Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Facing Objections to the First Crusade

Above: Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099, Émile Signol (1847).

The First Crusade was nothing short of miraculous, in which our fathers left their homes and families to lay down their lives for Christendom. Yet this event was not without its critics, then and now. For traditional Catholics, it is important to have a thorough knowledge of the Crusades in order to defend this important movement of Christendom. In this article we will address three objections to the First Crusade and analyze them using primary sources.

These objections start with an accusation that the Pope launched a war of aggression against a peaceful Muslim world. This can cover the whole of the crusading movement. But specifically for the First Crusade, two other objections are heard: that it started a massive pogrom against European Jews and finally, the murder of every Muslim inside Jerusalem when the city was finally taken on July 15, 1099, nine-hundred and twenty-three years ago today.

Let’s go through these objections one by one.

Crusades: Wars of Aggression?

The early seventh century saw the rise of Islam in Arabia. Shortly after Muhammad died in 632 AD, Islamic forces proceeded to expand Islam militarily into Christian and other lands. Syria, the Holy land, all of North Africa and Spain were captured by the Caliphate. The Muslims started a war of aggression here.

For moderns, let’s put this into perspective: imagine if Muslims did not attack the Twin Towers in the United States on September 11th but came with an army of tens of thousands and conquered fifty percent of the United States. After generations, the Americans finally fought back to regain their country from the Muslims. Who is the “aggressor” in this hypothetical situation?

Luckling for the Christians during the Islamic conquest, Christians fought back and stopped the Islamic advance. In 732 AD, Charles Martel defeated a Muslim army at Tours and pushed them back into Spain. The hundred year jihad was over. The Arab Muslim forces would never regain the spirit for jihad en masse ever again. Regardless, two thirds of the Christian world had been conquered. Over the next three or four centuries the Christians would regain some of the territory. Large portions of Spain, certain Mediterranean islands, parts of Anatolia and even Northern Syria would fall back into Christian hands. Maybe in another couple hundred years the Islamic conquests of the seventh century would be completely undone? It was not to be; a new player was about to enter the game.

The Turks

In 1071, a Turkish army from central Asia spilled into Eastern Anatolia and defeated the Christian Roman army at Manzikert. In the following years, all of Antalolia would be conquered by this new Turkish menace. Christians weren’t the only victims of this new power; the Muslim Arabs were hit as well, including the Shia Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt who controlled Jerusalem at the time. So who is the aggressor in this situation? An honest look at the history shows that the First Crusade was a just war of defense against Muslim aggression over historically Christian lands.

With Anatolia and the Middle East under Turkish control, the new reformed papacy in Europe saw an opportunity to help its fellow Christians in Anatolia and the Middle East. Many people point to Alexius Comnenus’ appeal to Pope Urban II for troops. While that certainly happened, the idea of a crusade had already been attempted by Pope Gregory VII on March 1, 1074. Regardless, it was Pope Urban’s speech in Clermont, France in 1095 which got the ball rolling for a crusade and this is where the second objection to the crusade comes in.

The Crusades and the Jews

We should first look at the speech given at Clermont. Five accounts of the speech exist and in none of them does the Pope tell the crusaders to attack local Jewish populations. It clearly shows the Turks as the enemy. Baldric of Dol’s version of the speech at Clermont has Pope Urban II saying the following:

The churches in which divine mysteries were celebrated in olden times are now, to our sorrow, used as stables for the animals of these people! Holy men do not possess those cities; nay, base and bastard Turks hold sway over our brothers. The blessed Peter first presided as Bishop at Antioch; behold, in his own church the Gentiles have established their superstitions, and the Christian religion, which they ought rather to cherish, they have basely shut out from the hall dedicated to God![1]

This and many other statements show that the Turk is the enemy, not Jews in Europe. Regardless, a group of renegade crusaders, the most prominent of them being Count Emico, decided to attack Jewish populations in Rhineland cities. This was against the explicit protection that the Church had given to the Jews by papal charter since the days of St. Gregory the Great (590-604). Thus the Church authorities went to great lengths to protect the Jews from these rebellious crusaders. Albert of Aachen recounts the great efforts of the Bishop of Mainz attempting to protect the Jewish population. He writes:

The Jews of this city, knowing of the slaughter of their brethren, and that they themselves could not escape the hands of so many, fled in hope of safety to Bishop Rothard. They put an infinite treasure in his guard and trust, having much faith in his protection, because he was Bishop of the city. Then that excellent Bishop of the city cautiously set aside the incredible amount of money received from them. He placed the Jews in the very spacious hall of his own house, away from the sight of Count Emico and his followers, that they might remain safe and sound in a very secure and strong place.[2]

Unfortunately, Emico and his band of goons were determined and relentless. They managed to break down the locked doors and kill many Jews. Despite the best efforts of the bishop, many Jews died. However, in other places such as Speyer, the efforts of the Church to save the Jews was more successful. A contemporary Jewish chronicler writes:

When Bishop John heard, he came with a large force and helped the [Jewish] community wholeheartedly and brought them indoors and saved them from their [the crusaders’ and burghers’] hands. He seized some of the burghers and ‘cut off their hands.’ He was a pious one among the nations. Indeed God brought about well-being and salvation through him.[3]

What we see here is that the Pope never established European Jews as the target of the crusade. Also, when rogue crusaders did attack Jewish populations, the Church came to their defence in fulfillment of the command to love your neighbor in general and the Church’s own aforementioned papal charter in particular.

Total Slaughter in Jerusalem?

Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven put the vivid image into everyone’s mind. When Balian of Ibelin surrenders the city to Saladin, he’s worried about the outcome. He says: “The Christians butchered every Muslim within the walls when they took this city.” Saladin then assured him that he wouldn’t do likewise. An incredible line like that, given by Orlando Bloom in a major Hollywood motion picture is as close as you can get to an Ex Cathedra statement in secular culture. It’s taken for granted simply because it was said. Probably most people who walked out of the cinema had that thought permanently etched in their mind.

Of course this is an exaggeration of what happened. In July, 1099 when they took the city, crusaders did lose control and murder non-combatants, as some of them had with the Jews earlier. However, this is where we need to analyze this objection closely.

We need to make a distinction, as with the last objection, between the Church’s public cause with the Crusade and the individual actions of crusaders, who were more or less pious, depending on the men in question. We do the same thing, for example, when people celebrate the Allies’ victories in World War II while ignoring individual atrocities committed by the Allies at any given battle (the debate about the Atom bomb continues, for example). The cause may be just, while individual actions within that just cause may fail to be just. Thus Catholics need not justify every action of every crusader in order to justify the First Crusade as a just war.

What do the Sources Say?

Nevertheless, when we look at the actual sources, we find the complexity of what happened when the crusaders took Jerusalem. First, the common practice of warfare at the time meant that when a city refused to surrender, it might suffer from massacres after it was taken – and this was true of Christians and Muslims at the time.[4] This does not justify what was done, but illustrates some of the brutality of the period.

Thus after Jerusalem was taken, crusaders fell into rampage and ended up committing a massacre of Muslims using a justification of divine judgment. Here’s where we need to be honest about the brutal details. Fulcher of Chartres is an important primary source of the crusade. He writes:

Nearly ten thousand were beheaded in this Temple. If you had been there your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. None of them were left alive. Neither women nor children were spared.[5]

First, it must be said: any killing of innocents should be condemned by Christians as acts of murder which stain the high ideals of Christian knighthood. But as we said before, individual atrocities do not invalidate the just cause. But if we look closer, there is more analysis that is necessary.

By Temple he refers to the Dome of the Rock which the crusaders called the Temple. The blood reaching to the ankles is imagery, similarly to saying it was a bloodbath. This (with other sources using the same language) references Rev. 14:20 and makes a claim that this action is divine judgment.[6]

But is it true what was said by Ridley Scott’s movie? Was everyone killed?

Let’s first ask this: can we trust the number ten thousand? No we can’t. When we look at Fulcher’s entire chronicle he has the tendency to exaggerate numbers by large magnitudes. The very first battle of the first crusade was the siege of Nicaea. Fulcher puts the crusader army besieging the city at 600,000 with 100,000 of them being “protected by coats of mail and helmets,” which means that they were probably knights. Obviously this is an exaggeration probably by about tenfold.[7]

After Nicaea was captured the crusaders headed south and engaged the Turkish army at the Battle of Dorylaem. Fulcher numbers the Turkish forces at 360,000. Obviously another gross exaggeration, probably tenfold as well. At the siege of Antioch, Fulcher mentions that 60,000 Turks were in the citadel, another impossibility.

Seeing that Fulcher exaggerates numbers by extremely large amounts, it’s reasonable to believe that the 10,000 beheaded in the Temple were closer to 1,000. Weidenkopf notes how other sources indicate “only several hundred” were massacred, while Muslim sources exaggerate it to 70,000 (the population of Jerusalem itself was no more than 30,000). Thus he estimates the massacre to be somewhere between several hundred and 3,000.[8]

We also read that several people were allowed to leave the city. Fulcher writes:

Meanwhile some Turks and Arabs and about five hundred black Ethiopians who had taken refuge in the Tower of David begged of Count Raymond, who was quartered near that citadel that on condition they leave their money there, they be allowed to depart with their lives. He conceded this, and they withdrew to Ascalon.[9]

There is even evidence to suggest that Muslims were alive in the city after the sack. Robert the Monk recounts that the Muslims who were alive after the sack had to clear out the bodies. He writes:

It was then decided that the city should be cleaned. The Saracens who remained alive were ordered to drag the dead outside and cleanse the city immediately of all the filth created by such a large-scale massacre.[10]

The Damascus Chronicle by the Muslim Ibn Al-Qalanisi doesn’t give a figure nor much detail beyond what he have in our two Christian chronicles. He does add that the synagogue was burned down with Jews inside it – another brutal act.[11]

We can see from both Fulcher of Chartres, Robert the Monk and elsewhere that there was a massacre. However, we should also not allow exaggerations to be used against the just war of the crusades. It was clearly not a wholesale slaughter like Ridley Scott’s perversion of Balian says in Kingdom of Heaven.

As we said above, in the medieval world if cities were surrendered under terms it was peaceful. This is how Saladin took the city of Jerusalem in 1187. However, if the city put up a defense and the walls were breached it was not uncommon for soldiers to lose control. A good example of this was Constantinople in 1453. The city was taken by force and after three days of looting and plunder the city was empty. Almost everyone had either been killed or enslaved. It was so bad that Mehmed the Conqueror had to spend two decades repopulating the city. Nothing that bad happened in Jerusalem in 1099. So Ridley Scott exaggerates to say that everyone was “butchered” and he also makes a false comparison to say that Saladin (and the Muslims in general) were more peaceful than the Christians. The reality is more complicated than that. What would Saladin have done had the Christians resisted in 1187? Probably more bloodshed.

The First Crusade needs to be examined and critiqued fairly. It is clear that in several instances, the crusaders lost control and profaned the name of Christ and the crusades. But Catholics should promote a sober analysis of their own history, instead of groveling before the world and their anti-Catholic bias. In fact, if one reads the full history of the crusades, Catholics can truly see the great “Glory of the Crusades” undertaken at great cost by our fathers. The stories of Christian heroism and valor outweigh the stains brought about by bad crusaders.


Editor’s note: for a review of modern scholarship and an apologia for the Eastern crusades, see Steven Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades.

[1] The First Crusade, 2nd ed., ed. Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 30.

[2] Ibid., 110.

[3] Ibid., 114.

[4] For example, the Muslim massacre of 6,000 Christian men, women and children on Christmas Eve in 1144, or the Mamluk Baybars’ massacre at Antioch.

[5] Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127 (WW Norton & Company, 1972), 122.

[6] Steve Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades (Catholic Answers, 2014), 76.

[7] See the editor’s remarks on this and the following event in Fulcher of Chartres, op. cit.

[8] Weidenkopf, op. cit., 75.

[9] Fulcher of Chartres, op. cit., 124.

[10] Robert the Monk, History of the First Crusade (Routledge, 2006), 202.

[11] Ibn Al-Qalanisi, The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades (Dover Press, 2011), 48.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...