing the Crusades enterprise. According to its common usage during the period, iter could signify both a military campaign and a pilgrimage. Labor, when used by Urban, occurs parallel to iter, suggesting the campaign would serve both military and penitential interests. The combination of the words serve as evidence that there were dual military and spiritual motivations for the Crusades.



To motivate Christians to rebuild a decrepit border town between Christian and Muslim territory, Tarragona, Pope Urban II wrote to the clergy and people of Catalonia and promised them remission of sins in exchange for their labor.

The pope reinforced the penitential effort by encouraging those who might have planned to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to contribute instead to Tarragona. He extended those choosing to switch the same “indulgentiam” for this work as if they had made the pilgrimage.This is one of the earliest usages of the idea of “indulgentiam” as a motivation for the Church’s campaigns, and the idea would later blossom as a prime motivator for the Crusades.

Remissio Peccatorum

In a letter to the Flemish written in either December 1095 or February 1096, Pope Urban II advertised the First Crusade. His letter, which urges the Flemish to join the expedition, references a speech he made at Clermont to the Franks: “We visited Gaul…. we imposed on them the obligation such a military enterprise for the remission of sins” (68).  The letter to the Flemish outlines a generous spiritual reward under the formulation remissio peccatorum. Some historians noted the significance of the Flemish letter, written to lay princes and knights whom Urban wanted to invited to participate in the crusade, and to its purpose, of motivating the knights to embark on a Crusade.

Further Reading

Bysted, Ane L. The Crusade Indulgence: Spiritual Rewards and the Theology of the Crusades. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Crusader Motives and Motivation – Pope Urban II’s Call to Arms

Pope Urban II’s Call to Arms


Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, dating to about 1474.  Sébastien Mamerot, Les Passages d’outremer

In the fall of 1095, the emperor in Constantinople, Alexius I, sent an envoy asking Pope Urban II for help against the Seljuk Turks who were encroaching on their lands and on the rights of Christians. Following this request for help, on November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II called for a gathering, the Council of Clermont, where he preached the First Crusade. In order to evaluate the motives and motivations of the crusaders, it is useful to look at Pope Urban’s speech. No written record of Urban’s actual speech survived, but there are multiple accounts available to historians today. These accounts are equally if not more useful, as they attest to the widespread interpretations of Urban’s speech. However, certain themes run consistently throughout all of the accounts.

One such theme was the suffering and bad treatment of Eastern Christians at the hands of the Turks. For example, in Robert of Rheims’ account of Urban’s speech, he claims that the Turks had not only destroyed their holy churches, but also tortured the Christians. He mentions that the Turks had “depopulated [the Christians] by the sword, pillage and fire.” He goes on to discuss in graphic detail some of the methods of torture that the Turks used against the Christians. (Peters, 27) If Urban did mention such things, it would have been a strong mobilizing factor for Christians in the West to help their Eastern brothers.

Another interesting theme that comes up in multiple accounts is the desecration and destruction of their holy sites. (Munro) Baldric of Dol, in his account of Urban’s speech, claims that the Western Christians’ sins were the primary reason that Jerusalem had fallen to the Muslims. He says, “This very city, in which, as you all know, Christ Himself suffered for us, because our sins demanded it, has been reduced to the pollution of paganism and, I say it to our disgrace, withdrawn from the service of God.” (Peters, 30) This is a direct call to fight in defense of Christianity. In attributing the fall of Jerusalem to the Christians, Pope Urban, as Baldric of Dol clearly alludes to, was essentially offering a way to right the wrongs they had committed.

This idea that the crusaders’ sins could be absolved is another common theme present throughout accounts of Urban’s speech. Rheims called the journey a “pilgrimage” that could be taken as a “remission of sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of Heaven.” (Peters, 28) Urban knew that the way to garner enthusiasm was to appeal to the most basic desire of Christians: salvation. By saying that, by making the journey to Jerusalem and freeing the Eastern Christians, all sins would be absolved, Urban inspired Christians throughout France and beyond to make the pilgrimage in defense of Christianity.

While Alexius I’s plea for help was the original reason Urban called for the crusade, it quickly developed into a means for salvation. Looking at all of the accounts of Urban’s speech, it is clear that he was calling for a “war of liberation.” He saw two main purposes for this war: freeing the Eastern Christians and freeing the city of Jerusalem. (Riley-Smith 18) Urban used the sense of religious duty and responsibility that most of his contemporaries felt as a means to garner support and popularity for the movement toward Jerusalem. While Urban’s message is relatively clear, different groups within society used his call to arms as a means to acheiving other goals.

Works Cited

The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartes and Other Source Materials. Edited by Edward Peters. Second edition. UPenn Press. 1998. Selections.

Mamerot, Sébastien. Les Passages D’outremer. Digital image. Gallica Digital Library. N.p., n.d. Web.