Post-classical history


The crusade vow was the means that transformed an individual’s inner conversion and intention to participate in an armed expedition in defense of the Holy Land or Christendom against Muslims, pagans, heretics, or other enemies of the church into a penitentially and legally binding obligation.

Development and Implications of the Crusading Vow

Retrospectively described by chroniclers and scholars as the fusion of holy war with the Jerusalem pilgrimage, the First Crusade (1096-1099) appealed to the knightly classes as a form of arduous yet temporary renunciation of the world close in penitential efficacy to the permanent adoption of the monastic life, which was unavailable to those committed to a life of temporal warfare. At the same time, although Pope Urban II seems to have intended to recruit knights to serve the Byzantine emperor against the Muslims, it was the pope’s focus on the popular pilgrimage site of Jerusalem as the ultimate goal of service in the militia Christi (knighthood of Christ) that led many noncombatants to join the crusade.

The terminology, ritual, and spiritual imagery of the new expeditions to the Holy Land remained tightly tied to the concept of pilgrimage. Legally and spiritually, crusaders were viewed as pilgrims. From the Council of Clermont (1095) onward, crusaders usually had crosses sewn on their clothing as an outward sign of the obligations inherent in their vows. Yet a distinctive liturgical rite for bestowing the crusader’s cross was slow to develop; when it did, it was modeled closely on existing ceremonies used to mark an individual’s solemn vow of pilgrimage through the blessing and bestowal of the pilgrim’s distinctive insignia, the staff and scrip (wallet), before his or her departure. Some individuals received their tokens from a priest or chaplain in a relatively private atmosphere, while others took their crosses and vows in the rather more public setting of a clerical or secular court or during the revivalism that characterized the galvanizing sermons preached by local clergymen or crusade recruiters. Moreover, the term crucesignatus (one signed with the cross) gradually began to supplement the term pere- grinus (pilgrim) as a title for individuals who had taken the crusade vow only during the twelfth century. The full or partial remission of the penance enjoined for confessed sins (known as the indulgence) granted to crusaders also remained mentally linked to the full remission believed to be earned by an unarmed pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the partial remissions granted to those journeying to other holy sites.

Not until the period of the late twelfth to late thirteenth centuries was the theory of the crusade vow fully developed in canon law and the privileges and rules governing the vow’s obligations and the legal enforcement of them systematically defined and elaborated. For, as in the case of a vow of pilgrimage, the crusader’s vow placed him in a category of persons temporarily granted privileges and responsibilities normally reserved for secular ecclesiastics or those who had taken the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience required for entry in a religious order. Such privileges and responsibilities included the adoption of distinctive clothing or habit and varying degrees of dietary and sexual abstinence. In fact, the crusade was often viewed as an ideal preparation or substitution for entry into monastic life.

The crusade vow and the penalty of excommunication for failing to fulfill it (or for doing so in a dilatory fashion) enabled the mustering of organized military campaigns, and the obligations and privileges attached to its adoption evolved over time, as did the categories of persons considered capable of taking it. From the First Crusade onward, attempts were made to prevent unfree serfs, minors, secular clergymen, and monks and nuns sworn to obedience and stability in the cloister from making the crusade vow without their superior’s permission. Married persons were also urged not to take the cross without their spouse’s consent. Other groups considered to present logistical burdens or temptation to crusading armies were periodically discouraged from taking the cross or from fulfilling their crusade vow by personally participating in a military expedition, including young single women, the poor or physically debilitated, the aged and very young, and those lacking both military skill and the funds necessary to subsidize contingents of trained fighters. For this very reason, until the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216), individuals were urged to confess their sins and be vetted by a clergyman for suitability before taking the cross. However, limited numbers of some categories of noncombatants were considered potentially valuable to the crusader host, including clergymen necessary for moral leadership and provision of the sacraments, experienced albeit aged fighters, merchants, artisans, laundresses, and farmers.

Confessors and ecclesiastical and secular courts in regions with a long tradition of penitential pilgrimages also imposed the crusade vow upon those guilty of serious crimes or notorious sins, including violence against ecclesiastics, murder, arson, sacrilege, sorcery, illegal trading with Muslim powers, heresy, and clerical incontinence or pluralism. Such a penance or judicial penalty was viewed by many as an honorable or attractive alternative to humiliating public penances, heavy fines, mutilation, or the death penalty. Increasingly, deceased individuals’ heirs were considered liable to fulfill crusading vows assumed both voluntarily and involuntarily, whether in person or through the provision of a substitute or donation. Although in principle the crusade was meant to enable perpetrators to expiate their sins and earn spiritual benefits for their victims while temporarily shielding them from vengeance, reformers complained that the Holy Land had become a dumping ground for moral undesirables, who, removed from the strictures of their kin, culture, and native laws, earned God’s ire by their recidivist turpitude.

Privileges Attached to the Crusading Vow

As the privileges attached to the crusading vow were increasingly defined, elaborated, and enforced, many assumed the cross in order to obtain the temporal and spiritual benefits it provided. In addition to the various indulgences offered to those participating in the crusading movement, crucesignati shared in the spiritual credit generated by prayers and liturgies organized for the crusades. As pilgrims, they were allowed to deal with excommunicates and receive the sacraments in regions under interdict. They could sometimes choose their own confessors, who like crusade preachers were often granted the ability to absolve crucesignati from excommunication and other irregularities normally requiring an arduous journey to Rome. Reformers complained that the cynical used these concessions to escape the penitential jurisdiction of their local parish priests and bishops, to circumvent the arduous penances or excommunications imposed upon them for sins or crimes, and to avoid making restitution to their victims.

From the First Crusade onward, crusaders were also promised papal protection of their persons, property, and households until their return or certain evidence of their death, a privilege enforced by the power of excommunication and interdict wielded by local prelates. However, surviving petitions and court records show that these spiritual penalties were disregarded by many eager to wreak revenge upon the crusader’s vulnerable family or encroach upon undefended lands by violence or lawsuits. Some crusaders obtained individualized papal letters of protection; popes threatened to punish prelates who failed to shield crusaders and called upon secular rulers to stop encroachments by force if necessary.

Crusaders also enjoyed certain legal and financial privileges that evolved over time. Enumerated, extended, and clarified in papal letters written in response to specific cases, they received one of their most elaborated and authoritative descriptions in Innocent III’s bull Ad liberandam (1215), which became a crucial authority cited by canon lawyers who continually redefined crusaders’ privileges and the institutions of the crusading movement. To enable clergymen to personally participate in various expeditions, ecclesiastical crusaders were exempted from the income taxes levied on diocesan and regular churches for the crusade. Those with benefices were freed from the usual residence requirements and were allowed to either mortgage or continue receiving the incomes attached to them for up to three years, provided that they remained on crusade and appointed a vicar to minister in their absence if pastoral responsibilities were attached to their office. By 1145, if their lords or relatives were unable or unwilling to lend them money, laypersons were allowed to sell or mortgage inalienable lands to raise funds for their journey and were also granted a moratorium on paying interest on debts contracted before, and in some instances, after they took the cross, until their return.

Later popes attempted to extend these financial privileges to include freedom from payments on the principal of debts and exemption from all taxes and tolls, as well as from levies instituted for the crusade such as the Saladin Tithe (1188). Prelates were called upon to enforce these privileges with excommunication and interdict, and secular rulers were urged to force Jews in their lands to remit interest on crusaders’ debts and make restitution of any interest already charged. Crusaders soon found, however, that creditors were reluctant to lend them money unless they waived their privileges, and some secular and ecclesiastical magnates proved notoriously reluctant to restrict the incomes of the Jewish and Christian moneylenders to whom they lent protection in return for lucrative taxation. Secular rulers also proved loath to exempt crusaders from feudal duties (including military service), taxation, and tallages, particularly in times of war or when a significant percentage of the population took the cross.

As pilgrims, crusaders were also entitled to expedite or delay legal proceedings initiated after they took the cross and to enjoy freedom from all lawsuits concerning possessions held peacefully and without dispute before taking the crusade vow. As temporary religious, they could also opt for trial in ecclesiastical courts. As with clerical immunity from prosecution in secular courts, this privilege became the object of much jurisdictional wrangling between secular rulers and the papacy and local ecclesiastics, resulting finally in compositions that specified that in cases arising after individuals took the cross, they could be tried in church courts except in instances involving property or serious crimes, which fell under feudal and royal law. These compositions redressed rulers’ concerns regarding lawlessness, defaulting on loans, and the abuse of legal privileges by those who, like Gerald of Wales, became crucesignati in order to gain advantage in ongoing lawsuits. By the thirteenth century, popes sought to restrict abuses by stressing that those who took the crusade vow in prison forfeited any special legal privileges, while appointing crusade preachers and legates to supplement local prelates as official protectors of crusaders’ rights. Innocent III extended many of these rights to those involved in crusades other than those destined for the Holy Land, including the crusade against heretics in southern France, and enshrined them in Ad liberandam, which became the basis for crusading bulls’ declarations of crusaders’ privileges and obligations throughout the thirteenth century.

Dispensation from and Redemption of Crusading Vows

From the 1190s onward, immense developments took place in the definition of the precise nature of the duties attached to the crusade vow and the possibility of dispensations from it. A dispensation meant the relaxation of the original terms of the vow because of unavoidable circumstances preventing its fulfillment, such as grave or permanent disability, illness, poverty, public necessity such as the safety of the realm, or old age. Dispensations could include fulfilling one’s pilgrimage through a hired substitute, the commutation of its obligations into an alternative pilgrimage goal or charitable work, and its redemption through a donation of the funds that would otherwise have been spent in personally fulfilling the vow to a crusade or another charitable cause. Boundaries between redemptions of the full crusading vow and voluntary donations to the crusading effort rewarded by partial indulgences could be easily blurred, particularly when groups of impoverished crusaders banded together to subsidize one fighter as a substitute.

During the period when individuals were required to seek the permission of their spouse and temporal and spiritual superiors before taking the vow, and were theoretically examined for their ability to fulfill its obligations before being allowed to take it, dispensations were granted only under strict circumstances. Although bishops possessed the ability to dispense from pilgrimage vows, popes attempted to reserve the ability to absolve individuals from the crusade vow to themselves and their delegates, who were ideally meant to weigh the particulars of each case and prescribe fitting penitential alternatives. Typically, up until and throughout the pontificate of Innocent III, a combination of poverty and infirmity was necessary to justify redeeming the crusade vow. Those unable to fight in person or provide aid to the crusading army through providing sacramental services, spiritual exhortation, military advice, or contingents of fighters could redeem or commute their vows, and those whose absence on crusade would prove dangerous to their lands or realm could delay their fulfillment.

These general guidelines partly reflected the attempts of secular rulers to rid crusading armies of noncombatants and convert the desire of pious noncombatants for personal participation in the crusade enterprise into monetary subsidy of trained fighters. The priorities of noblemen often responsible for organizing crusade contingents thus often conflicted with the desire of many poor noncombatants to personally participate in expeditions. And even though some popes often wanted to enable the participation of as many penitents as possible and believed that all physically capable of fulfilling their vows ought to make the journey, they were also responsible for ensuring the military viability of crusade expeditions. From the First Crusade onward, attempts were made to discourage monks, women, the poor, the weak, and the elderly from taking the cross, until Innocent III called for crusade preachers to give the vow to whoever desired it without first examining their ability to fulfill it or requiring permission from their spouse or superiors. Many historians have seen in this declaration a prescient attempt to hijack the crusade vow and use it to secure support for papal crusade policy or deliberately convert the devotion of the faithful into the financial subsidy of professional fighters. In fact, Innocent III seems to have followed reformers from Peter the Chanter’s school in Paris who saw the crusade vow as the means of signifying and institutionalizing the penitential fervor required of the home and foreign fronts for the crusades’ success. He appears to have intended that alms gathered during crusade preaching and processions and the institution of a clerical income tax would subsidize the financially insolvent but hardy poor. To this end, he deferred the examination and dispensation of crusaders until just before the crusading expedition departed, when those who could not be subsidized or were unfit to participate could commute, redeem, or delay their vows.

By the time of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), however, Innocent had come under pressure from military leaders who worried about being burdened with the poor and militarily useless. Ad liberandam made no mention of indiscriminate signing, and soon weak or poor individuals were urged to and, by the mid-thirteenth century, often forced to redeem their vows by donating money to the crusade. Commutations followed a similar pattern, from the voluntary commutation of goals from the Holy Land to the antihereti- cal crusade and vice versa under Innocent III, to attempts by Gregory IX and Innocent IV to force individuals to transfer their vows for the Holy Land to aid for the Latin Empire of Constantinople and the papal struggle against Emperor Frederick II. Gradually, despite continuing manifestations of populist enthusiasm for personal participation, the vast majority of vows made during preaching tours, which were increasingly organized by members of the mendicant orders, were almost immediately redeemed for money granted to those organizing crusade contingents to subsidize trained milites and professional soldiers.

Terms for the Fulfillment of Crusading Vows

In this and other instances, policies were not merely mandated in a top-down fashion by the papacy, but were formed as the result of a dialogue between the pope, legates and crusade preachers, local clergymen, the military leaders of the crusade, and crucesignati of all stripes. This is particularly true in the case of the discussion of precisely what kind and what length of service was considered necessary to fulfill the crusade vow. Although many crusaders considered their vows completed when they had attained their pilgrimage goal of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, once the vow became severed from the journey to Jerusalem, the period of military service considered necessary to fulfill one’s vow became the subject of debate. Popes occasionally set a period of one to three years for crusades to the Holy Land in papal bulls, although the term needed to gain the plenary indulgence was often left unspecified. In the case of the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), Innocent III delegated the decision to the men he appointed to organize the crusade in France, who specified the forty-day period typical of the military service owed by vassals to their lord as the minimum needed to earn the plenary indulgence. Departure dates and locations were often set in bulls outlining the organization of a crusade, and papally appointed preachers responsible for organizing crusading contingents in a certain diocese or region were often urged to ensure that a sufficient army materialized by threatening to excommunicate those who did not leave in a timely fashion from the appointed ports. However, dates and departure points often became the subject for negotiation, as local crusaders experienced trouble in finding funding or settling disputes. For example, many of the common crusaders in the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) complained that while delays had been granted to the noblemen expected to lead local contingents, they were being threatened with excommunication if they failed to depart at the date set by the Fourth Lateran council, despite the fact that the funding meant to subsidize them had been granted to these same noblemen, who refused to disburse it. Some became so frustrated that they simply tore off their crosses and refused to fulfill their vows. Similarly, crusaders often considered their vow fulfilled and left the army once their funding ran out or once a significant military or devotional objective had been obtained.

During the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Richard I of England refused to proceed directly to Jerusalem, for fear that his army would dissolve before the outlying regions necessary to protect the city had been taken. During the Fifth Crusade, the papal legate Pelagius attempted to stem the flood of crusaders planning to depart after the capture of Dami- etta (1219) before crucial reinforcements arrived, by threatening to excommunicate anyone who left without obtaining a letter of permission from him. Letters were also sent to recruiting centers in Europe broadcasting the legatine excommunication of those who had deserted the army prematurely or had failed to join the army in Egypt, demanding that they be forced to return to fulfill their vows. These events illustrate that, in the end, the conditions for the fulfillment of the crusade vow remained open to debate, even during a period that saw great advancements in the institutionalization of the crusading movement.

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