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Urban II: The Pope of the First Crusade | Régine Pernoud | Excerpt from The Crusaders: The Struggle for the Holy Land

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In the Middle Ages our Lady of Le Puy was revered as much as our Lady of Lourdes is today. People of all classes were drawn on pilgrimage to her shrine in its strange setting of volcanic rocks at the heart of France. Serfs, monks, lords, and prelates mingled in an endless succession, barefoot and carrying candles. Here, in the fervor of this throng, in the new cathedral with its great porch, its cloister, and its annexes where the pilgrims were given shelter, the Salve Regina, long known as the hymn of Le Puy, was first heard, and here it is still intoned by the priest at the conclusion of the Mass.

One day in August 1095, the ever-present crowd watched some unusual preparations. A hole was being made with picks in one of the walls of the building. It was gradually enlarged and finally became a new entrance to the cathedral, magnificently draped with heavy curtains of scarlet wool. The reason for this unusual activity was not far to seek–the Pope, the head of Christendom, was expected at Le Puy. He had recently crossed the Alps–probably by the usual route through the Col de Genèvre, Pavia, Turin, the Col de Suse, Briançon, and Grenoble–then had gone to Valence and consecrated the newly built cathedral there on August 5. Now he was traveling toward Le Puy by way of Romans-sur-Isère and Tournon, where he had crossed the Rhône, and the hills of Vivarais. In honor of this important pilgrim Adhémar of Monteil, bishop of Le Puy, had caused the new doorway to be made. It would be sealed again immediately after the Pope had entered, for it was felt that no lesser person should tread where the Vicar of Christ had passed through.

On August 15 Pope Urban II celebrated a solemn Mass at Le Puy before a crowd even greater than usual. This was on the Feast of the Assumption, the principal feastday of the year at this shrine dedicated to the Virgin.

In the eleventh century the Pope, the head of Christendom, certainly did not enjoy the somewhat remote prestige that is accorded to the Sovereign Pontiff in our day. It was not at all out of the ordinary for him to travel, particularly to France, and everyone then could experience in his own district a little of that feeling approaching familiarity that is today [1959] the privilege of the Romans alone. For people of those days, seeing the Sovereign Pontiff did not mean seeing him in all the circumstance of pomp, crowned with the tiara and raised upon the Sedia. When they gathered on the roads, after his approach had been announced, they saw him on horseback or carried on a litter, in a procession of prelates and lay lords. His journeys made him known to Christians everywhere.

The fact that Urban II was a man of France enhanced his popularity. His speech and the fine features of a man of Champagne endeared him to the crowds on that Feast of the Assumption, and the tales told about him were all to his credit. He had been one of those monks whom a recent predecessor, the energetic Gregory VII, had withdrawn from the cloister to bring new life to the clergy and to revive the somewhat corrupt episcopate. They were to cooperate in the Pope's vigorous program of reform, standing firm against both lay and ecclesiastical powers, even against the Emperor himself, in the fight against the traffic in benefices, against simoniac clergy, and against the nepotism indulged in by the rulers of the time, who set their favorites at the head of abbeys or ecclesiastical provinces.

As a young man, Urban had been known as Odo of Châtillon. He had been trained by Saint Bruno himself, founder of the Carthusian order. Almost immediately after his election as Pope he was obliged to enter the lists against the Emperor Henry IV and the antipope, Guibert, his nominee, against the King of England, William Rufus, son of the Conqueror, and against the King of France. The situation was almost hopeless; he was forced to flee from Rome and could rely on only five loyal bishops in the whole of Germany. Then gradually he began to recover his rights. He was even able to return to Rome. The antipope had retreated to Ravenna, and his followers, under imperial protection, now held only the castle of Sant' Angelo and the actual sanctuary of Saint Peter. In May 1095 the Pope had been able to hold a council at Piacenza, where he effectively demonstrated that he was, in fact, the head of Christendom. It was a surprising thing that this man who had found his vocation in the peace and renunciation of the cloister should have developed there the fighting qualities of a successful leader.

While the crowd slowly scattered after the day's final ceremonies, Urban II held a long discussion with the bishop of Le Puy, Adhémar of Monteil, the son of that count of Valentinois who held the castle of Montélimar. He had been a knight before taking holy orders and was a man of fine character, respected and trusted by the Pope. In the days that followed, monks or clerics were sent off in all directions as messengers in the service of the bishop. They carried pontifical letters calling every abbot and bishop loyal to Urban to a general council to be held at Clermont on the day of the second Feast of Saint Martin, Sunday, November 18. Lay barons as well as members of the clergy were invited to its closing ceremony.

Urban II left Le Puy two days later for La Chaise-Dieu, where he was received by Durand, bishop of Clermont. On August 18 he dedicated the church there. It must, have been a happy day for this former monk to meet on this occasion three of his Cluniac friends–Hugh, bishop of Grenoble; Audebert of Montmorillon, bishop of Bourges; and Durand himself. Hugh was later canonized as Saint Hugh of Châteaunetif. He was the man who helped Saint Bruno to establish his new order in the valley of La Grande Chartreuse. These four men had all been members of the order of Cluny, which had raised to its highest pitch Catholicism's inherent feeling for splendor. The phrase "a man of perfect beauty" was the greatest commendation that the succeeding abbot could find when he wished to praise Saint Mayeul.

On the following October 25, before going to Clermont, Pope Urban II consecrated the high altar of the immense basilica at Cluny. This church was the largest in Christendom, bigger even than Saint Peter's in Rome, and it was embellished with all the glories of Romanesque art. The Pope held frequent discussions there with high-ranking clergy–including Géraud of Cardhaillac, bishop of Cahors, who will be encountered again later in Cyprus and Jerusalem–in order to settle the agenda to be followed at the Council. One of these men, Durand, bishop of Clermont, died on November 18, the very day the Council assembled, and its first business was the solemnization of his funeral.

Urban went on from La Chaise-Dieu to Saint-Gilles du Gard. He arrived on September 1, the feastday of the abbey's patron saint, when crowds of pilgrims were attracted there by the ceremonies. It is very likely that the count of Toulouse, Raymond of Saint Giles, was among them. He was one of the most powerful vassals of the King of France, overlord of vast and wealthy lands in the south. If he was indeed present during the ten days of the Pope's stay, he probably had many talks with him while the ceremonies and processions outside followed their ordered course.

"More than two hundred and fifty episcopal crosses", wrote Bernold the chronicler with a journalistic touch when he described the scene in the cathedral at Clermont on Saint Martin's Day in 1095. Two hundred and fifty high dignitaries of the Church–bishops and mitred abbots–were among those who walked in procession to the chant of the Veni Creator. A huge crowd of onlookers had been attracted to Clermont, far too many to be easily accommodated even in that great cathedral, in spite of its size, its narthex, and its choir, which had an ambulatory with chapels radiating from it–this cathedral was one of the first buildings designed in this manner. The building in which the Council was held was not the present cathedral. It was replaced by one of Gothic design, further adorned, centuries later, by the towers and spires of Viollet-le-Duc. By way of contrast, the church of Notre-Dame du Port, the foundations of which had then just been laid, still stands today. There were no less than fifty-four churches in eleventh-century Clermont.

This assembly was both impressive and significant, for it was a gathering of the faithful flock around their shepherd. For many, their attendance there implied considerable courage. Pibo, bishop of Toul, now very old and infirm, had journeyed halfway across France to be there. He was a Saxon by birth and had previously been chancellor to the Emperor Henry IV. His mere presence at the Council was a protest against his powerful master and the latter's nominee, the antipope. Many bishops from the north of France had come, as if to demonstrate their loyalty to the See of Saint Peter in defiance of the Holy Empire. Among them were Lambert of Arras, Gerard of Thérouanne, and Gervin of Amiens, and the abbots of Saint Waast, Anchin, and Saint Bertin. From dioceses and abbeys within the Holy Roman Empire had come Poppo, bishop of Metz; Abbot Martin of Saint Denis du Mont; Richer, bishop of Verdun (represented by his legate); and many more.

John of Orleans and Hugh of Senlis were two bishops who came from the royal domain of France, although their King had quarrelled with the Pope. From Normandy ventured Gilbert, bishop of Evreux; Serlon, bishop of Séez; and Abbot Goutard of Jumièges, who died from old age and sickness during the course of the Council. These came from territories administered by Odo of Conteville, full brother of William the Conqueror, a man who had fought thirty years before at the Battle of Hastings and has his place on the Bayeux tapestry. He had acted as a viceroy for his brother and had been given the title of earl of Kent.

Another important group were the representatives from Spain: Berengar of Rosanes, bishop of Tarragon; Peter of Audouque, bishop of Pampeluna (Pamplona); Bernard of Sédirac, a former Cluniac monk who had been sent by Saint Hugh to Spain to become abbot of Sahugun, the "Spanish Cluny", and afterward archbishop of Toledo; also Dalmace, bishop of Compostella, another former monk of Cluny. The name of each of these bishoprics was a reminder of victories over the Moors. It was exactly ten years since Alphonse, VI of Castille had retaken Toledo, and in 1092 the hero of the Reconquista, Roderigo Diaz the Cid Campeador, had established a new Christian state around Valencia. The great enterprise undertaken in Spain against Islam, and so strongly supported by Cluny, was now beginning to bear fruit. Finally, the clergy of Auvergne, Aquitaine, and Languedoc were, naturally, well represented behind Adhémar of Monteil.

The atmosphere of the Council was stirring. Exciting ideas were at work like leaven, and ardent discussions were inspired by Gregory VII's reforms. Robert of Molesmes was there, the man who, in living illustration of Saint Bernard's work, was to found the Cistercian order, the spread and influence of which were to become enormous within the Church.

Meetings took place with full solemnity. Ecclesiastical justice was the first matter dealt with; quarrels were settled–such as that between the great canonist, Yvo, bishop of Chartres, and Geoffrey, abbot of La Trinité de Vendôme; previous sanctions against the sale of sacraments by simoniac clerics were renewed; decrees were issued on the taking of Communion in the two kinds which was usual at the time; tile dates of Ember Days were determined; and, incidentally, men in holy orders were forbidden to frequent taverns.

In particular the Pope gave the full weight of his authority to the renewal of the right of sanctuary. This was the right which granted safety from pursuit to any criminal who could reach a monastery, a church, or indeed any holy place; even the wayside crosses were to become places of sanctuary, and a person clinging to one of them was not to be harmed. Another important decision was made that strengthened the idea of the truce of God and widened its scope. Every Christian over the age of twelve had to vow to observe its ordinances–it was forbidden to carry on private warfare during the whole of Lent, from Advent until the octave of the Epiphany; on each feastday of our Lord, of the Virgin Mary, and of the apostles; and finally during the whole time between Wednesday night and Monday morning.

It is with astonishment that one records another decree of this Council, one completely at odds with the most elementary rules of diplomacy. In the very heart of the realm of France this Pope, so long harried and not yet able to make himself master of all his own domains, dared to summon the King himself to appear before him like a common criminal. Philip I was publicly found guilty of adultery, having put aside his lawful wife and taken the wife of one of his vassals, Fulk le Réchin. When he was summoned by the spiritual power to renounce this illicit union, he refused to come before the Council and was solemnly excommunicated.

When one considers that the Pope had in mind a great project for which he intended to seek support among the vassals of that same King, this excommunication is in itself enough to indicate the mental climate of the time. It is obvious that political considerations were not the dominating factor.

The Council ended on November 27. Laymen were admitted to the closing ceremony, so the crowds which gathered in the morning were even greater than on previous days. The meeting was held in the open air at the Champ-Herm (probably the Place Champet), where a raised platform had been erected for the Pope and important churchmen. Only a few people there had any idea of the startling appeal that would be made before the Council closed. Adhémar of Monteil, quiet and self-assured, was one of them, while Raymond of Saint Giles, now many miles away, had in his usual hotheaded and excitable fashion already dispatched messengers to announce his support of the Holy Father's proposals.

Urban's speech has been reported by several chroniclers, but probably Fulcher of Chartres was the only one of them who heard it in person. His account is likely to be the most accurate impression of what was said. He writes:

Well-beloved brothers,

The heavy demands of the times have forced me, Urban, by the grace of God the wearer of the pontifical tiara and Pontiff of the whole earth, to come before you, the servants of God, as a messenger to reveal the divine will....

Although, children of God, you have made a solemn promise to keep peace among yourselves and faithfully uphold the rights of the Church, you must now, fortified anew by the grace of our Lord, show the strength of your zeal in the performance of a precious task which concerns all of you no less than it concerns the Lord. It is imperative that you bring to your brothers in the East the help so often promised and so urgently needed. They have been attacked, as many of you know, by Turks and Arabs, who have spread into imperial territories as far as that part of the Mediterranean which is known as the Arm of Saint George [1] and who are penetrating ever farther into the lands of these Christians, whom they have defeated seven times in battle, killing or capturing many of them. Churches have been destroyed and the countryside laid waste. If you do not make a stand against the enemy now, the tide of their advance will overwhelm many more faithful servants of God.

Therefore, I beg and beseech you–and not I alone, but our Lord begs and beseeches you as heralds of Christ–rich and poor alike make haste to drive this evil race from the places where our brothers live and bring a very present help to the worshippers of Christ. I speak in my own person to you who stand here. I will send the news to those who are far off, but it is the voice of Christ which commands your obedience.
It was at this point in the Pope's speech that there appeared for the first time in the Church's history the promise of an "indulgence". The word, like the thing it stood for, has since played so important a role that it is as well to consider its meaning.

It often happens, even today, that a phrase such as "three hundred days" or "seven years and seven times forty days" of indulgence is found at the end of a prayer or invocation. Some people understand by this that the mere fact of saying that prayer or invocation will earn for them the remission of so much time in Purgatory. In fact, the sort of tariff mentioned is a clear reminder of those medieval customs that flourished in Urban's time. A believer who made his confession, expressed regret for his fault, and obtained pardon for it undertook at the same time to do the penance given him by the priest. The punishment was proportionate to the crime, and it is still one of the conditions–called satisfaction by theologians–of absolution, but it has now become much less spectacular. In the Middle Ages such penances consisted generally of long periods of fasting, and sometimes even, as in the case of Fulk Nerra, pilgrimage to the Holy Land was imposed.

In proclaiming the indulgence Urban II offered remission of all penances for their sins to those who "took the cross":
If anyone who sets out should lose his life either on the way, by land or by sea, or in battle against the infidels, his sins shall be pardoned from that moment. This I grant by right of the gift of God's power to me.
The Pope declared that everything belonging to the Crusaders would be put under his own protection during their absence and would be as safe from harm as the property of the Church. Then he ended his speech with this exhortation:
May those men who have been occupied in the wicked struggle of private warfare against their fellow Christians now take up arms against the infidel and help to bring this long delayed campaign to a victorious end. May those who have been brigands now become soldiers, and those who have fought against their own families now fight as they should–against barbarians. Let those who have served for mercenaries' pay now earn an everlasting reward, and let those who have dissipated their body and soul now gather their strength to win a double prize. What more is there to say? On the one hand, there are people in great distress–on the other, there are those who live in plenty; over there are the enemies of God–here are his friends. join us without delay! Let those who are going settle up their affairs and collect what they will need to pay their expenses, so that when the winter is over and the spring comes they may set off joyfully under the guidance of our Lord.

Robert the Monk, in his version, suggests that the Pope drew a comparison between the wealth of the Orient and the poverty of the Western world, but Fulcher of Chartres, who, let us remember, provides the best source for what happened at the Council, makes no allusion to this. According to him, the Pope promised only heavenly riches. In fact, at that time the Western world displayed evident signs of prosperity. New buildings, churches, and even whole towns were rising; fairs and markets were being organized, and the movement for the freeing of towns from feudal control had begun at least thirty years before.

What the Pope was seeking at this meeting of important representatives of Christianity was nothing less than an expeditionary force against Islam. His astounding request was greeted with immense enthusiasm. The shout of "Deus lo volt!" (God wills it!) that rang out over the meadow at Clermont echoed across the Christian world. The sound was heard from Sicily to distant Scandinavia and aroused a strength of feeling that was beyond even the Pope's expectation, and that lasted for more than two centuries before it finally died away.

This drive against the Turks was a project that had no real precedent, and so the necessary organization had to be worked out from the beginning. Urban II had probably considered this in his conversations with Adhémar of Monteil; he may also have been able to draw upon Raymond of Saint Giles' experience as a knight. Possibly ideas for the planning of the enterprise were taken from the Spanish Reconquista or the Norman seizure of Sicily. Some years earlier, in 1063, an "international" force composed of men from Italy, Provence, Languedoc, Burgundy, and Aquitaine had attacked and taken the stronghold of Barbastro in Spain, and many people saw in this force a forerunner of the Crusades. But no one at the time missed the essential significance of the appeal made at the Council of Clermont and its release of a whole series of actions unparalleled in their far-reaching effect.

The pilgrimages to the Holy Land form the only true precedent to the Crusades. The historian Paul Rousset has firmly established the link between these pilgrim journeys and the armed pilgrimage that the crusading movement was to become. The words "crusade" and "crusader", which seem so natural to us, were not in use at the time. When they used the phrase "take the cross", they were merely making a literal application of the words of the Gospel. The application consisted, at Clermont and at later gatherings, of cutting a small cross out of cloth and applying it then to one's shoulder. This was an outward sign of the taking of the vow to go to Jerusalem "for the sake of true religion; not for honor or riches but in order to free the Church of God", as Urban II had said. The name "crusader", crucesignatus, is used only occasionally and then only as an epithet.

Words such as "pilgrimage", "the expedition to Jerusalem", "the road to Jerusalem", "the way to the Sepulchre", or "to our Lord"[2] were used to describe the journey. Those who set out were known as "la gent Notre Seigneur" (our Lord's men), or "Hierosolymitani" (Jerusalem farers), the term for pilgrims to Jerusalem. They were distinguished by the cross, symbol of forgiveness, of suffering that atones, and reminder of the One that was raised on the hill of Golgotha in the land they intended to recapture; They were "armed with the sign of the cross", and after its recapture the True Cross was carried as a standard before the armies going into battle. The Crusaders' war song was a liturgical chant, the Vexilla Regis prodeunt, composed four centuries earlier by Fortunatus, a bishop who was also a poet, and normally sung at Vespers on Good Friday and on feastdays of the Cross.

By a strange transposition of modern thought into a bygone age some historians of our day have suggested that the root causes of the crusading movement were economic and similar to those of colonialism. In fact it was precisely because the Latin kingdoms had no impulse toward colonization, and no colonists, that they had such a precarious existence The overwhelming majority of those who went on crusade had no other idea than to return home once their vow was accomplished.

Jean Richard, a present-day authority on the history of the Crusades, writes, "A Crusade is often thought of as an expedition of landless knights and broken peasantry. Some people have wished to link this exodus with an economic crisis resulting from the introduction of a perfected method of harnessing, which caused widespread unemployment. It was unfortunate for the kingdom of Jerusalem that these adventurers were not numerous enough!" [3]

Adhémar of Monteil was the first to rise. He moved toward the Pope and "with a radiant face", as Baudry of Bourgueil describes him, begged permission to take the cross. To an uproar of applause, Urban II blessed the little crosses snipped out of some cloth that had been brought. Soon he was hemmed in by a crowd of spectators, all demanding to be marked with the cross of Christ. Some reporters of the scene, their judgment overcome by their enthusiasm, have suggested that the cardinals present cut up their red robes to supply crosses, forgetting that in those days the cardinals did not wear scarlet. [4]

Messengers arrived the next day, November 28, from Raymond of Saint Giles, announcing his intention of joining the Crusade. A final meeting of the Council was held to appoint a spiritual head of the expedition, and it was felt that the bishop of Le Puy, Adhémar of Monteil, the first man to take the cross, was the only possible choice. Various details of organization remained to be settled. The date of departure was fixed for August 15 in the following year, 1096, and certain qualifications were laid down regarding those who wished to take the cross. Since the taking of a vow was involved, recruits must first seek the advice of their priests; monks had to have permission from their bishop or abbot, while minors and married women needed the consent of those who were responsible for them. The armies were to assemble at Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire, a mighty citadel which stood firm against the rising tide of Islamic conquest.

Urban II left Clermont on December 2 and continued his journey. He visited various towns in southern France, preaching the Crusade and dedicating the host of churches that were springing up in this most fruitful period of the life of France, when both its romanesque art and the chansons de geste began to blossom. On December 7 the church of Saint Flour was dedicated; this was followed by the consecration of the abbey church of Saint Geraud at Aurillac. The Pope solemnly consecrated the cathedral of Saint Stephen at Limoges on December 29, and the abbey church of Saint Savior in the same town on the next day; then came the consecration of the high altar in the abbey of Saint Savior at Charroux on January 10 and of another altar in the monastery of Saint Hilary at Poitiers on its feastday, January 13. He made almost a grand tour of the district, moving from Angers to Marmoutiers, then to Bordeaux and Toulouse. Here on May 28, 1096, he consecrated the collegiate church of Saint Sernin in the presence of Raymond of Saint Giles. Then he dedicated the cathedrals of Maguelonne and Nimes, and on July 15 the altar of the new church of Saint Giles du Gard. Urban went on to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, Apt, and Forcalquier before he crossed the Alps to reach Milan in August 1096.

By this time, the Crusaders had already begun to move along their various paths toward the meeting places appointed by the Pope.


[1] The Hellespont.

[2] Hierosolymitana expeditio, peregrinatio, iter Hierosolymitanum, via sepulchri Domini.

[3] Le Royaume latin de Jérusalem (Paris, 1953) p. 29.

[4] The wearing of the scarlet robe was instituted by Pope Paul II in 1464. The Pope in earlier times is often shown dressed in a red cloak. The white soutane was not worn until the sixteenth century (Saint Pius V).

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Crusade Myths | Thomas F. Madden
Mistakes, Yes. Conspiracies, No. | Vince Ryan
Saint Martin and the Search Holiness | Régine Pernoud

Régine Pernoud, a renowned French archivist and historian, is among the greatest medievalists of recent times, and the success of her books has helped to bring the Middle Ages closer to modern readers. Among her numerous works are Those Terrible Middle Ages!, Martin of Tours, and Women in the Days of the Cathedrals.

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