Today in European history: the Council of Clermont (1095)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

The title of this post is a bit misleading. The Council of Clermont actually ran from November 18 through November 28, 1095, so November 27 is the anniversary of neither its beginning nor its end. It is, however, the anniversary of the day on which Pope Urban II (d. 1099) got to the main point of the conference. It was on November 27 when Urban turned the council’s focus toward the challenges facing the Byzantine Empire in the aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert. Urban’s speech, calling for an army of Christian warriors to head east and drive the Turks out of Byzantine territory, kicked off the Crusades.

Urban II addressing the Council, an illumination from the 15th century text Passages d’outremer, which was illuminated by miniaturist Jean Colombe (Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the council was actually taken up with internal Church matters, like instituting the Benedictine Reforms of monastic life and extending the excommunication of King Philip I of France for marrying (sort of) Bertrade de Montfort even though both Philip and Bertrade were, uh, already married to other people at the time. I think you can probably see where the church was coming from on that one.

In fact, part of Urban’s rationale in calling for a crusade, aside from a desire to rescue his fellow Christians (schismatic, but still in the ballpark) from the Muslim menace, was the fact that the political/religious situation in Western Europe was pretty tense. Philip obviously didn’t care for Urban, but that actually wasn’t the pope’s biggest problem. His biggest problem was that he’d inherited the Investiture Controversy, his predecessor Gregory VII’s feud with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, over whether the Pope or the Emperor had the right to appoint bishops and abbots in imperial territory. If you’re a good Catholic, then you probably know the story of Henry IV donning a hairshirt and walking barefoot over the Alps to Gregory’s palace at Canossa, where he knelt in the snow for three days waiting for an audience with the pope in order to beg forgiveness for his transgressions. That was in 1077. The lesser-known part of that story is that by 1080, a much stronger Henry appointed his own “pope,” who took the name “Clement III” and served as what’s (affectionately, I’m sure) known as an “antipope” until his death in 1100.

So Urban had a lot on his own plate, and he probably thought that this Crusade idea would unite Europe behind his leadership. It didn’t really work out that way. He also, we think, saw the Byzantine Empire’s peril as a chance to end the schism between Rome and Constantinople—in Rome’s favor, of course, as Constantinople’s rescuer. In this respect Urban appears to have misread the room a bit. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Komnenos (d. 1118), had been trying to repair relations with Rome as far back as 1090, mostly because he wanted Latin help against the Seljuks, and earlier in 1095 he sent an embassy to the Council of Piacenza to request aid. But Alexios wanted some soldiers, mercenaries really, who would be on his payroll and serve in his army. He didn’t want some massive Latin Christian band of holy warriors marching into his lands and eating his food, but following its own leaders and its own agenda. That is, however, what he got, and as we know it didn’t work out so well for the Byzantines. It certainly didn’t do anything to end the schism.

Philip did finally agree to stop acting like he was married to Bertrade in 1104, but Urban, sadly, was too dead by then to appreciate it. The Investiture Controversy similarly resolved itself after Urban’s death, when Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II agreed on the Concordat of Worms in 1122. But that whole Crusade thing kind of took on a life of its own, didn’t it? The main Crusading movement, the one that took place in and around the “Holy Land” (and that one time in, uh, Tunisia), went on until 1291, and people were still using the term “Crusade” to describe Christian military campaigns against Muslim powers (and against Christian heretics) through the 15th century (or to the present day, if we go by some of the rowdier folks on the far right).

Urban’s speech calling for the Crusade has been preserved in several forms, which of course don’t entirely agree with one other because that would just be too easy. The biggest variation among them is probably around the issue of Jerusalem, which relates to the way Urban sold his Crusading idea as a religious enterprise. Pope Gregory VII had already issued a call for Christian lords to send forces to aid the Byzantines, but he’d been ignored. Urban recast Gregory’s purely military mission in religious terms, as a martial pilgrimage. Europe was full of Christians who spent their time fighting other Christians, which was immoral and even illegal under Church law. Urban gave these men a new enemy, along with a war that wasn’t only legal but was practically a religious obligation, one that—crucially—would allow them to obtain absolution for past sins. This was how he ensured that his call would get the attention that Gregory’s didn’t.

But did Urban demand the conquest of Jerusalem? This is where all the various accounts disagree. In at least one of them, Jerusalem isn’t even mentioned, while in others Urban makes taking Jerusalem the most important goal of the campaign. Obviously any chronicler writing after the First Crusade, which abandoned the Byzantines and focused on capturing Jerusalem, would have some incentive to write Jerusalem back into Urban’s speech in order to justify what actually happened. Reality may be somewhere in the middle. Urban himself talked about the coming campaign in a letter he wrote not long after the council ended. In that document, he writes about the need to liberate the Christian Churches of the east—but he doesn’t say anything explicit about capturing the Holy Land. That said, the phrase “the Christian Churches of the east” presumably includes—presumably especially includes—churches in Jerusalem, so I think at least you have to say that Urban wasn’t uninterested in the fate of the Holy City.

Ultimately this question is mostly a historical curiosity. Whatever Urban’s aims may have been, what he meant to happen matters much less than what did happen.