Post-classical history


The ability to communicate on the highest level is a basic manifestation of the social nature of humankind and, as such, differentiates humans from animals. Being an interpersonal process, communication requires a shared code of symbols and some standardized usage; words are convenient codes by which people share meaning. Communication may therefore be defined as a symbolic behavior that occurs between two or more participating individuals. It is a transactional process, affective, and purposive, and it implies goal-directed behavior, which may have instrumental or consummatory ends.

Accepted values are shaped and distributed in every society according to communication’s distinctive institutional patterns. Though traditional societies did use and develop communication, they did not require a skilled, professional network of the kind they develop nowadays; nor was communication essential to the economy or the production process. Communication in traditional societies (in contrast to the anonymity of the audience inherent in electronic mass media) was in most cases characterized by immediate contact between communicator and audience.

Conceptualization of Communication in Medieval Society

In medieval society, communication was further conditioned by the isolation of one group from another within the hierarchy of the feudal system. The feudal pyramid provided, in this regard, a communication pattern in which the amount of information assimilated by different social strata was determined by their socioeconomic status and the political functions they fulfilled. Whereas peasants or craftsmen contented themselves with scanty information, the sociopolitical elite—both lay and ecclesiastical—dealt with a considerable range of reports. Many of its members were well aware of the fact that the faster information was received, the more accurately it could be translated into political practice. Accordingly, they tried and to a certain degree succeeded in developing communication channels of limited scope. The prevailing political and socioeconomic conditions thus justify a different conceptualization of communications in medieval society when everyday practices assumed the significance of communication channels. The use of the term media with regard to the Middle Ages thus refers to the different means of communication elaborated at the time, without the socioeconomic implications they acquire in modern society. The essential liaison among the different media further means that they cannot be categorized according to institutional patterns alone.

The Contribution of the Crusades to the Communication Network

Alongside other factors, the crusades may also be regarded as an outcome of communication, their success conditioned on the convincing transmission of ideological tenets and, in parallel, the supply of viable solutions to changing needs. In this regard, the success of the First Crusade (1096-1099) remains sui generis because of the extensive and immediate positive response it received prior to the date set by Pope Urban II to depart overseas at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Some contemporary chroniclers approached the wide diffusion of the papal call within a very short period of time in terms of divine intervention. Urban II himself hinted at more conventional means of transmission, such as preaching and correspondence. The propaganda success of the First Crusade thus does not indicate the relative proficiency of communication channels at the time but, first and foremost, the appeal of Christian values and images to the average eleventh-century believer, such as those of holy war and the Holy Sepulchre, endlessly repeated for generations.

From its very beginnings, preaching was the main channel utilized to propagate the crusade. Whether in the framework of great assemblies or small meetings, inside palaces and strongholds, churches and cathedrals, or in the open air, the aim of crusade propaganda was to bring about an immediate response while inducing the faithful to take up the cross. Urban II himself preached at Clermont, Angers, Tours, and Limoges as well as other locations. Peter the Hermit concentrated his efforts in small towns and villages in northern France and the Rhineland, thus turning the urban population into the main target for recruitment. On the eve of the Second Crusade (1147-1149), Bernard of Clairvaux, too, preached the crusade in the urban centers of France, Lotharingia, Flanders, and Germany. Contemporary sources emphasized the fact that Bernard was able to preach in French and Latin, but his listeners in the empire, who were ignorant of these languages, were captivated by the saint’s words as though they were spoken in German. While preaching the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Gerard of Wales admitted that he spoke in Latin and French to Welsh people, whose knowledge of these languages was almost nil. Perhaps because of this fact, he further claimed that the main importance of a crusade sermon did not lie in its content but in the way it was delivered and the emotions it raised. Universal weeping and, as much as possible, miracles were considered fundamental to the success of crusade preaching.

But miracles were not always at the disposal of Christian preachers, who had to cope with the heterogeneous character of their audiences. Many listeners did not understand Latin, and the itinerant character of preachers did not make communication with local audiences any easier. The experiences of Bernard of Clairvaux and Gerard of Wales make it clear that besides linguistic knowledge, body language and mass suggestion played crucial roles. The need to develop suitable substitutes further fostered the use of audiovisual channels of communication, such as loud voices, songs (mostly in the vernacular), bells, processions, public prayers, ornaments, and gestures, all of them devoted to enhancing the crusade.

Beyond the pan-European level, the crusades confronted Christendom with the challenge of developing efficient channels of communication with those who departed overseas, a rather difficult goal in itself because of the heterogeneous character of the crusader armies. The chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, writing of the First Crusade, emphasized the mixture of languages in one army. Linguistic barriers also drove a wedge among those who restored Lisbon to Christian rule during the Second Crusade (1147). Obviously, the encounter with Eastern Christians and Muslims did not make communication any easier, given both the lack of bilingual skills and the almost complete ignorance of the average westerner about the Eastern populations and their culture or faith.

The existence of a common Christian faith did not bridge the sociocultural gap between crusaders and the Byzantines, nor did it make communication with the Byzantine emperor and his delegates any easier. By the tenth century, Byzantium had reached an advanced stage in the transmission of information. Its naval power gave the empire a valuable means of rapid communication, enabling it to organize its diplomacy over a wide area and to exploit more readily opportune developments in districts near the sea. In contrast to the communication developments in the Eastern empire, Western Christendom was at a more archaic stage. By the late eleventh century, European society had yet to develop communication channels beyond elementary contacts in the framework of feudal bonds or intermittent commercial links. The church, with the papacy at its head, was at the forefront of communication techniques, whether in the framework of the diocesan system or in the wider context of such movements as the Peace of God, the Truce of God, and the Gregorian Reform. Although the papacy contributed the legatine system (with legates actively participating in the crusades) and turned church councils into the main arena for crusade planning and propaganda, these two means could hardly cover the various and changing needs that affected both shores of the Mediterranean.

Alongside the many challenges facing communication between Western Christendom and those who departed to the East, on the one hand, and among the crusaders, Muslims, and Byzantines, on the other, the colonial character of the Frankish states in Outremer made it imperative to find the most efficient channels with western Europe, which throughout the crusader period remained the major supplier of manpower and logistical assistance. An analysis of the Second Crusade, however, indicates that Western society still had not solved communication difficulties, especially in the field of message transmission, an unfortunate state of affairs that left its mark on the path of future developments. Thus, news of the fall of Edessa (mod. Şanlıurfa, Turkey) in December 1144 was delivered to the Curia by messengers from Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) a little less than one year later. The arrival of this delegation prompted Pope Eugenius III to react immediately, and the first bulls calling for a new crusade were dated 1 December 1145. The Christian armies, however, left Europe only in April 1147, almost eighteen months after the papal call, and almost two and a half years after the fall of Edessa.

The considerable delay in the departure of the crusader armies appears to be the rule from the second half of the twelfth century onward, when the urgent needs of the Frankish states in Outremerencountered a slow response, if any, among the Western leaders. Besides the slowness in the transmission of vital information, the dependence on feudal routines (which were per se slow and complex) made it difficult, if not impossible, to offer an immediate response to the calls for help from the Levant.

Being the main “consumers” of communication practices, crusade leaders tried and to some degree also succeeded in circulating up-to-date reports of their situation, notwithstanding the archaic communication channels at their disposal. They failed, however, to resolve the long delays in transmission, so that the considerable gap between actual developments and their reception in the West neutralized even more the fragile cohesion between the two shores of the Mediterranean. Some examples may clarify the slowness of transmission that was the rule even when very important considerations were at stake: The disastrous defeats of the Second Crusade, conveyed orally or through letters carried by deserters and released prisoners, became known in Europe toward the end of 1147. In turn, the news of Emperor Henry V’s death in Germany (23 May 1125) and his succession by Lothar III of Supplingenburg was delivered to Jerusalem by pilgrims almost one year later on Easter Day (11 April 1126). Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa dispatched a letter to Outremer detailing Saladin’s policy only in July 1187; its contents, however, were publicized in Germany eight months earlier (23 November 1186).

Limitations of Medieval Communication

The delays in information transmission, which were often but not only caused by technical factors such as the limitations of navigation, brought about the indiscriminate reception of information both in Europe and Outremer, with complete disregard for its reliability. The lack of trustworthy information sources further favored the spread of rumors, an integral component in traditional societies and a most important channel of information or, rather, misinformation transmission. The “news” about the Mongol conquest of the Holy Land in 1300, for instance, reached Europe a few months after the supposed event, accompanied by additional rumors of the Mongols’ readiness to entrust the land into Christian hands following their expected conversion.

Though the lack of reliable information appears to have been most crucial in regard to current events, it also affected geographical knowledge about the Holy Land and neighboring areas, which remained rather poor. Still, the pursuit of information about the places where Christ lived and was crucified caused contemporary chroniclers to offer some data about the soil, the fauna, and the flora of Outremer, gradually weakening its former mystical essence. This tendency matured in the second half of the twelfth century with the diffusion of Itineraria, that is, reports written by pilgrims for the sake of those who wanted to follow the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles in the Holy Land. The itineraries provide a good example of the transitional stage of communication in the crusader period: there was a new awareness of the need for information, though it did not bring about significant improvement in either communication channels or the accuracy of the messages transmitted.

If the average twelfth-century person could cope with the relative stagnation of information, the situation was quite different for the political elite, both lay and ecclesiastical, because of the complex links between the two shores of the Mediterranean. Princes, the masters of the military orders, and prelates appear to have been the most important communication consumers, their actions and interests spreading beyond the near neighborhood. They played a leading role in the development of a communication network while fostering what might tentatively be categorized as a “communication-oriented society.”

Communication Channels

Letters (very often in the framework of diplomatic missions) also served as a main communication channel. Bernard of Clairvaux complemented his preaching of the Second Crusade with dozens of letters, through which he tried to extend his influence throughout Christendom, especially among the nobility. Correspondence became common practice among the Franks in their dealings with the West and with the Muslim and Byzantine political elites as well. Although available information does not offer satisfactory data about the time of reception, this interchange indicates an average of about four to six months for the exchange of letters between Byzantium and Antioch, Jerusalem, or Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel). Although letter-exchange was efficient, relatively speaking, across short distances within the Levant, it encountered many difficulties when attempted between western Europe and the Latin East. The maritime journey was relatively short, lasting from fifteen to twenty-five days, with favorable winds, and only during specific seasons. Still, the length of time required for the transmission of information remained a critical problem throughout the whole period of the crusades. With the absence of more suitable alternatives, letters served as the main channel of transmission to report on the critical situation in Outremer and the means urgently needed to ensure the survival of the Frankish strongholds there. During Saladin’s advance (1177-1187), for instance, there was a continuous interchange of letters with the political elite of the West, whose assistance was desperately required. Again, the main communicators were the masters of the military orders and the prelates and princes of Outremer.

Alongside written correspondence, messengers and pilgrims were associated with oral delivery, with messages very often transmitted aloud, whether in public or in private. Messengers actually played a role in communication besides their original duty as couriers in that they transmitted all or a great part of their information orally. This state of affairs demanded their selection from among a very narrow group of close advisers and high officers. Still, the many dangers in the Mediterranean and Baltic areas, whether emanating from man or from nature, turned the mission of personal messengers into a very difficult task. This justified the parallel use of both oral and written messages, a widespread practice throughout the Middle Ages. Saladin himself wrote to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and to Pope Lucius III and mentioned the exchange of personal messengers between them. The parallel use of several messengers also became common practice, with several copies of the same letter sent to the same destination to ensure reception. The dependence of the Latin strongholds on the continuous, substantial assistance of Western Christendom made this practice indispensable. Contemporary records report quite regularly the mission of delegations to Europe with almost identical aims. Though the size of these delegations changed from time to time, they seem as a rule to have been rather considerable.

The most developed stage in the transmission of information in the crusader period is manifested in the establishment of permanent embassies, which ensured the continuous transmission of reliable information within an acceptable period of time. This development came very slowly in Europe, probably because the lack of a clear distinction among diplomatic relations, information exchange, and simple espionage instilled a suspicious approach toward the representatives of foreign powers. The crusade movement and the expansion of trade in the Mediterranean brought about crucial changes in this regard. By the twelfth century, there was a Pisan ambassador in Bougie (mod. Bejaïa, Algeria), an exclusively Muslim city. Most Italian communes established permanent representations in Outremer, mainly located in Acre and Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon). The Teutonic Order also often had a permanent or semipermanent representation at the papal Curia.


Analysis of communication developments during the period of the crusades leads to the conclusion that no new channels were elaborated to ensure a more efficient transmission of information. The colonial character of Frankish society fostered the adoption of the archaic channels of communication that existed in Europe. Moreover, the normative character of medieval society blocked the adoption of more advanced communication channels of the kind that were practiced at the time in both Muslim and Byzantine societies. Regular mail services, like those operating in the neighboring Muslim states and Byzantium, remained completely extrinsic to the crusaders’ world. Still, as time went by the Teutonic Order, for instance, developed an advanced postal system in the Baltic area. One of the few examples of Muslim influence was the use of carrier pigeons, a practice unknown in eleventh-century Europe but regularly used in the Frankish states in Outremer during the thirteenth century.

From a communication perspective, the continuation of practices suitable to feudal society—in the face of new needs created by the states of Outremer and, no less important, of the more advanced communication standards of Muslim and Byzantine societies—turned the crusades into a paradox. Still, when examined in the framework of political, security, demographical, and economic factors, the communication contribution of the crusades can hardly be neglected. Against the localism that was inherent in feudal practice, a growing number of Europeans moved between Europe and the Levant during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, their occupations requiring a constant exchange of information. The crusades further appear as an important catalyst for communication developments, not only between the two shores of the Mediterranean but, first and foremost, within Europe itself: the very crystallization of a crusade depended on close coordination and information exchange between the pope and the secular leaders of Christendom and, in turn, between the latter and their vassals- in-chief. Though the technical level of transmission remained archaic, imperative needs brought about the upgrading and more intensive use of communication channels. Moreover, the significant growth in letter-exchange, the acceleration in information transmission, and perhaps above all the new awareness of the crucial importance of delivering reliable information in the shortest period of time combine to make the crusades an important stage in the emergence of a more communication-oriented society in the late Middle Ages.

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