Nine hundred and twenty years ago today, on November 19, 1095, a large and important meeting of Catholic Church officials in the city of Clermont, France got underway, with Pope Urban II presiding. Most of the council was fairly mundane, if not exactly routine, church business, such as a series of proposed reforms (the Cluniac Reforms) to monastic practice and the scandalous subject of French King Philip I’s new marriage. But eight days into the conference, on November 27, the Pope gave a speech that was widely publicized in Europe, admonishing good European Christians to come to the aid of the Byzantine Empire which was beleaguered for much of the 11th century by the Seljuk Turks. This speech wound up having an outsized impact on history, as it is generally regarded as the kick-off of the First Crusade, itself only the first in a long round of wars between the Christian and Islamic worlds of the Middle Ages whose legacy of intolerance and bitterness resonates down to the present day.

It would take a blog post (or a book) a lot longer than this one is going to be to explain all the very complicated, conflicting and converging historical and religious factors that converged that chilly November day in France nearly a thousand years ago, and why they led to one of the most infamous and tragic wars in history. It would be really nice to think that the history of the Middle Ages and the Crusades is now so far removed from us as to be ancient, dry-as-dust stuff with little relevance to our modern world, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Friday’s events (November 13, 2015) involving ISIS/Daesh, and even the response in Western countries, have shown that violent fundamentalism or primitive quests for religious domination–a “clash of civilizations,” as some term it–have not subsided in the past 920 years. Thus, in a way, the history of the Crusades is more relevant than ever.

urban ii

Pope Urban II, seen here blessing Catholic saints, is principally known for calling the First Crusade. He did not live to hear the news of the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099.

As important as Pope Urban’s speech was, we’re not certain exactly what he said that day, because we can’t really trust the recorded texts as they’ve come down to us. There are at least five versions, all written years later, and none of which agree. The usual interpretation of the speech is that Pope Urban called upon the Western European Christian powers to band together for a holy crusade to “liberate” Jerusalem from Muslims, who had conquered it from the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century. The impetus for this was an earlier meeting, held in March 1095, between the Pope and an envoy of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. Alexius was begging the Pope for military help against the Seljuk Turks who had been a constant problem for the Byzantines; 24 years earlier the Empire suffered its worst-ever military defeat up until that time at the hands of the Turks, at the Battle of Manzikert.

But it may not be quite that simple. While Urban did call for a crusade–the first in European history–it’s not entirely clear he called for the conquest of Jerusalem. In fact, in one version of the speech he never mentioned Jerusalem at all. Several letters Urban wrote to various European heads of state shortly after the Council of Clermont have survived. They deemphasize Jerusalem as an objective and instead talking about “liberating the eastern churches,” meaning those in Byzantium, principally in Asia Minor, in territories conquered by the Turks since Manzikert in 1071. Furthermore, Urban might not have had the conquest of large amounts of Muslim territory explicitly in mind. The Pope–a Frenchman, his true name was Odo of Châtillon–had come to power in 1088 surrounded by enemies and even an Antipope, a rival claimant to the papal throne. Uniting major European kings in a religious crusade, of which Urban was to be at least the spiritual head, may have been a way of consolidating his own power over the church and his influence in Europe.

fall of jersualem

The sack of Jerusalem in July 1099 by the Crusader army is a war crime that is still not forgotten today.

We may not know exactly what Pope Urban said, but we know the effect of his speech. Over the next few months and years various European noblemen, principally French and German, began to assemble a massive army to march to the Holy Land. Whether Urban intended it to be or not, Jerusalem was the target: the Crusaders intended to capture it and return it to Christian rule. Ironically Byzantium, the empire the Crusade was supposedly called to save, was not involved in the war; after the Crusader army marched through Byzantine territory, Alexius Comnenus refused to participate in the campaign against Jerusalem. In July 1099 the Crusaders captured the city and a horrifying slaughter began–every Jew and Muslim within the city walls was put to death. This unconscionable act of mass killing caused ill-will in the Islamic world that still remains with us today. The apocalyptic, medievalist ideology of ISIS/Daesh in the 21st century views the First Crusade as an opening shot in the assault by the West against Islam, and to hear them tell it you would think that the sack of Jerusalem happened not 900 years ago but yesterday.

Sadly it seems like we haven’t moved as far ahead of our medieval sectarian hatreds and intolerance as we should have in 920 years. The people who flock to join ISIS/Daesh obviously haven’t, and to hear some of the more shrill voices in our own country parrot crude Islamophobic talking points in response, at least a few people in the West haven’t either. We certainly need to understand the deep historical roots of enmity between the West and the Islamic world, but more than that we need to find a way to overcome it. Frankly I wish the day would come when the history of the Crusades is entirely irrelevant to the modern world, and crude medieval fundamentalism exists only in dusty old books. Unfortunately that day isn’t here yet.

The images in this article are all in the public domain.