Spoiling for a fight, fighting for god

In 1095, Pope Urban II asked the Christians of Europe to march to Jerusalem and take the Holy City away from its Muslim rulers. And his appeal succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. Thousands upon thousands of warriors turned east, launching the First Crusade.
Urban’s call certainly featured some good rhetoric. He hit on three themes that would pop up frequently, over the next millennium, in religious speech employed for political ends: a recounting of the dreadful deeds of those who hold other (or no) faiths (“the Turks and Arabs . . . have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians…have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire!”); an appeal to fear, warning that worse will inevitably follow (“If you permit them to continue thus…the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them!”); and, last but certainly not least, the certain claim to be speaking for God (“Moreover, Christ commands it!”).
But the rhetoric itself doesn’t necessarily account for Urban’s success. To find out why his call resonated so deeply with his listeners, you actually have to go back a century-to the death of the French king Louis the Sluggard, in 987. Louis had ruled for only a single year, and (as his name suggests) wasn’t much of a king. He was important only because he was the last king of the Carolingian dynasty, the final royal descendent of Charlemagne.
The powerful Frankish noblemen Louis had attempted to rule rejected the idea of finding a distant Carolingian relation to elevate. Instead, they crowned a king from a new family: Hugh Capet, son of the count of Paris, one of their own. Without much royal authority to wield, Hugh Capet found himself trying to control a disorderly mass of competing dukes who were accustomed to carrying on vicious private feuds without interference. Private warfare between French dukes, private oppression of farmers by aristocrats, armed spats between men of different loyalties and languages: France was a sea of chaos from border to border.
In 989, Christian priests gathered at the Benedictine abbey of Charroux to look for a solution. If France were to survive, someone had to quench the flames of private war that had followed the disintegration of strong royal power. The priests had no army, no money, and no political power, but they had the authority to declare the gates of heaven shut. And so they began to wield it.
They announced that noncombatants-peasants and clergy, families and farmers-should be immune from ravages of battle. Any soldier who robbed a church would be excommunicated. Any soldier who stole livestock from the poor would be excommunicated. Anyone who attacked a priest would be excommunicated (as long as the priest wasn’t carrying a sword or wearing armor).
This meeting at Charroux was the first step in a gathering Christian movement known as the Peace and Truce of God. Over the next fifty years, two church councils extended conditions of the Peace and Truce. Merchants and their goods joined peasants, clergymen, and farmers as official noncombatants, immune from attack. Certain days were now completely off limits for fighting: under threat of excommunication, no one could wage war on Fridays, Sundays, church holidays, or any of forty days of Lent.
“Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels,” Urban II told his audience. “Let those who for a long time have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. … Let those who go not put off the journey. … As soon as winter is over and spring comes, let them eagerly set out on the way with God as their guide.” And those who eagerly set out would receive the greatest possible reward: “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins,” Urban promised. And so they went. Then, just as today, religious rhetoric brought about political ends most efficiently-when it gave justification to something that hearers already wanted, for entirely secular reasons, to do.

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