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The Crusades: Eschatological lemmings, Younger sons, Papal hegemony and Colonialism
Jessalynn Byrd

The crusades encompass so many factors that attempts to treat them from a simplistic angle have generated the most common misconceptions about them, including the crusades as colonialism, the younger son or loot theory, the eschatological lemming theory, the papal hegemony theory, the 'abuse' theory, and the 'elite' crusade.  Images adopted as intellectual mascots of sorts by proponents of these and other theories enter the popular discourse and dominate public assumptions concerning the crusades. They include ergotism-riddled peasants quaking in fear of the millennium and following geese to Jerusalem, hermit preachers rousing mobs to assault the Jews in Northern Europe before streaming to the East, the cannibalism of the starving Tafurs and the crusaders' horses wading through the stagnant blood of slaughtered Muslims, and King Richard parleying with Saladin.

 Historians from the Near East and non-European countries once saw the crusades as the first emergence of a cyclical European colonialism which would lead to Columbus, the British empire, and the partitioning of the globe following World War Two.  This theory explains the crusades in the Baltic as a nascent Drang nach Osten, while the Reconquista in Spain and the crusade against the Albigensians in the Midi were simply wars of expansion window-dressed with religion.  A populace thirsty for indulgences was dragooned into service and new sources of money from the church requisitioned to serve the territorial ambitions of kings and petty princes.  Similarly, the younger son theory originated from the assumption that humans are ultimately motivated by economic reasons, in this case the increasing scarcity of land which led families to save themselves from financial ruin by making the eldest son the sole heir.  Eager to rid themselves of their younger sons, they sent them on crusade in the hope that they could carve out inheritances for themselves in the East, a theory which Giles Constable and Jonathan Riley-Smith firmly rattled through their studies of the financial sacrifices many families made to send members on crusade who were, as often as not, heads of the family or elder sons.

 The eschatological lemming theory found its most poetical expression in the works of Alphandery and Cohn, the result of a cross-pollination between what could be dubbed the 'common man,' 'Marxist,' or 'Protestant' theory and the concept that popular enthusiasm of the Chicken Little 'the sky is falling down' variety was the true origin of the crusades.  These historians rejected the notion that the true crusade was the creation of pope Urban II and a breed of church-tamed noblemen and instead credited its origins to the more unpredictable catalyst of group enthusiasm which was later supplanted by the institutionalization of the crusade, its domination by pragmatic kings and noblemen, and the systematic straightjacketing of devotional fervor into acceptable channels.  Its most important contribution was to ask, "what defines the crusade, the attitudes of those leading it or those who go on it?" a question most recently restated by Christopher Tyerman (with an entirely different conclusion).  The 'elite' theory, on the other hand, argues that individual choice or popular enthusiasm played little role in the pragmatic success of the crusades.  For success, a viable military expedition was essential, and crusades which did not win the patronage of kings or powerful magnates soon evaporated.  Proponents of this school focus on the financing, equipage and mustering of the crusade's military force, which leads them to conclude that kin-groups and feudal ties of loyalty were the predominant factors in the recruiting of the military men essential for the actual crusade campaign, while crusade preaching and popular enthusiasm merely served as a means of funneling alms into the hands of the fighting elite and the mercenaries they hired.

 The antithesis to the lemming or layman theory is the papal hegemony theory, which in its positive form defines the crusade as a holy war called by the pope, who proffers the indulgence and privileges without which a true crusade cannot come into being.  In this theory, the crusade is defined by the pope and a crusade without the pope's approbation, such as that of Frederick II in 1229, or the Fourth Crusade once it diverted toward Constantinople, is no crusade at all.  This definition easily gives rise to the 'abuse' theory, in which a crusade promulgated by the pope for the pure motive of liberating the holy land is twisted by other parties into a vehicle for their own ambition, including the seizure of land and the combatting of political enemies (a charge which could easily be levelled against some popes).  A negative variation which could be labelled the papal hegemony theory sees the crusade as a mere prop for papal ambition, an excuse for instituting systematic taxation of the church and the ability to meddle in secular affairs in the name of saving the holy land.   Unfortunately, these theories tend to credit the papacy with the ability to control the crusade, assuming it possessed tools of communication and bureaucracy more akin to those of the Ministry of Peace in Orwell's 1984 then the reality of a medieval pope, struggling for his own political existence, dependant upon poor and irregular sources of information, poor lines of communication, so that once the crusade bull left the papal camera, it was a constant struggle to ensure that his vision of the crusade prevailed.

 All these theories have been presented in an artificially pure form.  Few of the historians cited here and in the bibliography would point to the dominance of one factor alone in the makeup of a crusade.  However, popular misconceptions often latch onto one of these factors and reduce the crusades to an absurdity.  The best hope of understanding the crusades is to understand the medieval mentality which was foreign to our own in its lack of neat compartmentalization.  Those who went on the crusades managed to combine without dissonance a dogged devotion to both the Holy Land and the Christian religion with a nagging dread about the possibility of broiling in hell rather than basking in heaven, financial sacrifice and the devotion of the pilgrim with the hardened acumen of an experienced warrior concerned with procuring his next meal from the alien towns and villages through which he passed, the strategic plotting essential for the successful recovery of Jerusalem and the holy land with the hope of returning home and, to the mind carefully inculcated in tolerance, an often shocking disregard for persons of other cultures and religions.   Just as the individual was capable of balancing varying motivations, so the crusading movement itself was not dictated by any one party but was a true discourse in which the idea and image of the crusade was constantly recast and recreated in a dialogue between various groups in their quest for differing goals.   This approach far better explains the full gamut of movements labelled crusades, including those to the holy land, those against heretics and political enemies, and the multifarious crusades of the later middle ages.



Good single-volume treatments of the crusades:  H. E. Mayer, The Crusades, trans. J. Gillingham (Oxford, 1972), J. Riley-Smith, The Crusades  (New Haven/London, 1987), J. Riley-Smith, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades  (Oxford, 1995), and C. Tyerman, The Invention of the Crusades  (Toronto/London, 1998).

The historiography of the crusades:   for colonialism and other theories, see J. A. Brundage, The Crusades:  Motives and Achievements  (Lexington, Mass., 1964), J. Riley-Smith.  The First Crusaders, 1095-1131  (CUP, 1997), and C. Tyerman, Invention, above; for a strong statement of the papal position, see J. Riley-Smith, What were the Crusades?  (London, 1977); for the lemming theory, see P. Alphandéry and A. Dupront, La Chrétienté et l'idée de Croisade, 2 vols. (Paris, 1954, 1959) and N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Oxford, 1970); for exemples of excellent recent work on the role of popular enthusiasm, see Gary Dickson,  "The Advent of the Pastores (1251)," Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire  66.2 (1988): 249-67, or his  "The Flagellants and the Crusades,"  Journal of Medieval History  15 (1989): 227-67;  on the role of kings, families and feudal society, see J. France, "Patronage and the Appeal of the First Crusade," in The First Crusade: Origins and Impact, ed. J. Phillips (Manchester, 1997), pp. 5-20; S. Lloyd, English Society and the Crusade, 1216-1307 (Oxford, 1988); J. Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders  (Cambridge, 1997); C. Tyerman, England and the Crusades, 1095-1588  (Chicago, 1988); for the papal hegemony theory, see H. C. Lea, A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church, 3 vols., Volume III: Indulgences  (Philadelphia, 1896) and W. E. Lunt, ed.  Papal Revenues in the Middle Ages.  2 vols.  (New York, 1934) or his Financial Relations of the Papacy with England to 1327  (Cambridge, Mass., 1939), and for a particularly blatant rendition, R. B. Ekelund, R. F. Hébert, R. D. Tollison, G. M. Anderson, and A. B. Davidson, Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm (Oxford, 1996).

Themes associated with the crusades:  for pilgrimage, see J. Sumption, Pilgrimage: An image of Medieval Religion  (1975); for the theory of holy war and the concepts of knighthood in service of the church and knightly piety, see K. Erdmann, The Origin of the Idea of the Crusade, trans. M. W. Baldwin and W. Goffart (Princeton UP, 1977) and M. Bull,  Knightly Piety and the Lay Response to the First Crusade (Oxford, 1993); for the Peace of God and Truce of God, see H. E. J. Cowdrey, "The Peace and Truce of God in the Eleventh Century," in Past and Present 46 (1970), and more recently, T. Head and R. Landes, eds., The Peace of God.  Social Violence and Religious Response in France around the Year 1000  (Ithaca/London, 1992);  for material on indulgences in English, see Sumption above; B. Poschmann, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick,  trans. and rev. T. Courtney (Freiburg/London, 1964); and H. C. Lea, A History of Auricular Confessions and Indulgences in the Latin Church,  3 vols., Volume III: Indulgences  (Philadelphia, 1986); for the legal and spiritual privileges of the crusaders, J. A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader  (Madison, 1966); for the preaching of the crusades, see C. Maier, Preaching the Crusades: Mendicant Friars and the Cross in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge, 1994) and P. Cole, The Preaching of the Crusades to the Holy Land, 1095-1270  (Cambridge, Mass., 1991); for criticism of the crusades, E. Siberry, Criticism of Crusading (Oxford, 1985).


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