13C-Crusade-art - 12/4/97
"Putting the Thirteenth Century Crusade into Context" by Nicolaa de Bracton of
NOTE: See also the files: crusades-msg, religion-msg, pilgrimages-msg,
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanıs Florilegium.
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Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
Putting the Thirteenth Century Crusade into Context
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
England and the Crusade in the Thirteenth Century
In 1240, England has been under the rule of Henry III for more than twenty
years now. The tumult that marked the early years of the reign (during Henryıs
minority) have largely subsided, and Henry is not yet overtroubled by the
baronial dissent which would mark the later years of the reign. Many of the
greater feudal lords have thus chosen this time to fulfill crusadersı vows with
an expedition to the Holy Land. Though many historians continue to number the
major expeditions as ³crusades², in truth the dividing lines between the
individual expeditions have begun to blur, with smaller groups of crusaders and
pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land almost constantly. The ³high water² mark of
the crusader kingdoms has passed, and though there are victories from time to
time, these kingdoms are gradually contracting.
However, crusading zeal has not subsided, particularly in England and
France. With relations between those two perennial enemies relatively peaceful,
many members of the noble and knightly classes have chosen the crusade as a
venue not only to win glory on the field of battle, but also to make the highly-
desired pilgrimage to the Holy Land and fulfill a solemn vow to aid in its
The Church in the Thirteenth Century
To understand the crusade fully, one must understand the mindset of the
thirteenth century person. It is commonplace in the twentieth century to
examine the Church in retrospect, especially its all-too-human failings, with
typical modern skepticism. Implicit in this analysis is the idea that an ³age
of faith² is somehow an age of ignorance, in which a corrupt Church sought to
control both the minds and bodies of the masses and stamped out any attempt at
³free thinking². This is to misunderstand the medieval mind. First, it is
often forgotten that the Church made many attempts to control the violence in
society which were quite beneficial. On the eve of the First Crusade, the
great wars of conquest largely over by now, roving bands of ³thugs² of the
knightly classes had taken to wandering the countryside causing trouble. Urban
IIıs call to crusade was partially an attempt to redirect the energies of these
men, whose whole raison dıetre revolved around combat, towards a common enemy,
rather than towards each other. It is no accident that one of the duties of a
knight under the emergent codes of chivalry was to defend the Church. It is
during the Crusade period that these codes become fully developed. Knights were
bound together both by their class and by their Christian faith, as well as
their place in the feudal hierarchy. To the medieval person, this hierarchy was
divinely ordained, and both Church and Crown had their appointed places.
Second, the Church itself, at the height of its influence, was going through a
huge series of reforms intended to address many of its perceived deficiencies,
including undereducated clergy, priests who bought and sold ecclesiastical
offices or who did not fulfill their duties, and so forth. The rise of
universities was partially a result of these reforms; the intellectual climate
in the thirteenth century was also quite open to new ideas (particularly those
which attempted to integrate classical philosophy into Christian theology).
Finally, for virtually all medieval people, religious faith was the basis of
life (whether one were an orthodox Catholic, a heretic, or a Jew). Contrary to
popular belief, the Church did not discourage the average person from learning
about the faith; quite to the contrary--the survival of large numbers of basic
theological, devotional, and hagiographical tracts, some in the vernacular,
attest to this. Though it is true that the Church expected people to remain
within the bounds of orthodoxy, that still left many roads open for inquiry.
Few thirteenth century people ever challenged their faith--most accepted it
without question. This is not a ³bad² thing--itıs a ³different² thing, and itıs
a fascinating exercise to try to put oneself into this different frame of mind.
I have already alluded to the two major factors in choosing to take a
crusadersı vow: piety, or a desire to defend the holy places of the faith from
the ³infidel²; and loyalty to oneıs overlord. A third should be added to this,
one which is somewhat related to the first: the idea of penance. Each bears
further discussion. But I want to mention a third reason sometimes cited for
the crusade in passing, that being that younger sons went on Crusade in search
of land. While this may indeed have been a factor in the first Crusade, and
perhaps even the second, it was not a factor by the thirteenth century. The
Crusader Kingdoms of the twelfth century had largely disappeared by the
thirteenth, and with their disappearance, the crusade movement had drastically
changed in character. The thirteenth century crusades were far more personal in
nature than had been the earlier efforts, in which huge armies from many nations
allied together. These crusades tended to be organized by a single king or a
coalition of noblemen; this probably contributed to their comparative lack of
success in actually besting the foe. Facing a resurgent Islamic world powered
by the relatively ruthless Mamaluk Turks, based in Egypt, the European Crusaders
found themselves outclassed. This did not stop them from trying, however.
Going on Crusade was one sure way of gaining military experience for a young
noble, particularly a younger son whose future was not yet certain--but seldom
was land a promise in this later day.
As I mentioned, thirteenth century crusades were largely organized by one
or more powerful nobles in a particular country, and national pride was often an
issue. Thus, those personally attached to the retinues of major noblemen often
followed their lords overseas, as might local knights and gentry, depending on
the popularity of the particular nobleman. Those who did not actually make the
trip could contribute in other ways, as I shall note in a moment.
Finally, there is the motive of piety or penance. Though the crusades
were extremely violent in nature, they were largely undertaken with the idea in
mind that one enlisted to fight for Godıs cause in His army--a ³soldier of
Christ² in the very real sense. And in fact, in the thirteenth century, the
threat from ³the infidel² was considerably more pronounced than it had been in
the late eleventh, when the movement had first began. By this time, the real
fight had returned to its original roots--protecting and defending the
pilgrimage destinations in the Holy Land. Not being able to have access to
Jerusalem --even if one could never actually go there in person--was as
important, or nearly so, to a thirteenth century Christian as for a modern
Muslim to know that someday, one might make it to Mecca. In addition, priests
were regularly assigning taking a crusaderıs vow to the noble classes as penance
for major crimes and indiscretions by this time--this was simply a evolution of
earlier assignments of pilgrimages. Many even took the vows as a form of
voluntary penance--after all, as from the early days, crusaders were given a
plenary indulgence for all sins committed while on Crusade, and it simply
³looked good on your resume², as it were. There were few of the upper classes
and virtually no kings who did not take such a vow in the thirteenth century, so
far had the idea spread.
How did one ³sign up², as it were? In the case of the first Crusade, it
was first preached in the south of France by the Pope himself. Preachers then
went out from there around France to drum up support. For later Crusades, the
pope would usually instigate or encourage efforts by dealing directly with those
who would lead it. But preaching remained one of the best ways of signing
people up, and with the rise of the mendicant friars, especially Dominicans,
crusade preaching became a bit of a science. Crowd psychology was important.
Since crusading was often equated with penance, Lent was a popular period for
preaching, as was Advent, and September 14 --the Feast of the Exaltation of the
Cross, became almost a festival for crusaders or crusade preaching. The sermon
was often placed just after Mass for dramatic effect; often a bell was rung for
the Holy Land when the Lordıs Prayer was recited in the Mass. By the thirteenth
century, there were regular special prayers and processions designed to inspire
penitence and aid the cause of the Holy land. The sermons would be packed full
of exempla , or moral stories of those who had taken the Cross or the bad things
that had happened to those who had not or prevented others from doing so.
Repetition of certain phrases (³Rise up and follow the cross²) was common. Often
the preachers would use props, such as a relic of the True Cross (or another
cross to symbolize it); and if miracles happened in the vicinity as a result,
so much the better. Finally, it was important to have someone actually come
forth immediately after the sermon; this seems to have often been arranged in
advance (major noblemen probably rarely took the cross on impulse). Less formal
methods of persuasion were also used, including the writing of letters from the
Holy Land bemoaning the latest atrocities of the infidel, which were then widely
circulated; and that of having local notables publicly whip up support. Songs
and literature about crusading and the great heroes of the movement (including
the Arthur stories, in which the Quest for the Grail was often equated with the
crusade, and the Chanson de Roland , which, though ostensibly about
Charlemagneıs campaigns against the Moors, owes more to the Crusade movement,
particularly the Reconquista--which,though not in the Holy Land, was as much as
a Crusade as its more famous cousin).
³Taking the Cross² probably involved swearing a public oath over the
relics, and then sewing a linen cross (red or white, depending on the particular
crusade) to the shoulder of oneıs cloak. After this, a person was designated a
crusignatus (sometimes wrongly translated asCrusader.) Lists of these people
were kept in England by the Crown (as well as by the Church), because their
legal status changed. Normally there were restrictions placed upon disposing of
large amounts of property; these were lifted in the case of those preparing for
crusade. Bilking a crusignatus in a deal also gained one an extra penalty in
canon law. Provision was also made for wives and children of crusaders should
they be killed or lost while on crusade. The other reason for keeping the lists
was to keep track of who had not fulfilled their oath...
Which brings up another point. By the thirteenth century, more and more
people, both male and female, were taking crusadersı oaths. The majority of
these people never set foot in the Holy Land, but they certainly fulfilled their
vows --by making monetary contributions, or by raising forces. This allowed the
ethos to spread throughout society, even to the fairly poor.
There are a plethora of books on the actual history of the Crusades;
Steven Runcimanıs three volume set is pretty much the standard overview.
Brundage, J.A. Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader. London, 1969.
Cunnington, C. and P. Handbook of English Medieval Costume. London,1969.
Forey, Alan. The Military Orders from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth
Centuries. Toronto 1992.
de Joinville, Jean and Villehardouin, Geoffroy. Chronicles of the Crusades.,
M.R.B. Shaw, trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
Lloyd, Simon. English Society and the Crusade: 1216-1307 . Oxford 1988.
___________, ³ Political Crusadesı in England, c. 1215-1217 and c. 1263-1265²,
in Edbury, PW. ed. Crusade and Settlement. Cardiff, 1985.
Maier, Christoph T. Preaching the Crusades: Mendicant Friars and the Cross in
the Thirteenth Century . Cambridge 1994.
Riley-Smith, J.C. The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading . London, 1986
Tyerman, Christopher. England and the Crusades: 1095-1588. Chicago 1988.
Music of the Crusades. The Early Music Consort of London; David Munrow, dir.
London Records 430 264-2.
Copyright 1996 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
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