The Crusades – What motivated people to “Take the Cross”?

This is a research essay. It may be a bit boring to read through, so I’ll blog about it separately, later.



The study of motivations of the crusaders represents not only an interesting subject, but one which has arguably affected the modern world’s tensions between Islam and the West, Islam and Christianity, and Judaism and Christianity. The views which have given rise to much of that tension have since been seriously questioned, with alternative views now gaining the ascendency.the most significant motivation for those who responded to the crusading call was their quest for salvation, expressed as “forgiveness” and “remission” by the church, and offered in the form of the Indulgence.

This paper largely follows the modern scholarly view, exposing the limitations of the previously held theories of vulgar, or at least, “mundane” motivations for the crusaders. Although the scholars’ shift back towards the primacy of “religious” motivations is agreed, one of the techniques used to support the shift, the study of “monastic charters”, is questioned, because although the charters are found to reveal primarily religious motives for the crusaders, this paper observes that it should be expected to be so, since they are church documents.

Nevertheless, the continuous development of the “Indulgence” doctrine, the theory of which became a church institution as it developed through the preaching of the crusades, is viewed as the best evidence that, at the very least, the church saw that the Indulgence was invoking the desired response, because the preaching did not develop commensurately strong themes associated with plunder, land, or other more worldly motivations.

Since the central benefit of the Indulgence was always perceived by the people to be “a remission of all punishment due for sin, an assurance of direct entry into heaven”, according to Riley-Smith, which equates to “salvation”, it is fair to view all other motivations as being secondary to this one.


A Fresh Approach

The modern Islamic view of the crusades largely has been shaped by Western scholarship of the Nineteenth Century, attributing base motivations to the church and to the crusaders of the Eleventh century and beyond.1 More recent scholarship has found the central motivation of crusaders to be their desire for salvation which, in their own terms, essentially means divine “forgiveness”.2 Other motivations are recognisable, but they do not adequately explain the phenomenon of the response to the “preaching of the crusades”.

What is a Crusade?

“Crusade” is actually a much later English word3 arising from Medieval terms such as “croiseries”, “croisades”, and “crucesignati”.4 The term “crusade” is now used to describe the particular phenomenon of church-sanctioned warfare first instigated by Pope Urban II in 1095,5 and still discernible as late as 1588.6 The motivations of “those who went on crusade” are potentially different than for other types of warfare because this was a new type altogether.7 The “crusade” was characterised particularly by the invitation to warfare with spiritual benefits previously associated with the monastic life8 and with pilgrimage.9

Partly, this approach had been innovated some decades earlier,10 but it was still developing. It eventually became the doctrine of Indulgences now recognised in Catholic tradition.11

Why were Crusades called?

The primary motivation for the Pope to call the crusade is most likely as a response to events in the Eastern Roman Empire12 and in the Holy Land.13 The scope and variety of crusades expanded over time as well, eventually to include action against schismatic Christian groups such as the “Albigensians” in Spain,14 for example. But the preaching of the initial crusades drew on particular themes related to the perceived provocations in the East.15 The motivation of “those who went on crusade” cannot be assumed automatically to equate with the goals of those who called them to it, however. Motivations inevitably are affected, or even determined, by inducements offered, personal risk and opportunity, and other such subjective issues.

Why did people respond?

To determine the true motivation of the crusaders, care must be taken to overcome inherent bias in the contemporary sources used. Powel cautions, “The majority of those who wrote works related to crusading were members of the clergy … [there is a] supportive character to much of this writing.”16 Instead, in the 1970’s, Giles Constable and others focussed on the “monastic charter”,17 because, Davis says:

The charters sometimes contain crusader vows … they are, in any case, the closest thing to eye-witness reports of “what they thought they were doing” … Thus, the charters are evidence of the intended function of crusading as understood by the crusaders themselves.18

The result is a renewed confidence among scholars that the motivations of those who responded to the crusading “call” primarily had religious reasons for doing so, even if other factors existed.19

Monastic Charters: Not as convincing as they look

Of course, those particular documents would inevitably record the crusaders’ intentions in language expected of them by the church. They therefore represent only what they told the church about what “they thought they were doing”. Nevertheless it remains true that they are “the closest thing to eye-witness reports”.

Non-Religious Reasons

Five “Other Factors” which have been cited as motivations for the crusaders are 1, political and legal reasons; 2, simple profiteering or plundering; 3, “younger” landless sons seeking an estate; 4, colonial expansion; and 5, outright bloodthirstiness.

Get out of debts, taxes, political problems?

Firstly, the exemptions and protections extended to crusaders meant that some, who “were in political or legal difficulties”20 may have benefited by taking the cross. By the 13th century the benefits included the church’s protection against attack, release from excommunication, release from another vow, the forced return of any land seized while crusading, entitlement to hospitality from the Church, exemption from tolls and taxes, immunity from arrest, suspension from any existing legal proceedings, and access to a personal confessor.21 Riley-Smith cites the legal protections as a factor in the response to the crusade appeals in the 1260’s in England after the Civil War there,22 but downplays the importance of such benefits overall.23


Secondly, the prospect of material gain was, in reality, grim for crusaders. Richard calls it “mere fancy” to represent crusaders as “dreaming of the incalculable wealth of the East”,24 a sentiment repeated widely among scholars.25 It must be recognised, however, that the Pope’s specific call for “Whoever, for devotion alone, not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God…”26 indicates that there was some recognition that “money” was a potential motivator for some. A reported battle-cry at Anatolia, “Today, if God pleases, you will all gain much booty”27 (or “… all become rich men”28), indicates a potent link between conquest and wealth in the warriors’ minds. Also, although plundering was quite evident, Phillips relates this to the army’s constant need of food supplies.29 Riley-Smith agrees, pointing out that few returned home with “treasure or valuables”,30 and their stories would have offered little to encourage fantasies of glorious plunder.

Landless Gentry making their fortune?

Thirdly, participants incurred participation costs estimated at up to four years’ wages.31 Coupled with the risk to life and limb, any financial prospect would therefore represent an extravagant gamble for most. Phillips says that the expense all but disqualifies “freebooting younger sons” because they would be unable to afford the expense of crusading.32 Riley-Smith says that many families “cooperated in damage-limitation once a relation had taken the cross”.33 Some participants could have intended to benefit materially, and a very few succeeded,34 but crusaders were instead, “predominantly the first sons of Europe”,35 according to Madden.

Intention to settle in the East?

Fourthly, colonial expansion, as the motivation for an individual, would involve the intention to settle in the East. Phillips notes that the arrangements in many of the charters clearly indicated the intention of the crusader to return home.36 Richard finds only two which indicate the opposite intention,37 but also notes that such clauses can be seen in the deeds of pilgrims, “even before the crusades”.38


Fifthly, although Hindley suggests there could be some substance to the claim that the Pope was “anxious to deflect the energies of the military caste”,39 this is described as part of a “myth”40 by Madden, which “more closely resembles the world of nineteenth-century colonialism than it does the Middle Ages”.41 Furthermore, Riley-Smith observes that “ventures of this sort easily attract psychopaths”,42 but there was no way to screen volunteers, since “crusades were technically pilgrimages that had to be open to all”.43

Religious Pilgrimage

In fact, they were “pilgrimages” in more than merely a “technical” sense.

The way the call was framed

Whether we end up supposing that the respondents understood the call to crusade primarily as a holy “vendetta”,44 or somehow related to the notion of “monasticism”,45 or even quite strictly just in terms of “pilgrimage”,46 it remains obvious that, as Powell says, “the Church framed the call in terms of penance and restitution”,47 and it was that call which produced the response, sometimes with hysterical enthusiasm,48 with some choosing to enter monastic life upon their return.49 Madden summarises the view of “the modern historian”, in that, “[the crusaders’] reasons had much more to do with the next world than with this one.”50

The desire for Salvation

“Penance and restitution” were vitally important to the people of Christian Europe. Phillips describes them as “one of the most guilt-ridden societies in history”,51 where “images of fire and torture so frequently depicted on churches reinforced the fear of eternal damnation”.52 The church understood herself in the role of dispensing appropriate penance for, and remission of those sins, as can be seen in the Popes’ language in their pronouncements: Urban II, in his letter to Bologna wrote, “by our [the Catholic Church’s] authority … we remit all penance for those sins…”.53 St Bernard wrote of the Pope, “the vicar of [St Peter] … offers you that full Indulgence of all sins…”,54 and Pope Eugenius III, “by the authority of omnipotent God and Blessed Peter the Prince of Apostles, conceded to us by God, we grant remission of and absolution from sins …”.55

The expansion of the Indulgence as the primary marketing device

Riley-Smith observes the development of the theory of “Indulgence” in the Papal announcements through the 11th to the 13th century.56 But the same announcements did not similarly develop the rhetoric of plunder, or even colonialism. This alone is sound evidence that the Indulgence itself was understood by the church to be the key motivator for crusaders, even as the tradition continued.

The Indulgence appeared57 to offer everything from merely the remission from the temporal penance that the church would otherwise impose for one’s sins, to the slain being considered “as martyrs”, that is, the full absolution from all temporal and purgatorial penalties for “both venial and mortal sins”, and therefore, “remission of sins and the reward of eternal life”.58

Canon lawyers then wrestled with the question of whether the Indulgence applied only to those who died on crusade, or also to those who went but returned alive, and potentially even to those who took the cross but didn’t leave.59 The subtleties of canon law were not the concern of the crusaders, though. Riley-Smith observes that, “whatever the popes and their advisers may have thought, ordinary Christians assumed from the first that [the Indulgence] meant a remission of all punishment due for sin, an assurance of direct entry into heaven.”60


Despite the various potential motivators, there is ample evidence that the most significant motivation for those who responded to the crusading call was their quest for salvation, expressed as “forgiveness” and “remission” by the church, and offered in the form of the Indulgence. It is fair to view any other motivations as being secondary, and even potentially contextualised by this primary one.61






Bréhier, Louis. “Crusades.” Robert Appleton Company,

Davis, G. Scott. “Two Neglected Classics of Comparative Ethics.” Journal of Religious Ethics 36, no. 3 (2008): 375-403.

González, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. 1st ed, The Story of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Hindley, Geoffrey. A Brief History of the Crusades. London: Robinson, 2004.

Madden, Thomas F. “Crusaders and Historians.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life, no. 154 (2005): 26-31.

Pernoud, Régine. The Crusades. Translated by Enid Mcleod. London, Secker Warburg1962.

Phillips, Jonathan. “Who Were the First Crusaders?” History Today 47, no. 3 (1997): 16.

Powell, James M. “The Crusades in Recent Research.” Catholic Historical Review 95, no. 2 (2009): 313-19.

Richard, Jean. The Crusades, C. 1071-C. 1291. Cambridge, U.K.; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan. “Religious Warriors.” Economist 337, no. 7946 (1995): 63-67.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan Simon Christopher. The Crusades : A Short History. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1987.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan Simon Christopher. The First Crusaders, 1095-1131. Cambridge, U.K.; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan Simon Christopher. What Were the Crusades? Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.

van der Krogt, Christopher J. “Jihad without Apologetics.” Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations 21, no. 2 (2010): 127-42.




1. “Muslim understanding of the crusades derives primarily not from historical memory but from nineteenth-century Western historiography, in which crusading to the East was interpreted as a forerunner of modern imperialism” – Christopher J. van der Krogt, “Jihad without Apologetics,” Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations 21, no. 2 (2010): 133.

2. The crusaders craved forgiveness. They joined up, as one put it, “in order to obtain the pardon that God can give me for my crimes”; or, wrote another, “so that he might gain Christ”. – Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Religious Warriors,” Economist 337, no. 7946 (1995): Under ‘Holy War’.

3. “The Oxford English Dictionary’s first record of the actual word ‘crusade’ in an English literary text is for the year 1757” – Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Crusades (London: Robinson, 2004), 2.

4. All of which are references to bearing the cross – For example, “crucesignati“ means “marked with the sign of the cross” – ibid., 3.

5. “If we take as our starting point the Council of Clermont of 1095 when Pope Urban II preached what we know as the First Crusade” – ibid., 2.

6. “the Spanish Armada of 1588 was an unsuccessful crusade”- Riley-Smith: Under ‘Reinterpreting Crusades’.

7. “even in its own day [‘this tremendous adventure’] was unique” – Régine Pernoud, The Crusades. Translated by Enid Mcleod (London, Secker Warburg1962), 13.

8. Riley-Smith quotes Guibert of Nogent “God has instituted in our time holy wars … so that the order of knights … are not forced to abandon secular affairs completely by choosing the monastic life or any religious profession, as used to be the custom, but can attain in some measure God’s grace while pursuing their own careers.” – Jonathan Simon Christopher Riley-Smith, The Crusades : A Short History (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1987), 9.

9. “Urban blended the familiar ideas of pilgrimage and penance with the more radical notion of papally-sanctioned violence” – Jonathan Phillips, “Who Were the First Crusaders?,” History Today 47, no. 3 (1997): 16.

10. “In 1063 what was arguably the first recognisable Indulgence was granted by Pope Alexander II to warriors in Spain” – Jonathan Simon Christopher Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades? (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977), 59.

11. “the theory of Indulgences developed with the crusades” – ibid., 58.

12. “the knights summoned to the crusade would seek to restore peace in the East” – Pernoud, 21.

13. The pilgrims to the Holy Land after the Muslim ascendency in the 7th century experienced varied conditions. Charlemagne and the Caliph Harum al-Rashid negotiated terms “which made it more pleasant”, but the Caliph Hakim “for no apparent reason ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre” in 1009, “and began to harry and massacre Christians and Jews everywhere” – ibid., 15.

14. “Innocent III called a crusade, and in 1209 ambitious noblemen from northern France invaded the south.” – Justo L. González, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, 1st ed., The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 300.

15. “the pope himself addressed the assembled multitudes, exhorting them to go forth and rescue the Holy Sepulchre.” – Louis Bréhier, “Crusades,” Robert Appleton Company, Under ‘Foundation of Christian states in the east’

16. James M. Powell, “The Crusades in Recent Research,” Catholic Historical Review 95, no. 2 (2009): 315.

17. “The documents at issue here record sales, donations, and foundations made by crusaders to various monastic institutions.” – G. Scott Davis, “Two Neglected Classics of Comparative Ethics,” Journal of Religious Ethics 36, no. 3 (2008): 392.

18. Ibid., 392.

19. Quoting Constable, “Above all they show how a spirit of sacrifice and devotion, even when it covered secular motives, remained uppermost” – ibid., 392.

20. Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades? , 64.

21. Ibid., 56.

22. Ibid., 64.

23. “too much can be made of mundane motives at the expense of ideals” – ibid.#64

24. Jean Richard, The Crusades, C. 1071-C. 1291 (Cambridge, U.K.; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 26.

25. For example, “Though a few were motivated by crude materialism… the chance of any substantial gain was slight” – Hindley, 6-7.; and,

“the generalizations about motivation for profit … look less and less convincing the more we know of the circumstances in which the early crusaders took the cross.” – Jonathan Simon Christopher Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131 (Cambridge, U.K.; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 15.

26. Phillips: 16.

27. Hindley, 7.

28. Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131, 20.

29. “It is an important distinction, therefore, that acts of greed were usually initiated in response to the need to survive, rather than the long-term motivation to accumulate treasure.” – Phillips: 21.

30. Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131, 20.

31. Phillips: 19.

32. Ibid., 19.

33. Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131, 21.

34. “[For example] Abbot Suger of Saint Denis. He wrote that Count Guy of Rochefort `returned from the expedition to Jerusalem renowned and rich’, an ironic reversal of Urban II’s injunction against crusaders seeking honour or money.” – Phillips: 20.

Also “Even the Montlhéry clan, which was to exploit the movement in such an extraordinary way, seems at first to have been drawn to crusading primarily by its spiritual benefits.” – Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131, 18.

35. Thomas F. Madden, “Crusaders and Historians,” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life, no. 154 (2005): 27.

36. “Many charters contain clauses detailing financial arrangements that would come into force only if the crusader died during the expedition. Such measures suggest that the participants … hoped to return home once the vow was completed.” – Phillips: 20.

37. Achard of Montmerle, a Burgundian knight, and a German knight, Wolfker of Kuffern. Richard, 31.

38. Ibid., 31.

39. Hindley, 8.

40. “Take, for example, what might be called the Myth of the Greedy Younger Son … thousands of well- trained and land-hungry warriors were milling about with nothing to do. Rather than have them make trouble at home. Pope Urban II convinced them to carve out territories for themselves in the faraway Muslim world.” – Madden: 26-27.

41. Ibid., 27.

42. Riley-Smith, “Religious Warriors,” under ‘But the side-effects’.

43. Ibid., under ‘But the side-effects’.

44. “The appeal to crusade also succeeded because it could be interpreted by the lay knights in accordance with their own thinking … a summons to a vendetta.” – Riley-Smith, The Crusades : A Short History, 15-16.

45. “they saw in crusading some equivalence to monasticism” – Riley-Smith, “Religious Warriors,” under ‘Holy War’.

46. “This last term [Pilgrimage] is extremely significant.” – Pernoud, 13.

47. Davis: 393.

48. “The response in some places to the taking of the vow was hysterical, with individuals branding crosses on their bodies” – Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131.

49. “when a man or a woman set out on the 3,000-mile overland track to the Holy Land with a glow of religious fervour in their heart, and on their return (should they survive) entered a religious community, it would be stupid on our part to discount their motivation as a mere tourist itch compounded with hunger for loot” – Hindley, 4.

50. Madden: 27.

51. Phillips: 17.

52. Ibid., 17.

53. Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades? , 59.

54. Ibid., 60.

55. Ibid., 60.

56. Ibid., 59-62.

57. “the early grants display a deplorable vagueness of purpose and confusion of terminology” – Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades? , 58.

58. From “one of James of Vitry’s sermons” – ibid., 61-62.

59. Ibid., 58.

60. Ibid., 58.

61. “it is not improbable or contradictory that pious men took the cross hoping to improve their financial and material prospects.” – Ibid., 20.


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