How did Christians justify their claim to the
Holy Land before and during the Crusades?
One of the most significant and remarkable incidents of the Middle Ages was the series of conflicts known collectively as the Crusades. Generally these conflicts were militant pilgrimages to the Levant (though sometimes elsewhere) undertaken by medieval Europeans in the name of Christendom. Though there were many political and social issues involved in the whole affair, the primary theme, however superficial, was religious. The adversaries in these “wars” were non-Christians, namely Muslims, who were widely seen as the oppressors of Eastern Christians. Those engaged in the Crusades, especially the authorities preaching and administering them, believed that the Saracens (Turks, Arabs, etc) were intruding on lands that were inherently Christian. Two important primary source texts which explain this justification for war are Robert of Rheims’ account of Urban’s Speech at Clermont and La Chanson d’Antioche (The Song of Antioch) by Graindor de Douai. Though they are very different types of sources, written at different times and for different purposes, they both illustrate the reasons why Crusaders felt they were fighting for land that was rightfully theirs.
In the late 11th century, before the First Crusade was preached, the Byzantine Empire in the east was quickly losing land to the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor. These Turks had rapidly expanded throughout the Near East since the 1040’s, and were now engaged in a rivalry with the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. Both of these Muslim entities now had strong presences in the Holy Land and its surrounding regions, though the Seljuks had fallen into disunity and division by the 1090’s. One faction of the original group was in control of Jerusalem itself in 1095 when the Council of Clermont was held. Some Christians were offended by the idea of these Muslims having authority over what they knew as the “Holy Land”; The Holy Land in Christian thought referred to the regions of modern Israel where Jesus Christ lived and died. The city of Jerusalem held a special importance in the minds of these medieval Christians, since it was the place where, according the Gospels, Jesus died and was resurrected. In spite of this conceptual importance, Jerusalem had not been under Christian rule since the 7th century, when it was first conquered by Arabs. In Europe, meanwhile, the land-owning nobility was situated at the top of a violent secular society which had been growing in religious activity. The papacy was in the midst of a revolutionary reform movement which was quickly expanding its power over Europe. This widespread movement also entailed efforts to control the behavior of upper-class Christians, who generally fought for a living. The concept of divinely sanctioned violence was born in the years leading up to the Crusades, as a failed attempt to suppress unbridled warfare between Christians. When Urban II gave his famous sermon at Clermont, his audience was a troubled aristocratic society rife with disunity and internal conflict. They were essentially discontented warriors accustomed to fighting but susceptible to the rising influence of the papacy’s religious authority.
It is generally agreed among historians that Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont was the principal catalyst of the First Crusade (and by extension all Crusades). This gathering was very different from most church councils in that the pope addressed the general public outside the walls of the church, rather than just the upper clergy. He gave a speech intended to appeal to all Christians, promoting the idea of Crusading (a concept which was not quite revolutionary but had not yet been seen in such clear and explicit terms). Although the call to arms was supposedly a response to the Byzantine emperor’s request for aid against the Turks, there were many underlying reasons and, likewise, many rhetorical...