Post-classical history

Chapter 6
The business of the cross

Crusading was not a spontaneous act. An individual rush of conviction or the sudden collective convulsion of a crowd might provoke the initial act of commitment, the adoption of the cross. However, the translation of that obligation into action depended on personal, political, social, financial, and economic preparation and planning and generated widely diffused legal and fiscal institutions. No cross, no crusade, but equally no money, no crusade; no group, no crusade; no leadership, no crusade; no transport, no crusade. If this sounds reductive, it is. Piety and what may pass for religious energy contribute to an explanation of motive and campaign morale. Armies may march on their stomachs, but it is difficult to make them fight and die without a cause, without some internal dynamic that acts beyond reason to send warriors over the top or stand their ground. But all the passion in the universe could not, cannot, create war, crusading or not, without the organization and manipulation of recruitment, finance, logistics, military structure – and ideas.


Preaching demonstrates this, providing some of crusading’s most familiar images. A preacher, arriving in a town or village bearing a tale of disaster, a call to battle, a promise of salvation, and a knapsack of crosses, converts his audience by his fervour and eloquence alone. Urban II at Clermont provided the prototype, Christ and John the Baptist the imagined models. Such scenes punctuate crusade history: the inspirational Bernard of Clairvaux on the hillside at Vézelay in 1146; the prosaic Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury stomping around Wales in 1188; the charismatic Fulk of Neuilly stirring up northern France around 1200; the sophisticated James of Vitry beguiling the rich women of Genoa in 1216. Yet preaching worked within tightly organized programmes of information and recruitment in which the sermon provided only a focus. Chroniclers and the preachers themselves idealized the process into a perfect system of evangelism which engaged the faithful directly with the orthodox teaching of the Church, as well as supplying a useful starting point for a didactic narrative. In a semi-literate society, ceremonial rituals, of which the crusade sermon was one of the most conspicuous, provided a powerful medium for conveying public messages. However, to achieve any effect, the significance of such rituals needed to be understood beforehand, either by long use, as with the Latin Mass, prior publicity, or rehearsal. The crusade preacher expected to preach, if not to the converted, then to the prepared whose interest needed confirmation through a series of formulaic responses, most obviously the taking of the cross. Along with their supply of cloth crosses to be given to the crucesignati, crusade preachers armed themselves with rolls of parchment on which to write the names of the recruits. Without good preparation, the whole procedure could fall flat; in 1267, when Louis IX took the cross for the second time, apparently many refused to follow his example because they had not been warned what was afoot.


15. Bernard of Clairvaux preaching the Second Crusade at Vézelay, Easter 1146. This romantic vision, by E. Signol, was displayed in the Salles des Croisades at Versailles in 1838 and owes everything to imagination rather than fact.

Evidence for crusade sermons before the late 12th century remains dependent on chronicle accounts. From these it appears such sermons were neither regular nor widespread before the Third Crusade. With the rise in the use of crusading as a military weapon and its integration into the wider devotional life of the Christian west, the frequency of crusade preaching increased and its organization by the papacy became more systematic. Innocent III used Cistercians for the Fourth Crusade and a corps of Paris trained reformers such as James of Vitry for the Albigensian and Fifth Crusades. From the 1230s his successors employed the Friars as the main crusade proselytizers. Paradoxically, after Innocent III’s bull Quia Maior (1213) for the Fifth Crusade, the frequency of sermons operated in inverse proportion to their role in recruitment as the offer of the uniquely redemptive plenary crusade indulgence was extended to non-combatants. Crusade preaching increasingly acted as part of more general evangelizing. Still promoting a particular spiritual endeavour and commitment, the function of sermons broadened to include fundraising as well as recruitment.

Crusade sermons followed patterns of form and presentation to ensure the outcome peculiar to this particular ritual, the physical commitment of taking the cross. As at modern evangelical and revivalist meetings, the congregation could not remain passive. They had to ‘come on down’ and, therefore, needed to be primed by example and expectation. All rituals need careful stage-management if they are to convey meaning and avoid absurdity and the disbelief of the audience – crusade sermons, with their layers of intent and lack of regularity, more than most. At Clermont, Urban II was careful to ensure that, once he had finished speaking, Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy, immediately came forward to show the rest of the congregation how to take the cross, while a cardinal in the back row set up the chant of ‘God wills it!’ as a means of inspiring a sense of group involvement. Neither Clermont nor any of the other assemblies that witnessed the great arias of crusade rhetoric over the next five centuries gathered by chance, but by careful arrangement. In 1146, no accident had brought together the nobility of France to hear Bernard of Clairvaux at Vézelay; he had brought with him ‘a parcel of crosses which had been prepared beforehand’. Louis VII, sitting on the platform beside Bernard, had voiced his interest in the Holy Land campaign months before, and was already wearing a cross sent him by the pope, leaving no doubt as to the purpose of the occasion. Bernard’s task was to publicize the papal bull, explaining the need for war and the spiritual and temporal privileges, and to confirm recruits. His sermons in 1146–7 merely highlighted the issues and secured previously agreed responses. This became the usual form. When Archbishop Baldwin toured Wales in Lent 1188, his audiences knew in advance exactly when and where to meet him and what to do. At Basel in 1201, the crowds flocking to hear Abbot Martin of Pairis’s formulaic, if apparently moving, address had been ‘stimulated by rumours’ of crusade preaching and arrived ‘prepared in their hearts to enlist in Christ’s camp . . . hungrily anticipating an exhortation of this sort’. Yet the author of this account went out his way, despite his own testimony, to portray Martin’s sermon as autonomously inspirational.

A whole gallery of manipulative techniques was employed to support the rhetoric. Props included relics of the True Cross, crucifixes, and visual aids. A Muslim contemporary described how preachers of the Third Crusade in 1188 travelled around with a large illustrated canvas. On it, a Muslim cavalryman was depicted trampling the Holy Sepulchre, on which his horse had urinated. While, by the 13th century, congregations had grown familiar with special prayers and processions dedicated to the Holy Land as well as ceremonies for taking the cross, there were still no liturgical formularies for responses to sermons. In this ritual of penance and commitment, the congregation needed direction. One aid was provided by the seasons of the church calendar, crusade sermons often being delivered during the penitential seasons of Lent or Advent, or at the great Christocentric festivals of Easter and Christmas, or on 14 September, Holy Cross Day. Another came from a telling liturgical setting, frequently the Mass with its concentration on the physicality of the Body and Blood of Christ. Audiences were softened up and involved by the use of chants and slogans – football crowds meet Billy Graham in religious circus. When Cardinal Henry of Albano preached in Germany in 1188, the clergy and laity sang hymns about Jerusalem to get everyone into the mood. Once signed up, crucesignati sang songs or chants to encourage corporate identity, or recited together the General Confession from the Mass to underline the penitential nature of their undertaking. Getting audiences to that point was not left to chance or oratory alone. James of Vitry observed that to encourage others it helped to have a member of the audience come forward promptly to take the cross at the end of the sermon, to break the ice, and, like Adhemar of Le Puy at Clermont, show how it was done. At Radnor in March 1188, Gerald of Wales, having been told by Archbishop Baldwin, the Chief Justiciar of England, and King Henry II himself to set the requisite example (the primate not being the world’s most inspirational evangelist), stood up first to take the cross: ‘In doing so I gave strong encouragement to the others and an added incentive to what they had just been told.’ According to admiring written accounts, crusade preaching campaigns were accompanied by sightings of miracles, sometimes as simple as clouds shaped in the beholders’ eye as crosses or other celestial portents, natural accompaniment to such overt religious exercises. The whole operation rested on calculation, planning, and showmanship.

The content of sermons functioned within this highly artificial, ritualized staging. Often using the relevant papal bull, preachers rehearsed past events and explained the justification for war both on the grounds of atrocities to be avenged and of moral duty. A common literary and possibly genuine experience described how the emotions not the actual words preached were understood, the message reaching the uncomprehending audience by divine rather than oral or aural mediation. The preacher and his words, especially if delivered in Latin to large crowds, were distant, inaudible, or unintelligible as means of direct communication, rather like William Gladstone at his mass meetings in the late 19th century. The occasion was as important as any words. Medieval sermons provided witnesses to divine mystery, settings for spiritual, political, or social dialogue. In the 13th century, to signal this religious ceremonial function, those attending sermons were offered indulgences of their own whether or not they took the cross. Such sermons ritualized enthusiasm rather than rousing rabbles.

Repeated references to interpreters, the survival of morally edifying vernacular anecdotes (exempla), and the advice contained in increasingly popular 13th-century preaching manuals suggest that attempts were made to communicate in audiences’ own languages as well as Latin. While the sermons that have been preserved tend towards the elaborate and the academic, some preaching veterans emphasized the need for simplicity; others indicated the importance of oratorical tricks, including repetition of almost mantra-like phrases or the inclusion of arresting moral stories variously to illustrate duty, adventure, or salvation.

In combining symbolic spiritual commitment with public church evangelism, crusade sermons represented much of the new reformist idealism associated with the pontificate of Innocent III. Preachers began to think of taking the cross as a form of conversion, a complete amendment of spiritual life similar, if less permanent, to becoming a monk. The crusade sermon’s mixture of direct appeal to the laity, penance, confession, and duty to Christ touched most of the key elements of the reformers’ programme. Yet these ceremonies also served as key moments in political processes such as the pacification of kingdoms. Monarchs could find in them occasions to confirm their status and elicit open demonstrations of support from their nobles, as did Louis VII of France at Vézelay, Easter 1146; Conrad III of Germany at Speyer, Christmas 1146; and Frederick I of Germany at the so-called ‘Court of Christ’ at Mainz, where he took the cross in March 1188. At the conference between Philip II of France and Henry II of England at Gisors in January 1188, the need to unite to recover the Holy Land eased the reconciliation of suspicious rivals. Diplomatic compromise could both be sealed and disguised under the banner of the cross. However, whether as an expression of evangelism or diplomacy, or simply a means of raising men and money, the crusade sermon, for all its prominence, performed a series of roles largely subsidiary to the wider organization of crusading. Recruitment followed patterns established beyond the preachers’ congregations; locally, ceremonies for taking the cross existed independently. Nonetheless, sermons orchestrated a measure of discipline, of people, responses, and ideas, increasingly attractive to a Church ever more intent on uniformity of belief and devotional practice.

Recruitment and finance

Crusading armies, like any other, were assembled through a mixture of loyalty, incentive, and cash, and maintained and run through ties of lordship, clientage, sworn association, or, for defaulters, legal coercion. In the absence of kings as clear overlords, for example on the First and Fourth Crusades, these mechanisms proved vital in producing coherence and order. Recruitment revolved around the households and affinities of princes, lords, knights, and urban elites. The misnamed Peasants’ Crusade of Peter the Hermit in 1096 differed from other major expeditions only in the social standing of its leaders and the ratio of knights to infantry and, perhaps, non-combatants. In a society in which in many regions the bulk of the population were bound to landlords by servile tenure, only freemen could legitimately take the cross; serfs who did so were ipso facto manumitted. On campaign, if no previous bond of allegiance existed, crusaders made their own. Peter the Hermit’s expedition in 1096 possessed a common treasury. By the time the Christian host reached Antioch in 1097–8, a joint command had been formed by the leaders of the different contingents with a common fund that channelled money through a sworn confraternity towards essential construction work for the siege. Loyalties could be bought, knights and lords transferring allegiance when they or their own lords died, deserted, or went bust. Even with the involvement of kings, as in the Second and Third Crusades, individual lords remained responsible for their own followers, whether subsidized by monarchs or not.

When lordship threatened to collapse or no clear order of precedence existed, crusaders, like their contemporaries in towns across Europe, resorted to sworn associations known as communes. These established procedures for making decisions, settling disputes, dividing spoils, and imposing discipline. This decidedly non-feudal system of self-government became a crusade commonplace, from the disparate North Sea fleet that assembled at Dartmouth in May 1147 and later helped capture Lisbon, to individual ships’ companies from northern European cities in the Third Crusade, to the leadership of the Fourth Crusade. One of the failures of the Fifth Crusade at Damietta lay in its inability to establish either an agreed leader or a sworn commune. Such associations also operated, at least in some corners of France in 1147, at the level of local seigneurial bands coming together to embark on the Lord’s business. Sometimes these arrangements failed. The rules sworn by Louis VII and his captains before leaving France in 1147 on the Second Crusade were ignored. Months later, to save the French army from annihilation in Asia Minor, another sworn commune was formed, this time to accept the leadership and discipline of the Templars. Communal leadership did not preclude the military requirement for a clear command structure. The election of Simon de Montfort as commander of the Albigensian Crusade in 1209 saved it from degenerating into a brief foray of rampage and pillage.

The importance of access to finance cannot be overestimated. The commonest reason given by backsliders in England around 1200 for non-fulfilment of the vow was poverty. It is no accident that rules for borrowing money figure prominently in the earliest crusade bull, Quantum praedecessores (1145/6) and its most important successors, Audita Tremendi (1187) and Quia Maior (1213). Much of the evidence for the identity and circumstances of individual crusaders derives from their land deals to raise cash from their landed estates and property, usually from the Church. The cost of crusading represented many times a landowner’s annual income. The need for money determined the agreement of the First Crusade leadership in 1097 to swear fealty to the Byzantine emperor. It provided the impetus for the diversion of the Fourth Crusade to Zara (1202) and Constantinople (1203–4). Money allowed Richard I to dominate the Palestine war of 1191–2 on the Third Crusade, and Cardinal Pelagius, through his control of the funds raised by taxation of the church in the west, to influence decisions at Damietta during the Fifth Crusade in 1219–21. Although foraging allowed land armies to subsist, chroniclers repeatedly exclaimed at the iniquities of local markets and exorbitant prices from the Balkans to Syria. For sea transport, the capital outlay could be huge. During the Third Crusade, Philip II’s promise to the Genoese of 5,850 silver marks to ship his army to the Holy Land in 1190 appears extremely modest compared with Richard I’s expenditure – in advance – of £14,000 (c.21,000 marks) on his large fleet alone. Small wonder Richard felt the need to extort 40,000 gold ounces from Tancred of Sicily in the winter of 1190–1. The Fourth Crusade leadership’s massive commitment of 85,000 marks to Venice constituted almost literally a king’s ransom (Richard I’s came to 100,000 marks in 1194) but paled before Louis IX’s estimated expenditure on his first crusade of 1.5 million livres tournois, six times his annual income.


16. Preparations for the crusade. From the Statutes of the 14th-century French chivalric Order of the Holy Spirit enjoining on members the obligation to enlist in any crusade to the Holy Land, illustrations emphasizing the essential material dimensions of such enterprises.

Talk of money throws up the two old chestnuts of profit and younger sons. Crusading was very expensive. Without royal or ecclesiastical subsidies, money had to be raised through selling or mortgaging property, often at high hidden rates of interest. One cliché of medieval history insists that people sought to increase their property at any opportunity, except, it seems, crusaders who condemned their families at the very least to a short-term and possibly permanent loss. Given that most crusaders desired, if not expected, to return, having little interest in permanent emigration, it is hard to identify where crude material profit in the modern sense featured in their motives, contenting themselves with the seemingly no less real rewards of relics, salvation, and social status.

This distinction between crusaders and settlers operates even more sharply when considering the idea that crusading appealed especially to younger sons on the make, forced out of the west by the spread of patrilinear inheritance rules that left only the eldest holding the inheritance. While it is feasible that settlers, in Syria but perhaps especially in the Baltic regions, were encouraged to migrate by lack of prospects at home, this cannot be shown for crusaders. The need for finance meant that armies were manned by those in possession or expectation of patrimonies or those, such as the large number of artisans recorded in crusade forces, who had marketable skills. The foot soldiers were legally but not necessarily economically free. The sources show that crusading ran in propertied families without distinction of inheritance claims, eldest sons, great lords as well as younger siblings and dependent relatives. Emigration, at least amongst aristocrats, may show a tendency to favour those lacking great expectations at home, but this must remain no more than a plausible guess given the inadequate statistical base available of known individual immigrants to Syria, Iberia, or the Baltic. The idea that western inheritance customs, either by excessive partibility of estates or the exclusion of younger sons, explain the 12th- and 13th-century diaspora from the central regions of early medieval Europe – Italy, France, Germany, England – to the Celtic, Slavic, Finno-Ugrian, Greek, or Arabic peripheries may be attractive as a mechanistic model of causation. But evidence suggests it cannot explain the particular phenomenon of crusading where the crusaders were not settlers by intent or even accident. The assumption prevalent until recently that most of the immigration into Frankish Outremer came from the crusade armies no longer looks either credible or accurate; it was never advanced for settlement in Iberia or the Baltic when civilian settlement followed military conquest. Although they individually existed, as general defining types, the mercenary crusader and the younger son must ride into the sunset of serious historical debate together.

In any case, changes in crusade funding in the 13th century transformed the whole basis of participation and organization. Increasingly configured as an obligation on all Christendom, in theory the business of the cross could demand contributions from all the faithful. However, this principle only translated into reality with the development of secular and ecclesiastical political control and fiscal exploitation. Taxation for crusading was introduced only fitfully. To pay for Duke Robert of Normandy’s crusade in 1096, his brother King William II Rufus of England levied a heavy land tax in England to pay the 10,000 marks to mortgage the duchy for three years. In 1146–7, Louis VII of France raised money from the church and perhaps from towns in the royal demesne. In response to diplomatic pressure, in 1166 and 1185 the kings of England and France imposed general but modest taxes (of between 1 and 0.4 per cent) on revenues, property, and movables (that is, profits). The defeat at Hattin and loss of Jerusalem in 1187 prompted the radical innovation of the Saladin tithe of 1188 in England and France, a tenth on movables payable by non-crucesignati. Once again left to secular rulers to collect, Henry II, always keen to try new forms of financial exaction, met with some success, while opposition forced Philip II to cancel collection in 1189. In Germany, where no tradition of direct royal taxation survived, no such levy was instituted. Although it is unclear how much money Henry II raised from the Saladin tithe, still less how much was actually spent on the crusade, the form of the tax provided a model for consensual and parliamentary grants in the following century. However, taxation operated by secular powers was subject to the vagaries of secular politics and custom. In France, the obligation to pay for a lord’s crusade joined the three traditional feudal aids of ransom, knighting of the eldest son, and marriage of the eldest daughter. In England, government crusade taxation only surfaced when the holy business became central royal policies, as in the years leading to the Lord Edward’s crusade of 1271–2, which elicited a parliamentary grant in 1270. In France in the 1240s, Louis IX similarly channelled large sums from royal revenues towards the crusade.

However, Louis IX did not have to rely on his own resources; two-thirds of his estimated expenses came from a grant of church taxation. The raising of money directly from ecclesiastical revenues by the church authorities themselves revolutionized crusade funding. First instituted, unsuccessfully, by Innocent III in 1199, after the decree Ad Liberandam of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 approving a grant of one-twentieth of church income for three years for the Fifth Crusade, all subsequent major crusade enterprises sought similar ecclesiastical taxes, often to the dismay of local church leaders. Such institutionalized fiscal incorporation of the church into crusading operations matched the newly articulated ideology of universal involvement of Christendom in the Lord’s War. Beside ecclesiastical taxation, mechanisms were developed between 1187 and 1215 that allowed pious laymen to donate funds for the crusade on a more or less permanent basis through charitable giving (gifts and alms), legacies, and, from 1213, vow redemptions. Far from signalling mercenary exploitation of a corrupt ideal, as some historians have argued, the offer of cash redemption of crusade vows in return for crusade indulgences mirrored the Church’s attempts to evangelize the laity through a wider range of penitential exercises, on a par with the adoption of compulsory aural confession in 1215. Chests designated for crusade donations appeared in parish churches across Christendom and preachers increasingly sought to promote cash vow redemptions, a move that aroused healthy cynicism among some observers when the task became the preserve of the supposedly mendicant Friars. By the 14th century, crusade indulgences were beginning to be sold outright, without the need to take the cross. Such moves widened the social embrace of crusading and its indulgence to include the old, the infirm, the less well-to-do, and women. The funds from taxation, donations, legacies, and redemptions were gathered by local collectors and administered by the Church, creating a series of cash deposits eagerly sought by aspiring crusaders. Much of the practical business of the cross after 1215 revolved around the management and disposal of these ecclesiastically generated or held funds that directly affected how crusades to the east in particular were recruited.

Sea transport and independent Church funding prompted a more professional approach in assembling armies, with written contracts and cash retainers playing a more evident role. Thus, in 1221, Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia, later Pope Gregory IX (1227–41), toured northern Italy signing onto the Church’s payroll crusade recruits who had not taken the cross. Contracts between crusaders specifying payment for a set number of soldiers survive from the 1240s. Richard of Cornwall hoped to pay for much of his crusade in 1240–1 from the proceeds of vow redemptions. Edward of England’s crusade of 1271–2, paid for from lay and clerical subsidies, has been described as ‘perhaps the first English military force to be systematically organised by the use of written contracts, with standard terms available for service’. The cohesion central funding could provide can be illustrated by the contrasting fates of two of the best-equipped expeditions to the east, Frederick of Germany’s of 1189 and Louis IX’s of 1249. Frederick’s followers had to pay for themselves; after he drowned in 1190 the force disintegrated. Louis IX spent much time both before leaving France in 1248 and throughout the campaign of 1249–50 trying to entice nobles who were not his vassals, like the chronicler John of Joinville, into his paid service. Even after the debacle in the Nile Delta in 1250, Louis’s resources held his shattered army together. Ironically, more efficient exploitation of resources reflected increased central control in many kingdoms of the west, which ultimately impeded the crusade by elevating national or dynastic self-interest above international stability. It also altered perceptions of how crusading should best be conducted. The early 14th-century Venetian Marino Sanudo, in advice never actually implemented, argued that any initial attacks of Mamluk Egypt should be undertaken by forces paid from central church funds and manned by professionals, and explicitly not by crucesignati. This, he felt, would ensure a more efficient military outcome.

An alternative institutional method of funding and recruitment reached its apogee and nadir in the century after 1215. The Military Orders had long offered a source of permanent manpower, with a constant pool of money from their estates in the west. From the 1130s, the Orders had received lavish donations of land and property from pious donors, the profits of which subsidized their activities in the Holy Land and elsewhere. Increasingly, they took over the defence of the Latin states of Outremer and acted as bankers for visiting crusaders. In Spain, strategic frontier defences were entrusted to local as well as international orders. In the Baltic, Military Orders offered the solution to the sporadic, transient, and underfunded lay crusading, with the Teutonic Knights creating their own states in Prussia and Livonia. However, the evacuation of the Holy Land in 1291 led to a widespread soul-searching about the Orders’ role and use of their extensive wealth. This debate contributed directly to the persecution and suppression of the Templars between 1307 and 1314 on trumped-up charges of heresy, corruption, and sodomy, as well as to the relocation of the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights at Marienberg in 1309 and the Hospitallers’ conquest of Rhodes the same year. Yet many still regarded a combination of general church subsidy with the model of a Military Order, with its channels of funding and structures of command, commitment, and discipline, as potentially the most effective way of organizing a new eastern crusade. However, the very techniques that made such theories possible militated against their fulfilment. Church taxes or the lands of discredited Military Orders were far too lucrative for national governments to leave for the business of the cross that had inspired them.

The crusade and Christian society

Crusading was a function of western European society. Assessment of its impact must distinguish between the distinctive and the contingent. The wars of the cross did not create the expansion of Latin Christendom or the internationalization of saints’ cults. Nor did they create Christianity’s embrace of holy war, a more sophisticated penitential system, the birth of purgatory, the militancy of the papal monarchy, the rise in anti-Semitism, or the exclusion or persecution of minorities and Christian dissidents. Unlike the campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean, the conquests and colonization in Spain or the Baltic and the papal wars against its enemies did not owe their inception to crusading formulae. Most people did not go on crusade. Only occasionally could crusading enterprises be regarded as ‘popular’ in the sense of being initiated primarily by groups below the rural and urban elites, such as the Children’s Crusade of 1212 and the Shepherds’ Crusades of 1251 and 1320. The wider social involvement came from large-scale recruitment by the nobility in limited areas for specific campaigns and, increasingly, through taxation, the legal implications of the taking of the cross and the extension of access to the indulgence via contributions and vow redemptions after 1200. The concept of ‘Crusading Europe’ misleads. Nevertheless, these wars added a particular quality to society in their rhetorical definition of a pathology of respectable violence, the unique attraction of the associated privileges, and the disruption to public and private life.

The peculiar fashioning of a vocabulary and practice of penitential violence that developed in the century and a half after 1095 provided the Church with a powerful weapon to aim at its opponents and a means to cement its importance in the politics of its allies and the lives of the faithful. As an activity that justified the social mores of the ruling military elites of the west, crusading became the context for a wide range of unconnected social and political rituals. Landowners dated their charters from their crusading deeds. Diplomatic alliances were agreed under the cloak of aiding the Holy Land. Taking the cross acted as a symbol of reconciliation between parties in dispute or a demonstration of loyalty and allegiance in which no side lost face. Politicians at a low ebb sought help in the language of the cross; King John of England took the cross in 1215 shortly before being forced to agree to the Magna Carta. By the mid-13th century, commitment to the business of the cross had become a requisite in diplomatic exchanges, rulers, such as Henry III of England, who left their vows unfulfilled cutting morally ambiguous figures. Those refusing to go on crusade were popularly known as ‘ashy’, tied to their home fires. The familiar literary stereotype of the descroisié, content to enjoy his crusade privileges through vow redemptions, frightened of the sea, and anxious to protect his position at home, indicated how far crusading institutions had penetrated beyond the recruiting hall.

The social and economic disruption of active crusading varied. The expeditions east of Theobald of Champagne or Richard of Cornwall in 1239–41 did not compare with the great efforts of 1146–8, 1189–92, or 1248–50, while crusades in Spain and the Baltic added only marginal lustre and perhaps some recruits to the habitual campaigning of the Iberian, Danish, or German princes. Yet even small-scale enterprises could influence local land markets and regional balances of wealth and power as crusaders mortgaged or sold their property. For families, the cost of crusading and the absence of property owners for very long periods could be highly damaging, leading to disparagement of estates and widows, or worse, some wives being murdered by impatient claimants to the crusaders’ lands. Casualty rates, especially on the land-based expeditions, could be extreme; perhaps over 80% of those who set out in 1096–7 did not survive. Enhanced social standing for returning crusaders may have been little compensation. More generally, the liberation of church-held bullion to subsidize crusaders may have encouraged the circulation of wealth and thus stimulated local economies. Regionally, prices of war commodities, such as horse shoes, arrows, sides of bacon, and cheese could rise, as they did in England in the early 1190s. Suppliers of transport, from mules and carts to the great transmarine fleets, benefited. However, a fair proportion of the wealth collected in the west was dissipated unproductively on war materials and campaign expenses far from home. Crusade taxation, like any other in the Middle Ages, tended to be regressive, falling on those at the base of the economy. That helped to ensure the popularity among aristocratic crusaders of the new financing arrangements in the 13th century. Vow redemptions cost less than active crusading but acted as a hidden tax on the faithful. Yet, without crusading, it cannot be clear that this wealth would have been redirected to more ostensibly productive ends or even circulated at all. International trade between the eastern and western Mediterranean piggy-backed on the Crusades and vice versa; they were manifestations of a single, if diverse, process of commercial expansion of markets and trade routes. An overall financial balance sheet is impossible to determine, but the Crusades, however wasteful of lives and effort, of themselves neither significantly ruined nor enriched the economy of western Europe.

The legal privileges granted crusaders reached as far as finance into the interstices of social life. Church protection and immunity from interest, debts, and law suits were enforced by secular as well as ecclesiastical courts from the Papal Curia downwards. Away from the high-profile cases of infringement of the rules, as when Richard I’s lands were threatened in his absence, the operation of the privileges and church protection was conducted in local courts across Christendom, whose decisions defined and determined much of the effect of the crusade on the home front, from whether or not a crusader could participate in a trial by battle in Normandy, to illegal wine-sellers avoiding fines in Worcestershire by citing their crusader status, to whether crucesignati could literally get away with murder. The civil attractions of the crusader privileges made abuse inevitable, a problem recognized by the decree Ad Liberandam (1215). There were regular complaints that crusaders were using their status as licence to commit theft, murder, and rape; criminals or those facing awkward litigation regularly cited crusade privileges to delay or avoid the day of reckoning. This did not mean the system was corrupt, merely open to corruption. References to the operation of crusading immunities in the records of secular courts allow a glimpse of the extent of the Crusades’ reach. They also point to a high level of cooperation between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions, not least because there were so few detailed rules, the practical implications and extent of privileges being worked out over many generations on a national, regional, local, or even individual basis.

With the institution of vow redemptions and spiritual rewards for contributing as well as participating in crusading, and the paraphernalia of alms-giving, special prayers, liturgies, processions, and bell-ringing that developed after 1187, the spiritual privilegesentered the habitual devotional life of the west. Church reformers saw in the dissemination of its indulgence the opportunity to use the crusade as a model as well as a metaphor for spiritual and penitential amendment of life. Taking the cross became depicted as part of a regenerative cycle of confession, penance, good works, and redemption, a sort of conversion, its votaries described by James of Vitry as a religio, a religious order. Some argued that taking the cross could end demonic possession, secure time off purgatory for relatives, even dead ones, cure the sick, and console the dying. Sermons de Cruce, on the Cross, were used almost interchangeably for preaching the crusade or moral reform. For devout 13th-century puritans such as Louis IX or Simon de Montfort, the crusade formed part of their private religious life as well as their public career. Thus as a religious habit as much as a martial endeavour, crusading survived its defeats on the battlefields of the later Middle Ages.

This does not imply universal or consistent commitment. The myriad sermons and devotional works reminding the faithful of some basic tenets of Christianity, among other evidence, suggest that the Middle Ages were no more or less a period of faith or scepticism than the 21st century. Contemporaries were as keen to delineate contrasting crusade motives as modern historians. Much of the typology was equally crude. After the fiasco of the Second Crusade, one bitter observer in Würzburg accused the crusaders of lack of sincere love of God; most ‘lusted after novelties and went in order to learn about new lands’ or out of a mercenary desire to escape poverty, debts, harsh landlords, or justice. Such brickbats are the price of failure and the small change of moral rearmers. The idea that crusaders to the east were driven by greed is considerably less convincing than that they were fired by anger and intolerance. Anti-Jewish attacks had been known in northern Europe before 1096, most notably after 1009, but the repeated ferocity of attacks by crusaders indicates that the wars of the cross lent spurious justification to such communal barbarism. Yet the attacks on the Jews signal a piety of sorts, however underpinned by ignorance, larceny, and criminality. To suggest mixed motives for many crusaders does not convict them of hypocrisy, merely complexity.

It has become fashionable to ascribe purely mercenary inspiration to the citizens of the Italian maritime cities, in a peculiar modern historiographical combination of retrospective snobbery and a belief that commerce is ‘modern’ and so immune from ‘naïve’ or ‘medieval’ religious sincerity. Material advantage and genuine religious commitment have never been mutually exclusive; nor were they among crusaders. The Venetian crusade of 1122–5, in a sort of foreshadowing of the Fourth Crusade, raided Byzantine territory to force a restoration of preferential trade rules. Yet it also fought a hard sea battle against the Egyptians and helped capture the port of Tyre, again in return for trading privileges and property. On return to the Adriatic further raiding carried off booty and relics. Modern disapproval misses the essence. The Italian trading cities’ contributions to crusading of men, blood, treasure, and materials were second to none. Crusading enthusiasm did not stop at the gates of commercial ports, nor did the desire for profit or, at least, an avoidance of loss contradict the spirituality as well as the material risks inherent in taking the cross, any more than did a knight’s desire to fight to earn salvation and to survive. While elements of duty, fear, devotion, repentance, excitement, adventure, material profit, and escapism feature in the sources as contributory spurs to action, one overwhelming urge, with secular and spiritual dimensions, may have been what could inadequately be described as status – with church, peers, neighbours, relatives, God. The most typical trophies of this status were relics which the returning crusader bestowed on local churches, further enhancing both social reputation and godly credit; the lure of the unique richness of treasure houses of Christian relics at Constantinople acted as a spur to its destruction in 1204. The discredit afforded those who failed to fulfil their vows, or those who deserted or refused to enlist, alone reflected the continuing social admiration that clung to veterans of the cross.

It is often argued that the crusade declined as a political, religious, and social force from the mid-13th century. This has been attributed to a growth in the wealth of western Europe, which is supposed to have begun a process of ‘modernization’ in which crusading appeared old hat as a cause inspired by God not Mammon. The decadence of crusading has been attributed variously to the corruption of money in the professionalization of the business of the cross and to the rise of national self-interest over the demands of Christendom in general. The diversion of holy war to internal enemies of the papacy has been taken as a barometer of this decay. Many of these arguments refer to the Holy Land crusade and make little sense applied elsewhere. It is undeniable that papal crusades in Italy aroused the anger of clerics who had to pay taxes for them or political opponents; successive popes trod carefully to avoid inciting opposition. Preaching for internal crusades tended to be far more restricted geographically than that for eastern expeditions, and there persisted a nervous sensitivity to local feeling if internal crusades were to be preached in parallel or in competition with eastern campaigns. Yet much of the hostility to the anti-Hohenstaufen or Italian crusades in the 13th and 14th centuries, beyond the overtly partisan, revolved around anxieties lest they diverted attention from the plight of the Holy Land. The business of the cross retained its popularity, even if its adherents were more discriminating than papal apologists hoped or imagined. The rise of stronger national regimes delivered a more damaging blow. By appropriating political energy, material resources, and even holy war mentalities, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337–1453) sealed the loss of the Holy Land as decisively as the military system of the Mamluk Empire. Fighting for God remained an ideal and practice throughout the later Middle Ages and beyond, its legal implications absorbed into secular as well as canon law codes. Libraries were full of crusade histories and romances; veterans’ artefacts became cherished heirlooms; illuminated manuscripts, theatrical re-enactments, paintings, tiles, and tapestries in palaces, houses, and town halls kept the images fresh. However quixotic it may seem to blinkered modern eyes peering at the past for the origins of our own world, the Christian holy war we call the Crusades, partly because of its lack of rigid definition and protean adaptability, had seeped into the bedrock of western public consciousness through social and religious as well as political and military channels, embodying many of the human qualities and inspiring martial actions that remained highly regarded for centuries after Outremer had faded into a golden memory.

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