Monday, February 4, 2013

Urban II and His Big Blooper

For a long time I have considered Pope Urban II one of the worst villains in history. Oh, sure his repertoire doesn't quite hold a candle up to Stalin, Hitler, or Cheney. And I'd like to think that his intentions were good (they weren't) in instigating the biggest religious bloopers you'll ever see. And by blooper I mean the horrendous, murderous, manipulative, not to mention mysterious on-going holy war known affectionately as The Crusades.

Most of you probably know the basics of the Crusades. Muslims had taken Jerusalem. Christians wanted it back. All hell broke out and many people died. Plus people love to bring them up when discussing religious hypocrisy! But I'll give you a little back story that will hopefully illuminate my hatred for Urban II and his Big Bad Blooper.

Around 1085, the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus was in a pickle. He had watched the glorious eastern empire dwindle down to a very tiny kingdom. Those damn Seljuk Turks had caused some real trouble in the Arabic and Mediterranean world, and it was due to their insatiable thirst for plunder. Alexius couldn't afford to hold off the Turks because the eastern empire didn't have a real army. It was made up of mostly mercenaries (many of these ex-Vikings). But when the Turks took big chunks of Syria, they took away the main food source that fed those mercenaries. So, Alexius turned to the only people he could think of: The Pope, and his Holy Roman Empire.

This was probably a last resort for Alexius. There was some bad blood between the eastern and western Christianities. The westerners were envious of the riches and the glory that had once been theirs but had crossed the Adriatic into the Byzantine Empire. They also thought that the Greek Christianity was influenced too much by the eastern cultures. Plus, what's with all those icons?! What a bunch of weirdos! But they had an army. So Alexius struck the only chord he had in common with the west. He pleaded in the name of Christ, which connected them and should be put above their petty differences of dogma or doctrine. And, he may have played up the danger the Turks posed to the Holy Land in order to get somebody interested.

When Urban II got the message, he mulled it over carefully. To aid their western brothers would be the right thing to do. But why should he? And more importantly, how could he convince the Frankish knights and princes to buy into helping those weird eastern Christians? The second question was the answer to the first question. Since the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, the enemies of the Normans and the Franks had either been conquered or retired. The Viking age was at an end. The barbarians had assimilated into western culture. Now Urban had on his hands some restless knights who knew how to fight and kill and little more. They were starting to cause some domestic trouble since they had no other outlet for their violence. And in wondering what to do with the knights, Urban schemed up a scheme so schemious that it both succeeded and backfired.

Here was the plan: Urban was going to answer Alexius's distress call. He would ask his knights and princes to make the perilous journey across land and sea to the Holy Land because God had asked them to protect it from the blasphemous Saracens. As incentives, the Church vowed to protect his land and family, absolve his debts, exempt him from taxes, and one other thing. . .what was it? . . . oh yea! Forgive his sins!! So the Pope, the successor St. Peter, the head of the Church, who in part was trying to busy some of the unruly nobility, took it upon himself to say, "Go on this trip, fight some Muslims, and everything you've done wrong will be forgiven and your spot in heaven will be guaranteed." Well, Urban got his army, but from the wrong group of people. This forgiveness, paired with the promise of alleviated debt, caught fire among the poor, the farmers and tradesmen. Often called the People's Crusade, the pilgrimage was not what Urban had in mind.

The people were duped, to be sure. Urban's manipulative plan that wasn't even meant for them took the lower class by storm. They were baited by the promises of the Church and hooked into a religious zeal that took them on a brutal trek that left many people dead in their wake. To top it off, the pesky Frankish knights that he wanted out of town stayed put. What a tremendous blooper! The poor folks had little choice but to trust in what the Church told them. And they took Jesus's words at face value and dropped everything immediately to take part in the fight against evil. So along the way, they had to pillage and plunder in order to finance the 2,000 mile journey to the Promised Land. The Christians came upon some Jews, who to the uneducated poor Christian, were indistinguishable from the Muslims, and slaughtered whole communities, stealing their food and other goods. Jewish communities all throughout Germany were brutally put to the sword as the Crusaders crossed the empire. Finally, the main force led by Peter the Hermit arrived at Constantinople. They were ordered to wait for the rest of the pilgrims to arrive before meeting the Saracens in battle, but the forces got a little too restless. They were quickly defeated by a Turkish army and the People's Crusade ended on October 21, 1096.

It was this initial bloody blunder of Peter the Hermit and his dingaling followers that seemed to rouse the knights and the armies that Urban had originally tried to put together. Whether out of the same religious zeal or, in the case of the Normans, a taste of adventure and the possibility of land or crown, the men poured into the Byzantine Empire, though Alexius made sure the armies stayed outside of the city walls of Constantinople. He didn't want those unruly Frankish knights doing anything uncouth on his turf! And after a few skirmishes, held together by the papal legate Adhemar of Le Puy, the second wave of Crusaders took Antioch and soon after, Jerusalem. But the Turkish defeat had stirred the Muslim world. And after the plague took Adhemar, the internal competitions and strife began to eat away at the Christian army.

So you see, history fans. Urban II, like many religious figures, convinced his followers to die with a promise of everlasting life. Unlike his contemporaries, though, Urban sparked an international blood bath and took advantage of every god-fearing man, be it Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Whether he intended this or not, we will probably never know. It doesn't even matter. We at History Books give Urban II the biggest thumbs down we can muster.

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