Christians of the medieval age made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for spiritual edification. They visited the sites of Jesus’s birth, ministry, crucifixion, and reported resurrection, to gain an intimate understanding of their deity’s life on Earth. During the Roman era (1st-6th centuries) this journey was fairly safe and easy: all roads along the way were in Roman territories. After Shi’a Umayyad and later Fatimid dynasties controlled northern Africa, Christians had to pass through these Muslim lands to reach a Muslim controlled Jerusalem. Once Seljuk Turks conquered the Shi’a in Palestine (1085 CE), they took over and applied their Sunni Muslim standards to the area.
While the Shi’a tribes had shown some hierarchical religious tolerance, the Seljuk tore down Christian churches in Jerusalem, or else used them as stables for their horses and donkeys. The roads to and from Jerusalem were at their most dangerous, with bandits and robbers hidden along the way. The inability of Christians to safely make pilgrimage to Jerusalem was one of the main arguments in Europe for going to holy war against the Saracens (Muslims and middle easterners), for calling a Crusade. 3,000 Christians living in Jerusalem and pilgrims died in the first ten years of Seljuk rule, by 1095. Europeans felt that Jerusalem was a Christian holy city that ought to be under Christian control.
On November 27th, 1095 Pope Urban II spoke before an assembly of clergy and nobles at the Council of Clermont in Clermont, France. The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus had written the pontiff, asking for military aide against the Turks. Not only had they taken Palestine from the Byzantine empire, but Syria and much of Asia Minor as well. Byzantium had lost seven major battles in a row and Alexius I feared they would be overrun entirely. Pope Urban II gathered nearly 300 French bishops and priests, and a similar number of lords and knights. He spoke to them for the first time about the troubles plaguing the east, and he invoked the Peace and Truce of God, urging the assembled Christians to turn their bloodlust outward to non Christian targets.
“Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.”
– Pope Urban II, according to Fulcher of Chartres version of speech
Saracens were described as cunning, swarthy, large, strong, rapacious, having large noses, and possessing dark skin. Of course they were also sometimes described as feeble minded, pasty, small, weak, effeminate, being hermaphroditic, and possessing fair skin. Whichever would horrify the audience most. Modern race concepts and racial categories did not exist in the high middle ages, but I would argue that racism of a medieval sort most certainly did. The Anglo-Saxons of England had permeable enough race concepts to allow their Norman conquerors entry into their race, but Welsh, Irish, and Scottish were rigidly excluded. Likewise Jews, Saracens, and Ethiopians (the European term for all dark skinned Africans) were considered to be separate – and inferior – races to the mostly French and German Crusaders.
In the summer of 1096, the four main armies of the Princes’ Crusade departed Europe for Constantinople. They were led by Hugh of Vermandois, Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond IV of Toulouse, and Bohemond of Taranto. Between 30-35,000 troops including 5,000 cavalry arrived at the Byzantine capital over a period of months. Emperor Alexios I asked the leaders to swear fealty to him, and to promise they would return any captured lands to his empire. Bohemond of Taranto had invaded Constantinople several times with his Norman father, and the emperor was not quick to trust this new ally. Bohemond, Godfrey, and Hugh swore fealty in exchange for desperately needed food and supplies. Raymond would not.