The army that fought its way into the Holy Land and captured the city of Jerusalem was composed of individuals from all walks of life. Despite what, at first glance, appears to be a common cause uniting the different societal castes, the real motives among these pilgrims were much more complicated. Unlike the commoners, the European nobility who led and took part in this endeavor had much to gain – land, titles, plunder, and personal glory. It is far too easy to assume that this was their sole motivation, however, and, although many noblemen did gain much from the First Crusade, they were still dedicated to the spiritual ideals that drove the crusaders onward.
Fulcher of Chartres’ Chronicle – which was written for the European elite and focuses on the exploits of the crusade leaders – should be ample indication that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that God was with the Christians in their great endeavor. Fulcher was typical of many medieval European chroniclers in that he tended to see miraculous omens and divine interference in every event. Consider his description of the circumstances surrounding the fall of Antioch: “Our Lord appeared to a certain Turk, chosen beforehand by His grace, and said to him: ‘Arise, thou who sleepest! I command thee to return the city to the Christians’” (75). In Fulcher’s mind (and in the minds of the noblemen, as well), the decision of this Turk to permit the Christians into the city could only be the result of God’s direct aid. That the rallying cry of the victorious besiegers was “God wills it” is more evidence that the crusade was, at its core, seen as a strictly holy endeavor. Compare this, however, to the far more rational explanation offered by the Muslim chronicler, Ibn al-Qalanisi: “The report arrived that certain of the men of Antioch … had entered into a conspiracy against Antioch and had come to an agreement with the Franks … because of some ill-usage and confiscations which they had formerly suffered at [the emir’s] hands” (44). In truth, Ibn al-Qalanisi’s clinical portrayal of the war contrasts starkly with Fulcher’s religiosity. It is this religiosity, however, that shows that Fulcher and his fellow crusaders put great conviction in their belief that their war against the Turks was truly God’s will.
The severe hardships suffered by the crusaders – especially those experienced during the Turkish counter-siege of Antioch – are also indicative of the genuine spirituality of the knights and nobles. Throughout Fulcher’s Chronicle, the leaders of the pilgrimage are given numerous opportunities to count their victories, cut their losses, and depart, and (with the notable exception of Stephen of Blois) all remain, even during times of starvation and defeat. The noblemen were not exempt from the suffering, either: “our knights had been forced to become footmen, weak and helpless” (Fulcher 78). Ibn al-Qalanisi’s Chronicle concurs with Fulcher’s description of the Franks as being reduced to the “extremity of weakness” (46). Even as they starved, lost horses, and were forced to pawn their armor for food, the noblemen remained focused on the ultimate prize of Jerusalem.
It is too easy to succumb to cynicism when considering the motives behind the crusading movement. To the modern mind, the mentality of the medieval European can be difficult to fathom. While it is true that the leaders and aristocrats who survived the First Crusade were ultimately enriched by their victory, we cannot deny their genuine dedication to God and the Church.