Propaganda was an integral and necessary element of crusading. The launch of a propaganda campaign initiated by the pope marked the formal beginning of each crusade. By way of public preaching, a crusade was made known to potential participants and supporters, its aim was proclaimed, and its spiritual value was declared. Propaganda campaigns served to explain the circumstances from which a crusade originated and to justify the military action planned against an alleged enemy of the faith. The principal aim of these campaigns was to encourage people to participate in a crusade, either by becoming crusaders themselves or by supporting the crusade by other means, such as money or prayers. Crusade propaganda can be divided into two main categories: first, official propaganda initiated and organized by the popes and carried out by preachers and special envoys commissioned by the papacy or its representatives; second, unofficial propaganda spread by other people who were in one way or another involved in the crusade movement.
A Christian battles a Saracen, twelfth-century mosaic from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. (The Art Archive/Museo Camillo Leone Vercelli/Dagli Orti)
Official crusade propaganda campaigns were initiated by the popes. Sometimes popes personally marked the beginning of a crusade by preaching in public, most famously Urban II, when he announced the First Crusade (1096-1099) at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Preceding the official launch of a crusade, popes often contacted prominent potential participants and possible leaders by writing to them in person, thus preparing the ground for a successful recruitment campaign. By the same token, papal envoys were commissioned to approach individual candidates to sound out potential support for specific crusade ventures. When a crusade was announced, the pope sent a letter known as a bull to bishops and other members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the areas selected for recruitment and propaganda, informing them about the planned campaign and authorizing the spiritual and temporal privileges granted to the participants. At a local level, bishops were expected to publicize the pope’s call for a crusade and appoint appropriate members of the clergy to help them in doing so. Although the diocesan hierarchy theoretically guaranteed the widest possible distribution of crusade propaganda, the local clergy was not always reliable. Bound by local political and social ties, bishops and their subordinates were not always willing to comply with orders coming from Rome, which could be viewed as outside interference in local matters. There was also no uniform level of education among diocesan clerics, which meant that trained preachers were not always available in each diocese.
Up to around 1200, crusade propaganda was most successfully spread by individual preachers directly appointed by the popes, such as Bernard of Clairvaux during the Second Crusade (1147-1149), or subsequently Fulk of Neuilly, Oliver of Paderborn, Gerald of Wales, and Odo of Château- roux. Throughout the history of the crusade movement, individual propagandists continued to have a great impact, and some, such as John of Capistrano, became legendary figures. In the twelfth century the popes also began to call upon the Cistercian Order collectively to support the propaganda campaigns for individual crusades. With the arrival of the two new mendicant orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the papal crusade propaganda machinery was put on a new footing altogether. The mendicants provided large numbers of well- trained preachers in all parts of Europe, and the exempt status and hierarchical structure of the two orders made it possible for the papacy to use Dominican and Franciscan friars as efficient and reliable agents of crusade propaganda. Their orders were organized into provinces throughout Europe under a master-general or minister-general and governed by an annual chapter. Strict obedience bound local divisions within the hierarchical structure. Compared with the Cistercians, the mobility of the mendicant friars was considerable, since they were not obliged to live in one single monastery like the members of traditional religious orders. From the thirteenth century onward, the popes, with the help of the mendicant friars, managed to target particular geographical areas for crusade preaching and thus effectively determine the extent of propaganda deemed necessary for each individual crusade venture.
Alongside the numerous mendicant crusade preachers, popes commissioned papal legates to broadcast crusade propaganda throughout particular areas of Europe, often in conjunction with executing other business on behalf of the papacy. If the mendicant friars provided the necessary numbers of well-trained preachers to ensure the most effective spread of crusade propaganda, the papal legations, while reaching fewer people, added weight and authority to the papal crusade message. Given the increasing number of crusades after 1200, often operating concurrently, the sophisticated propaganda machinery established in the thirteenth century was a prerequisite for success, also because crusade preaching went hand in hand with raising important financial subsidies.
The exact propaganda strategy chosen for each crusade could vary considerably. Whenever the cross to the Holy Land was preached, popes as a rule commissioned the clergy all over Europe in order to attract as much support as possible. The preaching for smaller crusade ventures was usually more limited in terms of their geographical area and the number of propagandists chosen. Thus, in the 1230s and 1240s Gregory IX and Innocent IV mainly used the Dominicans of northern and northeastern Europe to spread, and at the same time control, propaganda in support of the crusade run by the Teutonic Order along the Baltic coast. By restricting preaching in this way, the papacy prevented the immensely popular, and comparatively less expensive, Baltic crusade from soaking up the crusade resources of these lands to the detriment of other crusade ventures, most notably the crusades to the Holy Land and against the rulers of the Staufen (Hohenstaufen) dynasty. At other times public preaching had to be replaced by individual diplomatic missions, as in the latter stages of the crusade against Emperor Frederick II, when public propaganda was virtually impossible in certain parts of Germany because of the antipapal stance of many authorities.
Official crusade propaganda was an important means for the papacy to exercise control over the crusade movement. Putting specially commissioned crusade preachers in charge of spreading information about the crusade gave popes the possibility to determine its ideological perception in public and project themselves as the leaders of the crusade movement. Even if it was at times difficult for popes to prevent political dynamics from taking over the course of a crusade, controlled propaganda was crucial if they wanted to preserve crusading as a powerful tool of papal politics. By portraying the crusade as a war fought on God’s behalf, authorized, regulated, and controlled by his vicar, the pope, official papal propaganda was aimed at giving the crusade a uniform appearance in public, couching it within a clear theological and legal framework. Although crusade preachers were free to tailor their own sermons to accord with each crusade and suit each audience, the popes usually demanded that the papal bulls involved be read out as well. The preachers thus not only clearly acted as emissaries of the pope, but also directly broadcast the pope’s words.
Papal authority was also represented by the propagandists’ powers to give people the cross, commute vows from one crusade to another, and administer vow redemptions in return for financial subsidies. The projection of papal authority was crucial in order to bolster the belief in the effectiveness of the indulgence and the validity of crusade vow redemptions. The practice of allowing people to redeem their vows for a money payment in support of the crusade was often criticized, but was also one of the most efficient sources of crusade finance. Because of this criticism, popes were concerned that the precepts concerning legal and spiritual benefits, as detailed in the crusade bulls, be strictly adhered to by propagandists. A lack of efficient control could lead to serious problems, both by endangering the credibility of the entire institution of the crusade as well as by misusing its energies. Thus the papacy made great efforts to prevent irregularities during recruitment campaigns, especially where alleged abuses of vow redemptions took place. In another context, popes tried, not always successfully, to curtail anti-Jewish elements of crusade propaganda in order to prevent socially disruptive attacks by crusaders on Jewish communities.
If official papal propaganda was aimed at spreading specific messages over large geographical areas, unofficial propaganda was as a rule less uniform and less widely disseminated. Nevertheless unofficial propaganda, taking many different forms, was equally important for attracting support for the crusade movement. Most significant was the information about the crusade that passed through family networks and feudal hierarchies. Aristocratic culture in particular facilitated the spread of informal crusading propaganda. The close connections of many aristocratic families to monasteries and other church institutions brought them into regular contact with the official channels of crusading propaganda. Information about crusading in general and individual crusades in particular that circulated, often by word of mouth, within family circles and feudal networks raised awareness about the issue of crusading, helped spread crusade mentality, and caused individuals and kinship groups to support the crusade. Since material support from within the family, family traditions, and feudal connections with other crusaders all acted as strong inducements for individuals to take the cross, family connections and feudal relations were of paramount importance for the recruitment of crusaders. Crusaders actively recruited fellow crusaders from among their wider families and retainers, a process facilitated by the dissemination of news and information about the crusade through informal networks. Within such networks, social gatherings at aristocratic courts and tournaments played an important role. Here news and information about particular crusades were circulated, stories about the crusades were exchanged, and songs about the crusades were performed by poets. Such gatherings were also occasions for conducting negotiations with prospective crusaders and bringing peer pressure to bear on those less willing to participate in the crusade.
In a wider context, the many medieval songs about the crusades, which became increasingly popular as the crusade movement emerged, played a positive role in crusade propaganda. Although there were a number of troubadours who developed a hostile attitude toward crusading, especially in response to the the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), many songs portrayed the crusades as an opportunity for participants to display such chivalrous virtues as heroic leadership, prowess in battle, and religious fervor. Promoting participation in the crusades as part of the ideal of chivalry, songs about the crusades performed in aristocratic circles helped to reinforce crusade propaganda in an indirect way, even when they were not aimed at supporting specific crusades. The same is true for pictorial representations of the crusades in churches and palaces, as well as in books. Church art and architecture in particular took up themes related to crusading in murals, stained glass windows, and sculptures. One famous example is that of the so-called crusade windows at the abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris with scenes of the First Crusade; another is the sculpture of an anonymous crusader and his wife from Belval priory in Lorraine. Other references to the crusades can be seen in the many churches built in the shape of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. In the secular sphere, similar pictorial representations of the crusades existed, such as the murals depicting crusade scenes commissioned by King Henry III of England for his residences in the middle of the thirteenth century. Such pictorial representations and architectural references also functioned as indirect crusade propaganda, keeping the theme of crusade alive in the public mind.