Second Crusade: Towns and Merchants, 1147

Although Pope Eugenius and Bernard of Clairvaux intended their persuasion to influence kings and counts, many other people heard these arguments and began making drastic changes in their lives, freeing themselves to go and give personal help. But this time, the popular Crusade was well organized and did not end in disaster.

To some extent, that’s because all during this period, the power and self-governing wisdom of towns was constantly growing. Towns began in the early medieval years as land set apart from the usual labor contributions that a baron or count expected. The people living on this chartered plot still owed something, but they could give it in cash, as taxes, not as actual days of the week when they must plow fields or dig ditches. Craftsmen flocked to the new towns and organized guilds, and the guilds elected leaders to create a town council. The council elected a Major as executive, or as it’s come to us in English, a mayor. Every few decades, the towns’ governance grew more detailed and stronger. I speculate that there were important changes between 1095 and 1145, and that this is part of why the popular Crusade now actually worked.

Towns all over Northern Europe, crossing many feudal and national boundaries, agreed on a time and place to meet: the first weeks of May, in Dartmouth, England. There, the regional leaders (guild leaders, landowners, and merchants) made an agreement. Each ship would be viewed as a parish, with a priest and regular church services. For each group of ships, a judge was appointed to settle disputes; they were not to tolerate brawling, since this was a pilgrimage. Important decisions would be made by a council of all the regional leaders. Every participant swore an oath to follow this plan.

Also during this 50-year period, they were building larger and deeper-keeled cargo ships in the North Sea. The merchants who helped organize ships for the pilgrims probably chose cogs, which were shorter and more barrel-shaped than the war-ships that we see depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. It may be that just in the years since Prince Sigurd set out on pilgrimage by ship, the average sea-going vessel had more cargo capacity and less need to stop so frequently.

Because the voyage was planned in such a decentralized way, there’s no master list or record of who went, or why. Most of what we know comes from a history written in Lisbon, Portugal, because the fleet arrived just in time to assist local Christians to complete their reconquest of Lisbon. It wasn’t a big event in English or Flemish history, but it was huge for Lisbon.

A spate of bad Atlantic weather forced the flotilla to slow down and stop. King Alfonso of Leon and Castile sent men to persuade them to help with the siege, instead of passing on. The Pope had recently announced that fighting the Moors in Spain was just as valid as going all the way to the Holy Land. And so the townsmen agreed to anchor their ships and help with the siege. They would be paid with treasure taken from the Moors when the city was captured, with King Alfonso remaining in control of political decisions.

It took four months to bring Lisbon to the point of surrender, and at that point, all or most of the Muslim residents left as refugees to other taifa cities. Some of the pilgrim sailors chose to stay on in Lisbon, rewarded with land or houses. Lisbon’s account suggests that most of them stayed, so it must have been a significant number, who became an important piece of the city’s new Christian identity.

One Mediterranean account suggests that some of them continued to the Holy Land, but we know nothing about how they fared there. Kings usually traveled with chroniclers, but these townsmen and merchants didn’t think of it. Paper technology was still on its way to Europe; after paper was widely available, common people kept records too (which is why we know so much about the Black Death). But in this time, no.

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