Wednesday, 15 September 2010

November 27th 1095: A day that shook the world

"Then Jesus said to his disciples ‘If any would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever seeks to spare his own life shall lose it; but whoever shall lose his life for my sake will find it”
                                                                      - CHRIST ADDRESSES HIS DISCIPLES (MATTHEW 16:24-25)

At the turn of the eleventh century Anno Domini the Eastern Roman Empire, the last great remnant of the Ancient Roman Empire, was in decline, slowly worn down by relentless attack at the hands of the Turks. Yet even then, it was the great Christian superpower of the world, and Constantinople was by far the largest and richest city on Earth, the great bastion and defender of Christendom in the face of the rising power of Islam in the East. Though the days when the Caesars ruled from Rome were a distant memory, the power, prestige and the dream that was Rome lived on. Until the fateful day of the 26th of August 1071. For on that day began a chain of events culminating in a day which changed the world forever, and whose effects are felt stronger today than ever, on the 27th November 1095.

Gold Solidus of the Emperor Romanus IV
Constantinople Mint.
The Emperor Romanus IV, determined to take vengeance on Alp Arslan - Sultan of the Great Seljuk Empire - for his siege of the city of Manzikert (near the Eastern border of modern Turkey, then under Roman control), set off with a large army to confront his foe. On the road from Constantinople, the Romans were constantly harassed and demoralised by the arrows of the Turkish horse archers, yet the army held together. The Emperor reached Manzikert and took it easily, causing the Sultan to sue for peace. Determined to end the ‘Eastern threat’ once and for all with a decisive victory, Romanus refused and battle was joined. But the Turks were masters of the hit and of the run. Wherever the Roman charged, the Turk fled, showering his pursuer with arrows as he did so (A tactic known as the Parthian Shot, the bane even of the Ancient Roman Legions at their height.) Frustrated and demoralised, the Romans gave way, and the Turks pounced. The Roman soldiers, the great defenders of Christendom, were now men fleeing for their lives. The Turks captured Romanus and hurled him at the feet of Alp Arslan, who could not believe that this dirty and bloody wreck of a man before him was the mighty Emperor of the Romans. It was the worst Roman defeat since Adrianople, over six hundred years earlier, and worse was yet to come. A crippling financial crisis struck the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Imperial throne was sought by avaricious and selfish men. In the West, the Empire’s dominions in Southern Italy were the prey of the Normans. Not until the rule of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus began in 1081 did the Empire begin to stabilise again.

A Christian Knight departs for the Crusades
Taken from the Westminster-Psalter.
Fourteen years later, Pope Urban II, a charismatic and energetic Pope, held council at Piacenza in northern Italy in 1095. Urban II was keen to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor, Pope Gregory VII, and restore the moral integrity of the Roman Church. He soon got his chance. Attending the council were representatives of the Emperor, who called upon the Bishop of Rome for aid. The Seljuk leadership was in disarray, now was the time to strike back at God’s enemies! The desperate plea struck deeply within the Supreme Pontiff’s mind, who called a Council to be held in Clermont (modern day Clermont-Ferrand) for monk and lord alike to consider the Emperor’s words. Little did the Emperor know that his call would be answered on a scale beyond his wildest dreams...

When the clergy and laymen gathered on the 18th of November 1095, all were expecting further discourse on ecclesiastical affairs and discussion of healing the rifts caused by corruption in the Church. So the Council progressed, until it came to the last item on the agenda. All assembled were struck dumb by Urban II’s closing speech. The Vicar of Christ rose and launched a scathing attack on his flock:

“Listen and learn! You, girt about with the badge of knighthood, are arrogant beyond great pride; you rage against your brothers and cut each other asunder. This, which rends asunder the sheep-fold of the Redeemer... This is not the soldiery of Christ!... You, the oppressors of children, plunderers of widows; you, guilty of homicide, of sacrilege, robbers of another’s rights; you, who await the pay of thieves for the shedding of Christ’s blood!”

Never before had a Pope so masterfully struck at the conscience of his subjects, tearing forth their guilt from the depths of their depravity. His words turned to the plight of Christendom in the East:

Pope Urban II preaches the Crusade
Taken from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer.

“From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth... a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God... has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire... it has destroyed the churches of God!”

Here Urban refers to the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, torn down at the orders of the Caliph Al-Hakim in 1009. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see already the beginnings of the violent tensions between East and West right now in 2010. The Bishop of Rome turned his cry to Jerusalem, the land which ‘floweth with milk and honey’, given by God to the children of Israel in the Old Testament. He implores the men of Christendom to liberate the land from the infidel:

“Nay, more, the sorrowful here will be glad there, the poor here will be rich there, and the enemies of the Lord here will be His friends there!”
                                                            - POPE URBAN II SPEAKS OF THE REWARDS OF THE CRUSADE

Doubtless, even the most materialistic of those present’s ears would have pricked up at the mention of untold riches in the East. Europe was a desolate land in the 11th century, a land dominated by the right of primogeniture – a law that decreed that only the firstborn son would inherit. This left a great deal of sons destitute and envious, and ready to cause trouble at a moment’s notice. If what the Pope said was true, even a peasant here could be a lord in the Holy Lands. Then came Urban II’s dramatic finale:

“Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves...Undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven!”
                                                               - POPE URBAN II CALLS CHRISTENDOM TO THE CRUSADE

The Archangel Michael casts Satan down from Heaven
Artist unknown. Taken by author in Pinacoteca Gallery
of the Vatican Museums.
Here, and now, God’s representative on Earth was offering to all who answered his call the forgiveness of Christ and a place in Heaven! One can only wonder at the intensely powerful effect this would have on the deeply pious Christian knights present. Tears flowed from many an eye, and as one, the gathered crowds bellowed what would become the famous war cry of the crusaders; “God Wills It!”

One must always leave modern ethics behind when looking at this. Life was mostly a grim affair in the 11th century. Life expectancy seldom stretched past 30, death, plague, war and famine surrounded all. Is it any wonder that men turned to God? Urban II’s speech is dramatic enough today, let alone nine hundred years ago. Not even Urban II himself was prepared for the scale of the response to his plea. Tens of thousands across the nations of Europe answered the Pope’s call, and flocked to the sign of the cross, calling upon the valour of Saint Michael the Archangel. The First Crusade had begun.

Due to the incredible importance of the First Crusade I shall, in future posts, follow the course of the great ‘armed pilgrimage’, to its cataclysmic finale. The text of Urban II's mighty speech was recorded by many authors, many of whom were actually present at the Council. A collection of all these is easily available at Amazon, which also includes material for the whole of the Crusade:

United Kingdom

The First Crusade: The Chronicle and other Materials
(Highly useful and nicely organised, containing original texts for events across the whole crusade)

United States

The First Crusade: The Chronicle and other Materials
(Highly useful and nicely organised, containing original texts for events across the whole crusade)

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