First Crusade: A Look at the History and Timeline of Events

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The First Crusade

In autumn of 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade by calling upon his fellow Christians to reclaim the Holy City of Jerusalem, and to seek revenge on the followers of Islam, whom he accused of committing horrendous crimes against Christendom (Asbridge 16). As Urban preached throughout Europe, he ushered in a new era of Christianity, that which readily used violence for its ‘just’ causes.  Soon after Urban’s preaching tour thousands of Christians were ready to take up the mission and destroy everything that stood in their way. This paper will review the atrocities set forth by the first crusaders against both Jews in Europe and the Muslims of the eastern Mediterranean region.

Pope Urban’s call to crusade was made possible by the earlier work of St. Augustine on Christian violence.   After all, on the surface Christianity appears as a faith of pacifism, demonstrated by Jesus, whose life reflected the rejection of all violence, as well as the Hebrew Bible in which the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill” is revealed. How is it that St. Augustine and then Pope Urban II enabled violence to be an option for Christians? “From the fourth century onwards, Christianity underwent a gradual but deep-seated transformation as it fused with a Roman ‘state’ for which warfare was an essential feature of existence.” (Asbridge 13-24)  Urban secured thousands of participants for his cause when he promised rewards in the afterlife, including a guarantee of eternal salvation to those who died in the struggle. “For the first time in Christian history, violence was defined as a religious act, a source of grace.” (Carroll 239-340)

For St. Augustine a ‘Just War’ is one that contains three components: 1) it must be proclaimed by a ‘legitimate authority,’ 2) it ought to have a ‘just cause,’ 3) it should be fought with ‘right intention.’ (Asbridge 24) The ‘just cause’ that Pope Urban II pronounced was the reclaiming of Jerusalem and to avenge the so called atrocities that Muslim ‘infidels’ had perpetrated on the Christian world. In doing so, Urban put forth a doctrine based on the denigration and dehumanization of Islam.  “By expounding upon the alleged crimes of Islam, he sought to ignite an explosion of vengeful passion among his Latin audience, while his attempts to degrade Muslims as ‘sub-human’ opened the floodgates of extreme, brutal reciprocity. This, the pope argued, was to be no shameful war of equals, between God’s children, but a ‘just’ and ‘holy’ struggle in which an ‘alien’ people could be punished without remorse and with utter ruthlessness.” (Asbridge 34) “I, not I, but God exhorts you!…to hasten to exterminate this vile race from our lands,” Urban said to his listeners (224). The following excerpt from his speech at Clermont highlights the message he was spreading about Muslims:

From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. (Robert the Monk, Historia Iherosolimitana p.727)

Urban alleged that “Christians were being forcibly circumcised…and the resulting blood was spread on altars or poured into baptismal fonts; the Turks ‘cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment with a loathsome death…tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them’; they tied some to posts and used them for archery practice; others they attacked with ‘drawn swords to see whether they can cut off their heads with a single stroke’.” (Moynahan 222)

Although Urban freely spoke of the wrongs done to Christians by Muslims in the Holy Land, other sources suggest Christians in fact enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence in these Muslim communities. Christians indigenous to the region were treated with “remarkable clemency. The Muslim faith acknowledged and respected Judaism and Christianity, creeds with which it enjoyed a common devotional tradition and a mutual reliance upon authoritative scripture.  Christian subjects may not have been able to share power with their Muslim masters, but they were given freedom to worship. All around the Mediterranean basin Christian faith and society survived and even thrived under the watchful but tolerant eye of Islam.” (Asbridge 18) Unfortunately, Urban was successful in defining Islam as a species apart, and Muslims as the ‘other.’ (Carroll 35) The First Crusade “marked a watershed in relations between Islam and the West. This was not the first war between Christians and Muslims, but it was the conflict that set these two world religions on a course towards deep seated animosity and enduring enmity. Between 1000 and 1300 CE Catholic Europe and Islam went from being occasional combatants to avowed and entrenched opponents, and the chilling reverberations of this seismic shift still echo in the world today.” (Asbridge 2)

Time Line of Events

December 1095-July 1096: Jewish pogroms in the Rhineland

Less than a year after Pope Urban II called Christians to arms, the First Crusade got its start in northwestern Europe in the spring of 1096. The first acts of hostility took place not against the Muslim enemy, but were targeted at the Jews close to home in the Rhineland. (Carroll 237) While anti-Semitism had existed in Europe for centuries, the First Crusade marked the first mass organized violence against Jewish communities. As early as the 9th century, Jews of Europe had faced discrimination as “laws were passed to make sure that Jews did not exercise authority over Christians, and restrictions of numerous other aspects of Jewish life were enacted.” (243) But now, this discrimination took the form of violence as Jews instantly joined, or even replaced Muslims as the defiling enemy in the crusader’s mind.(253)

How did a war of re-conquest against Islam turn into attacks on Jews? Characterizing Muslims, the expedition’s projected enemies, as a sub-human species, the pope harnessed society’s inclination to define itself in contrast to an alien ‘other’. (Asbridge 85) However, the Muslims had played no part in Christ’s Passion, but the crusaders’ Jewish neighbors were descendants of those who had (Moynahan 229). The Jews were easily stigmatized in this hostile environment and their close proximity made them targets. “The hated Jew of the crusader’s imagination was unrelated to the actual Jews he came upon…The crusaders, suddenly obsessed with the ‘infidel’, projected onto Jews a fantasy tied to an ancient memory that had little enough to do with the Jews of that bygone era, and nothing whatever to do with Jews as they existed in the crusader’s time.” (Carroll 249-250) The crusaders were convinced that in the ‘present tense of the liturgical cycle’ Jews were still partaking in the murdering of Jesus in Jerusalem. (Carroll 254)

These crusader attacks on Jews amounted to Europe’s first large scale pogroms, and the hostilities spread east through Germany in the cities of Speyer, Trier, Metz, Regensburg, Cologne, Worms, Mainz and seven other locations. (248) Followers of Judaism were subjected to a ruthless program of violence, extortion and forced conversion. (Asbridge 86) The number of Jews murdered or forced to suicide in those weeks is estimated by scholars to have been as low as 5,000 or as high as 10,000, perhaps a full third of the Jews living in northern Europe.”  (Carroll 257) What follows is a sample of the atrocities committed during this time.

o   December 1095 – Anti-Semitic riots erupt in Rouen (Asbridge 86)

o   May 1096 – The Jewish residents of Trier were assailed despite having paid Peter, the emissary to the crusaders, to speak on their behalf. “They broke into the Jews’ ‘strong house’ and threw the Torah scrolls to the ground. They tore them and trampled them under foot.” (Carroll 247) The crusaders scoured Trier looking for “the circumcised.”

o   May 18th – On this day, Count Emich of Leisingen and his band of pilgrims arrived in the city of Worms. They claimed that the Jews had drowned a Christian and then used the water in which they kept his decomposing body to poison the city wells. (Moynahan 229) The Jews had sought protection from the city’s bishop but their safety was short lived. Only those who accepted forced conversion to the Christian faith were spared. One eye witness commented that the Jews were “killed like oxen and dragged through the market places and streets like sheep to the slaughter.” (Asbridge 87) It was reported that entire Jewish families committed suicide in order to avoid “the Latin swords or the noose of Christianity.” By May 20 the Jews of Worms had been all but eradicated. It is estimated that Emich and his followers massacred approximately five hundred Jews. (Moynahan 230)

o   May 25th– Count Emich then moved onto the city of Mainz where nearly a thousand Jewish inhabitants met their death. Although Emich had received payment to spare the lives of these Jews, he continued to kill those who would not renounce their faith. (230) The killings lasted two days. “It was reported that one Jew burned down the synagogue to save it from desecration before killing himself and his family.” (230) “They killed the women, and with their swords pierced children of whatever age and sex…Horrible to say; mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands.” (Asbridge 88)

It was in Mainz that one eyewitness describes the mindset that encouraged such atrocities. The chronicler recounted the words of the Christians as they stormed through Mainz seeking their Jewish enemies: “You are the children of those who killed our object of veneration [Jesus Christ], hanging him on a tree; and he himself had said: ‘There will yet come a day when my children will come and avenge my blood.’ We are his children and it is . . . therefore obligatory for us to avenge him since you are the ones who rebel and disbelieve him.”  (Carroll 261)

The massacre of Jews in the Rhineland was an event of little or no significance in the Christian chronicles, although such sources confirm that it happened. But the Rhineland catastrophe would be a lasting marker in the mind of Judaism. (266) After leaving their homeland the crusaders reached the borders of the ancient Byzantine Empire in the summer of 1096. Below is a list of battles and atrocities that Christians enacted in Muslim lands. Before going into those details it must be mentioned that due to the crusader’s decision not to carry supplies, the armies survived through subsistence. “In enemy lands this equated to scavenging and rampant pillage. This process of living off the land, often hand to mouth, helps explain why the crusaders developed an increasingly voracious appetite for plunder as the expedition progressed.” (Asbridge 92) The periods of starvation that all crusaders would face would take their violent acts to a level of ferociousness, which even by medieval standards would be considered appalling.

Battle at Civetot – Byzantine Empire

The crusaders first steps into Islamic territory had ended in utter catastrophe. “Winning a battle at Civetot, the Turks immediately followed up this bloody victory by falling upon the crusaders’ camp with merciless brutality. There they found the feeble and crippled, clerics, monks, aged women, boys at the breast, and put them all to the sword, regardless of age. They took away only the young girls and nuns, whose faces and figures seemed pleasing to their eyes, and beardless and beautiful young men.” (103)

May 1097: Siege of Nicaea

The Latin crusaders attained their first victory at the Turkish stronghold of Nicaea and celebrated by sending a thousand decapitated heads to the Greek emperor in Constantinople as proof of their victory.(Carroll 241) Those Christians who cut off the enemies’ heads also brought them back to their tents and tied them to their saddles. Others were stuck on the ends of spears and paraded before the city walls and some catapulted into the city ‘in order to cause more terror among the Turkish garrison.’ (Asbridge 126) The “ravening Latin mobs soon began to trawl the surrounding countryside in search of plunder, allegedly subjecting the region to savage rapine: ‘acting with horrible cruelty to the whole and brought them to our tents so that they could count the number exactly, except those that they loaded on to four horses belonging to the ambassadors of the emir of Cairo and sent to the sea-coast.” (Asbridge 193) Some of these heads were even catapulted over the cities walls, in order to strike fear in their opponents.

At one point during this long siege, the crusaders came to realize there were several spies amongst them. To deal with this problem they set an example that would result in all other spies fleeing the crusader’s camps. This example consisted of killing one such spy, roasting him on a spit, eating his flesh, and then threatening a similar fate would befall all those who were discovered to be spies. (Maalouf 29) “These acts may appear to be utterly barbaric by modern standards, but they were a staple feature of medieval warfare and become a consistent theme of the siege of Antioch.  Within the context of a holy war, in which the Franks (crusaders) were conditioned to see their enemy as sub-human, Christian piety prompted not clemency but, rather, an atmosphere of extreme brutality and heightened savagery.” (Asbridge 168)

Soon after the crusader’s captured Antioch, they found themselves in another battle from within the city’s walls. A few days after their victory a Turkish relief force had arrived. The crusaders were besieged within the city’s walls and were facing famine. “At first they (crusaders) had cut open Moslem bodies to see if the victims had swallowed gold coins before being killed; now they “cut off the flesh in pieces and cooked it in order to eat them.” (Moynahan 234) The starving crusaders also resorted to eating dogs, horses, goat innards, the leaves of fig trees and the dried skins of camels. (235)

Battle at Damascus

Like the pogroms in Europe, a Muslim – manned fortress near Damascus was assaulted and looted, and the inhabitants forcibly converted or killed.(Asbridge 248) This was the first occasion since the pogroms in Rhineland when the crusade edged towards becoming a war of conversion.

December 12th 1098 – Battle at Marra

On the night of the 11th, the people of Marra made contact with the crusaders, and the crusader’s commanders promised to spare their lives if they would stop fighting and retreat to certain buildings. The next day the crusader’s wishes were met, but they did not keep their word. “For three days they put people to the sword, killing more than a hundred thousand people and taking many prisoners.” (Maalouf 39) “The knights were frustrated because they had been beaten to the best booty and thus unleashed their anger on the town’s populace in a mad scramble to gather up what was left: ‘Our men all entered the city, and each seized his own share of whatever goods he found in houses or cellars, and when it was dawn they killed everyone, man or woman, whom they met in any place whatsoever. No corner of the town was clear of Saracen corpses, and one could scarcely go about the streets except by treading on their dead bodies.” (Asbridge 268) It was here in Marra that the crusaders’ dire hunger became too much to bear. One account said, “I shudder to say that many of our men, terribly tormented by the madness of starvation, cut pieces of flesh from the buttocks of Saracens lying there dead. These pieces they cooked and ate, savagely devouring flesh while it was insufficiently roasted.” (274) It was said that the troops ‘boiled pagan adults in cooking pots, impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.’ (Maalouf 39)

The following excerpt from The Crusades Through Arab Eyes tells of the lasting impression the crusaders had on the people of Marra and neighboring cities:

“The memory of these atrocities, preserved and transmitted by local poets and oral tradition, shaped an image of the Franj [European Christians] that would not easily fade. The chronicler Usamah Ibn Munqidh, born in the neighboring city of Shayzar three years before these events, would one day write:

All those who were well-informed about the Franj saw them as beasts superior in courage and fighting ardour but in nothing else, just as animals are superior in strength and aggression.

This unkind assessment accurately reflects the impression made by the Franj upon their arrival in Syria: they aroused a mixture of fear and contempt…The Turks would never forget the cannibalism. Throughout their epic literature, the Franj are invariably described as anthropophagi.” (Maalouf 39)

June 7th – July 15th 1099 – Battle for Jerusalem

After spending three years marching from Europe to the Holy City, the crusaders had finally reached their intended destination in the summer of 1099.  It took forty days to conquer the city. “After a very great and cruel slaughter of Saracens, of whom 10,000 fell in that same place, they put to the sword great numbers of gentiles who were running about the quarters of the city, fleeing in all direction on account of their fear of death; they were stabbing women who had fled into palaces and dwellings; seizing infants by the soles of their feet from their mothers’ laps or their cradles and dashing them against the walls and breaking their necks; they were slaughtering some with weapons, or striking them down with stones; they were sparing absolutely no  gentile of any place or kind.” (Asbridge 317) Those Muslims who sought shelter on the roof of the al-Aqsa mosque were decapitated if they had not flung themselves to the ground first. (Moynahan 239) By July 17th, not a single Muslim was left alive within the city walls. Even the Jews who had gathered in their synagogue had been burned alive inside.  “The last survivors were forced to perform the worst tasks: to heave the bodies of their own relatives, to dump them in vacant, unmarked lots, and then to set them alight, before being themselves massacred or sold into slavery.” (Maalouf xiv)

The success of the First Crusade would inspire many more Christians to take up arms and fight the infidels in other neighboring countries. The first crusaders who had managed to survive the three years march, periods of starvation, and numerous deadly battles, would return to their hometowns in Europe as heroes. Though victorious in war, the crusaders created a schism between the worlds of Christianity and Islam that lingers today.

*This paper was written and the graphics selected and integrated by Vanessa Brake, research assistant to Joseph Montville, director of the Abrahamic Family Reunion project co-sponsored by the Esalen Institute Center for Theory and Research and TRACK TWO: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy. Funding for the project comes from the Fetzer Institute of Kalamzoo, Michigan.

March, 2008.


Asbridge, Thomas. The First Crusade: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Carroll, James. Constantine‘s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. New York: Schocken Books, 1985.

Moynahan, Brian. The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2002.