Crusades and Crusadors

How the Roman Church Responded to Heretics and Infidels

It is interesting that the Roman church considered anything a threat to its power.  After all, by the 11th century it was an extraordinarily powerful institution; among all European regions, Spain was the only one where Christians were not in the majority.  However, it is evident that people of the time were easily persuaded in matters of faith.  For example, in the pre-Seljuk era Muslims in the region now referred to as the Middle East tolerated Christians, and yet many Christians chose to convert to Islam.  This supports the theory that faith is a function of the culture in which a person lives, and the society in which the person operates.  Following this thought to a reasonable outcome, one can conclude that the Roman church was concerned about Islam encroaching on Christian territory; under Muslim rule, the Church would clearly understand that Islam would take root and spread throughout Europe. 

This may explain the urgency with which Pope Innocent III called Orthodox Christians, today known as Catholics, into battle against the Seljuk Turks. The pope urged European men to take up the cross, which meant waging a war based on their Christian convictions, against the infidel Turks, and did so with great force and eloquence.  Promising great rewards of both spiritual and material significance in exchange for commitment to this military cause, this impassioned call to arms included thinly-disguised threats against those who were physically able to fight, but chose not to participate; these men, the pope said, would be responsible for the failure of the truth to prevail over the evil that had captured Jerusalem. The Church was greatly gifted in public relations, and capable of arousing emotions including fear.The threat of heresy also concerned the pope.  Heretics such as the Cathars and Waldensians lived near and interacted with Orthodox Christians, and were critical of the pope and the Church hierarchy.  Fearing that these heretical beliefs would spread through Christendom, the Church sent emissaries to persuade heretics to convert; failing this, the Church put pressure on rulers of the regions in which heretics resided to rid these areas of this threat.  When some rulers resisted the Church, the pope finally called for a war against heretics and encouraged Orthodox Christians to eradicate this threat by promising the same salvation and riches as promised to those fighting infidels.

Answering the Pope’s Call

Many European people, including prominent nobles, took up the pope’s cause against infidels with great enthusiasm.  They formed or joined armies and, as a symbol of unity with the Church, sewed patches in the form of a cross on their garments.  Leaving behind familes and property, these men travelled hundreds of miles across challenging territory to battle an enemy never before confronted.  The promises of eternal salvation and the potential to seize treasure were enticing lures; likewise, the barely concealed threat of damnation for those who chose not to support the Church in its cause a deterrent against opting out.

The logistical challenges were great, requiring a great deal of coordination.  Nobles not only needed to recruit men for their armies, they also had to make arrangements for the care of their property during what would be a prolonged absence.  Wives and children were compelled to assume different roles and new responsibilities in maintaining property and meeting the family’s financial obligations, and were left without their primary protector.  Concerns about their domestic situation must have weighed heavily on the minds of landowners who joined the Church’s cause.

The domestic challenges confronted by those without property were equally daunting.  Lacking the financial resources to care for their families while out of the region, these men were faced with the potential of losing their lives in battle, potentially impoverishing their families.  The lure of treasure would certainly have been an especially enticing incentive to take such a risk.

Once domestic arrangments had been made, men who took the cross then needed to prepare for the journey to the Holy Land.  Without modern transportation conveniences, travel time was long and the trek uncomfortable and risky.  Transporting food, adequate clothing and weapons, and money to replenish supplies during the journey, required great coordination.  Those with limited financial resources would have been compelled to join a nobleman’s army in order to have confidence that they would survive; even so, the journey itself took a great toll on men, who died of various illnesses, some of which were likely caused by poor nutrition.

After all these preparations, the army confronted challenges in executing their journey, and had only battles ahead.  Lacking reliable means of communicating with brother armies as well as a unified military strategy, the armies occasionally detoured to attack heretic strongholds and seize their goods – which included livestock, for the purpose of feeding the troops.

Domestically, it appeared that the prospect of battling heretics was not as attractive to many Orthodox Christians, despite the pope’s assurances of salvation and prosperity.  And it is easy to understand the reason for this hesitance:  heretics frequently lived side by side with Orthodox Christians, and some of the heretical groups such as Cathars were pacifists.  Battling those who were neighbors and who would possibly fail to defend themselves was probably distasteful to many.  Still, the pope was successful in inspiring, and sometimes, intimidating, prominent people from the areas in which heretics were settled to battle.  Nobles in the Southern regions of France, for example, were often resistent at first, then persuaded to rout heresy after receiving threats of excommunication.

Infidels and Heretics

An infidel is literally defined as an unbeliever.  To a Christian, this would have been anyone who is not a Christian, and to a Muslim this would have been anyone who did not practice Islam.   An infidel is someone who doesn’t believe in deity or deities described by your religion.  In other words, the specific label is applied in a relative, not absolute, sense.

A heretic is someone who generally identifies with the religious beliefs, but whose interpretation and practice of the religion is outside the acceptable norm.  For example, to Orthodox Christians, who subscribed to the teachings of the Roman church, Cathars were heretics; to Shi’a Muslims, Sunni Muslims were heretics.  Again, the label is applied to an individual or group in a relative, not absolute, sense.

The Roman church identified both heretics and infidels as enemies of the Church, and intended to triumph over both groups.  But the initial attempts to address these problems varied based on the group; the Pope sent emissaries to heretical groups in an effort to persuade these lost souls to mend their ways and rejoin the flock of believers.  Because a large proportion of heretics lived near and within the political regions under heavy Church influence, these attempts were convenient and an opportunity to publicly demonstrate its commitment to Christ’s pacifist teachings.

In contrast, infidels resided largely outside of the Church’s geographical sphere of influence.  The Christians in these areas were distinctly a religious minority, generally residing in discrete, isolated groups.  The Church addressed the problem of infidels as a threat to its goal of geographic dominance, and instead of playing the role of Christ’s emmissary assumed the armor of war.  When infidel Seljuk Turks became a threat to Byzantium, the Church took the opportunity to declare war against these aggressors, and called men from across Europe to join in regaining control of the Holy Land.

The Church did enjoin sanctions against both individuals identified as heretics and those identified as infidels.  Christians were instructed that any property owned by either heretics or infidels could be rightly seized by those who followed the Pope’s teachings.   And, ultimately, the Church became less interested in converting heretics, and more enamored with the idea of eliminating them.

For their part, the people who answered Pope Innocent III’s call to arms treated infidels and heretics similarly.  Several accounts recorded by scribes and nobles detail the travels of crusading armies, which included violent encounters with heretics; once identified, those who had taken up the Pope’s cause were eager to exercise their might against an enemy.  This was no accident, as the cost of transporting numerous troops and the requisite supplies was an enormous burden even for the wealthy, so treasure seized after a successful battle was welcome reward for the trouble of travelling the long distance to the Holy Land.

Priciples During the High Middle Ages

While the noblemen who responded to the Pope’s call to arms professed their firm commitment to supporting the Church, the promise of treasure was certainly an important consideration when making the decision as to whether or not they would join the fight and was, in fact, frequently mentioned in crusader chronicles and letters.  Further, letters and chronicles from the time display a trend toward glorifying the deeds of the soldiers.  And during an era marked by great violence, illiteracy, and poor medical care, when the transcience of life was painfully apparent every day, the laity were concerned about attaining salvation in order to secure comfort in the afterlife. Records from the crusades, then, reveal some important principals of the era: securing a place in heaven, gaining prosperity, and establishing an impressive reputation.

The High Middle Ages were a time of great disparity between wealthy and poor, and though a small middle class was emerging by the eleventh century, life was filled with financial uncertainty.  Among commoners, both men and women worked very long hours for little compensation, and often barely made due with these paltry earnings. 

Wealthy nobles also experienced financial challenges; maintaining large households which included servants, and ensuring that the less prosperous members of the feif were provided for was a burden.  Meeting their financial obligations was not merely a matter of survival in the material sense, it also maintained the noble’s reputation as a man of wealth and wisdom. 

In such an uncertain time, the uneducated were frequently not exposed to the work of great thinkers.  Their interaction with educated persons was usually limited to some fortunate nobles, and to the Church.  As a consequence, the Church was extraordinarily influential over the lives of common people.  The prospect of being excommunicated would have been a frightening possibility to the laity, who had been convinced by priests and other Church orators that excommunication would result in an eternity in hell.

Even to those who had been fortunate enough to undertake formal education, the aforesaid uncertainty of everyday life underscored the possibility and, in fact, statistical likelihood, of a short life.  This concern for gaining some assurance of a comfortable afterlife was then more urgent than during the present day, when life is more easily extended with adequate medical care.


2 responses

  1. Great paper! I read every word of it and the irony of your link “hysterical history” was not lost on me. The word hysterical has always been associated with women, yet recorded history as we know it has always been about male accomplishment, and males fighting for “geographic dominance”. I liked how your paper gave a peep into what the actual lives of these people were like. I’m sure glad I didn’t live back then!!!

    1. Thanks!

      I’m glad too that I didn’t live in that era. Terrible food, awful smells from poor sanitation, disease, and no hope for a better existence tomorrow than the one experienced today.

      It is darkly amusing to me that the Church presented itself as the arbiter of all things wise and good while sending ignorant poor men to their deaths, thereby impoverishing scads of women and children throughout Europe.

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