Post-classical history

Origins

MARCUS BULL

His thirst for blood was so unprecedented in recent times that those who are themselves thought cruel seem milder when slaughtering animals than he did when killing people. For he did not establish his victims’ guilt of a crime and then dispatch them cleanly with the sword, which is a routine occurrence. Rather he butchered them and inflicted ghastly tortures. When he forced his prisoners, whoever they were, to pay ransoms, he had them strung up by their testicles—sometimes he did this with his own hands—and often the weight was too much to bear, so that their bodies ruptured and the viscera spilled out. Others were suspended by their thumbs or private parts, and a stone was attached to their shoulders. He would pace underneath them and, when he could not extort from them what was not in fact theirs to give, he used to cudgel their bodies over and over again until they promised what he wanted or died from the punishment. No one knows the number of those who perished in his gaols from starvation, disease, and physical abuse as they languished in his chains.

This vivid description was written in 1115 by Guibert of Nogent, the abbot of a small monastery near Laon in northeastern France. It concerned a prominent local lord named Thomas of Marle. The passage quoted does not exhaust Guibert’s thoughts on Thomas: there is more in the same vein, a mixture of righteous indignation and wide-eyed fascination which veers between the grimly realistic and the anatomically preposterous. From the point of view of the First Crusade, the description is of considerable interest because of the careers of the two men involved. Guibert was the author of a long chronicle of the crusade. The small number of surviving manuscripts suggests that it was less popular than some of the other histories produced by contemporaries, but it is nevertheless a valuable source for modern historians, not least because Guibert attempted to elaborate upon the facts—his information came to him second-hand—by explaining the crusaders’ experiences in learnedly theological terms. Thomas, for his part, was one of those who had taken part in the expedition. In the process he had earned himself a very favourable reputation, which Guibert attempted to twist around by claiming that he used to prey upon pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem.

It has often been Thomas’s lot to be cast as the archetypal robber baron of eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, the sort of untamed social menace which thrived when governments were weak and the Church’s moralizing imperfectly respected. This is unfair. Thomas’s problems seem to have been more dynastic than psychological. Victimized by a hostile father and stepmother, he found himself forced to struggle for control of the castles, lands, and rights he believed were his rightful inheritance. A case can also be made for arguing that, far from being a threat to society, Thomas’s energetic lordship brought a measure of stability to an area of France where competition between various jurisdictions—royal, episcopal, and comital—created the potential for disorder. Treated as a piece of reportage Guibert’s pen portrait is clearly tendentious and overstated. Its true significance lies in its exaggeration, since this implicitly reveals the standards of normal behaviour by which notorious misdeeds had to be judged. In order to denigrate Thomas effectively, Guibert could not simply portray him as brutal but as excessively and indiscriminately so. In other words, Thomas and Guibert, two men intimately connected with crusading in their different ways, lived in a society where violence was endemic and in itself unremarkable.

This constitutes perhaps the greatest mental adjustment which a modern observer must make when considering the central Middle Ages. Violence was everywhere, impinging on many aspects of daily life. Legal disputes, for instance, were often resolved by means of trial by battle or by recourse to painful and perilous ordeals. Around the time of the First Crusade it was becoming increasingly common for convicted felons to suffer death or mutilation, a departure from the traditional emphasis on compensating the victims or their families. Vendettas within and between kindreds were frequent. Seldom neatly contained aristocratic combats, they had wide repercussions, for crude but effective economic warfare was regularly waged on opponents’ assets, and that meant peasants, livestock, crops, and farm buildings. Brutality was so common it could be ritualistic. In about 1100, for example, a knight from Gascony prayed at the monastery of Sorde that God would enable him to catch his brother’s murderer. The intended victim was ambushed, his face was horribly mutilated, his hands and feet were cut off, and he was castrated. In this way his prestige, his capacity to fight, and his dynastic prospects were all irreparably damaged. Moved by feelings of gratitude for what he believed had been divine assistance, the avenging knight presented his enemy’s bloodstained armour and weapons as a pious offering to the monks of Sorde. These they accepted.

This case is one small but revealing illustration of the medieval Church’s inability to distance itself from the violent world around it. Historians used to believe that the Church had been pacifist in the early Christian centuries, but had then become contaminated by the values of its host societies in a process which culminated during the period when crusading was at its height. But the idea of charting attitudes in such a linear way is unrealistic, because in any given period individuals and institutions were capable of varying their approaches to violence. Reactions depended on context. The crucial element in the medieval world’s relationship with violence was choice. Lay society knew this instinctively whenever it came to assess conduct. Was, for example, one knight sufficiently closely related to another to warrant inclusion in a vendetta, either as an aggressor or a potential victim? Was military service on a proposed campaign covered by the contractual obligations which a vassal owed to his lord? Did a given criminal’s offence merit execution, and had he been convicted by a competent authority? How perilous need a knight’s predicament in battle be, or how desperate the condition of a besieged castle, before surrender could be countenanced without dishonour? The list of such questions is potentially very long because reactions to violence were nuanced by value judgements based on a host of variables.

The Church approached violence in essentially the same way, though its fund of accumulated learning and near-monopoly of the written word naturally enabled it to deal more confidently than the laity on the level of theory and abstraction. Above all, the Church was equipped to impose a degree of systematization and consistency upon the issues which violence raised. It had inherited from Roman Law, the Old and New Testaments, and the early Christian Fathers, pre-eminently St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), various terms of reference by which to analyse instances of violence and pronounce upon their quality. The standard position, which became associated with Augustine and was refined in later centuries, was that the moral rectitude of an act could not be judged simply by examining the physical event in isolation: violence was validated to a greater or lesser degree by the state of mind of those responsible, the ends sought, and the competence of the individual or body which authorized the act.

Thus allowed considerable ideological flexibility, the Church was able to take an active interest in warfare on a number of fronts, including those areas where Latin Christendom came into direct contact with the Muslim world. The second half of the eleventh century was a period of Latin expansion. In the Iberian peninsula the small Christian states in the north were learning to exploit political weakness in Muslim al-Andalus. The most impressive gain was made when Toledo, once the capital of the Visigothic kingdom which had been destroyed by Arab and Berber invaders in the eighth century, fell to King Alfonso VI of Leon-Castile in 1085. In Sicily Norman warlords, already the dominant force on the southern Italian mainland, gradually eliminated Muslim power between 1061 and 1091. The popes were generally supportive of this expansion. Theirs was not the decisive contribution which brought about Christian successes, for they could do little more than give their encouragement and hope to supervise the difficult task of reorganizing the Church in conquered territories. But the experience of Spain and Sicily was significant because it meant that for two generations before the First Crusade the Church’s central authorities came to see the West as engaged in a single struggle characterized by its deep religious colouring. What the Mediterranean theatres of war had in common, irrespective of the specific circumstances in each case, was that formerly Christian lands were being wrested from infidel control. Consequently the Holy Land, which had been overrun by the Arabs in the seventh century, was bound to attract the Church’s attention sooner or later.

It is important to note a distinction between the senior clerical policy-makers who would one day devise the First Crusade and the lay people who would volunteer to go on it. The perspective of a Mediterranean-wide struggle was visible only to those institutions, in particular the papacy, which had the intelligence networks, grasp of geography, and sense of long historical tradition to take a broad overview of Christendom and its threatened predicament, real or supposed. This is a point which needs to be emphasized because the terminology of the crusade is often applied inaccurately to all the occasions in the decades before 1095 when Christians and Muslims found themselves coming to blows. An idea which underpins the imprecise usage is that the First Crusade was the last in, and the culmination of, a series of wars in the eleventh century which had been crusading in character, effectively ‘trial runs’ which had introduced Europeans to the essential features of the crusade. This is an untenable view. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that people regarded Pope Urban II’s crusade appeal of 1095-6 as something of a shock to the communal system: it was felt to be effective precisely because it was different from anything attempted before. Contemporary commentators reflecting upon the crusade’s attraction seldom argued in terms of a continuation and amplification of a pressing anti-Muslim struggle. If they did they tended to hark back to the distant and mythologized world of Charlemagne (d. 814) and his Frankish empire rather than to much more recent events in Spain or Sicily.

It should be noted that the response of western Europeans to the First Crusade did not depend on a developed hatred of Islam and all things Muslim. There existed, to be sure, crude stereotypes and misapprehensions: it was supposed that Muslims were idolatrous polytheists, and fabulous stories circulated about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. But such ideas fell far short of amounting to a coherent set of prejudices which could motivate people to uproot themselves from their homes and families in the dangerous and costly pursuit of enemies in distant places. Those first crusaders who had gained prior experience of the Muslim world were much more likely to have done so on an unarmed pilgrimage to Jerusalem than on the battlefield. Most had never seen a Muslim before. It is significant that the crusaders experienced mixed feelings once they had grown familiar with their enemies’ methods. They were so impressed by the fighting qualities of the Turks that they speculated whether their resilient adversaries might in fact be distant relatives, a sort of lost tribe which centuries before had been diverted from its migration towards Europe and Christian civilization. This was no idle compliment in an age when character traits were believed to be transmitted by blood and stories about the descent of peoples from biblical or mythical forebears went to the very heart of Europeans’ sense of historical identity and communal worth.

Popular understanding of the crusades nowadays tends to think in terms of a great contest between faiths fuelled by religious fanaticism. This perception is bound up with modern sensibilities about religious discrimination, and it also has resonances in reactions to current political conflicts in the Near East and elsewhere. But it is a perspective which, at least as far as the First Crusade is concerned, needs to be rejected. The thrust of research into crusading in recent decades has been to focus at least as much attention on ideas and institutions in the West as on events in the East. Crusading used to be regarded as operating on the margins of western Europe’s historical development: it was a series of rather exotic and irrational episodes of limited significance. The study of the crusades, moreover, tended to be dominated by scholars who approached the subject from specialisms in eastern Christian or Muslim culture, which meant that their judgements were often unduly harsh. But now medievalists have become more concerned to integrate crusading within the broader history of western civilization. An important element of this approach has been an examination of those features of western Europeans’ religious, cultural, and social experience which can account for the enthusiastic interest shown in the crusades.

What, then, was it about late eleventh-century Europe which made the First Crusade possible? One basic feature was the thorough militarization of society, a characteristic rooted in long centuries of development. The political units which had emerged from the slow and painful dissolution of the western Roman empire were dominated by aristocratic kindreds which derived their wealth and power from the control of land and asserted their status by leadership in war. An inescapable fact of life in medieval Europe was that governments lacked the resources, administrative expertise, and communications to impose themselves upon society unaided. The best they could hope for was to reach accommodations with the ruling élites which had day-today power on the ground. The ideal arrangement was for central authority (usually a king) and regional warlords to find a common purpose so that co-operation and the pursuit of selfinterest could combine harmoniously. The ways in which European society was structured on the eve of the First Crusade were the distant legacy of the last time such an accommodation between the centre and the regions had been attempted on a grand scale. In the eighth and early ninth centuries the Carolingian kings who dominated the western European continent had developed a political system which mobilized Frankish society for frequent wars of expansion in southern Gaul, Italy, Spain, and central Europe. In part because convenient victims became ever scarcer, however, and in part because western Europe was forced by Viking and Muslim attacks to look to its internal defences, the rhythm of channelled aggression broke down as the ninth century wore on. The West’s problems were exacerbated by bitter civil wars between members of the Carolingian family. A consequence was the loosening of the bonds of loyalty and common purpose which had connected the kings to the warrior dynasties of the regions. In one sense political life simply reverted to type, as power became concentrated once more in the hands of economically and militarily dominant kindreds. But the Carolingian legacy supplied an important added ingredient, in that the great nobles—the ‘princes’ in the sense of ‘those who ruled’—were able to perpetuate and exploit the surviving institutions of public governance, often with only notional reference to the centre.

Since the 1950s historians have developed a thesis which sees the dislocation of royal power in the ninth and tenth centuries as the prelude to even more momentous changes which took place in the decades either side of 1000. Because this model of explanation—what French medievalists call the mutation féodale, the feudal transformation—has hardened into an orthodoxy, it is worth sketching in outline. From around the middle of the tenth century, according to the mutationiste view, the large regional blocs which were the remnants of the Frankish polity themselves became subjected to centrifugal pressures from petty warlords, many of whom had risen to prominence as the princes’ deputies in the localities. Repeating the earlier pattern of fragmentation, but now on a much smaller scale, the local lords flourished by combining their economic muscle as landowners and their residual public powers with regard to justice and military organization. Peasants found themselves subjected to increasingly burdensome rents and labour obligations. Courts ceased to be public forums which served the free population of their area and became instruments of private aristocratic might, privileged access to which was gained by entering into the lord’s vassalage. One compelling demonstration of the lords’ success was the proliferation of castles, particularly in the years after 1000. Wooden structures for the most part, but coming increasingly to be made of stone, the castles amounted to a stark geopolitical statement that power in large stretches of the old Frankish empire had become thoroughly atomized.

It is worth noting that scholars have recently begun to question whether the received orthodoxy is accurate. The mutationiste model, it has been argued, depends on an interpretation of ninth- and tenth-century developments which is both too neat, in that it posits an unrealistically clear distinction between public and private institutions, and too negative, since it consigns the later Carolingians (the last one to be king in France died in 987) to powerless inertia sooner than the evidence warrants. It is also clear that the social and economic status of those who worked the land was very varied. Some sank into serfdom under the pressure of overbearing lords, but others clung on to their landed rights and relative independence. Nor was the fate of the princes uniform: some, such as the dukes of Normandy and Aquitaine and the counts of Flanders and Barcelona, fought back hard against the petty castellans. The transformation of around 1000 may even be an optical illusion. Charters, the records of transfers of lands and rights which are among our most important sources, become noticeably less formulaic and more discursive as the eleventh century progresses. This apparent rejection of tradition is usually interpreted as a symptom of a shift from public and systematic to private and ad hoc judicial organization, a process with wide social and political repercussions. But if the change in the documents can be explained by other factors—perhaps the old-style charters had been masking social changes for decades and were finally considered too inappropriate for an expanding and more complex world—then the mutationiste thesis stands in need of modification. Overall, it is clear that the study of the period immediately before the crusades is entering a period of change. In recent years historians who work on the ninth and tenth centuries have generally been bolder than their eleventh-century colleagues in daring to rethink their basic assumptions and reinterpret their evidence. The effect is rather like that of a rising river pressing on a dam.

It is too soon to predict how thoroughly new interpretations will influence our understanding of the First Crusade’s origins. Even when every allowance is made for the desirability of revision, however, it remains tolerably certain that historians need not abandon their traditional interest in one fundamental aspect of eleventh-century society: the dominance of the knightly élite. The terminology of chronicles and charters is instructive in this regard. By the eleventh century the warrior was coming to be called miles (plural milites). In classical Latin the core meaning of miles had been the footsoldier who was the backbone of the Roman legions, but in a significant shift of association the word now became applied exclusively to those who fought on horseback. In the process miles also acquired new social connotations, since it implied the ability to meet the great expense of obtaining mounts, armour, and weapons by exploiting the surplus produce of extensive landed resources or by entering the honourable service of a rich lord. In a related development, the techniques of mounted warfare also changed. By the time of the First Crusade it was common for knights to carry a heavy lance which was couched under the arm and extended well beyond the horse’s head. This weapon was significant in a number of ways. It enabled ranks of horsemen to deliver a charge which exploited the full momentum of rider and mount. Its effective deployment depended on rigorous training and co-operation, which promoted group solidarity. And it had symbolic value: the heavy lance was not the knight’s only arm, but as the one most obviously and exclusively suited to mounted combat it served to proclaim its bearer’s distinctiveness. Heavy cavalry’s dominance on the battlefield was thus both a cause and a consequence of its broader social and economic status.

Two qualifying observations are in order. First, it is important to avoid anachronistic and unduly romantic associations when considering the stage of evolution which knighthood had reached by the closing years of the eleventh century. Medieval knighthood tends to evoke alluring images of chivalric prowess and courtly manners, the behaviour and colourful style of an international cadre of knights whose interests and group consciousness were a major cultural force transcending barriers of language, wealth, and status. But full-blown chivalry was a development of the twelfth and subsequent centuries. In 1095 it was still in its infancy. There was as yet no heraldic system: a significant consideration, given the role of images in imparting information to a society which was largely illiterate. The vernacular expression of chivalric values through song was no more than nascent. And there were no clearly established rites of dubbing to cement a communal ethos for all knights. Significantly, lords and princes were generally wary of having themselves described as milites without added grandiose adjectives, which suggests that they felt themselves part of the militarization of society but did not consider it fitting to identify themselves wholeheartedly with their brothers-in-arms of lesser status, many of whom were third- or fourth-generation peasants made good. Great lords and humble milites were together immersed in a shared culture of warrior toughness, honour, and skilled horsemanship. Therein lay a potent force for cohesion which was to help the crusaders when they found themselves exposed to enormous physical and mental pressures. But the First Crusade was not a chivalric exercise in the way that later generations would have understood it.

Second, the mounted warriors’ domination of society did not wholly negate the potential contribution of other types of personnel in times of war. Because the West’s military organization, like that of most pre-industrial societies, was intricately bound up with wider economic and administrative structures, it was impossible to extract a sizeable cavalry force from its cultural and social milieu and expect it to function in isolation. Armies needed support services from grooms, servants, smiths, armourers, and cooks, all of whom could turn their hand to fighting if needed. There were footsoldiers with more specialist skills in the use of bows and close-quarter weapons. Few medieval armies operated without women who met the soldiers’ various needs. And clerics would also be involved to minister to the army and pray for success. This is significant for an understanding of the broad response to the First Crusade appeal. When Urban II called for forces to liberate Jerusalem it proved impossible to exclude all non-knightly participants, even though, as his surviving pronouncements make plain, the milites were foremost in his mind and he was anxious that the crusade forces should not be burdened by too many non-combatants. The significance of targeting the milites in particular was that they were both the best soldiers the West had to offer and also the indispensable core around which effective armies were able to coalesce.

The launching of the First Crusade was made possible by a revolution which had overtaken the western Church since the middle of the eleventh century. From the 1040s a group of reformers, first with the support of the German emperor Henry III and then in opposition to his son Henry IV, had taken control of the papacy. This institution they shrewdly identified as the best means to pursue their programme of eliminating abuses within the Church. To seize power at the top might seem an obvious step to have taken, but the reformers’ methods in fact ran counter to the usual pattern of ecclesiastical self-renewal. Historically the Church’s hierarchy has seen its role as acting as a brake on forces for change, which are typically seen as coming up from below. This attitude has often been rather unfairly caricatured as dogmatic and unresponsive traditionalism, but its roots lie deep within the Church’s understanding of itself. Catholics believe that theirs is not a ‘gathered’ body, an institution which has been created by human initiative or is simply the result of haphazard historical evolution. The Church is rather ‘apostolic’, meaning that it exists as the direct and inevitable consequence of God’s intentions for mankind, as communicated by Christ to the apostles and thence to the clergy of later generations. Given this belief, a reluctance to change too much too fast can be justified as sound stewardship of divine dispensation. When, however, the forces for change include elements within the Church’s hierarchy itself, the impact is potentially enormous. This is what happened in the second half of the eleventh century.

The reformers’ programme is often known as the Gregorian Reform after one of its most energetic and vociferous proponents, Pope Gregory VII (1073-85). It operated on two complementary levels. The Gregorians addressed themselves to aspects of the Church’s conduct: the morality, especially the sexual behaviour, of the clergy; clerics’ educational attainments and their competence to discharge their sacramental, liturgical, and pastoral duties; and lay interference in the running of churches and the making of appointments to ecclesiastical office. To this extent the reformers’ aims were principally cultic, to purify the Church so that it could operate satisfactorily as the medium of religious ritual. On a further level, however, the Gregorians’ ambitions were also organizational. As with secular governments, the perennial problem was to harmonize activity at central, regional, and local levels. To this end, papal legates armed with supervisory and disciplinary powers, councils which routinely brought senior churchmen together, an expanding and better organized corpus of canon (ecclesiastical) law, and an emphasis upon the pope’s judicial authority, all served to introduce greater consistency into the Church’s operations. The full fruits of the administrative reforms were not to be realized until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But by the 1090s an important and lasting start had been made. A consequence was that when Pope Urban launched the First Crusade he was able to mobilize the resources, enthusiasm, and communication skills of many individual clerics and religious communities, a body of collective support which had already grown sensitive to papal initiatives.

The preachers of the crusade would have been wasting their breath, of course, had not many Europeans been eager to respond to what was held out as a voluntary undertaking. The crusade was proposed as a devotional act of pilgrimage, and therein lay its attraction. The religious culture of medieval Europe can seem strange to modern observers: it should be borne in mind that much of what is nowadays regarded as distinctively Catholic is the product of the Counter-Reformation. The subject is, moreover, vast. Nevertheless it is possible to isolate some of the elements which help to explain the attraction of crusading. One fundamental feature of people’s religious drives was that they were conditioned by reactions to sin and an appreciation of its consequences. No aspect of human conduct and social interaction was immune from the taint of sinfulness, and only those whose lives were deliberately conducted in strictly regulated and socially atypical environments—celibate clergy, hermits, monks, and nuns—could hope to avoid some of the innumerable pitfalls of everyday existence. The laity respected and supported monastic communities because moral worth was regarded as a function of outward conduct. In the years either side of 1100 there was beginning to develop a greater sensitivity to the idea that internal disposition was the most important part of pious expression. But actions, spiritually speaking, continued to speak at least as loud as thoughts and words.

Such an emphasis upon deeds—expressed both in terms of how sins were defined and how they could be remedied through penances—can seem mechanistic until one considers the constraints acting upon people’s lives. An acute attentiveness to conduct was perfectly natural in social environments where virtually everyone lived in closely-knit and introspective groups which afforded little or no privacy. Thrown intimately together, communities needed to regulate themselves by exploiting the power of convention to fix norms, an approach reinforced by the belief that aberrant behaviour compromised the solidarity of the group. Sins were considered to be among the ways in which the equilibrium of small-world communities could be upset. Social cohesion was therefore maintained by a dual process: wrongdoers were shamed by means of isolation, public disapproval, and ritualized correction; and they were encouraged to feel guilt, a reaction which was particularly fostered by the monks who set the pace of eleventh-century piety. The First Crusade was therefore preached at a time when many lay people were sensitive to communal pressure, used to dwelling on their behavioural shortcomings, and convinced that their spiritual welfare depended on taking positive action.

A further noteworthy feature of medieval religious culture is its profound attachment to a sense of place. In much the same way that scholars were able to allegorize and moralize from a biblical passage while remaining convinced of its factual accuracy, so people of all classes instinctively conflated religious abstraction and physical sensation. This cast of mind was particularly evident at the thousands of saints’ shrines which were dotted across western Christendom: there Christianity, made anthropomorphic and accessible, could be seen, smelt, heard, and touched. Saints were a central element in eleventh-century devotion and performed many useful functions. They enabled the Church to walk the tightrope of holding out the possibility of salvation to the sinful populace while asserting Heaven’s rigorous entry requirements. Because saints had once been mortals themselves and so had an insight into human limitations, they were also able to act as intercessors in the heavenly hall of justice. On earth their physical remains and the objects associated with their lives emanated virtus, a beneficent spiritual power upon which devotees could draw. In theory saints were not constrained by geography, but the belief was nevertheless deeply rooted that their virtus was spatially concentrated around the sites where their relics were preserved and their memory ritually perpetuated. By extension, the close relationship between idea and location was applied to Christ. Pilgrimage to the places where he had lived, died, and been buried was considered an exceptionally meritorious religious experience. In the eleventh century improved communications through central Europe and an increase in Italian maritime traffic in the Mediterranean meant that more westerners than ever before were able to satisfy the pilgrimage urge by journeying to the Holy Land. It is therefore unsurprising that accounts of Urban II’s sermon which launched the First Crusade at Clermont in November 1095 report that he averted to the pilgrimage tradition. Many, he said, had been to the East or knew those who had. Urban, we are told, also used scare stories about Turkish defilement of the Holy Places. Whatever their accuracy, they were potent stimulants because they tapped into contemporaries’ habitual identification of pious expression and geographical space.

The many surviving accounts of miracles which took place at shrines provide important clues about the mood of religious sensibility around the time of Urban’s appeal. One example, a story from the shrine of St Winnoc at the monastery of Bergues in north-eastern France, serves as a good illustration. It should be noted that we are here dealing with a literary form, the miraculum composed according to an established generic typology. This means that the events are unlikely to have unfolded exactly as described, though they may have some basis in fact. The story’s true interest lies in the way that an idealized depiction of reality can itself throw light on actual attitudes and behaviour. The narrative proceeds as follows. It was Pentecost (that is to say, the early summer) and large crowds had been drawn to the monastic church. Some were local people, others outsiders attracted by St Winnoc’s reputation. One day, as the faithful in the nave pressed forward towards the shrine, a small blind girl, who had become something of a mascot to the assembled crowd, found herself isolated at the back. She was therefore passed hand to hand over the heads of the throng until she reached the front, where some of Winnoc’s relics were being displayed to the crowd in a feretory, a portable reliquary. The people looked heavenward and prayed that, through the saint’s intercession, God might grant the girl her sight. For good measure they added that they would become more assiduous in their attendance at the church should they be given such a sign. Suddenly the girl became convulsed and the sockets of her eyes began to haemorrhage. A short time later she announced that she was able to see.

Several features of this story bear upon the religious culture which activated crusade enthusiasm. Of particular interest is the way in which the actions of the crowd illustrate the routinely communal nature of devotional behaviour. The girl was the central figure, of course, but the group participated fully at critical junctures: by selecting the girl for special attention, by co-operating in order to maximize her exposure to Winnoc’s virtus, and by collectively invoking the saint’s aid. The scene played out in the church served to cement existing solidari- ties—here the bonding between those who lived nearby—and also created a new group identity which united the locals and the disparate collection of pilgrims from further afield. The monks, moreover, were not passive bystanders. As the story stands it describes a spontaneous outpouring of pious energy from the laity, but it is reasonable to suspect a measure of prompting, even collusive stage-management, on the monks’ part. A consideration of where and when the events occurred further suggests that the monks of Bergues made it their business to create conditions in which the people’s religious impulses could be stimulated and directed. The fact that the feretory was being displayed when the miracle happened reinforces the point: the excitement had been built up until it exploded at the critical moment. Once reached, moreover, the heightened mood could be sustained and channelled into a collective reaffirmation of faith by exploiting the tendency, very common at that time, to react to excitement or agitation through an expressive emotional outpouring. The author of the story understood the mood of the people well, using it to make an interesting comparison as he described how the faithful’s prayers, loud and undisciplined, merged with the more orderly chant coming from the monks in the choir. Here in microcosm was the eleventh-century Church in action: two groups, the lay and the clerical, engaged in a relationship of mutual reinforcement. Each performed a distinctive role (here symbolized by the spatial separation between nave and choir) but within the unifying context of a ritualistic devotion focused on the points of contact (the shrine, the feretory, and Winnoc) and geared to generating and maintaining communal enthusiasm.

One element of the story which might seem to jar is the crowd’s promise that it would become more devout if it were given a miracle. On one level this is a topos of the genre: the author was compressing into one manageable sequence of cause and effect a much lengthier process whereby Winnoc’s cult would have extended its reputation and insinuated itself into the locality’s devotional habits. But underlying the reference to the crowd’s promise there is also a deeper sensitivity to lay sentiment, evidence for which can be found elsewhere. Guibert of Nogent, for example, tells the story of some knights who dared a party of canons from Laon to procure a miracle cure from the Virgin Mary. The canons were daunted because the proposed beneficiary, a mute youth, seemed a hopeless case. But the Virgin came to the rescue, the youth began to utter sounds, and the knights abjectly acknowledged their error. Guibert’s purpose in reporting the episode was to glorify the Virgin and demonstrate the authenticity of her relics kept at Laon. But, like the writer of the Bergues miracle, he also implicitly points to clerical anxiety that lay piety was fixated with the idea of quid pro quo. The fear was that the faithful were inclined to vary the intensity of their religious commitment according to how well their material preoccupations, their anxieties, even their curiosity, came to be addressed through contact with institutionalized religion.

The sort of fears implied by Guibert and the Bergues author have been seized upon by critics to argue that lay religiosity in the Middle Ages was superficial and literalistic, nothing more than the culturally acquired gloss upon basic psychological and social impulses. But this interpretation can be called into question. The critics make the mistake of setting standards for what constitutes genuine religious conviction which are anachronistic, since they are based on how devout people behave in confessionally pluralistic societies in the post-Reformation world. Other critics cling to the idea that medieval people were indeed capable of deep religious impulses, but that these were satisfied by tenacious pagan survivals from the pre-Christian era— charms, talismans, sorcery, divination, and so on—which were more immediate and trusted than what the Church had to offer. Here the mistake is made of applying much later standards to judge the medieval Church’s capacity to translate its own beliefs into other people’s behaviour. People in the eleventh century were not historically exceptional in seldom being able to sustain one level of pious commitment throughout their lifetimes: illness, the onset of old age, changes in personal status, and domestic and communal crises have regularly prompted heightened devotion in many religious systems in many periods. This is the norm. What matters is the base level of religious sentiment which is shared by most people most of the time and so serves as a stable cultural reference point. If this standard is followed, western European society on the eve of the First Crusade appears thoroughly Christian.

Clerical sensitivity to what seems a something-for-something religious mentality can also be interpreted positively as a sign of the Church’s strength, since the sort of reciprocity anticipated by the faithful at Bergues was one, slightly aberrant, offshoot of a fundamental principle which the authorities actively propagated: the idea that the relationship between this world and the next was governed by cause and effect. At the time of the First Crusade the Church taught that sins could be remedied, at least in theory, by acts of penance. For lay people penances usually took the form of periods of sexual and dietary abstinence and a disruption of normal routine: penitents were not permitted, for example, to bear arms. Many pilgrimages were undertaken as penances. Attitudes, it should be noted, were beginning to change, as people wondered whether mere mortals were capable of nullifying their sinfulness by their own puny efforts without a helping hand from God’s infinite mercy. But the notion of treating penances as simply the symbolic demonstration of contrition to be undertaken after the sinner has been reconciled through sacramental absolution—the system which operates in the modern Catholic Church—was still undeveloped. In the closing years of the eleventh century the belief remained entrenched that penitential acts could suffice to wash away sin.

This does much to explain the potent appeal of the First Crusade, which Urban II conceived as an act so expensive, long, and emotionally and physically arduous that it amounted to a ‘satisfactory’ penance capable of undoing all the sins which intending crusaders confessed. Urban knew how his audiences’ minds worked. The son of a minor noble from Champagne, he had served in the cathedral of Reims and the great Burgundian abbey of Cluny before pursuing his career in the papal court. His background equipped him to understand the paradox at the heart of lay religious sentiment. Lay people offered ample proof of their awareness of their sinfulness, by undertaking pilgrimages, for example, or by endowing the monks and nuns who approximated most closely to the unattainable ideal of sinless human conduct. But their unavoidable immersion in worldly concerns meant that it was impossible for them to perform all the time-consuming and socially disruptive penances which could keep pace with their ever-increasing catalogue of misdeeds. The crusade message cut the Gordian Knot. Here at last was a spiritually effective activity designed specifically for lay people, in particular the warrior élites whose sins were considered among the most numerous and notorious. The laity could aspire, as Guibert of Nogent shrewdly expressed matters, to deserve salvation without abandoning its accustomed dress and by channelling its instincts in directions which accommodated its ingrained social conditioning.

The effect of a message framed in these terms was electrifying. The impact was doubled by Urban II’s tour of southern and western France between the autumn of 1095 and the summer of 1096. Moving as an imposing authority figure through areas which had seldom seen a king for decades, the pope drew attention to himself by consecrating churches and altars, honouring the localities through which he passed by means of elaborate liturgical ceremonial. (Once again the close relationship between ritual and communal religious excitement is evident.) The largest suitable urban centres were targeted as temporary bases: Limoges, Poitiers (twice), Angers, Tours, Saintes, and Bordeaux, among others. The particular merit of these places was that they were effectively clusters of prestigious churches which had long served as the focal points of their regions’ religious loyalties. They, as well as rural churches, now operated as centres for crusade recruitment. In the areas not covered by the papal itinerary other churchmen busied themselves in generating interest. Monks seem to have been among the most active recruiting agents: many surviving charters reveal departing crusaders turning to monasteries for spiritual reassurance and material assistance. Enthusiasm for the crusade was most intense in France, Italy, and western Germany, but few areas of Latin Christendom were entirely unaffected. As one historian memorably put it, a ‘nerve of exquisite feeling’ had been touched in the West. The proof was palpable, as between the spring and autumn of 1096 people in their tens of thousands took to the road with one aim—to free Jerusalem.

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