August 23, 2006


The Cross and the State: why...the crusades were important in shaping the ideology and fiscal and political structures of the secular state. (Christopher Tyerman, September 2006, History Today)

[T]he legacy of medieval crusading stands as more than a myth, an object of antiquarian fascination or literary quarrying. It contributed to the conceptual, cultural and political map of modern Europe. From the fifteenth century, nation-states were created by centripetal forces which included imagined communities supported by consent, coercion, fiscal exploitation, military necessity and ideologies that combined sacral rule with a popular sense of shared membership of a providential community. However secular these states were to become, they were forged on the anvil of polities defined in religious terms, one of which was the crusade.

Crusading rendered the lands being attacked or conquered sacred, lending them a new identity cast in the image of the conqueror’s holy rhetoric. In the Baltic, the fiction that Livonia (modern Latvia) was the inheritance of the Virgin Mary and Prussia that of St Peter helped the military Order of the Teutonic Knights delineate their right to power into the sixteenth century; in Prussia this cultural cohesion formed a basis for the secular duchy that succeeded them after 1525. The appropriation of St James as a warrior patron saint by Spanish rulers fighting their Muslim neighbours from c.1100 signalled the development of a myth of reconquest, throwing a gaudy cloak of religious motivation over political competition and territorial aggrandizement while providing Spanish rulers with access to church money, through crusade taxes or the bula de la cruzada system – papally sanctioned grants of spiritual privileges in return for cash payments that were only finally abolished by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65).

As the Spanish example illustrates, crusading also sacralized the lands from which the holy warriors came, providing a clear link with developing national states. As Christendom fragmented, its distinct kingdoms, principalities and cities appropriated the semiotics of crusading, including the concepts of a Holy Land and a Chosen People. In 1311 Pope Clement V, a Gascon, declared ‘Just as the Israelites are known to have granted the Lord’s inheritance by the election of Heaven … so the kingdom of France has been chosen as the Lord’s special people.’ In 1377, the chancellor of England told Parliament that ‘God would never have honoured this land in the same way as he did Israel…if it were not that He had chosen it as His heritage.’ Such national providentialism pointedly borrowed the language of crusading. Henry V’s chaplain had the King call his troops ‘God’s people’ as they put on ‘the armour of penitence’ before the battle of Agincourt (1415), exhorting them to follow the example of Judas Maccabeus. On his return to London after the victory, Henry was met by patriotic tableaux praising the blessed kingdom of England. Infected by ubiquitous crusade mentalities and images, nations and their wars acquired a holy tinge.

In the fifteenth century, on the frontier with the Ottoman Turks from Poland to the Adriatic, the idea of nations as bastions of Christianity allowed rulers to promote national exceptionalism and their own authority through crusading imagery. Away from the frontline, par­ticip­ation in crusading consolidated municipal identity in Pisa, Genoa, Florence and Venice. The reputation of the most famous crusader saint, Louis IX of France (d.1270, canonized 1297), flattered his successors into the nineteenth century, encouraging a proprietorial relationship with crusading that cast a long shadow shading nineteenth-century French Mediterranean colonialism and historiography. French diplomats even used it as a reason to be given a mandate in Syria after the First World War; Emir Feisal, palmed off with Iraq, was unamused, pointing out, to no avail, that the crusaders had in fact lost.

Some practical trappings of crusading were incorporated into national endeavour. From 1200 on, the cross was widely adopted as a national or civic symbol from Florence to Denmark. The kings of medieval Hungary, as also those of Scandinavia, found participation in crusades an entrée into Christendom’s corridors of power and a convenient means of harnessing public religion to their dynastic and national interest. In England in the 1260s royalists, backed by papal crusading bulls, wore red crosses against rebels who claimed religious sanction by wearing white ones. By the fourteenth century, the red cross, by now attached to the invented cult of St George as national patron, had become the emblem of English troops, yet simultaneously remained identified with crusading.

The secular apparatus of crusading influenced state-building across Europe too. Crusading was presented as open to all members of free society, especially after 1200, when it became possible for the lame, young, elderly and females to redeem crusade vows for cash. Crusader privileges, ostensibly guaranteed by the Church authorities and courts, in practice required the express approval of lay authorities, at once defining and blurring the respective areas of lay and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Administration of crusading had always and on all fronts rested with lay powers, local or national. The popular crusading movements known as the Children’s Crusade (1212) and Shepherds’ Crusades (1251, 1320), in seeking the patronage and approval of secular rulers, revealed a wide civil society, well-versed in political affairs, capable of forming collective opinions and taking targeted collective action.

Both on the home front and on every large campaign, pace the image of domineering princes, decisions and control were exerted through formal consultations with confraternities, assemblies, councils, public courts and, in the words of a leader of the Fourth Crusade (1201-04), parlements. Crusading did not create civil society, but the way in which it depended on a measure of individual and communal consent encouraged free individual and communal decisions. Crusading demanded the mobilization of men by persuasion, outside the normal disciplines of lordship, by engineering wide public consent for the expeditions and involving all social groups via fiscal demands and targeted liturgy. The crusades insisted on overt public response, not just tacit approval, so stimulating direct political activism. The increasing use of mercenaries by crusade leaders after the twelfth century may have reflected the inconvenience of having to cope with this wider civil participation which, technically, was of equals. Crusades were by no means exercises in proto-democracy, but many of them witnessed consensual government by a self-conscious body described as ‘the people’. One of the major themes of the creation of modern states has been how medieval communal politics became controlled, disciplined and subverted by central government or civil interest groups, in the name of the nation. The decline in freelance crusading reflected this shift, linking it closely with the creation of modern Europe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 23, 2006 9:45 AM

Won't hazard a guess as to what the Crusades accomplished in Europe, but they pretty much did in the Christian Byzantine Empire, especially after the sack of Byzantium in 1204.

Posted by: jdkelly at August 23, 2006 6:13 PM

that's one of the main things.

Posted by: oj at August 23, 2006 6:20 PM

So the sack of Byzantium was good? Or just important? Certainly important.

Posted by: jdkelly at August 23, 2006 7:59 PM

The shift of Christendom to the West was vital. The latter fall of Constantinople, which triggered an influx of scholars and texts, was huge too.

Posted by: oj at August 23, 2006 8:38 PM

The Pope declared France as "the Lord's special people" in 1311? 695 years ago, and I'll bet it rankles just a bit, eh?

It's been all downhill since.

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 23, 2006 10:06 PM

Spanish rulers fighting their Muslim neighbors?
Henry V using his own religiousosity, and the accepted divine rights of Monarchs, to rally his troops to an unimaginable victory?
These are the Crusader "myths"?
I find little validity to the excerpted premises, let alone conclusions, of this piece.
Islamic armies can invade, conquer and enslave with impugnity, yet any action to reverse or redress this is suspect?

Posted by: Mike Daley at August 23, 2006 11:22 PM


Posted by: oj at August 23, 2006 11:34 PM