Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

The First Crusade

T HE period of the Crusades lasts from the year 1095 to the year 1270. In the great movement included between these dates we find, for the first time, practically the whole of Europe acting together for one end. And it was not only the rulers who were concerned; priests and kings, nobles, townsmen and peasants, alike took arms against the infidel. The story of the Crusades, therefore, is one of the most important and interesting parts of medieval history. Nothing can better show what the Middle Ages were like; and nothing helped more than they did to bring the Middle Ages to their end.

The object of this movement was to bring Palestine, where Christ had lived and died, again under the rule of Christians. Until the Arabs began their conquests in the seventh century, the land had been ruled by the Eastern Emperors. Even after the religion of Mohammed was established side by side with that of Christ, the Christians did not at first feel so badly about it. They were too busy at home, fighting Northmen and Hungarians, and settling the institutions under which they were to live, to give much attention to things so far way. Besides, the Arabs respected the holy places of the Christians, and allowed pilgrims to Jerusalem to come and go without harm or hindrance.

But about thirty years before William the Norman conquered England, a new race appeared in the East. The Turks, who were a rude fierce people from Central Asia, of close kin to the old Huns, conquered the Arabs; and the treatment of the Christian was thenceforth very different. The Turks were Mohammedans also; but they did not have the same respect for the religion of the Jews and Christians that the Arabs did. Besides, they were fiercer and more bloodthirsty, and in a short time they won from the Eastern Empire lands which the Arabs had never been able to conquer. Even Constantinople was not safe from them. "From Jerusalem to the Ægean Sea," wrote the Emperor of the East to a Western ruler, "the Turkish hordes have mastered all. Their galleys sweep the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and threaten the imperial city itself." In the West, too, quieter times had now come; and rulers and people could turn their attention abroad. Finally, there was now more enthusiasm for religion among all classes; so when pilgrims returned from Jerusalem, telling of outrages committed against Christian persons and against Christian holy places, it was felt to be a shame that this thing should be.

When, therefore, the Emperor of the East wrote to the Pope asking for aid against the Turks, the people of the West were in a mood to grant it. At a great Council held at Clermont, in France, in the year 1095, Pope Urban II. laid the matter before the clergy and princes. Most of those present were French; and Urban, who was himself a Frenchman, spoke to them in their own tongue. He told them of the danger to Constantinople and of the sad state of Jerusalem, while the western peoples were quarreling and fighting among themselves. In all that region, he said, Christians had been led off into slavery, their homes laid waste, and their churches overthrown. Then he appealed to his hearers to remember Charlemagne and the victories which he was believed to have won over the Arabs, and urged them to begin anew the war with the Mohammedans. "Christ himself," he cried, "will be your leader when you fight for Jerusalem! Let your quarrels cease, and turn your arms against the accursed Turks. In this way you will return home victorious and laden with the wealth of your foes; or, if you fall in battle, you will receive an everlasting reward!"

To this appeal the Council, with one accord, made answer:

"It is the will of God! It is the will of God!"

From all sides they hastened to give in their names for the holy war. Each person promising to go was given a cross of red cloth, which he was to wear upon his breast going to the Holy Land, and on his back returning. To those who "took the cross," the name "Crusaders" was given, from the Latin word which means cross.

The winter following the Council was spent in getting ready. All classes showed the greatest zeal. Preachers went about among the people calling upon rich and poor, noble and peasant alike, to help free the Holy Land; and whole villages, towns, and cities were emptied of their inhabitants to join the Crusade. Many sold all they had to get the means to go; and thieves, robbers, and wicked men of all kinds promised to leave their wickedness and aid in rescuing the tomb of Christ Jesus from the infidels.

The time set for the starting of the Crusade was the early summer of the year 1096. But the common people could not wait so long. Under a monk named Peter the Hermit, and a poor knight called Walter the Penniless, great companies from Germany and France set out before that time. They had almost no money; they were unorganized; and there was no discipline or obedience in the multitude. The route which they took was down the river Danube, through the kingdoms of the Hungarians and Bulgarians, and so to Constantinople. Few of the people or their leaders had any idea of the distance, and as each new city came in sight many cried out: "Is this Constantinople?" In Hungary and Bulgaria the people attacked them because they were forced to plunder the country as they passed through, and many were slain. When they reached Constantinople, some of the unruly company set fire to buildings near the city, while others stripped off sheets of lead from the roofs of churches to sell them to Greek merchants. The Emperor hastened to get rid of his unwelcome guests by sending them across into Asia Minor. There within a few months Walter and most of his followers were slain by the Turks; and the expedition came to a sorrowful end.

Meanwhile the princes from France, Germany, and Italy were making ready their expeditions. While the Norman chiefs of Southern Italy were engaged in one of their many wars, a messenger came to them with the news that countless warriors of France had started on the way to Jerusalem, and invited them to join the expedition.

"What are their weapons, what their badge, what their war-cry?" asked one of the Normans.

"Our weapons," replied the messenger, "are those best suited to war; our badge, the cross of Christ; our war-cry, 'It is the will of God! It is the will of God!' "

When he heard these words, the Norman tore from his shoulders his costly cloak, and with his own hands he made crosses from it for all who would follow him to the Holy Land. There he became one of the most famous and renowned of the Crusaders; and his followers showed that they could be as brave, as enterprising, and as skillful in fighting for the Holy Land, as they had been before in fighting for lands and goods in France, in England, and in Italy.

The Crusaders set out at last in five different companies. The first started in August, 1096; the last did not join the others, near Constantinople, until the next summer. The companies were made up of trained and armed knights, with chosen leaders, who had made many preparations for the expedition. They did not suffer so severely, therefore, as did the poor, ignorant people under Walter the Penniless. Still they encountered many hardships. It was already winter when the men of South France toiled over the mountains near Constantinople. "For three weeks," writes one of their number, "we saw neither bird nor beast. For almost forty days did we struggle on through mists so thick that we could actually feel them and brush them aside with a motion of the hand."

At last this stage of their journey came to an end, and the Crusaders arrived at Constantinople. In the lands north of the Alps, there were at that time none of the vast and richly ornamented churches and other buildings which later arose; all was poor, and lacking in stateliness and beauty. Constantinople, however, was the most beautiful city of the world; so the sight of it filled the Crusaders with awe and admiration. "Oh how great a city it is!" wrote one of their number; "how noble and beautiful! What wondrously wrought monasteries and palaces are therein! What marvels everywhere in street and square! It would be tedious to recite its wealth in all precious things, in gold and silver, in cloaks of many shapes, and saintly relics. For to this place ships bring all things that man may require."

Now that these sturdy warriors of the West were actually at Constantinople, the Greek Emperor began to fear lest they might prove more troublesome to his empire than the Turks themselves. "Some of the Crusaders," wrote the Emperor's daughter, "were guileless men and women marching in all simplicity to worship at the tomb of Christ. But there were others of a more wicked kind. Such men had but one object, and this was to get possession of the Emperor's capital." After much suspicion on both sides, and many disputes, the Emperor got the "Franks"—as the Crusaders were called—safely away from the city, and over into Asia Minor. There, at last, they met the Turks. At first the latter rushed joyously into battle, dragging ropes with which to bind the Christians captive; but soon they found that the "Franks" were more than a match for them. Nicæa, the city where Constantine held the first Church council, was soon taken; and the Crusaders then pressed on to other and greater victories.

Letter-writing was not nearly so common in those days as it is now; but some of the Crusaders wrote letters home, telling of their deeds. A few of these have come down to us across the centuries; and in order that you may learn what the Crusaders were thinking and feeling, as well as what they were doing, one of them is given here. The writer was a rich and powerful noble, and the letter was written while the army was laying siege, with battering rams and siege towers, to the strongly walled city of Antioch.

"Count Stephen to Adele, his sweetest and most amiable wife, to his dear children, and to all his vassals of all ranks,—his greeting and blessing:

"You may be very sure, dearest, that the messenger (whom I send to give you pleasure) left me before Antioch safe and unharmed, and through God's grace in the greatest prosperity. Already at that time we had been continuously advancing for twenty-three weeks toward the home of our Lord Jesus. You may know for certain, my beloved, that of gold, silver, and many other kinds of riches I now have twice as much as your love had wished for me when I left you. For all our princes, with the common consent of the whole army and against my own wishes, have made me, up to the present time, the leader, chief, and director of their whole expedition.

"You have certainly heard that, after the capture of the city of Nicæa, we fought a great battle with the faithless Turks, and by God's aid conquered them. Next we conquered for the Lord all Roumania, and afterwards Cappadocia. Thence, continually following the wicked Turks, we drove them through the midst of Armenia, as far as the great river Euphrates. Having left all their baggage and beasts of burden on the bank, they fled across the river into Arabia.

"Some of the bolder of the Turkish soldiers, however, entered Syria and hastened by forced marches night and day to enter the royal city of Antioch before our approach. The whole army of God, learning this, gave due praise and thanks to the all-powerful Lord. Hastening with great joy to Antioch, we besieged it, and had many conflicts there with the Turks. Seven times we fought, with the fiercest courage and under the leadership of Christ, against the citizens of Antioch and the innumerable troops which were coming to its aid. In all these seven battles, by the aid of the Lord God, we conquered, and assuredly killed an innumerable host of them. In those battles, indeed, and in very many attacks made upon the city, many of our brethren and followers were killed, and their souls were borne to the joys of Paradise.

"In fighting against these enemies of God and of our own, we have by God's grace endured many sufferings and innumerable evils up to the present time. Many have already exhausted all their resources in this very holy expedition. Very many of our Franks, indeed, would have met death from starvation, if the mercy of God, and our money, had not helped them. Before the city of Antioch, and indeed throughout the whole winter, we suffered for our Lord Christ from excessive cold and great torrents of rain. What some say about the impossibility of bearing the heat of the sun throughout Syria is untrue, for the winter here is very similar to our winter in the West.

"When the Emir of Antioch—that is, its prince and lord—perceived that he was hard pressed by us, he sent his son to the prince who holds Jerusalem, and to the prince of Damascus, and to three other princes. These five Emirs, with 12,000 picked Turkish horsemen, suddenly came to aid the inhabitants of Antioch. We, indeed, ignorant of this, had sent many of our soldiers away to the cities and fortresses; for there are one hundred and sixty-five cities and fortresses throughout Syria which are in our power. But a little before they reached the city, we attacked them at three leagues' distance, with seven hundred soldiers. God surely fought for us against them; for on that day we conquered them and killed an innumerable multitude; and we carried back to the army more than two hundred of their heads, in order that the people might rejoice on that account.

"These things which I write to you are only a few, dearest, of the many deeds which we have done. And because I am not able to tell you, dearest, what is in my mind, I charge you to do right, to carefully watch over your land, to do your duty as you ought to your children and your vassals. You will certainly see me just as soon as I can possibly return to you. Farewell."

The capture of Antioch was the hardest task that the Crusaders had to perform; and it was not until three months later that the city was finally safe in their hands. Many of the Crusaders became discouraged meanwhile and started home. At this trying time, a priest declared that it had been revealed to him in a dream, thrice repeated, that the head of the spear which had pierced our Lord's side lay buried near one of the altars of a church near by; and it was further revealed, he said, that if this was found and borne at the head of the army, victory would surely follow. After long search, and much prayer and fasting, the "holy lance" was found. Then there was great joy and new courage among the Christians; and when next they marched against the Turks, the Crusaders fought more fiercely than ever. "Thanks to the Lord's Lance," writes one of their number, "none of us were wounded,—no, not so much as by an arrow. I, who speak these things, saw them for myself, since I was bearing the Lord's Lance." The Crusaders continued to fight valiantly until Antioch was theirs, and the armies which had marched to its relief were defeated and scattered.

The Crusaders were now free to march on to Jerusalem. There men and animals suffered much from lack of food and water. "Many," an old writer says, "lay near the dried-up springs unable to utter a cry because of the dryness of their tongues; and there they remained, with open mouths, and hands stretched out to those whom they saw had water." Again the priests saw visions; and it was promised to the Crusaders that if the army marched barefoot around the city for nine days, the city would fall.

So, a procession was formed, and the Crusaders marched around the city, with white-robed priests and bishops, cross in hand, at their head, chanting hymns and praying as they went. As the procession passed by, the Mohammedans mocked at them from the walls; and some beat a cross, crying out: "Look, Franks! It is the holy cross on which your Christ was slain!"

After this the chiefs ordered an attack on the city from two sides. The Mohammedans were now beaten back from the walls by the showers of stones thrown by the hurling machines, while blazing arrows carried fire to the roofs of the buildings in the city. Battering rams, too, were at work breaking great holes in the solid walls, and scaling ladders were placed, by which the Christians swarmed over the ramparts. So, at last, the city fell.

Jerusalem,—the holy Jerusalem, which held the tomb of Christ—was now once more in the hands of the Christians. But what a terrible day was that! How little of the meek and just spirit of Christ did his followers show! "When our men had taken the city, with its walls and towers," writes one of the Crusaders, "there were things wondrous to be seen. For some of the enemy—and this is a small matter—were deprived of their heads; others, riddled through with arrows, were forced to leap down from the towers; and others, after long torture, were burned in the flames. In all the streets and squares there were to be seen piles of heads, and hands, and feet; and along the public ways foot and horse alike made passage over the bodies of the slain."

In this way the Crusaders fulfilled their vow to "wrest the Holy Sepulchre from the infidel." How many hundreds of thousands of lives, both Christian and Mohammedan, were lost to gain this end! What agonies of battle, what sufferings on the way, what numbers of women made widows and children left fatherless! And all this that the tomb of Christ might not remain in the hands of a people who did not accept His religion! How pityingly the Christ must have looked down upon this struggle with His mild, sweet eyes! How far away this bloodshed and war seems from the teachings of Him whose birth was heralded by the angels' cry: "Peace on earth, good will towards men!"

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," said Christ; but this teaching, alas, the Crusaders seemed not to know.

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