Modern scholars tend to treat the First Crusade as a discreet event, something that began at the Council of Clermont in November 1095 and culminated in the Christian capture of Jerusalem in July 1099. This consensus remains strong even as scholars have long suggested that Pope Urban II (1088-99) may have begun thinking of calling such an expedition as early as 1089/90.
Leaving aside other questions of the crusade’s origins, my paper will reexamine Urban II’s thinking about a military expedition to the East, especially in the context of how he seems to have understood the arc of sacred history. Alfons Becker has demonstrated how Urban thought that history, since the coming of Jesus, was divided into four: 1) the era of a pristine, primitive Christianity, 2) a period of subjection by pagan peoples, 3) a period of Christian reconquest (during which Urban himself thought he lived), and 4) a final restoration of Christianity to that pristine state. What Becker didn’t see was the role of the Franks in all this. Reconquest in West and East were similar but still different. The Byzantines had lost the Holy Land but, in the West, the falling away was decisively halted during the reign of Charlemagne. By looking at the surviving corpus of Urban’s letters and reevaluating his itinerary as he traveled north, through Italy to Piacenza, over the Alps to Clermont, and eventually back to Pavia, I will argue that Urban II – himself a Frank by birth – used a fundamentally Frankish vocabulary to frame both his understanding of history and the Franks place within it.