Why the War for the Holy Land Turned into a Total Failure for Christians: The Poor Man's Crusade

Why the War for the Holy Land Turned into a Total Failure for Christians: The Poor Man's Crusade

The fact that the Holy Land ended up in the hands of the Saracens greatly disturbed the Catholic Church.

In 1096, Pope Urban II called all Christians to go on a crusade.

At the time, he had no idea what a catastrophe this affair would turn into.

Awaiting punishment from heaven

In 1096 the Council of Clermont took place. It went down in history thanks to the speech of Pope Urban II, who directly declared that the Holy Land must be freed from all infidels. The key point of this speech was that not only Muslims but followers of all other religions fell under papal “repression”.

Because of his words, the fragile peace in the West collapsed. The Christians decided that they must first deal with all the inhabitants of Europe who had different religious views. The clergy supported the idea.

Pope Urban II hoped that the Europeans would set out to defeat the Saracens by the fall of 1096. But he miscalculated. After the Pope’s impassioned speech, thousands decided that he must go to battle immediately.

The first official crusade involved the poorest of the poor: disenfranchised peasants and knights. Both the former and the latter initially saw the distant lands as an opportunity to improve their financial situation, and Urban II’s speech was only a pretext.

The end of the 11th century was a difficult one for Europe. Drought and famine wreaked havoc. The plague was the crowning glory of all suffering. Preachers from all corners of the world talked endlessly about the end of the world and God’s punishment. Some told stories about horsemen of the apocalypse. In general, the inhabitants of Europe were preparing for the worst. The mass hysteria culminated in a lunar eclipse and, shortly thereafter, a meteor shower.

Unexpectedly, the clergy intervened. They explained both natural phenomena as “divine signs”, which they interpreted as God’s desire for all Christians to unite and travel to the East to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims.

Scholars and historians still disagree about the number of people who took part in the First Crusade. According to various sources, there may have been around 300,000 poor crusaders. Not only men but also women and even children went to fight against the infidels.

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The huge and motley army needed someone to lead it. The leader was formal – Urban II, but he did not take part in the battle. Thus, the role of commander fell to Pierre de Amiens, nicknamed the Hermit. He was known as a hermit monk who led a modest and unimportant life before the Council of Clermont.


The Pope’s speech encouraged Pierre, and he began to visit towns and villages in northern France and Flanders to promote the Pope’s words. Pierre’s claims were so convincing that the tired and poor inhabitants of Europe almost saw him as a prophet of God.

Moreover, to manipulate them even more, Pierre told the people about a vision in which God called him to go to the East.

People believed Pierre. Thus he became the recognized leader of the crusade. Under his leadership gathered a huge crowd, but unarmed and untrained, most of them only dreaming of getting rich. Pierre was, of course, aware of this, but he closed his eyes. He had no choice.

Since Pierre knew only words, not military strategies, he needed a military assistant. He quickly found one in the French knight Walter.

The “Storm” in Europe

wikipedia.orgPublic Domain

The army of the poor set out for Jerusalem. Apart from the lack of adequate weapons, the army had another serious problem – an acute shortage of supplies. The truth was that poor people simply did not have enough money for food.

But the crusaders quickly found a way out. They simply started pillaging all the villages and towns that came their way. Of course, at first the warriors tried to “convince” the mayors to allocate funds for “God’s work”, but when they refused, force was resorted to. The Crusaders devastated entire villages, left behind numerous victims, and the religion of the victims played no part in this disaster.

Crusade of the Poor,CC BY-SA 4.0

It should be noted that this inter-ethnic conflict was being prepared for a long time. A year before Urban II’s speech in France, small skirmishes degenerated into a full-blown confrontation. The Christians were especially violent with the Jewish communities in the big cities.

But the clergy somehow managed to reconcile the people. But with the Poor Man’s Crusade (also called the Chalice Crusade), things were different. The Christians, remembering the Pope’s words about war with all infidels, destroyed everything in their path. Jews and Muslims were the main enemies of the Crusaders.

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The fiercest battles took place in France and Germany. And the crusaders were supported by rich and influential people.

The Jews were robbed and killed without the slightest remorse. Some crusaders put the Jews in front of a choice: either accept Christianity or be executed.

Interesting fact: contemporaries of the First Crusade remembered that the hatred of the Jews was not due to religious differences at all. The main reason was their wealth. Thousands of needy and starving peasants saw in the Jews a chance to live a life without poverty. Many Jews had a lot of money. The same was not true for Catholics. So through the crusade, the poor could get their revenge. Class hatred was stronger than anything else. In addition, among the crusaders there were many who took loans from the Jews themselves. Consequently, a single blow with a club or knife could “wipe out” debts.

Of course, the Jews tried to pay them to keep them alive. But the more money they gave, the more the crusaders demanded.

All of Western Europe was affected by the hatred of the Crusaders. No one knows how many Jews they killed. Even the Jewish chroniclers were confused about the numbers.

Slowly but surely, the Christians made their way east. On their way were the lands of Hungary. King Kalman I the Scribe was aware that the arrival of the Crusaders would only bring trouble and destruction to his country.

So he sent his knights to meet them. The king asked for peace, promising that otherwise the crusaders would have to face his knights. The Crusaders agreed, but did not meet Kalman I the Scribe’s conditions.

Several Christian gangs began looting and burning Hungarian villages.

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Kalman I the Scribe reacted quickly – his knights defeated the Crusaders. But even so, the French knight Walter and the crusaders reached Constantinople.

The Struggle for the Holy Land: A Tragic End

wikipedia.orgPublic Domain

In the fall of 1096, an army of crusaders encamped before the walls of Constantinople. It is estimated that more than 150,000 people gathered outside the Byzantine capital. But they could not be called an army. Fatigue and anger were at their peak.

The situation at the walls of Constantinople was becoming tense. The peasants not only raided the surrounding villages, but also entered the city. They looted the merchants’ quarters, desecrated churches.

The Crusaders set up camp near the town of Civitot. Pierre and the French knight Walter tried to unite the crusader army into one group to set off to liberate the Holy Land, but they failed.

Every day people died of hunger and fatigue. Thus, the army ended up being made up of gangs of robbers and criminals.

Gradually, the Crusaders reached Muslim lands, where they disappeared without a trace. It turned out that fighting the Saracens was no easy task. The Muslims defeated the Crusaders within minutes. Almost all the crusaders were killed. This was the sad end of the Poor Man’s Crusade.

Pierre de Amiens did not take part in the battle of the Crusaders with the Muslims. He stayed in Civitot. When he learned of his defeat, he returned to Europe. He settled in the north of France, founded a monastery, and never again stirred the minds of ordinary people with his sermons.

Regarding this crusade, there is a theory that Urban II did not necessarily want the Holy Land to be freed from all infidels. Some historians believe that he sent hundreds of thousands of poor people to certain death in order to “cleanse” Europe. There were so many beggars that they could cause mass riots due to poverty. Thus, they were removed under the pretext of good intentions.

Read also: The life of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome

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