When the First Crusade (c. 1095-1099) was launched, it was a new concept and became a new era. As is common in history, the labels applied to the event, such as ‘crusade’ and ‘crusader,’ were later inventions, coined by people who lived after the lifespans of those who were actually involved in the First Crusade. Although the terms were finalized and popularized about a century after the original war, the ideas and experiences that would eventually inspire the words ‘crusader’ and ‘crusade’ can be traced back to the writings of early participants in the event.
When Pope Urban II, at Clermont in 1095, proposed the concept that would become the First Crusade, he had not coined a specific name for the campaign he was envisioning. In his official speech and in letters, he described his idea as an armed pilgrimage or a God-approved, non-sinful war to reclaim the Holy Lands for Christendom. These core concepts influenced early names by which the participants identified themselves. Labels based on the Latin words iter (path/journey), expeditio (campaign/expedition), and peregrinatio (pilgrimage) were used to describe the event and the participants, and one of the most common plural terms for the people involved was peregrini (pilgrims).
Even though the cross (or more importantly embracing/wearing the sign of the cross) was not featured in these early naming conventions, it remained at the forefront of the minds of those who marched on Jerusalem. This is not surprising, as Urban II reportedly had his hordes of armed pilgrims sew crosses to their garments as a sign of their commitment to undertake the journey. Fulcher of Chartres (c. 1059-1127), who joined the First Crusade in the army of Count Robert Curthose of Normandy, Count Robert of Flanders and Count Stephen of Blois, mentioned the crosses that his comrades wore:
“Oh, how worthy and delightful to all of us who saw those beautiful crosses, either silken or woven of gold, or of any material, which the pilgrims sewed on the shoulders of their woolen cloaks or cassocks by the command of the Pope, after taking the vow to go. To be sure, God’s soldiers, who were making themselves ready for battle in His honor, ought to have been marked and fortified with a sign of victory” (Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, 1.4.4).
Although these sewn symbols were displayed prominently on the armed pilgrims who answered Pope Urban’s call, it took time for labels to be coined that referenced the crosses. By the late 12th century, new words inspired by the cross began to overtake the original talk of pilgrimages and expeditions carried out by pilgrims. Commentators of those later ages started using names such as the crosata or the croseria as a designation for the military campaign, and the participants who fought in the movement began to be overwhelmingly referred to as crucesignatti, meaning “those signed with the Cross.” These terms, after further revisions and translations, led to the famous labels of Crusade and Crusaders.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Louis IX from manuscript BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 404v, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the British Library.jpg).
- The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials (Second Edition), edited by Edward Peters. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971, 1988.