Episode 10 AD 1050-1074

From pacifism to the Crusades – Christianity’s 700-year process of ethical transformation

The Crusades are undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of the medieval period.

In this episode we examine how a deeply pacifist minority movement of Christians gradually transmuted into a society which espoused the state which represented it and manned the armies of that state – the Roman Empire of Constantinople.

By the mid-800s the Occident had, in its period of greatest crisis, rallied, not always coherently, behind the Roman papacy. The popes of the late 800s began to hold out the promise of remission of sins, and thereby salvation, as the recompense for fighting to preserve Christendom.

Two centuries later, the papacy decisively shook off secular interference and affirmed its own supremacy as the leader of Christendom. In doing so, it collided with the western Emperors.
The situation was transformed by the irruption of a new warlike people from the steppes of central Asia – the Seljuk Turks. These swept through the domains of the Baghdad Califate and took Syria and Judea. Later, they annihilated the Roman field army at Manzikert. Thereafter, they inundated the Roman provinces of Asia Minor, spreading terror and destruction among its Christian population.

This provided the background and impetus for the first of the Crusades.


  • The Crusades as among the most execrated episodes of Europe’s historical memory. A view wholeheartedly agreed with within Islamic societies today.
  • Early Christianity was indeed a pacifist movement, for very peculiar and now forgotten reasons.
  • Once the Roman state and most of Mediterranean society had adopted Christianity, a transformation naturally occurred: the cause of Christian society was embodied in the Emperor’s Christian army.
  • The Christian church took on the organisational features of the Roman state. The primacy of the bishop in his city and its region (diocese). The church of Alexandria set the pattern of a supreme bishop.
  • The Patriarchate of Rome was the only one in the west. The very early cult of relics used to establish papal supremacy in the Occident.
  • When from the 840s Italy and Provence looked like they too would fall to Muslim power, the popes began explicitly to promise salvation to those knights who died in the Christian cause.
  • Whereas jihād was integral to Islam from its birth, for Christianity it took hundreds of years before religiously-motivated warfare was to be explicitly sacralised.
  • The Peace of God movement spreads throughout Latin Christendom, trying to tame the violence and rapaciousness of the local nobilities.
  • Once some order and security had been restored after 1000 AD, the Christian practice of pilgrimage resumed with vigour, becoming a mass movement. The Holy Land became a known place.
  • A short account of the history of the, often fantastical, Christian perceptions of Islam, a mixture of fact and apocalyptic prophecy.
  • The Reform movement of the church, strengthening its independence from noble society and leading to a challenge to the western Emperor’s supremacy. The papacy won.
  • The Norman conquest of Muslim Sicily, and re-conquest of Tarragona in Spain, both under papal auspices, as prototypes for the Crusades.
  • The papacy’s imposition of its ecclesiastical authority over southern Italy, an east Roman province, sealed the split between the Latin and Greek churches. The papacy’s assertion of its ecclesiastical and indeed temporal authority over that of the German emperor brought about the permanent weakening of the western Emperors in Germany.
  • In Egypt and Palestine, Islamic Ismaili religious revivalism entails attacks on the Christian holy places and pilgrims.
  • The devastating advance of the Turkic tribes, recently converted to Islam, threw back all the gains of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor, massacring local Christians and threatening Constantinople itself.
  • The project of a papally-instigated war of religious counter-attack to reverse all the gains of Islam took root in Europe, particularly in France. By the 1090s Christianity had evolved to the point where it was a coiled spring ready to launch the Crusades to recover the lands where Christianity had originated.

Now with the audio-only version included

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