Post-classical history


Popes today do not summon crusades. There are a number of reasons for this. One part of Christendom decisively rejected the theology behind the medieval wars of the cross in the sixteenth century. The Roman Catholic church itself refined its own teaching to modify its penitential practices in ways that undermined the fiscal and liturgical accoutrements of later medieval crusading. Crusade ideology had hardly developed since Innocent III. Based essentially on patristic and scholastic theology – and loosely at that – its justification looked increasingly awkward in the face of sixteenth-century scriptural theology and attacks founded on the New Testament. The increasing interiorization of faith, shared to some degree by all sides of the major confessional divides, militated against certain of the showier forms of medieval devotion that crusading exemplified, the increasingly controversial sale of indulgences merely being the most notorious. Men could and did still take the cross, perhaps even into the eighteenth century against Turks and Barbary pirates. The war of the Holy League against the Ottomans, 1684–99, was probably the last formal crusade. But these gestures were divorced from the communal round of devotional practices or cultural aesthetics. Although in times of crisis, such as the First World War, over-excited prelates can still urge their congregations to fight the good temporal as well as spiritual fight, and while the secular legalism of just war continues to attract advocates, most non-literalist Christian denominations now shun the tradition of holy war, some even pretending it was a kind of aberration. In the later twentieth century, the Roman Catholic church was careful not to embrace potentially violent (and certainly radical) theologies, such as Liberation Theology. John Paul II even apologized to victims of the crusades. The wars of the cross have become like a lingering bad smell in a lavishly refurbished stately home.

The protean development of the crusade as a weapon of policy and a mechanism of redemption – as was said of a departing crusader in 1197, ‘to fight Saracens visible and invisible’–inevitably created diverse responses. The idea that the crusade ‘declined’ through growing unpopularity makes little conceptual or historical sense. Certain aspects of crusading – for example the sale of indulgences and the Italian wars – attracted criticism. But so did the inaction of western European rulers in the face of the loss of the Holy Land and the advance of the Turks. Neither led to the abandonment of the ideological foundations of wars of the cross. Indulgences continued to be bought. Crusading privileges usually managed to find some takers whatever the cause. Evidence of medieval public opinion is never neutral; to ignore the crusades’ adherents is as absurd as to discount their critics. Crusading certainly did not decay through lack of interest. More damaging to its support as a way of conducting business were changing attitudes conditioned by external forces, such as the decline in the acceptance of the moral authority of the papacy, a phenomenon noticed by popes as much as by their critics in the fifteenth century. As crusading had always stood as part of the edifice of papal pretentions, their fates were intimately bound together. In a secular context, the gradual transformation from the late fifteenth century of military aristocrats from knights to officers, from warriors to gentlemen, a long process contingent on changing educational habits, social conditions, the requirements of the state and the conduct of war, left many of the traditional chivalric impulses redundant. Just as full plate armour became increasingly a matter of social prestige and show in the seventeenth century, so did the paraphernalia of crusading.

The crusade did not disappear from European culture because it was discredited but because the religious and social value systems that had sustained it were abandoned. Pragmatically, as a way of managing international relations it no longer suited the politics, diplomacy and war of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was not due to a moral failure, still less to any lack of ‘modernity’; the most supposedly ‘advanced’ societies of the fifteenth century, the city states of Italy or the urban commercial communities of Low Countries, were enthusiasts, as were many humanist scholars. Yet, as the secular state captured many of the cultural functions previously centred on a religious vision of the world, in particular attitudes to civic, social and national identity, crusading, distinctive because of its essentially spiritual dimension, could seem misplaced. Even this was not inevitable; Habsburg Spain succeeded in integrating the crusade mentality into the burgeoning of new state power in the sixteenth century. However, by then crusading had increasingly become the preserve of antiquarians and confessional sectarians. Ways of looking at the world changed. Protestant though he was, Richard Hakluyt included a version of Mandeville’s Travels in his first edition of Navigations and Voyages (1589), including the declaration ‘the land of Jerusalem… is… worthier of being possessed than all lands of the world’. By the second edition, Mandeville had been dropped.

Fundamentally, the western Christian church lost its attempt to control civil society. In justice as well as government, secular authority emerged as the arbiter, guardian and enforcer of law. The tensions of church and state that had existed throughout the high and later middle ages were resolved by the triumph of the temporal state and the subservience of the Christian churches to lay power. Church jurisdiction remained, distinct yet absorbed into the public polity, in Protestant as well as Roman Catholic states of Europe, for example in the survival of church courts dealing with moral and testamentary issues. Religion hardly ceased to occupy a central, at times determinant, role in society. The Vatican City remains a church state – but it is the only one in Europe. Crusading had always been a public civic activity, a war, not just a prayer or a penance. With the failure of the papacy’s long theocratic experiment, and as regional churches and churchmen lost their hold on the terms of political discourse, warfare became subject to secular rules and laws as well as leadership. By the early seventeenth century, theorists such as Gentili and Grotius elaborated international laws of war that explicitly discounted religion as sufficient just cause. This reflected the sanction of political events; the sixteenth-century French alliance with the Ottomans; the 1555 agreement at Augsburg accepting that the religion of each German principality be determined by that of its ruler; and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the great European Thirty Years’ War by establishing an explicitly secular framework of international relations, a system of temporal nations in a secular Europe. Christianity thrived; Christendom was dead. With it died one of its most distinctive features, the crusade. Political and civil action now rested with secular states, civic justice a matter for laymen, not clergy, law and religion inhabiting different spheres of civil life, not even necessarily complementary or mutually dependent. Where civil justice was guaranteed by religious law and interpreted by religious scholars, the rational polity could remain the religious community not necessarily the secular state. Thus Islam’s holy war, the lesser jihad, remains a modern phenomenon. The Christian crusade, except in the mouths of certain meretricious academics and unthinking politicians, does not.

The post-history of crusading is a subject of itself, as David Hume suggested in the eighteenth century, ‘ever since engrossing the curiosity of mankind’. As opposed to polemicists for Reason, Colonialism, Imperialism, Medievalism, Nationalism, Capitalism, Freedom, Religion or Cultural Armageddon, who have severally and serially dominated popular interpretations of the crusades for much of the last four centuries, the historian is struck by the malleability of the crusade, its penetration into so many religious, political, social and personal interstices of medieval life. While the crusade did not define a society or a culture, it is impossible to grasp the nature or quality of the activity by looking at it in isolation, still less in relation to events centuries later. Few corners of Europe and the Mediterranean escaped entirely the touch of the wars of the cross. There are good grounds for associating crusading with some of the more intriguing developments of medieval western politics and society; the invention of Christendom, a European identity expressed in expansion and conquest; the acceptable rhetoric and performance of public violence with its consequent influence on the assertion of legitimate, sacralized, secular power; experiments in corporate government, of mechanisms in creating and ordering a wide political civil society; the growth of systems of public taxation. More obviously, crusading reflected aspects of attempts to establish a moral order in Europe run by a centralized church and the more successful efforts to expand the borders of the Latin Christian world. In providing an impetus to engage with far distant lands, the crusade both succeeded, as witnessed by the opening of the eastern Mediterranean to merchants and pilgrims, and spectacularly failed. Jerusalem was only briefly held, the politics of western Asia and the Near East only marginally inconvenienced.

As with any exercise in historical selectivity, which means all historical writing, extracting the thread of the crusade from the weave of the middle ages distorts both. Nonetheless, the experience of crusading is worth study if only because of the immediacy with which it addresses the observer. The world, assumptions and actions of crusaders and their contemporaries are irrecoverable but inescapable. Their deeds confront the historian directly, the sheer physical effort of so much of the endeavour; the inspirational idealism; utopianism armed with myopia; the elaborate, sincere intolerance; the diversity and complexity of motive and performance. Of equal if not greater power to move than the great set pieces of crusade history – Urban II at Clermont, the massacre at Jerusalem, Saladin at Hattin, Richard I at Acre, Louis IX at Mansourah – are the stories of the battered wives of absent crusaders, the evidence of ruined or enriched lives of veterans and survivors, the crosses etched into the stones of the church of the Holy Sepulchre or parish churches across Europe, intimate witnesses to the ambitions of those who sought to transform themselves and their world by taking the cross of their Saviour. As Josserand of Brancion prayed before he took the cross in 1248, ‘Lord, take me from wars between Christians in which I have spent much of my life; let me die in your service so I may share your kingdom in Paradise’. Although the central cliché of aristocratic engagement with crusading, echoed in sources from the First Crusade onwards, the poignancy of these sentiments comes from the testimony of tens of thousands of corpses of men and women of all social stations. However wasteful of life and treasure, however narrow the original and sustaining aspiration to physical possession of the Holy Places, this was an ideal that inspired sacrifice at times on an almost unimaginable scale and intensity.

Yet sentimentality will not do. It hardly encompasses the subject. Too many died in the pursuit of sectarian ambition. Yet motives, like actions, can contradict without hypocrisy. While it is usually fruitless for historians to pursue the will of the wisp of private emotions, the question of what caused so many to change their lives so decisively persists. It is a fond myth of the religious that piety excludes greed, coercion, conformity and lack of reflection, that it is freestanding. The language of transcendence should not distract or dupe. Neither should it insist on judgement. Fighting for the cross was not necessarily more glamorous than paying taxes for it, only more strenuous. Both activities are open to reductive interpretations of unavoidable cultural or social compulsion. However, there can be no clear or sonorous summing-up. Wars destroy and create, even if in unequal measures for participants, victims and home communities. Explicable in collective terms as an expression or expressions of belief, anxiety, religious or social obedience, moral and material self-advancement, corporate solidarity and identity, solipsistic intolerance and expansive aggression, for each individual any choice involved in the crusade may or may not have caught ‘the hidden wishes of God’. External manifestations can be observed. Yet the internal, personal decision to follow the cross, to inflict harm on others at great personal risk, at the cost of enormous privations, at the service of a consuming cause, cannot be explained, excused or dismissed either as virtue or sin. Rather, its very contradictions spelt its humanity.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!