Home Back

The First Crusade and the Medieval Concept of Holy War


Daniel J. Castellano


Boston University

Backman HI808

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility;

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger:

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage.

-Henry V, Act III, Sc. I


            Man is dramatically transfigured by warfare, which evokes a ferocity that is utterly antithetical to the virtues esteemed in peacetime. When arms clash and battle cries resound, the world assumes a Manichaean simplicity, and men are viewed not in terms of their common humanity, but only with respect to the casus belli.  The casi may include the professed motives for a particular war, but the ultimate casus belli is the civilization itself which is being defended or projected.  Man’s love of his civilization drives him to savagery; this is at once the contradiction and its resolution.  Civilization as motive for war is paradoxical for any culture, yet the contradiction is magnified when a culture places extraordinary emphasis on gentleness and humility, radically demanding that people silently endure persecution and repay unkindness with love.  Such is precisely what we find in the medieval Crusades, wherefore an intellectual and moral revulsion at the apparent duplicity of this phenomenon can lure us into easy, and implicitly self-laudatory, solutions: the Crusaders were hypocrites; they were not really Christianized; they were psychologically unsophisticated.  These interpretations neglect the fact that the psychological contradictions of crusading are largely a particular case of a more general problem of the psychology of warfare, and that the contradiction perceived by the outside observer is almost never recognized by the combatant.  His attitudes toward his comrades and his enemies are a source of psychic harmony, not tension; he does not have a dual experience, but a unified one.  Contrary to appearances, Christians did not have to suppress or betray their Christian ideals in order to fight under the cross; Christianity was what they lived and breathed while waging war.  This sounds absurd only if we suppose Christianity to be intrinsically pacifistic, and forget that even liberal democracies must wage war in a manner that is necessarily illiberal and undemocratic.  I do not intend to mitigate or justify the actions of the Crusaders; this is not a moral argument. The purpose here is to reproduce, as effectively as possible, that unified mental experience which made perfect sense of the Crusade to the thousands of men and women who fought it.  That single experience is the Christian holy war, and I aim to distinguish what this meant to people of the crusading age, particularly the First Crusade, from other types of holy war, and to determine to what extent and in what ways this was different from the concept of just war.

            Christian misgivings about warfare are as ancient as the religion itself.  A strict adherence to the evangelical counsels would seem to preclude any violence whatsoever, even in personal self-defense.  There are difficulties with this position, of course; some of Christ’s disciples were soldiers, yet retained their profession, and the God of the Old Testament, presumably one and the same with that of the New, repeatedly instructed the Israelites to wage wars which appear genocidal by modern standards.  The Old Testament depiction of a God who slew and commanded slaughter seemed so at odds with the religion of martyrs that it occasioned the first known schism in Christianity, that of the bishop Marcion in the second century.  Marcion excised the Old Testament from his canon, and demoted the God of Israel to a malevolent demiurgus, subordinate to the loving Christian God.  Although the orthodox reaction against Marcion’s schism solidified Christian acceptance of the Old Testament, it did not deal a decisive blow against absolute pacifism, as evidenced by the opinions of Origen and other third-century thinkers who held a strictly allegorical understanding of the Israelite wars.  When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the issue was resolved de facto as Christians found themselves in command of the world’s largest standing army.  It was impossible to let the matter remain ambiguous, for a sovereign nation must decide whether or not to wage war.  The status quo prevailed, and the Christianized empire retained the traditional Roman concept of just war, which focused primarily on the causes of conflict, rather than the means by which war is waged.  There was no practical or intellectual need for the concept of holy war in the first 400 years of Christianity, but the embrace of the Old Testament and the accession of the Christian emperors made absolute pacifism increasingly difficult to sustain.

            Christian war theory was well defined even without recourse to Justinian’s code, thanks to the preservation of the highly influential works of St. Augustine of Hippo.  St. Augustine was renowned for his intellectual and moral scrupulousness; he took the radical demands of Christianity seriously, and was not content to dismiss them with easy rationalizations.  Realizing that “nulli irascenti ira sua videtur iniusta”, Augustine advised against nursing even justified anger, since this easily transmutes into hatred.[1]  Augustine understood the basic dynamics of human psychology, so he often opted against a legitimate course of action if it was an occasion for sin.  Characteristically, he accepted the Roman concept of just war only with many reservations and caveats.   He identified the “real evils in war” as “the love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust for power”.[2]   Just wars had to be waged not to promote these evils, but to oppose them.  Though it is surely better to maintain peace by peace, Augustine noted that peace is also the objective of those who war, for they simply seek a peace more favorable to themselves.  War ought to be fought out of necessity, not choice, and the soldier ought to be a peace-maker.[3]  With qualifications such as these, Augustine accepted the basic elements of the Roman just war, such as the right to self-defense, the declaration of war by legitimate public authority, and the soldier’s duty to obey the sovereign even in unjust wars.

            The growth of Manichaeism in the fifth century revived many Marcionite arguments against the Old Testament.  In his response Contra Faustum Manichaeum, which was widely cited by medieval canonists on the topics of homicide and war, Augustine established an intellectual basis for Christian holy war, perhaps inadvertently.  While defending the Old Testament in Contra Faustum, Augustine argues that Moses was wrong to slay the Egyptian because he possessed neither lawful authority nor a command from God.  Only when God had appointed him leader of the Israelites and instructed him to kill or plunder was he justified in doing so.  In fact, it would have been a sin for him not to do so.[4]  A couple of points emerge from Augustine’s analysis: war may be initiated “in obedience to God or some lawful authority”[5], and God may command men to do things that would otherwise be unjust.  The first point appears to establish two distinct authorities that can declare war: God and the temporal sovereign.  Yet in the Bible, God generally commands war through the sovereign, and Augustine probably envisioned that any divinely mandated war would be ordered through the Christian emperor.  (Conversely, any just wars might be considered of divine authority in the sense that the emperor’s sovereignty comes from God.)  Canonists could use this passage to suggest an authority distinct from the emperor, in light of the medieval papacy’s temporal claims and the Pope’s role as Vicar of Christ.  In either interpretation, the jus ad bellum of holy war is explicit divine command. The second point is the principal source of revulsion toward holy war, for it appears that divine sanction ironically justifies a lack of moral restraint, as evidenced by the systematic slaughter of women and children in the Israelite wars of conquest.

            Augustine finds no contradiction in God commanding wars of extermination; these are, after all, but particular cases of the divine providence that governs the lives and deaths of all men.  In this vein, the saint frankly admits that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would have been an abominable deed had it been done only of human volition, but it was praiseworthy when done at the command of God.[6]  Abraham is the archetype of a Judeo-Christian faith that demands not mere belief that God exists, but complete trust in divine judgment and providence.  Augustine accepts on faith that God could inflict no undeserved suffering, and that God alone is capable of searching hearts in order to determine what is truly merited.[7]  Moreover, death and suffering are not invariably punishments, but can also be the means of spiritual purification and exaltation to sainthood.  As God’s judgments are inscrutable, divinely commanded war falls outside the realm of normal analysis.  The jus in bello of holy war is strict obedience to the divine instructions, even if these appear to be at odds with positive or natural law.

Augustine probably did not anticipate that his arguments on holy war, made primarily for purposes of biblical apologetics, would ever be used to justify future wars, since holy war required explicit divine command, and such was given only under the dispensation of the Old Covenant, while the ministers of the New Covenant obey God by “being put to death by sinners”.[8]  Consequently, his treatment of heretics falls into a different class of action: persecution by appeal to secular authority.  Early in the fourth century, the Donatists became the first Christians to petition the emperor for sectarian persecution, in their attempt to have the bishop Caecilianus removed from the see of Carthage.[9]  This recourse backfired miserably, as Constantine instead opted to persecute the Donatists, a policy that continued sporadically into Augustine’s time.  The severe treatment of the Donatists was not the usual tactic chosen by Augustine or other Catholics of his time in dealing with heretics.  Donatism was plagued by an exceptionally violent and murderous element that threatened the social order of North Africa, and the sect encouraged suicide as a form of martyrdom.  It is in this context that we are to understand Augustine’s insistence that persecution (meaning forbidding the sect to exist, not killing its adherents) of the Donatists was in fact an act of love, since the rehabilitated heretics were freed from self-destructive beliefs, full of “hate and madness”.  The saint reported that his church was full of reformed heretics who were grateful to have been cured of their insanity.  Donatism in its extreme form was “so savage that mercy is an even greater cruelty”.[10] We may note that Augustine did not recommend similar measures against the Arians, yet we can see how his arguments about persecuting heretics as an act of love could be generalized by medieval canonists, who cited De Correctione Donatistarum profusely.  His quotation of Christ, “Compel them to come in,” could also be carried to a logical extreme, requiring that all Latin Christians be compelled to receive Catholic orthodoxy.[11]  This is a serious distortion of Augustinian thought, for the African doctor did not believe it desirable, or possible, to compel belief.  The Donatists did not have a distinct creed, so the only compulsion involved forcing them to abandon their insistence on ecclesiastical separateness, and to refrain from criminal acts.  Even where treatment of heretics required the use of force, such measures were taken through normal legal appeals, not by an act of war, much less a holy war.

The preceding Augustinian sources were profoundly influential in the shaping of eleventh-century canon law, as evidenced by extensive direct quotations found in the canonical compilations of St. Ivo of Chartres, whose Panormia was contemporary with the First Crusade (1096-99), and influenced the more famous Decretum of Gratian (c. 1140).  Many of St. Thomas Aquinas’ citations of Augustine are copied from Gratian rather than the primary sources, illustrating how Augustine’s influence was felt in the domain of practical jurisprudence, rather than as mere theological speculation.  Ivo’s Panormia reproduces entire passages from Augustine’s epistles, such as the letter to Publicola, which proscribes killing except as a “miles aut publica functione”.  The intent of the precept “Non resistamus malo” is interpreted: “ne nos vindicta delectet que alieno malo animum pascit, non ut correctionem hominum negligamus.”[12]  Exceptions to the commandment against murder are cited from De Civitate Dei: “Sed his exceptis quos Deus occidi iubet sive data lege sive ad personam pro tempore expressa iussione.  The distinction drawn here is not so much between divine and temporal authority, but between divine authority administered through a general law, or by a “special intimation” such as those received by Abraham and Samson.[13]

The ascent of papal temporal authority in the eleventh century greatly strengthened the prospects of a Christian holy war coming to fruition.  In spiritual matters, the will of the Church had often been identified with the will of God; now, such a correlation was increasingly being drawn in temporal affairs.  Pope Leo IX personally commanded forces in a defensive war against the Normans (1053), and Pope Gregory VII was severely criticized by bishops loyal to Henry IV for having “chose himself a commander and arrayed an army – a thing forbidden by St. Peter – to invade the kingdom”.[14]  Despite this criticism, Pope Gregory, as a devout Cluniac, regarded the purity of the clergy with extreme gravity (as demonstrated by his insistence on priestly celibacy and other clerical reforms), so he upheld the prohibitions against clergy bearing arms or shedding blood, even hunting animals.  Yet his oft-professed commitment to iustitia made it impossible for him to stand on the sidelines of war (or any other political issue).  Isidore of Seville, as recorded in the canons, insisted that there can be no just war without iustitia.[15]  Gregory, in his actions, conversely affirmed that iustitia often demanded the waging of just war.  It is not clear that Pope Gregory had any desire to undertake what we have defined as Augustinian holy war.  His efforts in Spain seem to have been deliberate political maneuvers rather than a sense of divine inspiration.  In 1073, he forbade any Christian kings to attack Spain without his permission, on the grounds that Spanish lands pertained to the Patrimonium Petri. The following year, he confided to Countess Matilda of Tuscany that he secretly desired to “help Christians who are being slaughtered by the heathen like cattle”, by personally crossing the sea with Matilda and her mother the Empress, ready to lay down his life.[16]  Had he done so, he would not have been the first Pope to personally lead an army, but the sheepishness with which he confides this dream to Matilda indicates that he understood that this was a different kind of war.  Despite its obviously religious character, Gregory saw fit to validate the conflict by just war criteria, such as the defence of the innocent from wanton cruelty and the other evils of war listed by Augustine.  Even though this is not a divinely-ordained, Israelite-style holy war, an important crusading idea can already be found: the link between war and docile self-sacrifice.  We do not yet have an equation between the two, since the Pope and the women would presumably have been unarmed, but there is already a deep desire, apparently motivated by Christian charity, to lay down their lives.  The Pope’s charitable motivation was probably genuine, for there would have been little gained from his personal presence on the battlefield and consequent exposure to danger.  It remains to be seen whether this altruistic attitude was widespread.

Expansion of the papacy’s temporal authority did not result in a posture of increased belligerence, but made possible a strange legal innovation: the attempt to regulate the practice of war by a supranational authority.  The most prominent early example of this was the Truce of God, which prohibited Christian feudal wars during the holy season.  There were also attempts to define when a prince had the right to receive spoils, and injunctions against slaying clergy or violating the asylum granted by churches.  As the eleventh-century popes repeatedly lamented, these regulations were often ignored.  The same would hold true of more ambitious attempts to regulate war, such as the Second Lateran Council’s prohibition of jousting on account of its waste of human life, and the more famous ban of the “murderous” crossbow, “hateful to God”.[17]  This last was even omitted by some canonists, so little was it regarded. (In any event, the advent of plate armor soon dispelled the murderous quality of longbows and crossbows.)  Nonetheless, the crusading age significantly coincides with the first serious attempts in Christendom to regulate war not just ad bellum, but also in bello.

Efforts to Christianize, or at least civilize, warfare met with serious resistance in human temperaments and political exigencies, then as now.  This was not a peculiarly medieval problem, as even the Romans, who prided themselves as “sparing the vanquished”, sometimes lapsed into slaughter, burning and plundering as the barbarians did.  Their civil wars were even more ferocious, prompting Lucan’s famous observation that vengeance can be worse than the disease, and the post proelium “rage of peace” more violent than the “rage of war”.[18]   Despite the frequency of such excesses, there was a perception that these were excesses and not an admirable custom at all.  St. Augustine called it “inhuman” to deny the misery of these evils, and noted how Romans admired Aeneas’ grief over his fallen foe.  He also relates the story of a woman who grieved that her fiance was killed by her brother in war, declaring her to have been “more humane than the whole Roman people.”[19]  Still, a fair amount of destruction and abuse was accepted as being part of the “customs of war”.  Even a sensitive observer like Augustine, who clearly abhorred the savageness of war, conceded that the taking of the Sabine women might have been licit, by Roman standards, had war first been declared.[20]  By the Middle Ages, the situation had not much improved.

The Gesta Normannorum by Dudo of St. Quentin provides an interesting contrast between the pagan and Christian customs of war in the late tenth century.  The author strongly condemns the ravishing of women by the pagan Dacians, while the recently Christianized Normans are shown to have held chastity in great esteem.  We will later see that rape or the taking of women is one of the few excesses of war that the Crusaders did not commit.  Dudo also relates with admiration the mercy that Marquis Richard showed to enemy dead and wounded at Rouen, though it is not implied that he was obligated to do so.  The policy of the pagan Dacians was to pillage and war indiscriminately, killing any armed resistance, and capturing the unarmed.[21]  Aside from the seizing of women and the torment of clergy, which Dudo sharply condemns, the Dacian practice serves as a minimum standard of what might be expected in medieval Christian warfare.  Even  pagan Europeans refrained from killing non-combatants, so we cannot impute later Frankish practice to a mere lack of Christianization.

When Pope Urban II petitioned the Franks in 1095 to embark on a military expedition to the Holy Land, he could have done so using the language of conventional warfare against the heathen.  There was precedent for this in the Carolingian era, and several popes had even promised eternal salvation for those who died in battle defending the faith against the pagans.  Pope Urban did not follow this tactic, but instead combined the summons to arms with a call for a pilgrimage (iter).  Following Robert the Monk’s account,[22] the first half of the speech at Clermont is concerned with establishing a Roman just war.  First, Urban declares that the Franks are a just nation by “the favor of the holy church”.  Next, he identifies the Turks as hostes, and depicts numerous atrocities that would amply suffice as a cause of war.  The defensive nature of the war is made clear by pointing to the recent loss of Asia Minor (from 1071 onward), so that this is a recovery of occupied territory rather than a war of expansion.  A transition begins with reference to the expansionist Carolingian wars against the pagans, and an appeal to protect the holy places from pagan desecration.  The goal of Jerusalem changes the character of the war not only by making it technically expansionist, but the purification of holy places becomes as important as liberating recently conquered peoples.  The libertas for which Jerusalem cries is more ecclesial than political; this is critical to understanding the Crusaders’ mentality.  The purification of the holy places, rather than mere political emancipation, is the real goal.  Urban defines not only the goal, but also the means, first by citing the Gospel demands for unconditional self-sacrifice, and finally by characterizing the campaign as an iter per remissionem peccatorum.  Identifying the war as a pilgrimage might have been intended as a rhetorical device, since indulgences for fighting the heathen were not without precedent, and Urban clearly wished to limit the campaign to fighting men.  On the other hand, the lack of an absolute prohibition against non-combatants, and the requirement of a vow, suggests that an armed pilgrimage was in fact the Pope’s intent. 

At any rate, that was how the Crusade was understood.  The author of the Gesta Francorum relates that the appeals to Gospel demands for self-denial and humility made a deep impression in the French countryside.[23]  The Crusaders called themselves peregrini, and they received alms (elemosinas) along the way.[24]  Fulcher of Chartres adds a different flavor to the campaign by comparing the Franks to the Israelites and the Maccabees, though he nonetheless speaks of war casualties as martyrdoms.  Fulcher’s version of Urban’s speech has the Pope explicitly state that Christ commands the war.[25]  The Crusaders’ battle cry Deus lo volt! may express that sentiment, or it might simply reflect a worldview that attributed everything to the divine will.  The miracles and visions that accompanied the later stages of the Crusade certainly strengthened the idea that a special providence ordained this mission, and the chroniclers’ insistence on the exceptional nature of the war reinforces the impression that the Crusaders genuinely believed their mission was literally commanded by God.  Guibert de Nogent, writing in 1118, claims:

Our men were not driven to this accomplishment by desire for empty fame, or for money, or to widen our borders – motives which drove almost all others who take up or have taken up arms….[S]imply to protect the Holy Church they waged the most legitimate war. But since this pious purpose is not in the minds of everyone, and instead the desire for material acquisitions pervades everyone’s hearts, God ordained holy wars in our time, so that the knightly order and the erring mob, who, like their ancient pagan models, were engaged in mutual slaughter, might find a new way of earning salvation.[26]


At first glance, this may seem like romanticizing, but Guibert acknowledges that people were naturally inclined to less noble motives.  The holy war was a sort of penitential discipline; with its promise of indulgence, which by all accounts was taken very seriously, it gave people an opportunity to fight for something other than wealth.  Pope Urban (as related by Fulcher) also expresses contempt for pecuniary motives, as one would expect from a former prior of Cluny.

            We have noted that the identification of war casualties as martyrs in the First Crusade was not unprecedented.  Those who died in the Carolingian wars against pagans were also promised eternal life, since they died “fighting for the truth of the faith, for the preservation of their country, and the defence of Christians”, and “out of love to the Christian religion”.[27]  These indulgences are not as striking, since they do not use the language of martyrdom, but are simply a natural consequence of accepting the just war ethic and the Pope’s ability to remit sins.  The Crusader martyrdoms have a different quality, because they refer constantly to evangelical ethics that demand complete self-sacrifice.  One might have expected Urban’s speech to be littered with references to Old Testament wars and divine wrath; on the contrary, he constantly appealed to the example of Christ, who was submissive and obedient unto death, and he insisted that genuine love of God and Christian discipleship demanded the same.  The submissiveness, docility, and humility of the Christian ethos were not suppressed or set aside during the Crusade, but preachers emphasized precisely these virtues.

            In some respects, the preaching of Peter the Hermit was not markedly different from that of Urban II.  Both resorted to apocalyptic imagery, though Peter probably placed more emphasis on this, and the purification of the holy places was set as an essential goal.  Peter simply took these ideas to greater extremes, demanding more radical measures.  It is difficult to determine whether the demographics of Peter’s followers were notably different from that of the official Crusade, so we cannot in justice ignore this movement, however much it was disdained by members of the seigneurial Crusade.  The popular movement led by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless reveal at an early stage much of the ferocity that would be demonstrated only towards the end of the official Crusade.  The uprisings against the Jews are startling not because hatred of the Jews was any novelty, but because they reflect a sense of apocalyptic urgency and a conviction of divine sanction.  This ironically led to gross violation of the conventions of warfare, including those established by the Church, such as the guarantee of asylum.  Angry mobs pursued the Jews even when they were protected by bishops.  They seem to have possessed the raw psychic energy of religious fervor, but this was not channeled into any structure of legal principles.  Official Crusaders regarded Peter’s followers with contempt; Guibert de Nogent dismisses them as “insane”.[28]  These riots had as little to do with formal crusading as mob violence does with professional soldiering, yet both kinds of crusading were responses to the same call, and had the same basic sense that their journey was a pilgrimage.

            The Crusaders did not identify the justness of their cause with personal self-righteousness; the chroniclers are quick to condemn the looting of the Greeks, Frankish arrogance, lust for plunder, and sins against chastity.  The modern reader can be easily unsettled by the horrible violence of medieval warfare, and is likely to infer that the Franks had little Christian sensibility.  On the contrary, their repeated emphasis on humility, selflessness, and chastity indicates a highly developed moral sense, undermining any conception of these people as ungospelled rustics.  The Crusaders were not barbaric, but simply had a different hierarchy of values.  The worst atrocity was not homicide, but sacrilege.  Thus William of Tyre is able to speak of “wrath such as sacrilege alone can awaken”.[29]  This explains the incessant references to the desecration of the Holy Sepulchre, even though it had occurred eighty years earlier, and the constant appeals to cleanse the holy places of “pagan filth”.  The Turks are “enemies of God” on account of outrages such as that committed by al-Hakim, but also by the mere fact of defiling the holy places with their worship, which was popularly regarded as the worship of devils.  The Franks were more oblivious of the true nature of Islam than Europeans in general, and the Turks were not exactly the best exemplars of that religion, lending this fiction a fair amount of plausibility.  Moreover, those who had some understanding of Islam, such as Guibert de Nogent, tended to view it at least as a heresy, contemptible on account of its lax sexual morality.  Guibert saw the Muslims as punishing the Greeks for their heresy, and the Muslims in turn “became worse than animals, breaking all human law”.[30]  Yet Guibert is no simple-minded partisan, hence his resentment of Emperor Alexius does not prevent him from condemning Frankish atrocities against the Greeks.

            The Crusader narratives, in their condemnation, approval, or silence toward various deeds, enable us to get a sense of their war ethic, and of the extent to which the special nature of their mission altered that ethic.  This goal is complicated by the fact that different standards applied for warring against non-Christians.  Regulations such as the Truce of God did not apply to wars against the heathen, and conversely it was then unthinkable to grant indulgences for wars against Christians.  This dual standard antedates the notion of Crusade, and applied to facets of life unrelated to warfare.  Nonetheless, the Crusaders’ accounts show that they did not believe all was fair in war against the Muslims.

  As in the Gesta Normannorum’s depiction of wars against the Dacians, the Crusader annalists express revulsion at the practices of “pagans” in war, with the implication that such would be unacceptable for a Christian.  Urban’s speech at Clermont accused the Turks of mutilating corpses, cutting them open so that the innards which ought to remain hidden are exposed.[31]  There is a strong sense that this is an offense against God and the dignity of the human body.  When the impoverished Crusaders cut open bodies to extract swallowed coins, Fulcher curses the Muslims for their spiteful last actions which made necessary this gruesome deed.  The shamelessness of the Muslims is emphasized by mentioning that their women even hid coins in their wombs.  Sexual purity is an important part of the crusading ethic, and it is also related to the integrity of the body.  The Turks are derided for seizing beardless youths and young women on account of their beauty, to be used for sodomy or concubinage.[32]  The relatively licentious sexual mores of Islam were scandalous enough to the medieval Christian; it did not help that the Turks were hardly Islamized, as evidenced by their public disregard for Islamic proscriptions against homosexuality, which forbid even that a man see another man naked.  Several hadith also forbid the deliberate killing of women and children in war,[33] yet the Turks are said to have done this as well.  Demonization of the Turks was used to justify the Crusade itself, but not to legitimize counter-atrocities.  The Crusaders did not rape Turkish women, nor did they attempt to justify the killing of women by appeal to Turkish crimes.  It should also be emphasized that the Turks were not dehumanized in the minds of the Crusaders.  Some accounts speak admiringly of their bravery, or tell unsympathetic anecdotes which nonetheless humanize the enemy.  We must look elsewhere to find the motives for Crusader excesses.

The idea of killing in the name of Christ has great rhetorical power, but it is a conflation of Crusader objectives.  Killing in war is rarely an end in itself, but only a means by which the real goal is achieved.  Most armies are content to simply drive the enemy away or otherwise eliminate him from the conflict.  The official Crusaders were essentially no different in this respect; they did not always give chase when the Turks fled, and most significantly, they returned to their homes after the objective at Jerusalem was attained.  Nonetheless, in medieval warfare disabling the enemy usually meant killing him, hence only the inexperienced commoners immediately started looting at Antioch, while “the knights, who were experienced in the business of warfare, continued to seek out and kill the Turks.”[34]  The Turks were pursued not because the milites possessed greater religious fervor than the rabble, but because this was the common tactic of professional soldiers in the exploitation phase of battle.

Different war ethics applied to non-Christians, as is poignantly illustrated in Ekkehard of Aura’s rebuke of the popular crusaders.  While outraged at the plunder of the Hungarians by Emicho’s brigands, Ekkehard does not similarly condemn violence against the “hated Jews”.  In Ekkehard’s view, the real crime was failure to distinguish between pagans and Christians.[35]  This double standard may be explained by the view that Christendom was in some sense a single community, so that wars among Christians had the character of civil wars.  The seemingly lesser status of other peoples is really no different from that of hostes in a Roman just war.  Yet some of the Crusader outrages, particularly at Antioch and Jerusalem, go well beyond the “customs of war”.   It is here that we should expect the peculiar nature of the Crusade to manifest itself more prominently.

The oddity of a military pilgrimage manifested itself even before the first battle was fought.  According to Fulcher, eternal salvation was assured to those who drowned off the shore of Brindisi, and this was miraculously confirmed by the sign of the cross in their flesh.  Even accidental death was sufficient to receive this exaltation, and those who did not die “judged that the suffering mitigated their sins”.[36]  This is all consistent with standard medieval theology regarding the remission of sins through physical penance.

The Crusaders’ faith in a martyr’s reward did not desensitize them to the tragedy of death.  They wept openly for those who drowned in a river, and for those slain in battle by the more experienced Turks.  Even animals were objects of pity, overloaded with burdens fit for hardier beasts that had died.  Yet for all this sensitivity, at Antioch:

Everywhere was carnage, everywhere anguish and the wailing of women; everywhere fathers of families had been slain and their entire households murdered…. All the substance of the foe was given over as plunder to the first who chanced to reach it. The victors roamed at will through places formerly inaccessible to them and, maddened by lust of killing and greed for gain, they spared neither sex nor condition and paid no respect to age.[37]


William of Tyre, writing in 1184, attributes this massacre to a bloodlust such as that censured by Lucan and St. Augustine.  The motives of lust and greed fall well short of the crusading ideals outlined by Guibert, who offers an alternative rationale:

As they recalled the sufferings they had endured during the siege, they thought that the blows they were giving could not match the starvations, more bitter than death, that they had suffered. The same punishment inflicted upon the hordes of pagans was justly meted out to the treacherous Armenians and Syrians, who, with the aid of the Turks, had eagerly and diligently pursued the destruction of our men, and our men, were, in turn, unwilling to spare them painful punishment.[38]


Whether justified or not, the slaughter at Antioch is not rationalized in religious terms by either of these ecclesiastical authors.  Fulcher notes that the Turks initially provoked the Crusaders by flinging the heads of Syrian and Armenian Christians over the city wall, but he does not invoke this as a justification for later actions.  He and the author of the Gesta Francorum give a matter-of-fact narration of the aftermath of the siege; the latter is equally plain in his description of Muslim atrocities against Christians.  They all tacitly accept that bellum non est bellum, however horrified some of them might be at bloodshed.

            This is not to deny that the Crusaders at times took positive glee in the slaying of Muslims.  Some of this is attributable to the very nature of war. Describing a battle shortly after the First Crusade, Fulcher relates:

I saw the battle, I wavered in my mind, I feared to be struck. All rushed to arms as if they did not fear death. There is dire calamity where love is lacking. The din arising from the mutual exchange of blows was excessive. One struck, his enemy fell. The one knew no pity, the other asked none. One lost a hand, the other an eye. Human understanding recoils when it sees such misery.[39]


Fulcher’s uncharacteristic repugnance to warfare (for here he was actually an eyewitness) is followed by the exultation of victory.  When battle is terrifying and bloody, the relief provided by victory easily elides into ecstasy.  To outsiders, soldiers can appear as monsters, actually deriving greater happiness from a bloodier victory, when in fact they are expressing a normal response to relief from fear.  Fulcher observes that neither side really expected pity from the other, hence the matter-of-fact narrative of the Gesta Francorum.  Similarly, as we shall see later, there was relatively mild outrage from the Muslim side in response to Crusader excesses.

            Beyond the ordinary horrors of war, both sides resorted to grotesque taunting. The Crusaders exploited the Turkish concern for the burial of the dead by digging up corpses and beheading, battering or burning them.  This practice received ecclesiastical sanction from Adhemar of Le Puy, who offered a reward for each Turkish head produced in order to be mounted on poles.  The professed purpose of these acts was to intimidate and humiliate the enemy.  Sympathy for the enemy was minimal not only because of the brutal state of war, but also from a general perception of Saracens as a demonic people speaking a devilish tongue.  This is to large extent a matter of religious difference, but there may also be an element of the xenophobia common toward those who speak a different tongue.  Even in modern multicultural societies, the barrier of language remains a major obstacle to tolerance and understanding.  As Augustine colorfully observes, “man would more readily hold intercourse with his dog than with a foreigner”.

            Throughout the campaign toward Jerusalem, there was no regular policy in dealing with vanquished Turks.  In true feudal fashion, different arrangements were made between several conquering knights and groups of Turks, even within the same city.  They might be allowed to flee, or convert, or remain in safety.  There was nothing considered contemptible in any of these arrangements, as long as the knight kept his word, and when this was not the case, the knight was not spared any rebuke.  Outside Jerusalem, Turks were used to build siege engines; only skilled artisans were paid.

As at the other patriarchal city of Antioch, the victory at Jerusalem was preceded by a series of penitential acts.  These culminated in a barefoot procession outside the city, in plain view of the city’s inhabitants who taunted the invaders with mock crosses.  Every Crusader was called upon to be reconciled with his brother, as Jesus commanded that his disciples do before offering sacrifice.  The final battle was seen as a sin offering, though this view was not incompatible with seeking vengeance against the Turks.  The religious tenor was accentuated by apparent attempts by Muslim women to bewitch the siege weapons.[40]  If the Crusaders believed the women were witches, that would be ample cause to regard them as legitimate targets.  The question is overdetermined, however, since the religious fervor of the battle blurred the line between combatants and non-combatants.  Christian women took up arms, and their children fought Muslim children.

Many treatments of the First Crusade as a holy war look at the massacre at Jerusalem in isolation, resulting in a very skewed view.  The slaughter must be contextualized by similar outrages committed by both sides in previous battles that did not have the same religious significance.  For Fulcher, no rationalization is needed; the Muslims are hostes and utterly wicked, so he can describe the totality of the slaughter without qualification.  The general sentiment is best expressed by Raymond of Agiles: “Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.”[41]  The holy places were purified in grisly fashion, and both the Sepulchre and Temple were open to Christian worship.  The chroniclers emphasize the thoroughness of the destruction unashamedly, with the exception of Tancred’s anger at those who killed the Muslims granted asylum at the Temple. This lack of discipline is not too surprising, nor is the desire for plunder, though this was checked by threat of excommunication to those who looted before the battle had ended.  It can be difficult for a modern reader to accept that the juxtaposed destruction and pious worship at the fall of Jerusalem was not naked hypocrisy, nor was it the result of simplemindedness.  For even if we supposed that the Crusaders were so psychologically immature as to forget the preceding slaughter and switch to a mode of piety, we would have to confront the fact that the chroniclers, long after the dust had settled and bloodlust was supplanted by sobriety, found no contradiction between the piling up of corpses and the worship of the Christian God, even as these were considered simultaneously.  The two actions were complementary, as worship increased hope of victory, and victory would allow a ritual cleansing of the holy places.  It would be an exaggeration of the point to maintain that the shedding of blood was itself an act of purification; even the narrators who are most callous about the killing of Muslims do not make this argument.  The defeat of the Muslims was sufficient to purify the holy places, but the slaughter was seen as a fitting retribution for their perceived crimes.  We can never know for certain to what extent religious motivations accentuated the “rage of peace” at Jerusalem, but certainly there were elements of holy war mingled with the just war being fought.  None of the sources maintains that God commanded, even implicitly, that the inhabitants of the city be exterminated, though it is tempting to draw parallels with the Israelite wars which were surely known to medieval Christians.  Count Raymond is not condemned for sparing the emir and his company, as he would have been, like Saul, for failing to fulfill a divine directive.  So we cannot attribute the Jerusalem massacre to an Augustinian holy war; at most we can say religious hatred played a role.  The concept of holy war instead shaped the positive aspects of the campaign: penitence, humility, chastity, devotion, and fervor, this last being a double-edged sword which showed its uglier side at Jerusalem.

The First Crusade was clearly a holy war ad bellum, as it was popularly believed to have been divinely commanded, regardless of whether the Pope wished to convey such a message.  Unsurprisingly, the lack of clear leadership made the jus in bello much more muddled.  The exhortations of the clergy to penitence and contrition were characteristic of a pilgrimage, and even of conventional wars against pagans.  Apart from some spurious revelations, there were no acknowledged divine intimations on how the war was to be waged; this aspect of the Crusade was covered by the standard practices of war, combined with the requirements of a pilgrimage.  Religious hatred would exist in any war against Muslims, though it is likely that the special character of this war stoked this animosity.  In sum, the Crusade was an Augustinian holy war ad bellum, a conventional war against pagans in bello, and a medieval pilgrimage throughout.  The combination of these factors overdetermine the bloody results.

The conclusion that the First Crusade was a holy war only ad bellum, not in bello, is corroborated by Muslim historians who were ignorant of the motivations of the campaign.  The role of the papacy is absent from Ibn al-Athir’s account[42], which assigns political motives to the Crusaders, who are identified as Franks rather than Christians.  Yaghi Siyan, the ruler of Antioch, protected the Christians of his city even as it was beseiged by the Franks.  Although there was little sense among Muslims that the Franks were fighting a religiously motivated war – it would hardly have seemed strange that they should fight under the sign of the cross – they felt that they were fighting a jihad against the invaders.  Jihad, even when restricted to the sense of armed struggle against unbelievers, is a considerably broader concept than the Christian holy war we have defined.  Not only was it taken for granted that those who died in battle against infidels were martyrs, but the same was true of those who died of plague or drowning.  Muslim holy war was regulated not by ad hoc divine commands, but by the precepts of Mohammed once for all time.  The killing of children and mutilation of bodies was prohibited.  Though a Muslim should fight for Allah’s Word, not booty or fame, the right of plunder was recognized.  A hadith says nothing equals jihad in reward, where jihad clearly refers specifically to armed conflict.[43]  There is no element of a pilgrimage in this view of holy war, nor any sense of penitence, humility, or docility.  The devotional practices of the Crusaders, even had the Muslims understood them, would not have been regarded as evidence of holy war.  Thus even the learned Ibn Khaldun, centuries later, could affirm that, unlike Islam, “other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty to them, save only for purposes of defense”.[44]  While it is at first shocking that the Muslims had little sense that Christianity had a universal mission, it is quite understandable in terms of the historical actions of medieval Christians, who generally conceded territory to Muslims, and went on the offensive only when the situation at Constantinople was dire.  Even when this campaign succeeded, they did not make any substantial attempts to further their expansion, nor to convert the populace to Christianity.  As far as the Crusade was removed from secular warfare, it was still a great distance for the pure holy war exemplified by the Muslim jihad, which is too often used as a stereotype for all religiously motivated wars.  The First Crusade was a psychologically complicated affair, and several of its apparently distinctive qualities are actually common to all wars (e.g. vilification of the enemy, bloodlust), while its genuinely unique qualities – the devotions associated with pilgrimage – are decidedly Christian in character, and exemplify Gospel precepts in a purer form than one could reasonably expect on a mass scale.  We do not expect the armies of democratic nations to be democratically structured in the midst of battle, yet the Crusaders were able to live out Christian ideals (among themselves at least, if not toward the enemy) while they warred.  In this sense, the Crusade is actually less of a psychological contradiction than modern warfare.




Anonymous. Gesta Francorum, ed. Rosalind Hill (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962).

Augustine of Hippo. Contra Faustum Manichaeum.

Augustine of Hippo. De Civitate Dei.

Augustine of Hippo. De CorrectioneDonatistarum.

Augustine of Hippo. Select Letters, trans. J.H. Baxter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1930).

Dudo of St. Quentin. Gesta Normannorum.

Ekkehard of Aura. In: Oliver J. Thatcher and Edgar McNeal, eds., A Source Book for Mediaeval History (New York: Scribner’s, 1905).

Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, ed. Harold Finke, trans. Frances Ryan (Knoxville: Univ. of Tenn. Press, 1969).

Gabrieli, Francesco. Storici Arabi delle Crociate (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1957).

Gratian, Decretum.

Gregory VII, Pope. Epistolae Vagantes.

Guibert de Nogent, The Deeds of God through the Franks, trans. Robert Levine (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 1997).

Ibn Khaldun. Muquaddimah (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969).

Ivo of Chartres, Panormia.

Raymond of Agiles, Historia Francorum qui Ceperunt Jerusalem. In: Duncalf, Frederic and A.C. Krey, eds. Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History (New York: Harper, 1912).

William of Tyre, A History of Deeds done beyond the Sea, Vol. 1, trans. Emily Babcock and A.C. Krey (New York: Columbia Univ., 1943).





Erdmann, Carl. The Origin of the Idea of Crusade, trans. M. Baldwin and W. Goffart (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977). Attributes crusading idea to eleventh-century reform movement and political philosophy of Gregory VII (Hildebrand).  Decides that crusade was a combination of holy war and just war.


Russell, Frederick H. The Just War in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975). A detailed survey of early Christian attitudes to war, followed by its treatment by medieval canonists.




Bayerische StaatsBibliothek

Decretum Gratiani, ed. Aemilius Friedberg (Leipzig, 1879)  Text and images of print.



New Advent

Augustine, The Correction of the Donatists



University of Leeds Electronic Texts Centre

Epistolae Vagantes of Gregory VII, ed. & trans. H.E.J. Cowdrey (Oxford Medieval Texts 1972).

Two Anti-Gregorian Tracts: Peter Crassus, A Defence of King Henry, & Bishop Guido of Ferrara, The Schism of Hildebrand, trans. P. Llewellyn, abridged by G.A. Loud.



ORB Library

Ivo of Chartres. Panormia.

Dudo of St. Quentin. Gesta Normannorum, ed. Felice Lifshitz.



SUNY Buffalo – Muslim SA

Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim



Villanova University – Augustinian Studies

Contra Faustum Manichaeum; De Civitate Dei.




[1] St. Augustine, Ep. XXXVIII, 2. “Quapropter multo melius nec iuste cuiquam irascimur, quam velut iuste irascendo in alicuius odium irae occulta facilitate delabimur.”

[2] Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaeum, XXII, 74. “nocendi cupiditas, ulciscendi crudelitas, inpacatus atque inplacabilis animus, feritas rebellandi, libido dominandi et si qua similia, haec sunt, quae in bellis jure culpantur”  Also quoted in Decretum Gratiani, C.23, q.1, c.4.

[3] Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XIX, 7; Ep. CCXXIX, 2; Ep. CLXXXIX, 6.

[4] Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaeum, XXII, 70-71.

[5] Ibid., XXII, 74. “sive deo sive aliquo legitimo imperio jubente”

[6] Augustine, De Civitate Dei, I, 21, cited in Ivo of Chartres, Panormia, VIII, 2. “Et Abraham non solum non est culpatus crudelitatis crimine, verum etiam laudatus est nomine pietatis quod voluit filium nequaquam scelerate sed obedienter occidere.”

[7] Contra Faustum, XXII, 72.

[8] Ibid., XXII, 79. It should be noted that St. Augustine does not actually use the term “holy war”.

[9] This was owing to their defining belief that the consecrations of clergy by traditores, those who handed over holy scriptures to be destroyed by Roman persecutors, were invalid. Ultimately, this would mean that none but the Donatists were validly ordained clergy.

[10] Augustine, Ep. CLXXXV (De Correctione Donatistarum), II, 7,11,14,26.

[11] Ibid., II,22. From Lk. 14:23 “conpelle intrare, ut inpleatur domus mea”. Also quoted in Decretum, C.23, q.4, c.38, pr.3. Persecution of heretics is qualified: “Culpantur etiam qui prohibent a malo, si modum peccati modus correctionis excedat.” C.23, q.4, c.40.

[12] Ivo of Chartres, Panormia, VIII, 1, citing Augustine, Ep. XLVII, 5.

[13] Ibid.,VIII, 2, citing Augustine, De Civitate Dei, I, 21.

[14] Petrus Crassus, Defenso Henrici Regis, 7.  Similar condemnations are made by Bishop Guido of Ferrara, On Hildebrand’s Schism, I, 8 “It is the duty of churchmen not to make war.” The seventh canon of the Council of Chalcedon forbade priests from departing on military service.

[15] “Non enim est iudex, si non est iusticia in eo.” Cited in Decretum Gratiani, C.23, q.2, c.1.

[16] Gregory VII, Epistolae Vagantes, 5.

[17] 2nd Lateran Council, 14th and 29th canons.

[18] Lucan, Bellum Civile sive Pharsalia, II, 142-6.

[19] Augustine, De Civitate Dei, III, 14. Augustine’s impassioned sympathy for this sister of the Horatii shows that he was not insensitive to grief over carnal death, as one might mistakenly infer from other comments which disparage the desire for long life, contrasting  “the weak and cowardly shrinking of the flesh” with the “reasonable persuasion of the soul.” (I, 11)

[20] Augustine, De Civitate Dei, II, 17.

[21] Dudo of St. Quentin, Gesta Normannorum, 2; 55.

[22] Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Vol.I, No.2, p.5.

[23] Gesta Francorum, I, i.

[24] Ibid., II, v; III, ix.

[25] Fulcher of Chartres, Historia Hierosolymitana, Prologue, 3-4; I, iii, 5.

[26] Guibert de Nogent, Gesta Dei per Francos, I, p.28.

[27] Pope Leo IV (847-55) to the Frankish army and Pope John II to the bishops of Louis II’s kingdom, 878, regarding indulgences for fighting the heathen.

[28] Guibert de Nogent, op.cit., II, p.51.

[29] William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea, VIII, 11.

[30] Guibert of Nogent, op. cit., I, p.37.

[31] Ibid., II, p.45.

[32] Albert of Aachen, Historia Hierosolymitana, I, 17-22.

[33] Sahih Muslim, Bk. 19, 4319-20; Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 4, Bk. 52, 257-8.

[34] Fulcher, op. cit., I, xvii.

[35] Ekkehard of Aura in: Oliver J. Thatcher and Edgar McNeal, eds., A Source Book for Mediaeval History (New York: Scribner’s, 1905), pp.522-3.

[36] Guibert, op. cit., III, p.64.

[37] William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, V, 22.

[38] Guibert, op. cit., V, p.93.

[39] Fulcher, op. cit., II, xii.

[40] Raymond of Agiles, Historia Francorum qui Ceperunt Jerusalem p.131

[41] Ibid., p.132.

[42] Ibn al-Athir, Kamil at-Tawarikh, X,185-95.

[43] Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 4, Bk. 52, 44, 46, 65, 82, 257-8.

[44] Ibn Khaldun, Muquaddimah, 24  (Princeton, 1969), p.183.

© 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org