Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Institution of Crusading

by Andrew Latham

There are basically two views regarding the causes of the crusades.  On the one hand, there is an older approach that views the crusades as motivated by greed, racism and/or a kind of proto-imperial impulse to conquer and colonize.  On the other, there is a more recent view that the campaigns to liberate the Holy Land were motivated by piety, religious anxiety and a belief that Islam was on the march and that only a massive campaign to liberate Jerusalem could stem the tide of Muslim conquest.  This is a very interesting debate, and one about which I have strong views.  In this post, however, I want to address a prior set of questions:  what was the nature of the crusade as an institution?  What were the cultural raw materials out of which it was assembled?  And how did this institution make possible the specific crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land and Iberia, pagans in the Baltic region, and heretics and other enemies of the Church throughout Christendom? 

To begin with, the institution of the crusade was constructed in part at least out of the raw materials afforded by the cultural narrative of Christian “holy war” (bellum sacrum).  As Carl Erdmann first argued in his 1935 monograph The Origin of the Idea of Crusade, the crusades were in fact the culmination of the historical evolution of the Christian institution of “holy war”, which he defined as “any war that is regarded as a religious act or is in some way set in a direct relation to religion”.  According to Erdmann, this institution evolved in three historical phases. First, in the 5th century, Augustine (d. 430) established its foundations by introducing the idea that the preservation of the unity of the Christian church constituted a just cause for war.  Faced with the threat posed to the doctrinal and institutional unity of the Church by the Donatist movement, but also conscious of the doctrinal proscription against forced conversion, Augustine ultimately came to argue that (military) force could be used to restore to the true faith those believers who had fallen into doctrinal error (i.e. heretics, schismatics and apostates). In effect, Augustine’s scattered and inchoate writings on the topic of organized violence introduced two related but distinct discursive currents into the medieval institution of war: “just war” or war waged on temporal authority to combat injustice; and, “holy war” or “war sanctioned by God [bellum Deo auctore] in which…. one side fights for light, the other darkness; one side for Christ, the other the devil”.  Second, under Pope Gregory I (d. 604 AD) the moral purposes of such wars were expanded to include the forcible subjugation of pagans.  In effect, Gregory introduced the doctrine of what Erdman called “indirect missionary war” – that is, war fought to subjugate pagans, not as a means to forcible conversion, but as “the basis for subsequent missionary activity that would be protected and promoted by state authority”.  Finally, the early reform popes – Leo IX, Alexander II and Gregory VII – faced with significant military threats emanating from the Islamic world, introduced the idea that war could legitimately be fought in defence of the Church and Christendom.  They also initiated the practice of offering remission of sins as a reward for military service against the enemies of the Church. From this, Erdmann concluded, it was but a short evolutionary leap from holy war to the crusade to liberate the Holy Land launched in 1095.

Needless to say, since first advanced over seven decades ago, the “Erdmann thesis” has been subject to intense scrutiny and vigorous debate.  But while there may be little consensus today on the degree to which the crusades were holy wars, for the purposes of this study, three conclusions seem warranted.  First, it seems irrefutable that a rich and powerfully resonating discourse of holy war was part of the cultural imagination of Latin Christendom.  Second, this discourse could be said to entail the following defining elements: holy wars were fought on God’s authority; they were declared and directed by the clergy; they were a means of defending the Church against its internal and external enemies; and, they were associated with spiritual rewards.  Finally, there can be little doubt that the architects of the prototypical First Crusade were heavily influenced by the practices and discourses of holy war when imagining the campaign to liberate the Holy Land.  In this respect, one need not accept Erdmann’s claim that the crusades were nothing more than holy wars.  It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion, however, the institution of the crusade was (a) assembled at least in part out of cultural materials provided by the discourse of bellum sacrum, and (b) that it therefore necessarily had many of the characteristics of a Christian “holy war”.

But if it is true that the institution of the “crusade” perpetuated the legacy of the older institution of holy war, it is also true that it shared more than a little genetic material with the pre-existing discourse of bellum justum or “just war”.  Indeed, the institution of the “crusade” incorporates so many elements of that older discourse that some have argued that, in effect, it constituted little more than the “just war of the Church”.  What, then, were the key just war elements of the discourse of crusade?  At the risk of eliding important differences within and between schools of canonical jurisprudence, the answer to this question can be summarized in the following terms. With respect to the issue of just cause, the canonists held that the Church could declare and direct a “just war” in response to certain injustices perpetrated by infidels.  These injustices included attacks on the Christian commonwealth, infringements on the legal rights of Christians and/or the illicit seizure of goods or property “lawfully and legitimately held by Christians in accordance with divine law and the ius gentium”.  The only real debate seems to have been whether, to qualify as such, an “injustice” required a (violent) act or whether the mere denial of the Christian faith as defined by the Latin Clergy constituted an injury to divine law and/or the Church sufficient to justify war.  In any case, proponents of both views argued that wars to recover lands lost to Muslims (especially the Holy Land), to punish and coerce heretics or to defend the Church and Christendom against enemies of the faith (inimici ecclesiae) unambiguously met the standards of just cause established in canon law.  With respect to the issue of “legitimate authority”, the canonists also defined the locus of war-making authority within a just war frame, arguing that while the Church was obviously vested with the authority to declare and direct a crusade, ultimately the pope (as the Vicar of Christ and thus enjoying a unique “plenitude of power”) was the clerical official “most suited to exercise this authority”. In this way, as Russell has argued, the somewhat vague concept of “holy war” was concretized in the crusade as the just war of the Latin Church.

Finally, it is simply not possible to grasp fully the constitutive ideal of the “crusade” without tracing its connections to the established religious discourse of “penance”. As Bull demonstrates convincingly, lay piety had intensified dramatically throughout Latin Christendom in the aftermath of the Feudal Revolution, ultimately coming to constitute a key element of the constitutive narrative of the nobility. This new script of “devout Christian”, however, was from the beginning in tension with both the older script of “noble warrior” and the actual quotidian practices of the lordly nobility (which, given the Christian ontological narrative, could only be framed as “sinful”).  That these tensions generated considerable spiritual anxiety is well attested in the literature, as is the desire it induced in many nobles to atone for their sins by performing acts of penance. The Latin Christian penitential system, of course, had long offered noble (and other) sinners a mechanism for earning the remission of their sins: contrition, confession, acts of penance (fasting, pilgrimages to Rome of the Holy Land, the devout performance of meritorious works, etc), and absolution all being part of an elaborate system for making satisfaction to God for transgressions against His law.  It thus offered individual nobles a way of moderating the anxieties resulting from simultaneously enacting two constitutive scripts that were ultimately contradictory.  But this penitential system was not without its limitations.  Prior to the late-11th century, the Church typically required noble penitents to accept punishments (such as forswearing martial activities) that amounted to a denial of key aspects of their core identity as warriors – a requirement that generated powerful tensions and anxieties of its own.  In the decades immediately preceding the First Crusade, however, a new form of penance evolved that offered members of the nobility a means of expiating their sins without denying their warrior identity: sanctified violence directed against infidels, apostates and other enemies of the Church.  Beginning with the pontificate of Gregory VII, the Church began to teach that fighting of a certain kind could be an act of charity that had penitential effects. With this revolutionary innovation, fighting was put in the same meritorious frame as prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

How were these disparate intellectual and institutional elements brought together to form the radically new institution of the crusade?  Simply put, this synthesis can be said to be the result of an extended process of experimentation initiated by ecclesiastical officials in the 11th century.  The mounting military pressure experienced by Christendom during this period, coupled with the growing sense that the occupation of formerly Christian lands by Muslims was inherently unjust, provided these officials with a powerful incentive to begin looking for ways to mobilize Christendom’s military capacity first to defend the respublica Christiana against further incursions and then to liberate those territories that had already been lost to Islam.  The result was a series of so-called précroisades – instances of penitential warfare that prefigured the crusades proper – which included wars of the Germans against the Slavs, the early campaigns of the Iberian Reconquista, and even a number of naval raids carried out by the Italian sea-powers.  The key catalytic event in the evolution of the crusade proper, however, appears to have been the embassy sent by the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus to a council of Latin bishops at Piacenza in March 1095.  Through this embassy, the Byzantines, hard pressed by Turks advancing through Asia Minor toward Constantinople, asked the pope to encourage western Christians to render military assistance to their eastern co-religionists in order to stem the Muslim tide.  Pope Urban II, long concerned about the Muslim threat to Christendom’s eastern frontier (and hoping to restore the unity of respublica Christiana) responded to this appeal by preaching a “war of liberation” (carefully framed to conform to the criteria of just cause and with the reformers’ core narrative of libertas ecclesiae) in which both Christians and the Christian Holy Places were to be freed from Muslim domination.  As an inducement to take part in this war, Urban offered remission of sins to those who completed their penitential (armed) “pilgrimage” to Jerusalem.  The result: a massive military expedition to the east that not only liberated Jerusalem (1099), but established a series of Latin kingdoms in Syria and Palestine that were to persist for almost 200 years.  While the success of this expedition was largely a function of fragmentation and internecine conflict within the Islamic world, it was viewed in Christendom as a miraculous example of divine intervention.  It thus proved to be critical juncture in the evolution of the institution of the crusade – i.e. a formative moment when an almost accidental cobbling together of elements of pre-existing institutions for a specific purpose congealed into a new institution that would persist essentially unchanged for several centuries.

By the late-11th century, then, the institutions of holy war, just war, and penance had converged to constitute what Villey called a “new synthesis”: the institution of the “crusade”. This institution framed the basic cultural understanding or ideal of what the 13th century jurist Hostiensis (d. 1271 AD) called “Roman War” (bellum Romanum) – that is, it made the crusade a meaningful category of thought and action within the collective imagination of medieval Latin Christendom.  But what, precisely, did this new synthesis look like?  First, it constituted the crusade as a martial instrument for righting injustices and combating evil in the world.  More specifically, it defined the crusades as a form of just war whose moral purposes were the liberation of Christians, the redress of legal injuries perpetrated against them, the restoration of heretics to the true faith, and the defense of Christendom and the Church from attack.  Second, the crusade was constituted as an instrument of ecclesiastical statecraft.  While secular powers could be (and typically were) mobilized to carry out any given crusade, authority for launching a crusade was reserved exclusively to the papacy.  Finally, the crusades were constituted in the medieval imagination as an act of piety, penance and Christian love (caritas).  Church leaders and would-be crusaders alike had a common understanding of the crusades as both an instrument for building a more just world order and as a mechanism for the remission of individual sin.  To be sure, the institution of the crusade evolved significantly during the centuries following the First Crusade (crusades beyond the Holy Land; further refinements in canon law; developments in the theology of sin and penance; the creation of the military orders; etc.).  Throughout the later medieval era, however, the institution of the “crusade” retained its basic character as a penitential war-pilgrimage authorized by the pope and directed against the enemies of Christ and His Church.


Andrew Latham was born in England, raised in Canada and currently lives in the United States.  He holds a PhD from York University in Toronto.  Since 1997 Andrew has been a member of the Political Science Department at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he regularly teaches courses in Medieval Political Thought, International Security and Regional Conflict.  His most recent publications include a non-fiction book entitled Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades published by Routledge in 2012, and The Holy Lance, his first novel, published by Knox Robinson on April 7 of this year.

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