Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions
Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, by Charles Mackay
Volume II: Crusades
Issuing from the church in his frill canonicals, surrounded by his cardinals and bishops in all the splendour of Romish ecclesiastical costume, the Pope stood before the populace on a high scaffolding erected for the occasion, and covered with scarlet cloth. A brilliant array of bishops and cardinals surrounded him; and among them, humbler in rank, but more important in the world’s eye, the Hermit Peter, dressed in his simple and austere habiliments. Historians differ as to whether or not Peter addressed the crowd, but as all agree that he was present, it seems reasonable to suppose that he spoke. But it was the oration of the Pope that was most important. As he lifted up his hands to ensure attention, every voice immediately became still. He began by detailing the miseries endured by their brethren in the Holy Land; how the plains of Palestine were desolated by the outrageous heathen, who with the sword and the firebrand carried wailing into the dwellings and flames into the possessions of the faithful; how Christian wives and daughters were defiled by pagan lust; how the altars of the true God were desecrated, and the relics of the saints trodden under foot. “You,” continued the eloquent pontiff, (and Urban the Second was one of the most eloquent men of the day,) “you, who hear me, and who have received the true faith, and been endowed by God with power, and strength, and greatness of soul,—whose ancestors have been the prop of Christendom, and whose kings have put a barrier against the progress of the infidel,—I call upon you to wipe off these impurities from the face of the earth, and lift your oppressed fellow-christians from the depths into which they have been trampled. The sepulchre of Christ is possessed by the heathen, the sacred places dishonoured by their vileness. Oh, brave knights and faithful people! offspring of invincible fathers! ye will not degenerate from your ancient renown. Ye will not be restrained from embarking in this great cause by the tender ties of wife or little ones, but will remember the words of the Saviour of the world himself, ‘Whosoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whosoever shall abandon for my name’s sake his house, or his brethren, or his sisters, or his father, or his mother, or his wife, or his children, or his lands, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life.'”
The warmth of the pontiff communicated itself to the crowd, and the enthusiasm of the people broke out several times ere he concluded his address. He went on to pourtray, not only the spiritual but the temporal advantages, that should accrue to those who took up arms in the service of the Cross. Palestine was, he said, a land flowing with milk and honey, and precious in the sight of God, as the scene of the grand events which had saved mankind. That land, he promised, should be divided among them. Moreover, they should have full pardon for all their offences, either against God or man. “Go, then,” he added, “in expiation of your sins; and go assured, that after this world shall have passed away, imperishable glory shall be yours in the world which is to come.” The enthusiasm was no longer to be restrained, and loud shouts interrupted the speaker; the people exclaiming as if with one voice, “Dieu le veult! Dieu le veult!” With great presence of mind Urban took advantage of the outburst, and as soon as silence was obtained, continued: “Dear brethren, to-day is shown forth in you that which the Lord has said by his evangelist, ‘When two or three are gathered together in my name, there will I be in the midst of them to bless them.’ If the Lord God had not been in your souls, you would not all have pronounced the same words; or rather God himself pronounced them by your lips, for it was He that put them in your hearts. Be they, then, your war-cry in the combat, for those words came forth from God. Let the army of the Lord when it rushes upon His enemies shout but that one cry, ‘Dieu le veult! Dieu le veult!‘ Let whoever is inclined to devote himself to this holy cause make it a solemn engagement, and bear the cross of the Lord either on his breast or his brow till he set out, and let him who is ready to begin his march place the holy emblem on his shoulders, in memory of that precept of our Saviour, ‘He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.'”
The news of this council spread to the remotest parts of Europe in an incredibly short space of time. Long before the fleetest horseman could have brought the intelligence it was known by the people in distant provinces, a fact which was considered as nothing less than supernatural. But the subject was in everybody’s mouth, and the minds of men were prepared for the result. The enthusiastic only asserted what they wished, and the event tallied with their prediction. This was, however, quite enough in those days for a miracle, and as a miracle every one regarded it.
For several months after the council of Clermont, France and Germany presented a singular spectacle. The pious, the fanatic, the needy, the dissolute, the young and the old, even women and children, and the halt and lame, enrolled themselves by hundreds. In every village the clergy were busied in keeping up the excitement, promising eternal rewards to those who assumed the red cross, and fulminating the most awful denunciations against all the worldly-minded who refused or even hesitated. Every debtor who joined the crusade was freed by the papal edict from the claims of his creditors; outlaws of every grade were made equal with the honest upon the same conditions. The property of those who went was placed under the protection of the church, and St. Paul and St. Peter themselves were believed to descend from their high abode, to watch over the chattels of the absent pilgrims. Signs and portents were seen in the air to increase the fervour of the multitude. An aurora-borealis of unusual brilliancy appeared, and thousands of the crusaders came out to gaze upon it, prostrating themselves upon the earth in adoration. It was thought to be a sure prognostic of the interposition of the Most High; and a representation of his armies fighting with and overthrowing the infidels. Reports of wonders were everywhere rife. A monk had seen two gigantic warriors on horseback, the one representing a Christian and the other a Turk, fighting in the sky with flaming swords, the Christian of course overcoming the Paynim. Myriads of stars were said to have fallen from heaven, each representing the fall of a Pagan foe. It was believed at the same time that the Emperor Charlemagne would rise from the grave, and lead on to victory the embattled armies of the Lord. A singular feature of the popular madness was the enthusiasm of the women. Everywhere they encouraged their lovers and husbands to forsake all things for the holy war. Many of them burned the sign of the cross upon their breasts and arms, and coloured the wound with a red dye, as a lasting memorial of their zeal. Others, still more zealous, impressed the mark by the same means upon the tender limbs of young children and infants at the breast.
Guibert de Nogent tells of a monk who made a large incision upon his forehead in the form of a cross, which he coloured with some powerful ingredient, telling the people that an angel had done it when he was asleep. This monk appears to have been more of a rogue than a fool, for he contrived to fare more sumptuously than any of his brother pilgrims, upon the strength of his sanctity. The crusaders everywhere gave him presents of food and money, and he became quite fat ere he arrived at Jerusalem, notwithstanding the fatigues of the way. If he had acknowledged in the first place that he had made the wound himself, he would not have been thought more holy than his fellows; but the story of the angel was a clincher.