When we think about the Crusades, our normal thought is of armoured Christian knights fighting on horseback against the Muslim Turks. It is often forgotten that there were masses of ordinary people, including women and children, who went on these journeys and fought alongside the soldiers and upper classes. In the First Crusade, the military didn’t leave with the ordinary folk as it took longer to organise an army. Therefore, the First Crusade is frequently referred to as the People’s Crusade, consisting of around 80,000 peasants.
The lower class in medieval Europe lived in extreme poverty and the call for a Crusade to the Holy Land was a relief to these individuals as it was famously known as the land flowing with milk and honey, a rich fertile location holding endless amounts of treasure. They ultimately had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Also, Catholicism was the European religion and people genuinely believed that the Holy Land had been stolen from God by the infidel, and they needed to get it back for him. In this way, the communitarian role of Catholicism influenced people to come together to fight for God’s will. It is likely, due to the social aspect of humans, that many would have heard about others going and followed suit.
Ordinary people had a more difficult time travelling to the middle east than the upper classes. They had no proper armour or weaponry, making it virtually impossible to defend themselves. They wouldn’t have had horses and so walked all the way. This made it far more likely for them to be subject to exposure to the weather and attacks by enemies. Furthermore, many died of starvation on the way.
The outcomes of the people of this brave group reflects their miserable starting point which fuelled their motivation to go. Not only did many die on the journey, most of the remaining were killed by the Turks after being surprised by them. A few would have made it past this and were able to live in the middle east. Essentially though, it was a death trap waiting to happen and is perhaps one of the reasons we don’t think of the lower class in the Crusades. This is because when the real battles for the Holy Land were taking place, most of the People’s Crusade were already dead.
What we should learn from these participants is that religion, something I stress a lot in my articles, cannot be underplayed as it was a central aspect in the Crusades generally. Although, economic motivations were arguably more important not just to the lower class but to everyone who went on crusade. The East provided a source of light, a glowing halo of hope for the lower classes, and an opportunity of gaining and expanding wealth, especially to the younger sons of nobles due to the frustrating terms of primogeniture. We should respect the bravery of the laity nevertheless as they knew they would be fighting against enemies and therefore that there was a possibility of death.