Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crusader motivation

In a famous eyewitness account of the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, the crusading chaplain Raymond of Aguilers described a bloodbath at the Temple Mount (drawing, as has often been pointed out, on the Book of Revelations):

It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses. These are small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to the knees and bridle reins.. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that in this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood.... Now that the city was taken, it was well worth all of our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the holy sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang a new song to the Lord! For their hearts offered prayers of praise to God, victorious and triumphant, which cannot be told in words. A new day, new joy, me and perpetual gladness, the consummation of our labor and devotion, drew forth from all new words and new songs. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity, the humiliation of paganism, and the renewal of our faith. "This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it," for on this day the Lord revealed himself to his people and blessed them.

This passage relates to two questions that often come up in studying history, but particularly the history of the Crusades (or for that matter, jihad).

The first might be the question of sincerity. Did so-and-so undertake this project, or conquer this country, or start this war because he sincerely believed in his stated ideals? I find this as a historical question somewhat uninteresting. Every observer has his or her views as to how human nature works in general and in particular cases, say for instance, how kings and emperors act. It is hard to convince people to change their mind on this issue. So arguments about sincerity don't go very far unless you clearly define what you are talking about -- and people generally don't.

Part of the problem is terminology, especially the use of the word "religion." Often when people talk about "religion" they are talking about a creed or set of beliefs that someone else really (or doesn't really) believes in. Or they may mean a set of rules that members of a given religion are supposed to follow. But both beliefs and rules are usually discussed in terms of formal definitions laid down by higher authorities in well-defined religious organizations. If you look in detail about what individuals say they believe or how they actually act, you may well find that these individual "believers" or "followers" not to have the same "religion" as the great authorities. If a theologian says that Christianity believes thus, or a scholar says that Islam demands thus, it is trivially easy to find Christians or Muslims who do not believe or do those things. In any big-name religion, the greatest and most respected authorities only speak for one stream of a very diverse tradition. And if ordinary people attached to that tradition claim to be obedient followers, the outside observer may often find that they don't realize how far they are from literal adherence to proclamations of their leaders; or do realize, and have good reasons of their own for their particular interpretation of what the religion means.

Which brings us to the second question, which might be put this way: "Were the Crusades really about religion? What does holy war have to do with the teachings of Jesus?" My answer to these questions is, yes they were about religion (if you just want a war that were plenty closer to hand in 11th- century Europe) -- but what was that religion like? What was its actual content? Christianity in most varieties is a lot more than the teachings of Jesus. Put aside for the moment the vast diversity of the Bible, which makes it possible to find justification for almost anything in it, especially if you use sophisticated symbolic interpretation. More important, I think, is that even Christians with little or no firsthand knowledge of the Bible have strong opinions about what Christianity is. When we are talking about the motivations of Crusaders it is probably more useful to think about the individuals who trekked across the Balkans and Anatolia and how they acted, rather than what Pope Urban II said at Clermont (important as that might be in other contexts). When we are talking about the religion that led men to Jerusalem and helped produce the slaughter there, Raymond of Aguilers’s version of Christianity is as important as that of any Pope, or of Augustine of Hippo, if not more so.


  1. A talking point: this is very true, but at that rate, what are the sources we can exploit for popular religious feeling? Donation charters, heresy narratives... I too think the top-down ideological Pope-centric account doesn't explain the rank and file, but the work to do that is yet to be done. (And isn't as interesting to Crusade historians, it seems, as deciding in what order knights lost their horses during the siege of Antioch etc....)

  2. Is Raymond "popular?" I have my doubts. Does he show up in any *theological* treatments of Christian views of war? I doubt that, too.