Wycliffe, John

John Wycliffe, Oxford fellow and theologian.

The Crusades carried out by Western Christendom in the Middle East (there were also Christian crusades within Europe) during the Middle Ages continue to cast a blight over the relationship between the West and the Muslim world to this day. Armies from the West are routinely labelled as crusaders, linking them with the atrocities carried by those soldiers from hundreds of years ago in their religious zeal. Those soldiers were, like the fundamentalist Islamists of today, convinced their actions were saving their souls and putting them on a direct path to salvation and heaven.

Religion was experienced differently by the people of medieval Europe. The majority attended church regularly, and it was a quite different thing than it is today. Congregants were essentially observers while priests and monks conducted the mass in Latin. Some would come to recognize the words, but most did not know what they meant. The Church prohibited Bibles from being printed in the vernacular – they considered they were the only ones capable of understanding it. They interpreted it for the people, who were never supposed to question what they were told. The first Englishman who translated the Bible into the vernacular, John Wyclife, was declared a heretic for his trouble thirty years post-mortem, and his body exhumed and burned at the stake.

Mural from St Thomas's church. It depicts an ale wife doomed to hell for eternity for serving short measures.

Mural from St Thomas’s church in England. It depicts an ale wife hugging a demon, which has led her to serve short measures. As a result she’s doomed to hell for eternity.

Churches looked very different from what most people expect nowadays too. They were a riot of colour – the walls were covered in murals of scenes from the Bible and elsewhere. It was from these scenes that people learned their theology – when you saw pictures of what would happen to you in hell if you sinned every time you went to church, that was very real to you. And that was the medieval experience of religion – it was a very physical thing. They saw the buildings that soared to the heavens and drew their eyes upwards, they looked at the paintings in the churches, they touched relics, and in the ultimate expression of devotion, they went on pilgrimage.

From the eleventh century onwards, there was a growing middle class in Europe. They spent a large part of their increasing income on expressing their devotion, and a big part of that was religious tourism, or pilgrimage. It was a huge business; people constantly criss-crossed Europe, usually in groups like today’s package tours, collecting souvenirs from the places they’d been. The big three were a scallop shell from the shrine of St James of Compostella in Spain, a set of keys from Rome, and a palm leaf from Jerusalem.

Urban II, Pope statue Clermont Ferrand wiki

Statue of Pope Urban II at Clermont-Ferrand, the town where he initially preached the First Crusade. (Source: Wikipedia)

Pilgrimage is the single most important influence on the origin and development of crusade. In fact, without the history of pilgrimage in Western Europe, it is possible the First Crusade would never have happened. Further, even if Urban II had managed to persuade significant numbers of milites to go to the Byzantine emperor’s assistance without preaching it as a pilgrimage, an ongoing tradition is unlikely to have been created. Later, Christians who stayed in the East managed to live relatively peacefully alongside Muslims. However, they had a constant need for military reinforcements and the best way to attract these from the West was to appeal to religious consciences. (Davis, p. 288) Therefore the new arrivals at any time were always fiercely anti-Muslim and the religious fervour of new crusaders from Europe kept up the momentum of holy war in the Holy Land, when it may have been possible to make peace. It was also largely religion that caused the divisions between Western and Eastern Christians, exacerbating the situation. Ultimately, it was partially the link between crusade and pilgrimage that undermined crusade at the end of the thirteenth century.

Komnenos, Alexios I wiki

Byzantine Alexios Komnenos I, from a Greek manuscript. (Source: Wikipedia)

Pope Urban II had something much more modest in mind than what eventuated when he preached what became the First Crusade. (Riley-Smith, p. 14) He received a call for help from the Byzantine emperor, Alexios Komnenus, who was only after a few professional mercenaries to supplement his own troops in his ongoing clashes with the Seljuq Turks. Urban II saw this as a chance to sort out the problem of the French knights who’d been creating havoc in France. His idea was to create a papal army from those knights. However, he and previous popes had previously had only limited success in recruiting milites san Petri, so Urban needed another motivation when he approached them. He struck on pilgrimage.

In recent years, there had been a vast growth in pilgrimage in itself, and as a way to get physically closer to more relics due in part to the growing piety that had arisen as part of the Reform Movement within Catholicism. In particular, the numbers going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the centre of the Christian world and a relic itself, had grown markedly over the previous century. (Webb, MEP, p. 16) To a certain extent, the military classes had felt alienated from the groundswell of piety leading people to humble themselves as penitential pilgrims. There was also still much credence in the theory that pretty much the only people who would make it to heaven were monks. Urban though, as a product of the French nobility himself, knew how to appeal to his people. When he preached what became the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095, he called for an armed pilgrimage, with the significant sweetener of a plenary indulgence. Here was a way the militarized French nobility could serve God without completely humbling themselves in the way penitential pilgrims should, or abandoning their weapons. They could achieve salvation by being themselves. This could not help but appeal to significant numbers of them.

What Urban appears not to have envisaged was that his call to arms would be taken up by men and women from all levels of society, and this was largely due to the part pilgrimage played in the lives of all western European Christians. He had started something that he was unable to stop. Medieval peoples’ understanding of their place in the history of the world needs to be kept in mind here too, as it helps explain why things like penitential pilgrimage were so important. They believed the world was in decline, they were living in the Biblical Last Age, and the End of the World was nigh. (Flanagan, p. 19) The plenary indulgence that went along with participation in the (later First) Crusade would have awakened the desire of many to take part like nothing else could. To have all ones sins forgiven at a time when all people ‘knew’ they were filled with sin and the Day of Judgement was imminent would have been something they had not even dreamed could be possible. From the time of Urban’s sermon at Clermont therefore, crusade and pilgrimage were inextricably intertwined.

Emperor Komnenos was both scared and angry by the crusaders his so-called ally had sent him; they were not what he wanted. They were pillaging his lands and raping and murdering his people long before they even arrived at his capital, secure in the knowledge that they were on a fast track to heaven if anything happened to them. If they felt guilty in the meantime, there were many religious attached to the crusade ready to hear their confessions and bless them afresh.

Crusaders were simply armed pilgrims, as opposed to unarmed pilgrims, and to contemporaries it was only their arms that distinguished them from other peregrini. All aspects of pilgrimage – the vow, indulgence, symbolism, family tradition, reasons for participation, and who took part – were virtually the same in the sub-group of crusaders as they were for all pilgrims. The fact that contemporaries saw little difference between crusaders and other pilgrims meant the development of many aspects of crusade are mirrored in the development of pilgrimage as a whole. There were also several events that kept crusade aligned with pilgrimage. For example, the outstanding success of the First Crusade was inexplicable to people who had little idea of what was going on politically in the Muslim world at the time. Their seemingly impossible victory was from God – he approved of what they were doing and had given them the victory. (Riley-Smith, p. 99) This naturally highlighted the religious reasons for going on crusade. (In fact, completely unbeknown to them, the crusaders simply couldn’t have picked a better time to attack. They got lucky.)


Margery Kempe was an English mystic who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. She was famous for annoying her travelling companions with her constant crying out loud, moaning and writhing on the ground when communing with Jesus. Some tried to get her left behind at several stops while others admired her devotion. She wrote a book about her travels, which is recognized as the first autobiography in English.

Although it is impossible to know what proportion of Western Europe’s medieval population embarked on pilgrimage, it is nevertheless clear that there was a wide awareness of the practice. (Webb, MEP, p. 172) Most of the popular literature available to secular audiences was hagiographies (biographies of saints) and translationes (stories of the making of saints), both of which included numerous examples of miracles related to pilgrims. Travel books were usually accounts of crusades or other pilgrimages, both personal and second-hand. There are also numerous examples in songs and poems such as Chanson d’Antioche.

From the time it was first written in the late thirteenth century, The Golden Legend was the medieval period’s most popular book. (Shinners, p. 178) This collection of almost two hundred saints’ lives along with stories about Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the major Christian feasts, was soon translated from its original Latin into the vernacular throughout Western Europe. (Shinners, p. 178) In fact, it can probably be assumed that knowledge of the stories in The Golden Legend was the norm rather than the exception; Chaucer expected his readers to be familiar with it and following the advent of printing, it was published more often than the Bible for decades.

From the philological evidence it is also possible to make an assumption that contemporaries saw little difference between crusaders and other pilgrims, and that it was the religious aspects of crusade that most appealed. Words, phrases and symbolism conventionally related to monasticism, very quickly became part of the vocabulary used in crusade writings. (Riley-Smith, p. 37) The crusades were “the way of the cross” and “spiritual warfare” while crusaders were “the knighthood of Christ”.

On the other hand, the failure of a separate term to differentiate crusaders from other pilgrims to be established until many generations of them had been fighting in the Holy Land and elsewhere is perhaps the strongest indication that contemporaries considered the differences between them to be negligible. Urban II had directed crusaders to sew a cross on their clothing as a sign of their vow. However, it was not until the late twelfth-century that the term crucesignatus was used with any regularity for crusaders, and in the thirteenth century, crusaders to the Baltic were still being called peregrini. (Webb, MEP, pp. 19-20)

Martyr's palm frond

Medieval pilgrim badge – martyr’s palm frond from Jerusalem (Source: metmuseum.org)

The sewing of a cross on clothing soon became synonymous with any pilgrimage to the Holy Land, not just with the armed crusaders. Those who were not part of a crusade began to sew crosses on their clothing too. These pilgrims clearly saw little difference between themselves and crusaders. A well-documented example of this is St. Raimondo Palmario of Piacenza and his mother, who sewed crosses to their clothing for their pilgrimage in the 1150s, although they had no intention of taking part in any military activity. (Webb, MEP, p. 22) In England, both crusaders and other pilgrims adopted the surname ‘Palmer’ in reference to their visits to the Holy Land of which a palm frond was the standard souvenir.

St James of Compostella replica

Replica of a medieval pilgrim badge from St James of Compostella’s shrine (Source: Lionheart Historical Pewter Replicas)

Other symbols were the same for crusaders as for other pilgrims too. All crusaders took a vow of pilgrimage and as such, their scrips (a type of shoulder bag/wallet) and (walking) staffs were blessed. (Webb, P&P, p. 21) The only difference with crusaders was that their weapons were similarly blessed. The blessing of Richard the Lionheart’s sword before he took part in the Third Crusade in 1190 is a matter of record. (Webb, MEP, p. 22) There is evidence from contemporary sources that the crusaders renewed their oaths while on crusade too. (Riley-Smith, p. 85)

To help us understand that pilgrimage was the main motivation for crusaders, we have to examine some of the conditions the crusaders lived under. At the best of times, a journey to the Holy Land was long, dangerous and filled with privation. Pilgrims suffered in their travels, every day and death was a constant threat. The suffering though was welcomed as a penance; by it, those partaking could feel they were earning their indulgences. This mindset of the value of suffering is evidenced by the meteoric rise of the reform orders like the Cluniacs during this period, which were noted for their austerity. (Leyser, p. 236)

If ordinary pilgrims met with hardship on their journeys, the suffering was much greater for crusaders. While any area might be able to sustain even large numbers of pilgrims travelling through their territory, an army of thousands with war-horses was another matter. Lack of food was endemic and death from starvation was frequent. (Riley-Smith, pp. 66-8) Urban himself recognized that a high level of suffering was likely. His grants of indulgence to departing crusaders call the enterprise a “severe and highly meritorious penance”. (Riley-Smith, p. 27) In Decreta Claromonterisia he says,

Whoever for devotion only, not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance. (Riley-Smith, p. 29)

This plenary indulgence is partly in recognition that the suffering of the crusaders would be so severe it would be enough to serve as penance for any sins committed. (Riley-Smith, p. 28)

As already noted, the crusaders were often literally starving. However, the pilgrimage aspect of their journey was so important to them this didn’t stop them from undertaking frequent ritual fasts. During the First Crusade, they fasted on such occasions as their departure from Nicaea, before they raised the siege of ‘Arqah, after an earthquake on 30 December 1097, before the battle of Antioch, before an ordeal undertaken by Peter Bartholomew, and before their procession around Jerusalem. (Riley-Smith, p. 85)

Fresco friar Angelico Dom Mon San Marco Florence c1440

Fresco in the Dominican Monastery in San Marco, Florence showing the side of Jesus being pierced by a lance. Painted c. 1440 by Friar Angelico. (Source: Wikipedia)

In addition to the above, there are other features of pilgrimage in crusade exemplified by those on the First Crusade. Raymond Aguilers and Fulcher of Chartres both reported that “… from the time the crusade reached Jerusalem, parties of crusaders made solemn visits to the Jordan, where they underwent a ritual re-baptism.” (Riley-Smith, pp. 84-5) The collection of relics of all kinds by crusaders is well known too. From the time of the First Crusade there was a flood of relics from the Holy Land to Western Europe, creating some significant rises and falls in the popularity of different saints. Particularly renowned are the purported discoveries of the Holy Lance and True Cross by the first crusaders, both of which were purported to protect those around them from harm during battle. (Riley-Smith, pp 93-8)

However, it was in prayer and other worship that the pilgrimage aspects of crusade are most obvious. (Riley-Smith, p. 84) Masses were said regularly, with extras before every important event, particularly those where lives were at risk. All of the known chroniclers also report the churchmen taking confession at these times. (Riley-Smith, pp.82-3)

The [first] crusade struck contemporaries . . . as being like a military monastery on the move, constantly at prayer: Raymond of Aguilers twice compared the army in battle order to a church procession. (Riley-Smith, p. 84)

The churchmen also played an active role in all military engagements, as appropriate to their calling; they stood in their vestments, praying aloud, during all conflicts. Ralph of Caen reported that when a siege tower got stuck during the siege of Jerusalem (First Crusade), it was the prayers of the priests that got it moving again. (Riley-Smith, p. 84)

As can be seen, pilgrimage played a vital role in the lives of crusaders. As the Middle Ages progressed peoples’ religious foci moved more towards relics and images and away from pilgrimage; at the same time, enthusiasm for crusade began to wane. As Protestantism became more widespread, its forbidding of pilgrimage reduced crusade to the point it was no longer part of the culture in Protestant countries. There is not enough space here to fully discuss that the motivation for most people in going on crusade was religious, but all the more recent scholarship on the subject comes to this conclusion. Religion was intrinsic to the nature of all medieval people; it was the physicality of medieval peoples’ expression of their faith that led to the popularity of practices like pilgrimage; it was the popularity of pilgrimage that turned Urban II’s vision of a papal army to free the Holy Land into the ongoing phenomenon of Crusade.


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Riley-Smith, Jonathan, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading. London: Athlone, 1993. (All references from this book.)

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Shinners, John (ed.), Medieval Popular Religion: A Reader. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997.

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Webb, Diana, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West. London, IB Tauris, 1999.


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