The call which resulted in the first expedition for the recovery of Jerusalem was made by Pope Urban II. at the Council of Clermont, 1095. Its chief popular advocate was Peter the Hermit.
The idea of such a movement was not born at the close of the eleventh century. Gregory VII., appealed to by Michael VII. of Constantinople, had, in two encyclicals, 1074,324 urged the cause upon all Christians, and summoned them to go to the rescue of the Byzantine capital. He reminded them that the pagans had forced their way almost up to the walls of the city and killed many thousands of their brethren like cattle.325 He also repeatedly called attention to the project in letters to the counts of Burgundy and Poitiers and to Henry IV. His ulterior hope was the subjection of the Eastern churches to the dominion of the Apostolic see. In the year 1074 he was able to announce to Henry IV. that fifty thousand Christian soldiers stood ready to take up arms and follow him to the East, but Gregory was prevented from executing his design by his quarrel with the emperor.
There is some evidence that more than half a century earlier Sergius IV., d. 1012, suggested the idea of an armed expedition against the Mohammedans who had "defiled Jerusalem and destroyed the church of the Holy Sepulchre." Earlier still, Sylvester II., d. 1003, may have urged the same project.326
Peter the Hermit, an otherwise unknown monk of Amiens, France, on returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, spread its tale of woes and horrors.327 In Jerusalem he had seen the archbishop, Simeon, who urged him to carry to Europe an appeal for help against the indignities to which the Christians were subjected. While asleep in the church of the Holy Sepulchre and after prayer and fasting, Peter had a dream in which Christ appeared to him and bade him go and quickly spread the appeal that the holy place might be purged.328 He hurried westward, carrying a letter from Simeon, and secured the ear of Urban at Rome. This is the story as told by William of Tyre and by Albert of Aachen before him. Alleged dreams and visions were potent forces during the First Crusade, and it is altogether likely that many a pilgrim, looking upon the desolation of Jerusalem, heard within himself the same call which Peter in imagination or in a real dream heard the Lord making to him.
Urban listened to Peter’s account as he had listened to the accounts of other returning pilgrims. He had seen citizens of Jerusalem itself with his own eyes, and exiles from Antioch, bewailing the plight of those places and begging for alms.329 Peter, as he journeyed through Italy and across the Alps,330 proclaimed the same message. The time for action had come.
At the Council of Piacenza, in the spring of 1095, envoys were present from the emperor Alexius Comnenus and made addresses, invoking aid against the advancing Turks.331 In the following November the famous Council of Clermont, Southern France, was held, which decreed the First Crusade.332 The council comprised a vast number of ecclesiastics and laymen, especially from France. Urban II. was present in person. On the day of the opening there were counted fourteen archbishops, two hundred and fifty bishops, and four hundred abbots. Thousands of tents were pitched outside the walls. On the ninth day, the pope addressed the multitude from a platform erected in the open air. It was a fortunate moment for Urban, and has been compared to Christmas Day, 800, when Charlemagne was crowned.333 The address was the most effective sermon ever preached by a pope or any other mortal. It stirred the deepest feelings of the bearers and was repeated throughout all Europe.334
At Clermont, Urban was on his native soil and probably spoke in the Provençal tongue, though we have only Latin reports. When we recall the general character of the age and the listening throng, with its mingled feelings of love of adventure and credulous faith, we cannot wonder at the response made to the impassioned appeals of the head of Christendom. Urban reminded his hearers that they, as the elect of God, must carry to their brethren in the East the succor for which they had so often cried out. The Turks, a "Persian people, an accursed race,"335 had devastated the kingdom of God by fire, pillage, and sword and advanced as far as the Arm of St. George (the Hellespont). Jerusalem was laid waste. Antioch, once the city of Peter, was under their yoke. As the knights loved their souls, so they should fight against the barbarians who had fought against their brothers and kindred.336 Christ himself would lead the advancing warriors across sea and mountains. Jerusalem, "the navel of the world," and the land fruitful above all others, a paradise of delights, awaited them.337 "The way is short, the toil will be followed by an incorruptible crown."338
A Frenchman himself, Urban appealed to his hearers as Frenchmen, distinguished above all other nations by remarkable glory in arms, courage, and bodily prowess. He appealed to the deeds of Charlemagne and his son Lewis, who had destroyed pagan kingdoms and extended the territory of the Church.
To this moving appeal the answer came back from the whole throng, "God will sit, God will sit."339 "It is," added the pope, "it is the will of God. Let these words be your war-cry when you unsheathe the sword. You are soldiers of the cross. Wear on your breasts or shoulders the blood-red sign of the cross. Wear it as a token that His help will never fail you, as the pledge of a vow never to be recalled."340 Thousands at once took the vow and sewed the cross on their garments or branded it upon their bare flesh. Adhemar, bishop of Puy, knelt at Urban’s feet, asking permission to go, and was appointed papal legate. The next day envoys came announcing that Raymund of Toulouse had taken the vow. The spring of 1096 was set for the expedition to start. Urban discreetly declined to lead the army in person.341
The example set at Clermont was followed by thousands throughout Europe. Fiery preachers carried Urban’s message. The foremost among them, Peter the Hermit, traversed Southern France to the confines of Spain and Lorraine and went along the Rhine. Judged by results, he was one of the most successful of evangelists. His appearance was well suited to strike the popular imagination. He rode on an ass, his face emaciated and haggard, his feet bare, a slouched cowl on his head,342 and a long mantle reaching to his ankles, and carrying a great cross. In stature he was short.343 His keen wit,344 his fervid and ready, but rude and unpolished, eloquence,345 made a profound impression upon the throngs which gathered to hear him.346 His messages seemed to them divine.347 They plucked the very hairs from his ass’ tail to be preserved as relics. A more potent effect was wrought than mere temporary wonder. Reconciliations between husbands and wives and persons living out of wedlock were effected, and peace and concord established where there were feud and litigation. Large gifts were made to the preacher. None of the other preachers of the Crusade, Volkmar, Gottschalk, and Emich,348 could compare with Peter the Hermit for eloquence and the spell he exercised upon the masses. He was held in higher esteem than prelates and abbots.349 And Guibert of Nogent says that he could recall no one who was held in like honor.350
In a few months large companies were ready to march against the enemies of the cross.
A new era in European history was begun.351 A new passion had taken hold of its people. A new arena of conquest was opened for the warlike feudal lord, a tempting field of adventure and release for knight and debtor, an opportunity of freedom for serf and villein. All classes, lay and clerical, saw in the expedition to the cradle of their faith a solace for sin, a satisfaction of Christian fancy, a heaven appointed mission. The struggle of states with the papacy was for the moment at an end. All Europe was suddenly united in a common and holy cause, of which the supreme pontiff was beyond dispute the appointed leader.