Seminar Report: Why did the nobility go on the First Crusade?

This report achieved a low 2:1 in the second year of my undergraduate.

Seminar Report – Why did the nobility go on the First Crusade?


The debate concerning the motivations of the lay elite on the First Crusade is a widely contested one. Many consider the roots of the historiography to be with Runciman in the 1950s, and it has since progressed through revisionism with such as Tyerman and Riley-Smith, all the way to the newest ‘post-revisionism,’ with the contrasting views of Throop and Murray. Traditionalists led by Runciman argue for material motives, while revisionists argue for genuine piety. So-called ‘post-revisionists’ argue a variety of motivations, though the most well-received have been Throop arguing for crusading being an act of vengeance, and Murray arguing the importance of familial ties and feudal obligations. Most convincing would be the argument that there was no single incentive for all the participants – different nobles had different motivations.

The traditionalist viewpoint, which has been largely dismissed as the historiography has developed, has developed from Runciman’s initial thesis that the younger sons of the European nobility lacked opportunities to inherit, and they saw the Crusades as a way to gain wealth and land in the Levant. Mayer later expanded this by arguing that poor economic conditions, combined with the internecine warfare of Europe made the nobility more open to the idea of the Crusades, especially preached as it was – to present the Holy Land as affluent. Both historians include the examples of the sack of Jerusalem in 1099, and the Jewish Pogroms on the journey to the Holy Land as evidence that the crusaders were motivated purely by greed.

This view has been strongly challenged by the likes of Riley-Smith, Phillips and Constable, who emphasise through the analysis of charters that many of the crusading nobles sold all they had to pay for their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While the evidence would seem indisputable due to its physical nature, it could be argued that it was a calculated gamble; that they sold their possessions in Europe in the hope of gaining more in the Holy Land. More convincing though is the more obvious argument that genuine piety existed among the elite of Europe, that they felt it their religious duty to free the Holy Land, even at great personal cost.

The challenge to the traditionalist view ties in with the revisionist school, which argues that the crusaders were motivated by the prospect of redemption of their sins. Revisionist historians all have a different take on the same general argument, with Oldenbourg stating that the knightly classes were aware of the poor situation their souls were in, considering the almost constant warfare they were involved in, throughout Europe. Meanwhile, Riley-Smith emphasises the growth of contemporary hagiography, especially those accounts based on military saints, such as St. George and St. Michael. Alongside this, Tyerman has argued for the promotion of the theory of the ‘just war,’ which would obviously have made the Crusades appealing for professional soldiers such as much of the nobility were. The offering of papal indulgence to those who fought on Crusade meant that nobles could now fight and be absolved of their sins simultaneously. This would then seem to be a convincing argument for religious fervour being crucial in terms of motivating the nobility of Europe.

Although one can term the last school as ‘post-revisionist,’ this is potentially inaccurate, as there is no real unifying theme among the various historians’ arguments. As mentioned before, Throop argues that crusading was an act of vengeance, although she does qualify the idea with the point that it was nowhere near as prevalent as in the later Crusades. She does concede that the First Crusade planted the ‘roots’ for the idea though. Both Riley-Smith and Murray have argued differently, for the importance of familial ties and feudal obligation. The argument is that many people were obliged to make a pilgrimage simply as a result of their ties to other crusaders, and not for any of the other factors listed above.

It seems counter-productive to raise one factor above the others as the sole motivation of the early crusading nobility, as that act would oversimplify the diverse nature of the first crusaders themselves. While some nobles, such as Bohemond of Taranto and his second, Tancred, quite obviously went in search of material gain, the most convincing argument is that the majority of the noble participants, including Godfrey de Bouillon and Raymond of Toulouse went for genuine religious reasons. As France has said, what else could compel so many to travel so far in the eleventh century?



All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.


Understanding and Insight: Excellent-Good

Critical approach to historiography: Good

Breadth and depth of reading: Good

Use of evidence and examples: Competent

Reflection on seminar performance: Excellent-Good

Sources cited correctly: Fail

Fluent and correct English: Excellent

Relevance: Excellent

General Comments and Advice: A good report, and well written. You didn’t manage to say much that was original, but it was a good survey nonetheless. It lacks footnotes however and a bibliography.