The force and effectiveness of Pope Urban II’s speech to the assembled people at Clermont, France, cannot be viewed without some understanding of the power of the Catholic church at the time. The year was 1095, and Europe was still very much within the Dark Ages. The major nations of the time were nothing like they would be several hundred years later, and feudalism was the order of the day. It was a time heavily marked by superstition. The vast majority of the people, in France and the surrounding territories, were peasant class. They had embraced Christianity, but most were also still bound to nearly pagan beliefs and ideologies; even their acceptance of the Catholic church as the dominant force above them was infused with the dreads of ancient, superstitious beliefs.
This was as well an element fully exploited by Catholic power, in that the infidels were portrayed as monsters. There was another force behind Urban, as well; in the era, and for some time afterward, there was nothing of the distinction between the spiritual and the political which later eras would insist upon. For centuries before and after Urban II, popes were not religious figureheads, but emperors in their own right, and military commanders as well. Schism in the highest orders of the Catholic church, wherein two or more popes contended for the title, were often bloody scenarios involving all current royal and/or political powers of the day. As Urban II spoke to the people, he was no gentle, spiritual icon or beloved emblem of a faith; he was an immensely powerful and respected warrior king.
This single factor explains both why urban would make the address and why he could count on generating support. This was a military operation being promoted. The cause was Christianity, certainly, and Urban does not shy away from urging his listeners on by appealing to their sense of Christian obligation and the duties of their faith. The greater emphasis, however, is on how they can only hope to live on as reasonably as they do by taking on the emerging enemy to the East.
This is why the Christian subjects listening to Urban would have been motivated to enter into the crusades. He presents the scenario to them, not so much as a necessary upholding of the church, but of ultimate survival. He hints that the infidels have only just begun, and that a people who would trample on the Holy Land and the images of Christ in the churches are not likely to stop until they have conquered all of civilization. Urban does, again, weave religious reasons into the cause, as he reminds the people that the love of God must be the greatest love they manifest. At the same time, and interestingly, his military urgency takes center stage; he is not interested in the old or the handicapped, as he suggests that the wealthy use their money to equip and train their servants to enter into the crusades.
One other component exists to have influenced Urban’s audience. Life in the Middle Ages was, at best, unstable anyway. The nature of feudal rule very often meant that territorial wars erupted continually, and the shapes of nations and states were shifting with each new king. There was, plainly, not very much to lose, in going off to the crusades; it may have been for many of the peasants a welcome opportunity to escape lives of servitude and base poverty. It is most certainly true that Urban knew this, and counted upon it as he exhorted the people to go and fight.
Urban II’s speech at Clermont inspired mass volunteering to fight against the Turks in the Holy Land because, first and foremost, this was a powerful world presence addressing them, and one of a military background. In a highly superstitious era, when ignorance was often the only guiding force behind action, this alone gave the people some sense of direction. It is likely that the appeal by Urban to their duty to God was not as important in motivating them as their desire to escape their miserable lives, and their sense that a monstrous enemy was coming to destroy everything if they did not intercept it in the Holy Land.