Saturday, September 19, 2009

The First Crusades

The idea of fighting "for the remissions of sins" was probably unprecedented in the early 1080s, when it had come to feature in the language of Pope Gregory VII and his supporters, who apparently believed that personal engagement in just warfare was so meritorious that the danger involved could be treated as a penance. It would never have been easy to justify the inflicting of pain and loss of life on others, with the consequential distortion of the perpetrator's internal dispositions, as a penance simply because the penitent was exposing himself to danger- however unpleasant the experience might have been for him- and Gregory's opponents were predictably critical.

When Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade ten years later, however, he gave the idea a context in which it could be presented more convincingly, because he associated the forthcoming military campaign with the most charismatic of traditional penances, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As penitential events, pilgrimages were "effectively satisfactory", according to the preacher Gilbert of Tournai, "because just as a man has used all parts of his body when he has sinned, so he gives satisfaction by making all his members work hard." With respect to the First Crusade, therefore, the dangers of war gave added value to the penitential merit gained by a pilgrim.

It would be hard to exaggerate how revolutionary this was. A contemporary exclaimed that, "God has instituted in our time holy wars, so that the order of knights and the crowd running in their wake...might find a new way of gaining salvation." If the First Crusade had failed there can be little doubt that senior churchmen would have arisen out of the shadows to condemn it, but with its triumph doubts about pentitential warfare evaporated. Contemporaries used in relation to the crusades phrases that until then had been customarily applied only to monks and the monastic profession- the knighthood of Christ, the way of the cross, a journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, spiritual warfare. The crusaders, moved by the love of God and their neighbor, renouncing their wives, children, earthly possessions, and adopting temporary poverty and chastity, were described as going into voluntary exile and following the way of the cross.

Participation in the First Crusaade was considered to be in some sense an alternative to entry into the religious life. Contemporaries portrayed the army on the march as a nomadic abbey, its days and nights punctuated by solemn liturgy, its soldiers dedicated to austerity and brotherhood- "just as in the primitive church, nearly all things were shared in common". Such comparisons between monasticism and crusading were made even before the armies marched and a century and a half later the preacher Humbert of Romans maintained that necessary for the crusader were confession, contrition, good counsel, advice from the wise, the disposition of house and goods before departure, the making of a will, the restitution of goods that were not one's own and reconciliation with adversaries, constancy of purpose, the comfort of the saints and the assistance of Christian brothers, abstinence from all sin, a speedy penitence from any sin committted through human frailty while on the march, zeal in punishing any evil in the army and a preoccupation with the sacred. It is notable how similiar many of the conditions on this list were to the obligations required of someone entering a religious community.

It was the belief that crusades were collective acts of penance, repayments through self-punishment of the debts owed to God for sin... it is no exaggeration to say that a crusade was for an individual only secondarily about service in arms to God or the benefiting of the church or Christianity, it was primarily about benefiting himself, an act of self-sanctification.

The power of this conception rested in the long term on the way it answered the concerns of the faithful. The remission of sins was as relevant to survivors as to those facing death, and it was offered to members of a society in which it was almost impossible for a layman of any substance, bound by responsibilities to kindred, clients, and dependents, to avoid serious sin. For hundreds of years Europe remained marked by anxieties about sinfulness and as a consequence crusading was attractive to many people. It provided an opportunity to make a fresh start.

The fact that crusade preachers made the penitential miseries of a crusade an inspiration to recruitment is one reason among many for doubting whether material consideration played much of a part in the motivation of crusaders, at least for expeditions to the East.

There is some truth in the association of crusading, taken as a whole, with what might rather anachronistically be called proto-colonialism. The preservation of Christian hands of the kingdom of Jerusalem and the other Levantine settlements had required the exploitation of land and of commerce by colonists and traders. By-products of the crusading movement, such as the Venetian Crete and Genoese Chios, fitted into a classical colonial mold. The occupation of the Baltic seaboard by German, Danish and Swedish crusaders had colonial features and associations with early imperialism are also to be found in the journeys of exploration by the Portuguese and Castillian kings two hundred years after the last crusade. The knights of some semisecular Iberian military orders, particularly those of Santiago and Christ, played major roles in the management of the Portuguese empire.

But whether these examples provide firm enough foundation for the generalizations that have been built upon them is open to question, particularly as no economic history of crusading or judgement on its economic effects has ever been written.

The vast majority of crusaders to the East would anyway have considered the prospect of material gain to have been ridiculous. The campaigns were dangerous: recent studies of the First and Fifth Crusades estimate a death rate among the nobles and knights of around 35% and the casualties would have been higher among the less well off. They were inconvenient, for both crusaders and their families. They were always very expensive, with few rewards for the participants, who tended to return as soon as they were over, and costs wwere always causes for concern for them and their kindred, who as early as the First Crusade were adopting strategies designed to prevent the disposal through sale or pledge of land to which they had good title. Crusading became more and more of a financial burden as the expenses associated with warfare increased and it is arguable that had the papacy not introduced taxation of the church and the subsidization of crusaders from 1199 onward, the movement would have collapsed through lack of funds. As it was it remained a severe drain on family resources throughout its history.

* the photo is St. Bruno, one of Pope Urban II saintly teachers

1 comment:

  1. "The Crusades, Christanity and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith"; Columbia University Press, N.Y., 2009

    Professor Emeritus of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Cambridge.

    The professor makes the point that contemporary popular notions about the Crusades in both the Christan and Islamic world are mistakenly founded on a 19th century perspective, chiefly through the fictions of Walter Scott and Joseph- Francois Michaud.

    Indeed, it is perhaps more accurrate to describe the current European and American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as 'crusades' rather than imperial or colonizing adventures at least in so far as might be estimated by any material advantage supposed to be gained thereby; products of 'pious patriotism' and the internal dynamics of domestic policy rather than any utilitarian estimate of material gain. Which also happens to be the case with some of the imperial adventures by Europeans in the 19th century, most notably the Germans in Africa.