W E to whom the story of Christ has been familiar from earliest childhood can hardly realize with what force that story struck upon the hearts of the heathen peoples of Europe when first they heard it. They were fierce and savage men given over to war and bloodshed. And when they were told of the gentle Christ who not only loved his fellows but gave his life for them, their simple savage hearts were filled with amazement and adoration. With their wonder there grew up an intense desire to see for themselves the spot on earth where that marvellous story had been unfolded. So great grew that desire that in spite of all difficulties and dangers many set out to visit the Holy Land. Even in very early times, from the islands of the sea, from the forests of Germany, from the scattered villages of France, from the mountains of Italy, from every corner of Europe which Christian teachers had reached, pilgrims set forth.
To-day the journey is easy, safe, and rapid. Then it was slow, difficult, and dangerous. To-day the journey is an affair of days. Then it was one of months and even years, and a man who set forth on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem said farewell to his dear ones as to those he might never see again. Many never returned: and some, indeed, set forth in such passionate exaltation that they prayed God to grant them the blessing of death in the holy place.
Those who did return brought with them a kind of halo of saintship. Their friends regarded them with veneration, for their feet had trodden the paths over which Christ Himself had passed, they had knelt at the Holy Sepulchre and stood upon the Mount of Olives. It seemed as if something of holiness must cling even to their garments, and pilgrims kept carefully the clothes they had worn on entering into Jerusalem, so that they might be buried in them.
In time a pilgrimage to the Holy Land became a sort of act of grace, and the mere going there made a man clean of his sins however black they had been. So year by year the stream of pilgrims increased. Kings and emperors, princes and princessess, joined the throng. Splendid Christian churches were built in Jerusalem, a Patriarch or chief bishop of Jerusalem was appointed, and many Christians took up their abode there.
While Palestine still formed part of the Eastern Empire pilgrims came and went in peace. But in 637 it was conquered by the Mohammedans. This, however, hardly checked the flow of pilgrims to the Holy City. For to the Mohammedan Christ was a prophet, one less great indeed than Mohammed, but still a prophet. The Christians were, it is true, forbidden to build any more churches, were ordered to remove the crosses from those already built, and to cease the ringing of bells. They were forbidden also to carry weapons or ride on horses, and were forced to wear a distinctive dress. Otherwise they were left in peace to worship as they chose.
So for more than three hundred and fifty years under Moslim rule Christian pilgrims still thronged to Palestine. There were, of course, constant dangers from robbers and other evil-doers by the way. At times, too, there were sudden waves of persecution and oppression, but for the most part pilgrims came and went in peace.
At length, however, in the first half of the eleventh century a new and terrible enemy appeared. These were the Turks. Like so many other invaders of Europe the Turks came from the East. They were fierce and cruel, and being converted to Mohammedanism they were filled with a savage zeal for their faith. In conquering hordes they swept through Persia and enthroned one of their leaders as king. Soon Palestine also fell before them, and the streets of Jerusalem flowed red with the blood of Christians. The holy places were profaned, the most solemn sacraments of the Church were made a cause of scornful laughter, while the aged Patriarch was dragged through the streets by the hair of his head, and cast into a loathsome dungeon, there to languish until a heavy ransom should be paid for his release.
The Christians who escaped death or imprisonment fled back to Europe. Here they spread abroad the tale of woe and desecration until all Europe wa,s shaken with wrath against the infidel.
Among those who returned was a pilgrim named Peter the Hermit. Much of the story of Peter the Hermit is now looked upon as mere legend. It has even been said that he never visited Jerusalem at all. But whether that is so or not he undoubtedly helped to preach the first Crusade. He was a thin and wiry little man, and utterly insignificant save for his eyes, which burned with an almost mad enthusiasm. He had, too, a marvellous power of speech. And as he passed through Europe riding upon an ass, clad in a rough hair shirt, his head and feet bare, and carrying a crucifix in his hand, people flocked to hear him.
And wherever he spoke men felt their hearts uplifted by his glowing words, felt themselves impelled to fight in the name of God. They soon looked upon him as a saint, and were happy if they might touch his robe or even the ass upon which he rode. So from place to place they followed him, hanging on his words, weeping at the pictures which he drew of the miseries endured by the faithful.
But alone Peter could have done little. A poor priest might indeed arouse the enthusiasm of the people. It needed a greater power than his to direct that enthusiasm. That greater power was ready to hand.
The Eastern Empire had long been in a state of feebleness and decay. Now the emperor, Alexius Comnenus, saw with dismay territory after territory being reft from him by the infidel Turks, whose standards were planted almost within sight of the towers of Constantinople. Of himself he knew not how to stay their conquering march, so he sent messengers to the pope, Urban II, begging him for help.
The pope was not unwilling to listen to him, for he, too, was eager to drive the Turks back to their Asian deserts, and free the Holy Land from their oppression. So he called the people together to a conference at Piacenza in Italy. But although an immense crowd gathered to listen to him no decision was come to. It was not in Italy but in France, the true son of the Church, that the first action was to be taken; and crossing the Alps the pope held another conference at Clermont.
Here such an immense crowd gathered that no room could be found for them in the town, and winter though it was, a vast city of tents sprang up all around. No building was large enough to contain the vast assemblage, and the conference was held in the open air. The pope, clad in gorgeous robes, and surrounded by his cardinals, sat upon a throne erected in the market-place. And when he rose to speak deep silence fell upon the gathered thousands. Urban was a Frenchman, and he spoke not in Latin, the language of the learned and the Church, but in French, so that even the humblest who heard him could understand.
As the burning words of the great pontiff fell upon their ears the people wept and cried aloud, and their hearts glowed within them. Urban pictured to them the fury and the pride of the infidel, he reminded them of the great and glorious deeds of Charles the Hammer and of Charlemagne, and bade them go forth as they did against the foe. He bade them cease from warring against each other, and turn their swords upon the despoilers of the holy places.
"Let all hatred depart from among you," he cried. "Let your strife cease, let war be no more. Enter upon the path which leads to the Holy Sepulchre, wrest the land from the people of sin, and make it your own. For this spot the Saviour of mankind has made glorious by His birth, has made beautiful by His life, has made holy by His passion and redeemed by His death. Take, therefore, this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, sure of the reward of eternal glory in the kingdom of heaven."
And when the pope had ceased speaking all the people cried out, "God wills it! God wills it!"
Then with frenzied eagerness they crowded round the pope to receive at his hands the cross which was to be their badge as soldiers of Christ. From this badge the expeditions which, during nearly two hundred years, were to change the face of Europe took their name of Crusades. A new word was thus given to language, and now any enthusiastic campaign against evil we call a crusade.
With the Crusades something new was brought into the idea of war. First, there was the idea of God. For every man who took the cross felt that he had enlisted under the banner of God Himself. Secondly, there was the idea of combat for a noble and unselfish end. Hitherto men had waged war for selfish ends and personal gain. But the Crusader sallied forth not to add broad acres to his land but to fight for the honour of God, and that the poor and unarmed pilgrim might visit the Holy Land in safety and peace. Thirdly, there was an element of freedom introduced. For the Crusader went forth, not at the command of his overlord to fight because he was bound by oath to follow his lord when he called—he went of his own will, to fight in a cause of his own choosing.
There were, of course, many who did not take the cross in this spirit of sacrifice or devotion. Some went merely for the love of adventure, some in the hope of enriching themselves through plunder or trade. Others, with few or no lands at home, went in the hope of founding principalities abroad. Criminals went to escape justice, debtors to escape payment of their debts, for the pope announced that every man who took the cross was free of his debts until his return. But although the reasons which men had for taking the cross were many and varied, the moving spirit, the one which overbalanced all others, was one of religious devotion and sacrifice.
Never before had a war been undertaken by the people of Europe in such a spirit. Chivalry, it is true, had already given to knighthood something of a holy character, and had set before the true knight ideals other than those of mere plunder and bloodshed. But even so the influence of religion had been but little felt amidst the violence and bloodshed of feudal wars. Even the romantic knight errant had fought for gain, and had been willing to sell his sword to the highest bidder.
The Crusaders did not constitute an army in our sense of the word. They were merely a conglomeration of armed and unarmed bands who travelled together towards the Holy Land. They were drawn from every country of western Europe, but for no country was the first Crusade a national enterprise. Many Frenchmen it is true joined the expedition, for these romantic adventures appealed to the French more than to any other nation in Europe, and the Crusades had more effect on the national growth of France than on that of any other nation. But in no sense was the first Crusade a national enterprise, and no king took part in it.
At the time of the first Crusade Philip I, the fourth king of the Capetian dynasty, was on the throne of France, and like those of his line who had gone before him he had little power, and no taste for great adventures. William the Red, who had small care for religion, ruled in England. Henry IV, emperor of Germany, was under the ban of the Church, and with the whole Empire in confusion it was not wonderful that neither the emperor nor any great German prince took part in the expedition.
The soldiers from any one country did not march under a national leader. Neither was there any commander-in-chief. There was no discipline, no commissariat, nothing, in fact, which goes to make an army in the modern sense of the word.
Only a wonderful faith and enthusiasm could have set such an army in motion. Only wonderful faith and ignorance could believe in its success. The Crusades did not succeed, and the story of them is the story of one of the most sublime and picturesque failures in all history. But the story of the Crusades themselves hardly belongs to European history. It is the effect upon Europe which matters chiefly, and the fact of success or failure made little difference to this effect, which was very great.