Saturday, August 13, 2011
The Absence of Irony in the Crusading Ideal
While it may be argued that most crusaders were fierce fighters and not philosophical thinkers, there was still a genuine piety for the participants in the Crusades that a modern audience has difficulty in fully understanding, and appreciating. However, the crusaders deserve to be judged by their own standards. The medieval mind and the modern consciousness are markedly different, and the argument of an intentional corruption of ideals in the Crusades is the equivalent of accusing the crusader of irony and modern cynicism while taking up the Cross of Christ. According to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Europeans would not have been capable of recognizing such irony until 1605, when Cervantes first published Don Quixote: “Quixote’s espousal of the ideals of knighthood was an absurd imitation of those ideals; and it convicted the ideals themselves of absurdity.”(1) In the period of the Crusades, there was a crusading ideal that could be articulated, and experienced profoundly, intellectually, viscerally, and spiritually. For the participants, there was a keen awareness of when the great Christian ideal was present in the historical action, and when it was not. The high ideal could be betrayed, or upheld faithfully; there was durability to these ideals in historical moments of both success and failure during the crusading period. But a modern sense of intentional corruption is missing, even as the crusading ideal evolved.
The medieval standards for holy war first evolved from Augustine’s belief in divine order, and the importance self-defense for the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries. Augustine’s theology does not represent the full blossoming of the medieval ideal, and there is separation between his Just War theory and medieval chivalry. Warfare included real evil to the theologian: “The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like…”(2) Augustine did not have a vision of the church fighting wars, but he did justify the state’s responsibility to defend itself. For medieval Europeans, the historical imagination of the Roman Empire inspired a vision of reconquest of the territory taken by Muslims. This was a form of self-defense for Europeans following Augustine’s standard. The appeal of Alexius I Comnenus after the Battle of Manzikert invoked the concept of Christian love and duty; Christians from East and West would come back together again, as one people, after the real threat of Muslims in Catholic Europe in the 8th Century. Pope Gregory VII described such ideal love as representing a Christ-like virtue: “The example of our Redeemer and the bond of fraternal love demand that we should lay down our lives and liberate them.”(3) Pope Urban II, in the words of Fulcher of Chartres, deepened this ideal with the urgency of divine command, the militant language fitting the warriors of the West: “Moreover, Christ commands it.”(4) The spiritual importance of Jerusalem and the Holy Land took this emerging ideal to a spiritual fever pitch. A modern historian may think what he or she wants about remittance of sin through indulgences, but there is no evidence that the pilgrim or the church, growing in power and bureaucracy, did not believe in them. The Crusades presented a way of transformation, a way to be Christ-like: “The crusader’s action is identified with Christ’s redemption of sinners. The crusade is undertaken out of pity, out of love.”(5) Wealth, power, and glory were indeed part of the mix of the mix of motives, but the medieval mindset was highly idealistic. Capitalism and the idea of profit were deeply uncomfortable concepts during this period. They were, in fact, much more morally concerned than we are. Culture for them was not simply the product of economic and political forces; it was the active work for God in which God was directly involved in the human survival of Christians. The spiritual test for the Knights Templar vocation, quoting St. Paul, might be considered as the moral test for all crusaders: “’Test the soul to see if it comes from God.’”(6) The Crusades were a moment of collective introspection, without irony.
Bernard of Clairvaux helped to improve the growing art of preaching the Crusades, and articulating the crusading ideal for the people. Even after the successful First Crusade, there were moments of betraying the ideal of Christian chivalry. They were not to be repeated, as Bernard exhorted: “The Jews must not be persecuted, slaughtered, nor even driven out.”(7) The providence and victory of the First Crusade were something to be eagerly repeated, and the undertaking was too important for amateurs like Peter the Hermit; the church had to get professional. The crusading ideal was also something that could be experienced in the personal character of the military leaders, and not just the theological principles articulated by the clergy. Godfrey was an early vision of selfless Christian perfection, and Richard I, in his piety and bravery, was the enduring symbol of the chivalric ideal. In the military successes of the Third Crusade, the very different characters of Richard I and Philip II epitomized the gap between kings who had the true crusading spirit and those who did not. King Richard was the great leader who reversed the defeat at the Battle of Hattin, and the loss of the crusading states. His military exploits were described by observers with a heroism that combined with God’s purpose and destiny. In the words of Richard, a canon, on Richard the Lionheart, the great leader was striving with and on behalf of God:“…to vindicate the Christian religion, on the Friday before the Assumption of the blessed Virgin Mary, ordered 2,700 of the Turkish hostages to be led from the city and hanged; his soldiers marched forward, with delight to fulfill his commands and to retaliate, with the ascent of divine grace…”(8) The greatest crusading king was Louis IX because he so nobly represented the medieval ideal in bad luck and even failure near the end of the period of the Crusades. His character represented a kind of tragic redemption to the crusading ideal. Even in this experience of military defeat, one that could not be blamed on his efforts, Louis was selfless as he went on to serve the crusader states through his leadership in Jerusalem. Character still counted as a manifestation of divine assurance.
The sense that God was involved in the complex undertaking of the Crusades was manifest in the First Crusade, and the crusaders never quite got over that experience in subsequent generations. Fighting the Crusades was not an easy task, and the spiritual zeal of participants was confronted mightily by vexing strategic questions. The spiritual victory of the Crusades held liberation of Jerusalem as the centerpiece of God’s plan, but was that really the best way to proceed? The tension between Richard and Philip II brought up the question of whether this was the best thing for kings to be doing in the first place, and whether they might be needed more at home. Louis IX would certainly benefit from the expanding administration of the less gallant Philip II. Travel by sea was part of the Third Crusade, and this changed all future efforts, including the complexity of negotiations with partners in the Italian city states. The better strategy for some was cutting off the Muslim power base in Egypt, rather than focusing directly on Jerusalem, and Damietta became a repeated first step without sustained success on an Egyptian front. However, negotiation for Jerusalem was not seen as being as impressive as fighting for its liberation. Factionalism in the crusading states was a continued problem, and Zengi, Nur-ed Din, Saladin, the Mongols, and Baybars were also very formidable as opponents. The difficulty was striving to be faithful to a spiritual ideal while solving these significant logistical problems. In some cases, the logistical problems caused the participants to betray their noblest beliefs. The devil was in the details.
The incompetence of the Second Crusade was understood theologically; Europe must purify itself to be successful in the future. But its strategic failure paled in comparison to a different kind of failure: the betrayal of the ideal. The Fourth Crusade was a grave betrayal of medieval chivalry, though its participants were given a hero’s welcome when they returned home with booty from Christian cities. This was not the original plan, of course. Constantinople was important for the Crusading story, but it was through the earlier narrative of liberation for Christian brothers and sisters, not one of defeat and plunder. The Fourth Crusade spun completely out of control with attacks on Christian cities Zara and Constantinople. The Venetians were committed to being paid above all other considerations, and these cities became the opportunity to deal with the substantial economic debts of the crusade. This is an example where logistical problems simply overwhelmed those involved, and the church was a direct participant in the moral failure, as described by Robert of Chari: “Then the bishops preached to the army…and they showed to the pilgrims that the war was a righteous one; for the Greeks were traitors and murderers and also disloyal, since they had murdered their rightful lord, and were worse than Jews.”(9) Even in this bizarre and twisted rationale, Jews themselves were still not to be attacked. The vision of Christian brotherhood, as articulated by Pope Gregory VII, was obliterated with the sacking of Constantinople: “The army of Christ fell upon the Queen of Cities with startling ferocity. The crusading host and the Latin refugees merged into a hideous mob driven by greed, lust, and hatred…The sack of Constantinople ranks as one of the most profitable and shameful in history.”(10) That the bishops and clergy were preaching to justify the attack shows the degree of collective failure and betrayal, and Pope Innocent III condemned the crusade in the strongest possible language: “As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, whose swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, are now dripping with Christian blood, they have spared neither age nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of God.”(11) The crusaders were also quite aware of the pope’s position before the attack on Zara.(12)
The Fifth Crusade of Frederick II didn’t attack any Christian cities. It didn’t really attack any Muslim ones either, except Damietta before Frederick arrived, late as always. This crusade failed the character test more vividly, at the time to those involved, than any previous or subsequent effort. Getting started after a ten year delay, Frederick II might be considered the first cynical crusader; or, as in the earlier example of Philip II, of a king who is truly worried about the effects of crusading and reluctant to go. The usually fair-minded Madden refers to Frederick’s “dry cynicism” in matters of religion; he was also a leader of considerable intellectual range.(13) However, Frederick was excommunicated for his failure to thrive as a crusader who actually gets around to doing anything. A crusade could not be led by an enemy of the faith, as Patriarch Gerold, the religious leader of Jerusalem clarified: “We answered to that, that in the matter in question, as well as in all of a similar nature, we were very sorry not to be able, without endangering the salvation of our souls, to obey his wishes, because he was excommunicated.”(14) Frederick II doesn’t show bravery in battle; he preferred to negotiate his “victories” through clever diplomacy. No one seemed to buy it except Frederick (and maybe Isabella). His treaty with al-Kamil was widely regarded as a joke. Jerusalem and the crusader states were left indefensible, and Frederick II left Jerusalem in a hail of detritus. No other participant failed to adhere to the crusading ideal so publicly, and Frederick would spend the rest of his life battling popes. The ideal of chivalry was not something to be cynically trifled with, especially in the city where Jesus died.
Returning to the ideal, even after extraordinary adversity, was the historical discipline of the Crusades. But the crusading ideal was not static, even before the Fifth Crusade. It was evolving in a way that brought up significant questions. The crusade was a tool of the papacy, one that could be used against enemies at home in the Albigensian Crusade beginning in 1208: “Enemies within posed no less threat than the enemy without; indeed, as popes and other frequently stressed, they were more dangerous.”(15) Augustine’s Just War theology was not supposed to include wars of conversion, so this is a notable evolution. There was significant tension in the relationship between Raymond of Toulouse and crusading Pope Innocent III over the Cathars in France; the murder of the papal legate, Peter of Castelnan, pushed the pope to action. The crusade was popular because crusaders didn’t have to go as far. But the circumstances rapidly shifted with the widespread opinion that this was a power play involving Simon of Montfort with Raymond’s land: “The treatment of the citizens of Toulouse had nothing to do with heresy; it was merely an exercise in raw power. Even his own supporters began to view Simon not as a pious crusader but a ruthless tyrant.”(16) The character test could take place at home as well as in the Middle East. The crusading evolution was tarnished: “As for the Cathar heresy, it remained firmly entrenched in Languedoc. Two decades of bloodshed deprived it of its support among the nobility, but not of its fundamental appeal.”(17) Popes were invading politics, and kings were increasingly involved in religious questions. At the end of the crusading period, King Philip IV, a master of the pretence of Christian piety, would dictate terms of the dissolution of the Knights Templar to a reluctant Pope Clement V. The monastic and military ideal of the order had literally come to an end by the probably specious accusations of a king.
King Louis IX represented the redemption of the crusading ideal, after moments of betrayal and evolution at home. Here was a monarch whose piety, bravery, and administration were unmatched by any other in the entire period. Through the memory of King Louis, the European crusaders, along with the church in his rapid canonization, actively constructed a narrative of tragic heroism for St. Louis. This is not at all to suggest it was a fiction; rather it was an active process of upholding the medieval vision of chivalry. This narrative of tragedy redeemed the rotten character of the Fifth Crusade. The theology to deal with the failure of Louis was perhaps the deepest and most mature of all. Even in the moment of bitter defeat, the selfless King Louis, as related by Johnville, is the Christ-like leader who will remain in the city where Jesus died: “…and I consider also that the barons of this land tell me that if I depart hence, the kingdom of Jerusalem is lost, for none will dare to remain after I have left. I have therefore decided that I will by no means abandon the kingdom of Jerusalem, which I came here to guard and reconquer. So my conclusion is that for the present I remain here.”(18) Isaiah’s suffering servant was seen in the life of Jesus as a suffering messiah. In pious imitation of his Lord, Louis was faithful and brave to the end: “They were led by a king of enormous piety, skilled in the art of war and devoted to the restoration of Jerusalem. If they could not succeed, who could? One might expect that disillusionment and despair would be the natural result, yet despite these failures and a century of similar ones the Christians of Europe remained steadfast in their commitment to the Holy Land.”(19) History might have been different. Though close to great military success, Robert of Artois perhaps put God to the test in 1250 with his attack on Mansurah, before Louis could arrive with his troops. Humbert of Romans responded to this kind of theological question in 1274: “And so it looks as though we are putting God to the test or are showing a great lack of faith when we enter into such a contest.”(20) The failure of Louis was a moment of theodicy, one which posed the question for the faithful of whether God wanted the Crusades to succeed. Was it vanity to see the hand of God in human history?
When did the death knell of the medieval ideal officially sound? The Crusades seem to still be with us. Erasmus and Martin Luther both wrestled with the question of holy war, and Erasmus didn’t rule it out with the Ottoman Turks. Neither theologian had really thought up an alternative to the crusading ideal, and Erasmus dithered thoughtfully: “Of course, not all wars against the Turks are legitimate and holy, yet there are times when failure to resist the Turks simply means the surrender of part of Christendom to these barbaric enemies, and the abandonment of those our brethren who are already enslaved beneath their foul yoke.”(22) If one returns faithfully to Augustine, God will always be involved with human history because God exists in order, and in the exercise of all forms of power: “No one can have any power but what is given from above. For there is no power but of God, who either orders or permits.”(21) Jonathan Riley-Smith posits the crusading ideal in all potential struggles for liberation, such as Liberation Theology in Latin America: “To the modern apologists for Christian violence Christ wishes are associated with a course of political events which they call liberation. He is really present in this process, in the historical manifestations of man’s path forward.”(23) In response to Fascism and then Communism, the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr would become noticeably absent of irony. The crusading ideal was without it all along.
1. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), pgs 11-12.
2. S.J. Allen and Emily Ant, The Crusades: A Reader, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), p. 7.
3. Ibid, p. 35.
4. Ibid, p. 40.
5. Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 101
6. Allen and Ant, p. 201.
7. Ibid, p. 137.
8. Ibid, p. 173.
9. Ibid, p. 232.
10. Thomas F. Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades, (Lanham, Maaryland: Rowman and Littlefield, Publishing Group, 2006), p. p. 118.
11. Allen and Ant, p. 240.
12. Madden, p. 159.
13. Ibid, p. 104.
14. Allen and Ant, p. 293.
15. Riley-Smith, p. 42.
16. Madden, p. 133.
17. Ibid, p. 135.
18. Allen and Ant, p. 347.
19. Madden, p. 186.
20. Allen and Ant, p. 369.
21. Ibid, p. 8.
22. Ibid, p. 414.
23. Riley-Smith, p. 386.
Works Cited List
S.J. Allen and Emily Ant, The Crusades: A Reader, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).
Thomas F. Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades, (Lanham, Maaryland: Rowman and Littlefield, Publishing Group, 2006).
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954).
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).