On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II delivered the speech that launched the Crusades. Some call it the most influential speech in human history. Everyone today agrees that the Crusades were a disaster. So is there any point in revisiting them? Yes, because of this sad fact: the case for the Crusades was so well-suited to the culture that almost every major Christian leader of the age fervently endorsed them—Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and more. How did this happen?
Speaking to a group of European leaders gathered at Clermont, Pope Urban summoned Christians to rise to the defense of fellow believers in Greece as they battled Turkish invaders. Yet the records of Urban’s speech show that he had more interest in liberating Jerusalem than in Constantinople. One account reads this way:
Under Jesus Christ, our Leader, may you struggle for your Jerusalem, in Christian battle line, [that] most invincible line, even more successfully than did the sons of Jacob of old—struggle, that you may assail and drive out the Turks, more execrable than the Jebusites, who are in this land, and may you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which he died for us. But if it befall you to die this side of it, be sure that to have died on the way is of equal value, if Christ shall find you in his army (as recorded by Balderic of Dol). 
With appeal to the Israel’s wars, Pope Urban urged knights to join an armed expedition to liberate Jerusalem from Turkish control. If someone asks why a pope would aim to raise and commission an army, we need to go back a few years.
Violence and Chaos
Between the collapse of Rome in AD 476 and the rise of the high Middle Ages, Europe endured centuries of violence and chaos. Rulers were essentially warlords whose strength legitimated their control. Warriors felt deep loyalty to their lords. Clan and honor were paramount. Offenses against them had to be avenged. Blood feuds proliferated. In time, a reform movement arose. Some wanted to repristinate the church; others, to liberate it from the control of local lords. As part of this process, popes sought knights of Christ to defend the church against lords who tried to control it—often with armed forces.
These knights were upper-class, professional warriors. Because church reform had spiritual effects, this knightly class became concerned for their souls, sensing conflict between their profession as warriors and the gospel. They suspected that they could never do enough penance to cover their sins as warriors. Could their work lead them to eternal condemnation?
The desire to defend Christian lands, along with a desire to avenge affronts to the honor of Christians, combined explosively with the concerns of Christian knights when Pope Urban spoke. Urban participated in the reform movement and drew on its themes as he appealed to his audience. The various versions of the speech agree on its chief themes, although the specific language differs.
Pope Urban called Christian knights to stop fighting each other and to battle infidels instead. They invaded Christian lands and assaulted Christian pilgrims. Knights should liberate fellow Christians from pillage, fire, rape, and tortures, described in lurid detail, by “an accursed race,” and free Jerusalem, including the most holy relic, the Holy Sepulchre, from their control (Robert the Monk).
Urban says, “You should shudder . . . at raising a violent hand against Christians; it is less wicked to brandish your sword against Saracens [Muslims]. It is the only warfare that is righteous, for it is charity to risk your life for your brothers.” Knights of Christ should offers themselves as a holy sacrifice to defend the honor of the church. And they should have compassion on their brothers” (Balderic of Dol).
Urban linked the campaign to a popular form of penance, the holy pilgrimage. The knights wanted to do penance for their sins, and Urban gave “whoever wishes to save his soul” an opportunity to do so (Gesta). He told the warriors that all who died in battle against the pagans “shall have immediate remission of sins” (Fulcher of Chartres). The knights were, in essence, armed pilgrims.
Urban also tied his appeal to a popular form of spirituality, monasticism. Crusaders took monastic vows (their obedience is another question). Thus the warriors became armed, mobile monks. Our Christian brothers are suffering and their lands taken, Urban said, in language that evoked a sense of offended honor. The knights should be willing to suffer with them, as Christ suffered, in order to retake their lands and the church’s holy sites.
In short, every theme of Urban’s speech resonated with his listeners: pilgrimage, honor, land, brotherhood, knights of Christ, and remission of sin. Urban’s speech had unprecedented effect because it combined familiar and widely accepted themes, in a fresh way, for an exalted cause.
Urban said the old knight murdered fellow Christians; the new knight loved God and neighbor by fighting evil. If the knights loved their souls, Urban said, they should fight the barbarians who had slain their brothers. And if they perished, they perished as martyrs and gained eternal praise. Thus warfare was viewed as a redemptive activity.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, an expert on the Crusades, said the great Christians of the day so fervently supported the Crusades that they sacrificed “wealth, health, life itself, in a cause which they believed to be just, and even salvational” (The Crusades: A Short History, 256-7).
Error We Must Face
The doctrinal errors are obvious: we cannot perform saving acts of penance; Christ does not advance his work by force. But the cultural error is the one we must face. Europe was an armed, allegedly Christian camp in Urban’s day. Instead of questioning this, Urban tried to redirect it. Urban failed; the Crusades were disastrous in every way. Untold numbers died in vain. The “Christian knights” acted like barbarians and fools and killed both Muslims and also fellow believers.
It would be all too easy to condemn Urban and his age. But we must ask, “Why did almost everyone agree with him, when his thoughts seem so clearly false to us?” The answer is that he and his contemporaries baptized notions from their culture that are alien to Scripture: pilgrimage, the need to forcibly avenge affronts to the clan’s honor, the idea that works of penance are instrumental to salvation.
The challenge is clear. We need to ask ourselves, “What cultural values do we baptize? Which of our culture’s universally accepted values are actually at odds with the character, word, and will of God?”