Christians, Muslims and Conflicts Up to the First Crusade


20 July 802, the first elephant north of the Alps mentioned in a document since antiquity arrived as a gift from Harun al-Rashid at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

How do ideas change? The shift can be abrupt or gradual; it can affect one individual or a nation. Sometimes, an old idea is merely re-stated and presented in a new way, adapted to fit a new time. Sometimes, it is deliberately distorted and given meanings it was never intended to have. Deeply-held convictions, such as religious beliefs, are no exception. A change in religious outlook may begin with one individual and spread, slowly or rapidly to a larger group. Indeed, this is how most religions are born. Those religious ideas themselves will inevitably change in response to world events and outside influences; they may die out if they fail to do so. Sometimes the changes are so drastic as to seem totally at odds with the original intentions of the early days of a belief. The medieval Christian embrace of the preaching of war against unbelievers as a penitential and sanctified act is one of the more remarkable examples of this shift.

Western attitudes toward Islam began to change dramatically during the second half of the eleventh century and into the beginning of the twelfth. Prior to this time, there had been less consideration of Christendom’s rival, except at the frontiers where the two faiths met and interacted, particularly in Spain and Italy. Such events as the Spanish Martyrs’ Movement notwithstanding, the primary resistance to Islam by the West was military rather than theological, and in these cases there was seldom any attempt to justify such actions with religious reasons. Attempts at conversion and ideological debate were also minimal. It is even worth noting that the Carolingian kings had diplomatic relations with Islamic rulers in the East from the eighth century. Pippin the Short (d. 768) sent ambassadors to al-Mansur in 765, the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, and received them in return. His son Charlemagne was well known for massacring the pagan Saxons who refused to convert to Christianity, and yet was famed for his good relations with the fifth Abbasid caliph, Harun ar-Rashid (of Arabian Nights fame), who sent to Charlemagne, among many other fine gifts, and elephant named Abul-Abbas in 797. Charlemagne also discussed how to achieve peace with Moorish ambassadors from Spain, mindful of his grandfather’s military victory.

The common European name for Muslims used throughout the Middle Ages, “Saracen,” had an ancient history. Originally used by Greco-Roman writers to describe the peoples who lived in Arabia, it came to be synonymous in the medieval mind with those of the Islamic faith, and to have negative connotations. Its first western appearance was in the seventh century in the Merovingian Chronicle of Fredegar, which refers to the Saracens as being descended from Ishmael, Abraham’s son via his wife’s maid Hagar; this is believed in Islamic tradition, as well, and shows that the Chronicle was taking some information from an accurate source. They are called both Agarenes (from Hagar), and Saracens. Medieval Christians, however, believed that the term was evidence of how the Arabs lied about themselves, desiring to be seen as children of Sarah, rather than as children of a slave, Hagar. As a label, it stuck, because it signified that they were people of a lie, and lived in deceit.

Initially, Islam was seen less as a unified religious threat to the West, and more as an impressive empire and potential military enemy. Even into the eleventh century, it was often ignored. However, when lands in Spain and Southern Italy began to be recovered from Islamic control through Christian military victories by the middle of that century, the idea gradually formulated that it could be possible to make similar gains of territories lost to Christianity in the Holy Land. This chapter will explore this development in some detail.

The concept coincided with the effects of the “Gregorian” Reform movement, a series of sweeping changes in Church structure and function which were to have repercussions for centuries. These reforms were officially begun under Pope Leo IX at the Council of Rheims in 1049, and ended during the papacy of Calixtus II at the First Lateran Council in 1123. The designation “Gregorian” derives from Pope Gregory VII (1073–85), its most enthusiastic supporter, and is now generally not used. Three of the main issues involved were the introduction of the concept of a “papal monarchy,” that is, Church unity through absolute adherence to the pope, even from the Holy Roman Emperor; the liberation of the Church from secular influence and control (a long-standing thorn in the side of Church officials); and the idea that the priesthood was separate from and superior to the laity in Christian society. All of these, of course, delivered tremendous political advantages and power to the Church.

The third issue led to the concept of the nature of Ecclesia, that is, “the Church,” being changed as well. It had first been developed by the Carolingians (eighth to tenth centuries) and was defined by the view that the emperor and the pope were the “supreme officials of two parallel hierarchies, one clerical and one lay.” The reformers altered this, assuming that Ecclesia would thereafter consist only of the clergy. The laity would have no leading role, but were still seen as a vital part of Christianitas, the Christian community. This was a clear sign of the developing new attitude; the Church and its officials wanted to remove themselves from the shackles of Imperial and secular power, while at the same time recognizing that theirs was in effect a symbiotic relationship. The Church needed the laity for many duties, even if it desired to assume more power over them. From this, new ideas developed that would allow for the papacy to achieve the powers it sought and yet not alienate the people.

The crusading movement that ended the eleventh century was one such means of achieving this aim. In fact, the notion of an armed pilgrimage was the perfect solution to the pressing social and spiritual needs of the age. It allowed for the goal of papal preeminence to be realized, united the whole of Europe against a common foe (thus ending many internal conflicts), and helped the laity feel that they were a part of the sweeping changes occurring at the time. It was not, however, a flawless or trouble-free transition. These reforming attitudes sparked off fierce debates about papal authority, absolution of oaths to secular rulers, and clerical positions being obtained through simony, among other issues. Gregory VII, in particular, was heavily criticized by some, and strongly supported by others for his many proposed changes.

The movement was tightly bound up with monasticism and the resurgence of monastic ideals that had begun in the tenth century. The Reform sought to promote monastic values, particularly celibacy, and to impose them on all of the clergy. At the same time, an identity crisis was developing in monastic communities. Many monasteries, most notably Cluny, had acquired vast amounts of wealth from generous benefactors, and in doing so had strayed away from their vows of poverty, a central feature of the monastic revival. New monastic movements began to arise, with the goal of returning to poverty and strict adherence to the Benedictine Rule.

It was from such a desire for reform that the Cistercian Order was created in the early twelfth century, its principal aim being to practice strict observance of the Rule. The Cistercians, under the spiritual leadership of Bernard of Clairvaux, were to have an enormous influence on papal policies in the twelfth century and beyond, especially in the area of crusading and the justification of violence by Christians, not only against non–Christians, but against other Christians as well. Indeed, this was arguably the most important shift in Church teaching that the Reform brought. The Cistercians will be discussed in detail in chapter four.

Another of the goals of the Reform movement went hand-in-hand with the concept of Christian unity within Europe. It sought to make friends of enemies in Europe by turning the attentions of warring factions to a common cause, namely the defense of the poor and oppressed, and of Christendom as a whole. Knights who had previously been engaged in factional and territorial disputes were now encouraged to set aside their differences and turn their swords against those who threatened Christians, first from within, and then more importantly, from without. Slowly, a theology of knighthood and war was developed and encouraged. For example, participation in the reconquest of Spain was justified on the grounds that it was in defense of Spanish Christians. However, the idea of the threat of Islam as a whole had not yet crystallized; the Moors were seen as a military and territorial threat rather than a spiritual one, a view that would soon change.

This new aggressive attitude necessarily posed a contradiction to traditional Christian thought. Indeed, well into the second half of the eleventh century, the Church viewed warfare (and the killing and maiming that came with it) as a severe sin, regardless of how legitimate it might be. It was a sin that required penance. William the Conqueror’s army, for instance, had to perform penance for the invasion of England in 1066, even though they had papal support. Despite this, Christian writings about warfare had already begun to change in the first decades of the eleventh century. Among the most important of the writers who expressed a new outlook was the Benedictine monk from Cluny, Rodulfus Glaber (ca. 980—ca. 1046), whose Historium Libri Quinque provides fascinating insight into the thought-world of the early eleventh century.

Glaber addresses the subject of war frequently, and more significantly, in the writing of Book I of his Historium, he becomes the first writer in Northern European history to discuss Islam. Glaber presents the contradiction that becomes evident in the writings of the later eleventh and twelfth centuries: the support of armed conflict in the cause of righteousness, namely the defense of Christendom, and scorn for the petty wars and rivalries that abounded among the secular knights, nobility and royalty. It is the same contradiction that Bernard of Clairvaux would employ over a century later as his prime justification for the Knights Templar.

In Book IV, for example, Glaber writes approvingly of the Peace of God movement of his time, begun at the Synod of Charroux (ca. 989), with a view to protecting pilgrims and calling a cessation to warfare at certain times of the year, entitling the opening of the section, De pace et habundantia anni millesimi a Passione Domini. In other sections, however, he gives tacit approval to the waging of war for the sake of restoring order.

Glaber’s discussion of Islam is of particular interest. Muslims are first mentioned in Book I, wherein he describes the capture of Mayol, abbot of Cluny (948–94) by the Saracens of La Garde-Freinet (near Saint-Tropez) in 971–2. In addition to the usual praises for Mayol’s sanctity and restraint that one would expect, Glaber relates a remarkable incident that is all the more unusual for its likely accuracy:

Another of the Saracens was smoothing down a piece of wood with a knife, when in his haste he placed his foot upon the man of God’s book; it was the Bible which he always carried with him. When he saw this the saintly man groaned aloud, and certain of the less ferocious Saracens who had seen the incident reprimanded their companion, saying that great prophets should not be so scorned that he should tread their words under his feet. For the Saracens read the Hebrew prophets (or rather, those of the Christians), claiming that what they foretold concerning Jesus Christ, Lord of all, is now fulfilled in the person of Muhammad, one of their people. To support them in their error, they have in their possession a genealogy of their own, similar to that found in the Gospel of St Matthew, […] But theirs says that “Ishmael beget Nebajoth,” and continues with an erroneous fiction, which in deviating from the holy catholic account, strays equally from the truth.

Glaber continues with an account of how the enraged Saracens cut off the foot of the transgressor, to teach him a lesson, and were thus inadvertently the agents of God’s vengeance. This story, while containing an understandable Christian bias and perspective, is notable for its efforts to mention the veneration of the Judeo-Christian prophets by Muslims. The account must therefore certainly be true, since it is of little use as Christian propaganda. The brutality of the punishment was effective in relaying the Saracens’ perceived savagery, but the religious context of the story shows Muslim belief to be much closer to that of Christianity than had been previously known by many. Glaber’s is a remarkably different account from those provided by his contemporaries, Odilo or Syrus, who recount the event with invective and religious propaganda in mind.

Glaber made the effort to relate other accurate and obscure facts concerning the Muslim world. For example, in his account of the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher by the mad Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996–1021), whom he refers to as the Ammirati Babilonis, the Emir of Cairo, Glaber correctly notes that his mother was a Christian woman, but incorrectly attributes the motivations that provoked the Caliph to a Jewish conspiracy. Glaber was also aware of the Aghlabid dynasty of Tunisia. The probable source for this interest and the accuracy of his accounts came from his encounter with a group of Spanish monks whom he met while he was living at Cluny in the early 1030s, dispatched by King Sancho the Great of Navarre. These monks came to the monastery of Cluny in 1032. Indeed, Glaber mentions Spain frequently in his work, such as the defeat of a certain “Motget,” most likely Mujahid ibn ‘Abdullah, king of Denia, whose loss resulted in booty being donated to Cluny.

Spain was to play a key role in the dissemination to Europe of knowledge about Islam, from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, as we shall see in chapter five. This knowledge, however, did not coincide with a desire to understand or tolerate the Muslim faith. Glaber, for example, felt that they must be fought and exterminated as enemies of the Roman Christian faith, and in this view he was no different from the later supporters of the crusade. He was also deeply anti–Jewish in tone, blaming the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher not on the Muslim caliph, but rather on a Jewish plot. According to Glaber, the Jews were the ones who prompted the caliph to persecute Eastern Christians. He said that they claimed that a large throng of Christian pilgrims were really an army coming to attack and take Jerusalem. Given the events of the First Crusade in the late eleventh century, this fiction proved to be astonishingly prophetic.

Glaber was not interested in objective history, and despite his even-handed account of the capture of Mayol, he wanted to promote views which were in support his Church. He was hostile to Islam, Judaism, and any foreign power or ideology which might threaten the Roman Catholic Church and Western Christendom. He equally disliked Byzantium (and by extension, Eastern Orthodoxy), which he blamed for bringing its woes upon itself. In his description of Christian armies liberating Jerusalem, he unknowingly became a predictor of future events; in his account, the army was a lie fabricated by Jews, but it would soon become very real.

Bearing that in mind, there has been considerable debate about the extent to which Glaber’s attitudes and writings “prepared” the latter part of his century for the idea of the crusade. Indeed, many theologians looked back to his writings and drew inspiration from the notion of war being acceptable in defense of the just, but not merely for its own sake. This seemed to be an adequate solution to the problem of how Christians should approach war, though it was not a new theology. St. Augustine had commented on the subject centuries before, which will be detailed in chapter three.

Glaber’s ideas do not seem to be completely representative of the general outlook of Cluny, however. Cluny was still primarily focused on the next life, that is, on the salvation of the soul, and the retreat from the concerns of this world. It was not involved in developing theologies of war and the duty to fight infidels, though it certainly gave its support to various Spanish efforts. It would be better to say that Glaber described several movements and attitudes of his time which later churchmen drew upon to justify their policies, rather than being the impetus for those policies himself. The critical link between war and pilgrimage had not yet been made in Glaber’s time, though things were changing.

A close contemporary of Glaber’s, was Adémar of Chabannes (ca. 989–1034), a monk associated with both St. Martial and Angoulême in central and south-west France. He was an early writer to connect Islam with heresy, believing like Glaber that Hakim’s destruction of the Holy Sepulcher had been part of a Jewish-Muslim conspiracy to destroy Christendom, but adding that this was a prelude to the last days (when in reality, it may have been due to his mental state, and a desire to “prove” his Muslim faith since his mother was a Christian). Adémar was aware of Islamic monotheism, but that made him spurn the faith all the more, because it rejected Trinitarian doctrine, and thus Church teaching. While he was obsessed with this potent mixture of heresy and apocalypse, and all of the dangers they represented, Adémar was also implicated in a rather elaborate forgery. He embraced and embellished popular stories of how the historical Martial had been one of Christ’s original apostles, forging a Life of the man, purportedly written by his successor. This may have been done in the hopes of increasing pilgrimage to St. Martial abbey, and the income it would bring. Eventually, his fraud was discovered, but he persisted, going so far as to invent a Church council proclaiming the truth of Martial’s apostolic identity. Amazingly, he seems to have escaped from all of this with little punishment; the polemicist and the forger existed side-by-side. He does stand as a remarkable early example of a Christian writer who understood Islam to be different than a pagan religion, but his concern was combating this heresy, not war or pilgrimage.

A few decades later, in 1053, Pope Leo IX made an unusual offer to German soldiers fighting under his command. If they would do battle against the Normans of southern Italy, he would grant them absolution for their sins. This was not a pilgrimage, but the experiences of actual pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land were beginning to foreshadow later events.

Indeed, an important episode in the history of eleventh-century pilgrimage can be found in an incident in 1065 involving a bishop named Gunther of Bamberg, who was traveling with a very large group of German pilgrims to the Holy Land. The group had faced harassment from the Turks at various points, at least according to the chronicler Lambert, of the abbey of Hersfeld near Thuringia, who wrote of the pilgrimage sometime after 1077. The affair shows an open hostility towards Muslims on the part of the pilgrims, and in this particular case, a willingness to depart from the normal pilgrim practice of non-violence. Despite its confrontational nature, it almost borders on the comic. There are different versions of events, of course, no doubt embellished like any good story. Lambert records a skirmish wherein the pilgrims were attacked by a group of Turkish marauders (probably Seljuks looking for a fight with the Egyptian Fatimids, testing their weaknesses, and such), and took refuge behind the walls of an old town near Rama in Palestine on Good Friday. For three days they held out against assault, and managed to take some prisoners, but they were low on supplies and were fast losing strength. They decided to buy their way out of it, and invited some of the Turkish soldiers in to discuss the matter, but the Turks had no intention of letting the pilgrims escape with their lives. Once inside, a skirmish broke out, and in the midst of it, an unusual event occurred:

During the fighting, one of the Saracen leaders seized the piece of cloth which he wore around his head after the custom of his race, and made it into a lasso which he threw around Bishop Gunther’s neck. The bishop was not prepared to put up with such a disgrace and gave his assailant a hefty blow in the face which sent him sprawling to the ground. As the man fell, the bishop shouted at him that he would pay him back for his impiety in having the audacity to raise his unclean, idolatrous hands against a priest of Christ.

This unexpected action inspired the rest of the Christians, who immediately seized the attacker and bound him tightly, and then fell upon the others and did the same. They threatened to kill them if the Turkish forces did not retreat, which they were now obliged to do, following the intervention of a small Egyptian Fatimid army (the enemies of the besiegers), who set to fighting them. After this, the pilgrims were able to continue their journey to Jerusalem.

This remarkable episode shows the readiness with which Christians were willing to use force to defend themselves, an action which by the strict Christian teaching contained in the Sermon on the Mount, was forbidden. Yet the monk Lambert extols them for their heroism, and at Jerusalem he records that they gave thanks to God for the victory and safe journey. There is no hint of repentance for the use of force here, or that their actions violated Christian teachings about non-violence. Furthermore, Lambert noted that Gunther “was a man of high moral and spiritual standing and well-endowed with worldly goods.”

This is an astonishing change of thought regarding the idea of pilgrimage. It was obvious that pilgrims anywhere, whether to Santiago, Rome, or Jerusalem, faced dangers from bandits, highwaymen, and other foes. The Church had sought to minimize this when it declared times of peace within Europe, but obviously that would have no bearing on the lands in the East, or on the criminally-minded. Indeed, the need to protect pilgrims would be offered as the chief reason for the creation of the Knights Templar in the early twelfth century.


2 thoughts on “Christians, Muslims and Conflicts Up to the First Crusade

  1. There is little mention of the enslavement of the Spanish and Christian clans in Spain, but for the for some brave sects in the Pyrenees in the North. The Reconquista was violent, but was made necessary to take their lands back from the rulers from Northern Africa. Christians who would not convert to Islam risked death or enslavement. No doubt, any war in the name of religion is wrong.
    However, war in defense of religion may be another matter..


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