The Papal Propaganda Machine: Media during the Crusades

Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont

Fox News is not the first propaganda machine to exist.

From the 11th to 14th centuries, the Crusaders were a big deal for the people of Western Europe. Put bluntly, Christians felt that their holy shrines in the East as well as their dominions were under attack by the Turkish and Arab Muslims armies. Many of them felt that Christianity’s very survival was at stake, and they had good cause to believe this. Ever since Arab armies burst out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, they had rapidly conquered, colonized and converted much of their new territories to their religion of Islam and the Muslim way of life. If Christendom didn’t do something to stop them, it would only be a matter of time before the entire world succumbed to the Islamic invaders.

The problem was that most of the Christian kingdoms of Europe were too busy fighting amongst themselves to be concerned with events occurring in distant lands on the edge of Christendom. Besides, it was the problem of the Orthodox Christians of the East, rivals to their great Latin church (Catholic) in Rome.

The true causes for the Crusaders are arguably many and we’re not going to get too into them here (see future posts for that). Ostensibly though, they were started by a few events. One was when the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos requested help from Pope Urban II to send aid to help him hold back the Seljuk Turks from overrunning what remained of his rapidly declining Christian empire. In addition, reports were circulating that Christian pilgrims to the Holy City of Jerusalem were being threatened as well as the safety of Christianity’s holiest shrines. This prompted the pope to call for a holy war or “crusade” to take back the Holy Land from the Muslims, people who he deemed as invaders and infidels.

Pope Urban yet again

Of course, wars take lots of money and manpower; holy wars are no exception. But how do you get hundreds of thousands of people over the span of three centuries to give blood and treasure, travel to a faraway lands they’ve likely never heard of and have them riled up and willing to die for their religion? You create a holy propaganda machine, that’s how.

Recruitment of volunteers for the Crusades was no easy task. First and foremost, the Pope and the church hierarchy had to popularize the expedition and convince kings, nobles, knights and also the common people (peasants and serfs in those days) to be willing to offer their sword as well as financial support. The papacy had to persuade these groups, but how?

Well, propaganda was nothing new for the church. As early as 853, Pope Leo IV had to appeal to Frankish armies for military help in order to protect Rome from Muslim marauders. The Franks were told that there would be spiritual rewards for doing so. Not too long afterward in 878, Pope John VIII took this a bit further in an effort to motivate other soldiers to come to the church’s aid in times of need. The offer was in those days a pretty good one. It stated that those who died fighting for the church would get their sins reduced (or completely cancelled out) and get heavenly rewards ( though the pope stopped short of guaranteeing full salvation). Since people in those days were a bit obsessed as to whether they were destined for Heaven or Hell, this was enough to spark the interest of many.

The Launch of the First Crusade

On the 27th of November in 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. He instructed all of the clergy who were in attendance to preach the crusade on their way home. While the pope encouraged all Christians to support it, he advised the clergy to discourage the elderly, feeble, poverty-stricken, women, priest and monks from participating. The goal was to get those with actual means, i.e. soldiers and other able-bodied persons of some status or wealth, to spearhead the movement.

It’s off to Jerusalem we go…

Initially, the papal propaganda machine centered on convincing all Christians to help their brethren in the East. This consisted of stories of Muslim victories over the Christian states of the East and the subsequent suffering of the latter under Turkish rule. The propaganda also elaborated (and in many cases exaggerated) the desecration and destruction of Christian shrines in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Though murder and fighting against other Christians was considered sinful, killing and fighting against the Muslims apparently was not. In fact, these were considered an act of merit that was rewarded by God in the next life. As time went on (and the fortunes of the crusader states waxed and waned), the papacy deemed that crusader warriors could be absolved of all sins, regardless of how bad. Along with the next world, Christian soldiers could benefit in this one too. Those who participated in the crusade were offered land and any treasure that could be confiscated from the Muslims. These inducements were to be the staples of papal propaganda for the next 400 years or so.

In the years to come, the church in support of the Crusades issued many edicts. For example in 1145, Pope Eugenius III issued what because known as the Quantum pradecessores. Issued shortly after word came out about crusader losses at the battle of Edessa, it reminded Christians of the success of the First Crusade and to continue the struggle to keep and expand their dominions in the Holy Land. The edict also called on French King Louis VII to help avenge Christian losses and called for more soldiers to leave Europe for the East. As a further inducement, the pope promised that the families, wives, properties and really anything that soldiers had in this world would be put under church protection during their absence. Crusaders were even exempt on the interest on any loans made to them, much to the chagrin of the moneylenders, many who were Jewish.

And of course, if you couldn’t actually fight, you could always give money.

Printed propaganda and Medieval Rock Stars

Chronicles and narratives of the crusaders and their exploits also served as vehicles of propaganda. Many of these were based on the initial successes of the First Crusade. One document, the Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolymitanorum, gave special attention to the deeds of a certain Duke Robert of Normandy during the First Crusade. The Duke was essentially made into a hero like King Arthur or a medieval version of George S. Patton, someone who would inspire others to take up arms against the Saracens (another name for the Muslims). However, I’m more of the opinion the such tales were a form of Robert’s personal propaganda, since he was vying for the English throne upon his return from the Holy Land in 1100.

Many Crusaders also added to the propaganda machine by writing letters of their adventures. These letters served as additional vehicles for popularizing the exploits of their authors as well as justifying their actions. Examples include the letters written by Count Stephen of Blois to his wife Adele during the First Crusade as well as the letters many nobles who sacked Jerusalem in 1099 wrote to the pope. These were all used for propaganda by the church, a sort of holy testimonial of the participants of the crusade.

More popular types of propaganda included poems and songs. Many of these were actually adaptations of other folk songs and hymns. While some were in Latin, the vast majority were written in the common tongues of the day and actually became extremely popular among lay people. Singers and writers of such songs became the rock stars of their day. They even had cool names like Marcabru, Rutebeuf, Conon de Béthune and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

However, the most effective form of crusader propaganda were the words coming directly from the pulpit. From the beginning of the crusade, preachers and clergymen had been the primary recruiting officers of the campaign. Some rose to extremely high positions within the church. For example, in 1145, Pope Eugenius II appointed St. Bernard of Clairvaux as the principal preacher of the crusade. You could think of him as a sort of papal press secretary. He went on to become a Catholic saint. While most were initially bishops, other popular and less ecclesiastical preachers also arose.

The End of the Crusades

The fall of Acre in May of 1291, the last Crusader state in the Holy Land, dealt a severe blow to the crusader movement in general. After nearly three centuries of wars, European Christians were essentially back where they had started before the Crusades began in 1095. All that pillaging and killing, with in the end nothing to show for it. The European public also was tired of hearing the preaching from the church’s propaganda machine. Though Pope Clement VI sought to promote a new Crusade, this largely fell upon deaf ears. The people were tired and sick of war.

Despite the fact that the actual Crusades were over, Crusader propaganda still lived on, though to accomplish slightly different objectives. It was used in

Though crusader propaganda more or less died with the crusades, vestiges of it lived on in other forms. For example, the Spanish used many of these crusader propaganda techniques in their religious inquisition as well as justification for their conquest of the Americas, Philippines and other political acts under the guise of religion. Similar propaganda tactics also exist in many parts of the Muslim world and in western media. In fact, propaganda has been present in society as long as humans have been able to communicate with each other.

Fox News, looks like you’re not alone.

Go to the main page