Birth of a holy war

Summary: Urban II, possibly the greatest and most brilliant pope to ever live, spent years trying to unite the Christians of Europe and unleash them against their common enemy: the Muslim invasion of Spain. Urban got his wish on a November day in 1095, completely by accident. He united the Christians, but not in the way he wanted. The result was bloody and tragic. This is historical fiction, rich with insights for us.

“The romantic story of the crusades was an epic written in blood.”
— Conclusion of historian Steven Runciman in his great magnum opus, A History of The Crusades.

Stained Glass of the First Crusade in the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral.
The First Crusade, in the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral.

Birth of a Holy War

On 27 November 1095 in Clermont, France.

Pope Urban II ascends his pulpit. In Urban’s eyes, this is a small cathedral befitting a proper house of worship, but pale in comparison to the massive spires built in wealthier cities. And of course nothing compares to Rome itself, the Holy See. But to the Frankish citizens of Clermont, this is the largest building they have ever seen, and their whole lives revolve around it from baptism to funeral mass.

As impressive as the cathedral is, the idea it represents is much more powerful. The Church, and the Pope at the head of it, influences almost every aspect of peoples’ lives from prince to pauper.

Several hundred clergy are seated in the church pews, and more onlookers crowded behind them. They wait breathlessly for God’s voice on Earth to speak. To hear an address from the pope is a huge honor, perhaps the greatest honor a man might experience in his life.

Urban is a great reformer of the church, but there is one crisis on his mind that takes precedence above any other. There is a huge, looming threat against the Christians of Western Europe, the Moors, the sons of Mohammed. For hundreds of years, they have occupied Southern Spain and persistently try to push their borders deeper into the divided lands of their Christian neighbors. The Moors are not only great warriors, but they are also sophisticated and educated. They can not only conquer territory, Moors have the wisdom and knowledge to hold it, gradually subverting the conquered people of the Iberian Peninsula to a false god.

As grim as the Moorish threat is, Urban has a weapon capable of defeating them. It’s a weapon Urban has spent his whole reign trying to awaken and aim in a great crusade to liberate Spain; the knights!

The Dark Ages were an era of seemingly endless suffering, but it did end. Christians emerged as the sole victors, overwhelming all their rivals with superior evangelism, diplomacy and warfare. Medieval Europe is a dysfunctional culture shrouded in mysticism, superstition, infighting and poverty. But it’s a society bristling with unrealized energy. The heart and soul of that energy is the aristocracy, the knights.

Almost every civilized culture in history has had an aristocracy. The knights are the aristocracy of Feudal Europe, but an odd one. They’re hardly an aristocracy at all, more closely resembling their ancestors, the barbarian warriors from a few generations ago. Knights are Christian, but Medieval Christianity isn’t like it was in the time of Paul, or in a future era of parishioners lining the pews on Sunday mornings.

Much to the Pope’s frustration, as much as the knights have embraced their faith, it has no impact at all on their attitude. The fanciful concept of Chivalry doesn’t exist outside of books. No knight alive actually practices it. Knights attend mass, abstain from swearing, and usually respect women, but that’s the most good behavior that can be expected from them.

Knights dutifully attend mass, basking in a Latin sermon they can’t understand about a Bible they couldn’t read even if they had one. Once mass is over the knights discard their fine Sunday tunics for leather and mail. Now they can return to the pastime they enjoy most;:the joust!

The jousts aren’t like the elegant tournaments seen in later, more civilized centuries. They’re chaotic brawls. A joust is just a large group of knights meeting in an open field for a full-scale mock battle. There are no scores tallied and no rules. There’s not even a point at all except to beat each other senseless from dawn to dusk.

As unsavory as a joust is, it is better than the alternative, warfare. Knights enjoy a good joust, but there is nothing they love more than a real battle. They tear each other’s tiny fiefdoms apart in endless, utterly and maddingly pointless warfare. It’s common for two barons to fight one another for years, killing hundreds of people, destroying villages, burning whole crops, and gaining absolutely nothing at the end of it except for a few cows and a fistful of silver coins. Wars among knights have no goal except war itself.

After a lifetime of training and battle and little else, a knight is a formidable warrior. But united, the knights are an unstoppable hammer. Atop their mighty war horses, clad in near-impervious armor and gleaming weapons pointed, the knights are the most powerful heavy cavalry mankind has ever seen. A thousand mounted knights in a thundering charge of iron-shod hooves, fluttering banners and shining armor is a sight too terrifying for any serf to withstand. Most shield walls break in a panicked rout before the first lance touches it.

The knights’ skills don’t end on an open battlefield. Show a group of knights a castle, they’ll devise the best plan to capture it that same afternoon. Knights attack each other constantly, driven away only because they’re equally matched against other knights. When facing a lesser enemy, there’s no wall high enough to stop them.

If Urban can rally the knights to stop fighting amongst themselves and unite against a common enemy, he can drive every last Moor back into the sea. Soon after his election by the College of Cardinals, Urban excitedly proclaimed Holy War against the Moors. The knights are fanatical believers who love war. Surely they would jump at the opportunity to slay heathen barbarians.

They didn’t.

Urban’s continuing failure to motivate the knights to march on Spain is difficult to solve. The knights are great warriors, but ignorant and unimaginative. The Moors are far away and uninteresting. However awful the Moors might be, it’s still more convenient for knights to fight each other like they always have. Once in a while, a group of knights go to Spain to fight for a season, but not nearly enough of them, and never for an extended campaign. The liberation of Spain from the Moors seems all but a lost cause. Urban has resigned himself to Moorish occupation and focused his efforts on strengthening the church.

There’s another issue on Urban’s mind today. It’s extremely inconsequential, barely worth mentioning at all. The Patriarch of the Eastern Christians sent Urban a message. It was not so much a message as a plea begging for help. Urban found it quite funny.

East and West split four decades ago with the Pope and the Patriarch excommunicating each other. Since then, the two bodies of Christ have continued on their own, pretending the other doesn’t exist.

After all that, the Patriarch needs Urban’s assistance. The Eastern Romans have been defeated in seven battles, crushed by the Seljuk Turks. Emperor Alexius is hiding behind the walls of Constantinople and controls little else. The Patriarch’s letter suggested that East and West mend their schism, and the Roman Catholics march to Greece to render assistance.

Urban could barely contain himself. He can’t even get the knights to march on Spain. How could anyone be stupid enough to think they’ll sail across the world to fight in someone else’s war? But in the interests of good faith, however feigned, Urban will announce the need for Christian soldiers in the East at his sermon today.

The original idea was too stupid for Urban to repeat without sounding like a fool. There’s no reason at all for any knight to want to go to Greece or the surrounding territories in Asia Minor. Urban had to invent something a little better. He’ll bring up Jerusalem and the Holy Land as well.

“Oh race of Franks, my beloved brethren.” The Pope begins his address.

He delivers the most important points first. The authority of the church must be unquestioned. Anyone who assaults or robs a priest is to be treated like the salt of the Earth. Peace within the dioceses needs to be reestablished. Brigandry and infighting are unacceptable and show weak leadership.

Urban pauses and opens the room to discussion. Everyone agrees with the importance of peace and unity, though not with the enthusiasm Urban would like. They never do. As much as the lower clergy and their flocks of believers revere God’s voice on Earth, Papal politics bore them.

His reasons for calling the Council of Clermont all fulfilled, Urban has one more thing to add. It’s the least important, which is why he saved it for last. Attendees are already getting bored and restless.

“A horrible tale has gone forth from Constantinople and Jerusalem and has been brought to our ears.” Urban proclaims. “The Saracens, an accursed race utterly alienated from God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and depopulated them by the sword, pillage, and rape.”

No one is bored anymore. They listen intently. Urban put little thought into this portion of his speech. He wrote it in haste and didn’t even rehearse. But as he continues, he realizes it is good. Urban spells out in gory detail the horrible crimes the Muslim invaders inflict on their Christian victims; beheadings, floggings, disembowelment, circumcision, and of course the abominable rape of the women. As brutal as Medieval warfare is, the Pope is liberal with the facts. It doesn’t matter if these alleged crimes happened or not. The voice of God said it, so the atrocities must be true.

He realizes this just might be the greatest speech he’s ever delivered. Urban really outdid himself. One might even say his words are divinely inspired. The audience grows increasingly agitated as he speaks. The clergymen are roused, but, perhaps even more interestingly, even the knights in the back are excited.

“Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. God has conferred upon you above all nations great glory in arms. Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

His speech over, Urban relaxes and lets himself catch his breath. Though his voice trailed away, nothing else can be heard, just stunned silence. Then someone speaks. One of the knights. Urban doesn’t know who he is, but it doesn’t matter. “Father, we will be absolved of our sins if we take up the cross?”

Urban is typically pleased when a warrior expresses interest in swearing his sword to the church. But he would be happier if knights showed this level of enthusiasm when he repeatedly pressured them to fight the Moors in his previous sermons.

“Yes, taking up the cross absolves you of your sins.” The Pope answers. “No matter where you go with it. Like Spain, for example.”

“I will go to Jerusalem!” The man declares.

“God wills it!” Onlookers cheer.

More volunteers stand up, pledging to go.

“Father.” Someone shouts to Urban. “You said if a man takes the oath to march to the Kingdom of Heaven, he should carry the cross of Christ on his shoulder and forehead?”

“Yes.” Urban sighs despondently.

The questioner drops his red cloak and unsheathes his knife. There’s enough fabric to make crosses for a whole pilgrimage, and it’s used up immediately.

“My estates have been in the family for three generations, I will sell them all and fund an expedition!” A baron proclaims.

“That’s a noble and charitable thing to do.” Urban congratulates him. Is the nightmare going to end? No, it is not.

A great warrior stands up and announces himself. “My name is Raymond, and I’m marching from Toulouse against the Moors. I lost a spur this morning, and took it as a sign I needed to stop here. Then I heard you were to speak here, Father. That’s when I knew I was meant to come and listen. I’ve never in my life broken an oath, but now I will.” Raymond turns to the crowd. “I’m going to the Holy Land!”

What was a half-awake assembly less than an hour ago is now a frenzied mob spilling from the cathedral into the streets outside. The council truly is over now.

Urban is one of the most educated people alive. He can speak and read in several languages, and, most importantly, is fluent in Latin. He knows the whole history of the Western world, going back to the Romans and before them. All that knowledge is useful, but can also be a handicap. Urban sometimes forgets he’s talking to morons.

He always despised the knights, but now he hates them. Urban doesn’t understand how they can be so unbelievably stupid. He realizes his mistake, too late of course. He spoke of the “Kingdom of Heaven” and they took him literally. They think they’re retaking heaven. Literally heaven. Urban understands what a figure of speech is. The knights can’t. Now that he’s put the idea in their heads it’s impossible to change.

When he goes outside, the Pope is greeted by billowing columns of black smoke. Houses are burning, and people beaten to death on the cobblestones. The Franks have taken it upon themselves to murder their Jewish neighbors. When Christians get riled up about something, no matter what it is, they always go after the Jews first.

The Crusade has begun. It’ll spread across all of Christendom before Urban arrives back at the Vatican. He’s done it. Urban has stirred the knights. He’s awoken the sleeping giant. But it’s going the wrong way. No one will even care about Moorish Spain anymore. Europe will be emptied of its best warriors, all of them rushing to fight a totally pointless war in the East that won’t accomplish anything remotely useful. It won’t even help the Emperor, though he might think it will at first.

It’s sickening. Urban has spent his whole life since he was a small boy climbing through the ranks of the church. He’s accomplished so much as Pope. But the only thing anyone will ever remember him for is this.

Urban has wondered at times if God exists. Now he knows. God does exist and is playing a cruel joke on him.


Author’s afterword

I have a passion for writing and a passion for historical fiction. But it is important to understand that fiction is still fiction. I presented Pope Urban II (term 1088-1099) and Raymond of Toulouse (leader of the First Crusade) in this short story. They were real men who played important roles in the First Crusade. But the moment they enter a novel, they become fictional characters. It is impossible to recreate a real person in any form of media. We can’t know his exact thoughts and motivations. A character portrayed in fiction, even with a real name, is at best inspired by a real person. He is not the real person himself. This is important to understand with my stories, or any story based on true events.

“Birth of a Holy War” took other liberties with the facts. These were deliberate choices on my part, which not everyone might agree with. I made those deviations from fact to make them easier for modern readers to understand. For example, I refer to “Spain.” There was no “Spain” in the 11th Century, just Iberia – a geographic region with dozens of squabbling feudal authorities. But “Spain” is recognizable to a modern audience.

I was loose with the facts surrounding the sermon and the chain of events following it. Urban watching in dismay as the fires of holy war spread I intended as a compelling illustration of how quickly millions of people became entranced by the idea of a crusade. I also emphasized the disastrous and brutal acts of oppression against Jews who had coexisted with their Christian neighbors for generations.

This is a dramatization. It is unlikely that Urban immediately saw all this happening. Raymond of Toulouse wasn’t present at the sermon. I included him to show an example of a knight who was marching to fight the Moors like the Pope wanted him to, but changed his mind and went to Jerusalem instead. I altered the facts for the sake of a narrative. There are other fictional elements of this story too numerous to list properly.

My goal is to spark peoples’ imaginations. Stories provide insight on what life was like in different cultures from long ago. A novel or short story cannot, and honestly should not, depict real events accurately like a history book. Well-crafted fiction increases peoples’ awareness and interest in history and motivates them to learn about those events on their own, whether it’s by reading a reputable history book, or simply a short Wikipedia article. It’s imperative to keep the stories of our past alive. If we lose interest in history, we’ll forget it.

In my upcoming book, The Silver Cord: A Story of the Night Witches (See “Ballad of the Unknown Pilot,” a prelude to it published last week), is about a heroic group of Soviet women in World War II. They are all fictional characters, even the ones named after real people. But I hope that story, as well as my other historical fiction entries here, provide insight and motivation for my wonderful readers and supporters to learn more about those people and events. If I accomplish that, then these stories achieved my intended goal.

Critiques welcomed, but will be moderated.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either works of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of this novel may be reproduced or used in any matter without permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This copyright overrides this website’s Creative Commons license.

Ian Michael

Author’s afterword

I hope you will continue to enjoy my regularly posted stories on Sundays. This is an introduction to my next book, The Silver Cord, a novelization of a legendary, but very real band of heroes from World War II. Or, as they would call it, “The Great Patriotic War.”

The release of the print and Kindle editions of Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus will be announced soon.

I also encourage everyone to follow my Facebook and Twitter pages for updates on my books.

About the author

See Ian Michael’s bio. Contact him at LinkedInTwitter, or Facebook. See his other articles on the FM website …

For More Information

Ideas! For some holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

See “Why the Crusades were not a ‘clash of civilisations’” by Nicholas Morton, Lecturer in History at Nottingham Trent University.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Books about the First Crusade

The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East (2018) by Nicholas Morton, Lecturer in History at Nottingham Trent University. See his bio and Twitter feed.

The First Crusade: A New History (2004) by Thomas Asbridge, Reader in Medieval History at Queen Mary University in London and famous author. See Wikipedia.

The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East
Available at Amazon.
The First Crusade: A New History
Available at Amazon.

10 thoughts on “Birth of a holy war”

  1. From about 650 to 1683 (the siege of Vienna) Islam waged a continuous religious war of attempted conquest on western Europe. It was basically imperialism and colonialism. Complete with forced conversion, slavery, second class citizenship. It got a far as southern France. The key engagements which mark the counter movement were Tours, Lepanto and Vienna, and the Crusades are best seen as part of the general fight back.

    The military campaigns stopped after Vienna. Slavery continued until the early 1800s when the British and American navies explained to the North African regimes in terms they could understand that this was going to stop, and now.

    Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. And get reduced to terrorism, the last refuge of an intellectually bankrupt ideology which requires conquest for legitimacy.

    1. Henrik: “And get reduced to terrorism, the last refuge of an intellectually bankrupt ideology which requires conquest for legitimacy.”

      Henrik, you’re mistaking the cultural tendencies for the religious tendencies. As Ian clearly shows in his story, Christian Europe did everything you’ve mentioned and more. More frequently to each other than to their enemies.

      The key philosophical changes in Europe were the Renaissance and Reformation. But more important, was the concept of effective central government and policing. “Do the crime and do the time.” All four concepts took hundreds of years to implement.

      Arabia, where Islam was born, is desert country with relatively few resources. The Romans chose not to conquer it simply because it wasn’t worth the bother. The people of that region raided each other for many of the same reasons the Christian Knights raided each other, frequently with better cause. Failure to win in combat equaled a slow death by starvation or thirst.

      You’ve correctly identified the end of the great religious wars with the lifting of the siege of Vienna. The Turks realized that they were overextended and settled down to holding what they had. The Christians continued the fight with little wars that slowly rolled back the Turkish empire and ended with the establishment of Greece in 1832.

      The Christians won in the end.

    2. Henrik: “…reduced to terrorism, the last refuge of an intellectually bankrupt ideology which requires conquest for legitimacy.”

      The rest of the world is facing a new onslaught from European culture that is not Christian. The increasing pervasiveness of the Internet and European thought and culture is causing problems in all parts of the world outside of Europe and North America. It strikes a chord with some parts of Japanese culture (Pokemon and anime, for example) but rolls over all other local cultures with ease and is accessible to anybody with a cell phone.

      Look at the situation from the perspective of the other country’s leaders. Their children are increasingly substituting Facebook and Pinterest for their own culture and are becoming more conversant in cultures not their own at the expense of learning local customs. China has built the Great Red Wall of censorship to protect their own culture (which is so old and deep that it makes Europe look like a shallow puddle), Russia has tried to subvert the Internet to meet their own needs.

      Most countries try to endure and hope it goes away before they are wiped out. That increasingly includes state and local governments in the US and probably in Europe. Trump, of course, is part of the problem with his constant, inaccurate self-involved tweets that go out to tens of millions of rabid followers.

      A few Islamic leaders (not even government leaders in most cases) have decided to fight back with Terrorism, which is the only card left in their hand. They are going to lose unless the West makes a major stupid mistake (even worse than George W Bush’s invasions) because the attacks are the last, desperate, attempt to get attention before their culture is drowned in a massive wave of intellectually inert pictures of cute kittens and increasingly narcissistic selfies. I call it the Facebook wave for lack of a better term.

      I’m kind of on the side of the other cultures on this one but am not in favor of violence. My primary concern is that this wave is also crowding out knowledge, interest of how the world really works, and empathy for other people. It is replacing intellectual discussions and knowledge transfer with more entertaining but inaccurate emotional content about how a lot of individuals THINK the world should work, but they are not interested in doing the work of actual implementation.

      That, in turn, is dumbing down people’s responses to a wide range of issues and is having quite a negative impact on people’s comments here at the Fabius Maximus website.

      For example, I was shocked by the response to my post about the Electoral College a couple of weeks ago. When I was younger, that kind of knowledge was basic to graduation from High School. What happened when I wasn’t looking? What will happen when those (apparently few people) who know these things leave this world?

      Someday the rest of the world is going to discover that their intellectual sewer pipe has rusted out and they won’t know who to call or how to fix it since that’s not fun or cute. The resulting behavior will not be fun or cute either.

      1. Pluto,

        “That, in turn, is dumbing down people’s responses to a wide range of issues and is having quite a negative impact on people’s comments here at the Fabius Maximus website.”

        You should read the comment threads responding to my posts elsewhere (such as at Watts Up With That). By comparison with those, the comment threads here look like discussions at Plato’s Academy.

      2. Larry: “You should read the comment threads responding to my posts elsewhere (such as at Watts Up With That). By comparison with those, the comment threads here look like discussions at Plato’s Academy.”

        I’m somewhat aware of that, which is why I keep coming to the Fabius Maximus website.

  2. Ian-

    Great start, and this is an interesting time period worthy of writing about!

    A few editing notes / critiques,

    In this blog post, you’re unpackaging a lot of ideas / history that your readers may not be familiar with (I’m one of them). I had to read through it twice and read Wikipedia’s entry on “The First Crusade” and “The Great Schism” before I was drawn in. Average reader may not do that.
    Instead of telling the history as you work through Urban II’s speech, you could tell it in other ways. One effective way (and one of my favorites) is how Ken Follett tackled “The Pillars of the Earth.” In this case, you could start with Urban II and add in other characters- Knight, Moor, and an Eastern Orthodox clergy? Follett’s book was a labor of love and took him twenty years to complete so be warned!

    Just some thoughts to consider.


  3. An enjoyable story, well suited for a dramatic reading. I had some loose narrative thoughts but I realized after consideration that this is in fact a story “being told” rather than an excerpt from a piece of general fictional writing. If you were to write this as a novel, of course, you’d want to center the viewpoint more clearly on Urban or in a third person omniscient.

    I think the discussion of the knights would be strengthened if you could find an example of some of their behaviors.

    1. Sf,

      Thanks for the thoughts about this.

      As with most stories, there is always more to say. It is really too long for this format, and greatly reduced from the length of the frst draft.

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