Seminar LXXVI: let him who is without sin start the Fourth Crusade

Yes, I’m horribly behind, and yes, this is off my normal beat, but the handout for this seminar includes chunks of Geoffroi de Charny and romances, I’m guessing one or two of you may be interested. Dr Laura Ashe is one of the local medievalists: I actually met her in Siena and was pleased to find a future friend there, but I hadn’t at that point realised that she is, as Carl Pyrdum said in that same place,1 ‘kind of a big deal’; she’s now writing the first volume of the Oxford English Literary History, which suggests to me that she may be recognised as knowing a thing or two.2 This she amply proved by speaking to the Oxford Medieval Seminar on 29th November last year (yes, yes, I know) to the title: “‘A Knight’s Whole Life is Passed in Sin’: literary engagements with war, conquest, and crusade, 1100-1250″.

Illumination of knights jousting near Calais, circa 1390 (so claims source)

Illumination of knights jousting near Calais, circa 1390 (so claims source)

I shall be brief with this, largely because it’s not my field, but what Laura was essentially setting up was a contrast between the attitudes of two periods in the history of knighthood and chivalry, typified by these source extracts which I crib from her comprehensive handout:

I have sinned more than most, for the whole life of a knight is passed in sin…3

I therefore say that it is good for him who does it, when, by the grace of God, he does it well; for all deeds of arms merit praise for all those who perform well in them. For I maintain that there are no mean feats of arms, but only good and great ones, although some feats of arms are of greater worth than others.4

The former of these is Peter of Blois giving the words to King Henry II, no less, in the late twelfth century; the latter is Charny’s Livre de Chevalerie. Just to make sure the obvious is clear, for the former a knight, passing his life in warfare, is in perpetual danger of damnation; for Charny, there is no bad feat of arms. Knights of the twelfth century made extensive donations for the sake of their damned souls; knights in the fourteenth century enjoy literature in which it is argued that being a knight is already God’s favourite career. It’s obviously not binary, but there is a change, it would seem. Some have blamed the increasing Christianization of society, but persons such as myself might point to Dominique Barthélemy doing that thing we Carolingianists do where our lot had your high medieval phenomenon going on first.5 John Gillingham, no less, has suggested that the factor changing knightly behaviour is actually monetisation; once a ransom might be worth having, you take prisoners rather than killing, which blurs the line between tournament and battle and makes it more of a contest of arms without the bloodlust.6 Maybe so, argued Laura, but how does Christianity get so deeply embedded in it if so?

Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin

Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin (N. B. this never actually happened)

The obvious answer, perhaps, and one that Laura had started with, was crusading, which as famously reported by Ralph of Caen, biographer of the Norman Tancred, offered “a new way of knighthood” which might step between the secular, but damnable, career of a knight and the spiritually safe, but difficult and dishonourable, life of a monk.7 But in its earliest forms, this firstly only endorses war against pagans, and secondly only offers salvation to those who die. I might doubt, myself, that the second point really got through to whomever heard Urban II’s speech at Clermont or the import of his letters anything other than first-hand, but the former point is still serious. Indeed, crusading, it has been well argued, is a concept much later than the actual First Crusade, or even Second; the texts talk of pilgrims, mainly, and the rites involved are very close to becoming a penitent.8 Laura however sees a change in the Romances, especially the English ones, from an ideal of divine service with the sword and its necessary life of purity, to one in which the kings and lords who might lead such endeavours (as they had for a while led the Crusades) have lost the plot (literally); instead, she argued, knighthood itself, courtesie and love become the ideals of the knightly class. She suggested that this might have been happening because of knighthood becoming more and more a costly pursuit that only the really rich could practise, and suggested that the stories were now reaching those who were below that threshold, and drew differences in the English and French Romance traditions to their respective homelands’ political structures. It all made a good kind of sense, even if the point of change is still a bit unclear, and was a thoroughly sane use of literature as evidence for mentalities, which also involved treating quite a lot of ‘historical’ writing as literature, which is fine by me. Good stuff.

Illumination of Latin forces besieging Constantinople at the peak of the Fourth Crusade

Illumination of Latin forces besieging Constantinople at the peak of the Fourth Crusade

So, what about the Fourth Crusade, you may be asking? Not least because I mentioned it in the title, but because if you are like me a bit, you will have thought of Villehardouin by now and remembered that his heroes set off to liberate Jerusalem after a tournament.9 No kings, either, but the sort of ultra-rich chivalrous class who are the characters of Laura’s Romances, and not even slightly bothered by their sins, where Villehardouin bothers to report it, it’s all very much a hyper-masculinised “wow we’re the most splendid knights in Christendom you guise we should totally liberate Jerusalem”, albeit reported more soberly down the line by the man who could hear an axe grinding and feared it wasn’t his. Because of that, of course, the big point of Villehardouin’s account of the Fourth Crusade was that despite not getting to Jerusalem and sacking the largest city in Christian possession instead, the Crusaders had done no wrong, in fact their success was so unlikely that it could only have been God’s will. Guilt and hand-wringing, therefore, do not form big features of this narrative, you understand. Nonetheless, it is read, it seems to have fitted, and maybe it is, as I suggested, one place when you could point out this change in what knights are supposed to do and why being fairly recent.


1. About himself, admittedly, but I think the point is transferable.

2. You could probably find some of those things in her Fiction and History in England, 1066-1200 (Cambridge 2007).

3. Peter of Blois, Dialogus inter regem Henricum II et abbatem Bonævallensem, ed. J.-J. Migne in Petri blesensis bathoniensis in anglia archidiaconi opera omnia juxta editiones melioris notae, parisiensem scilicet et oxoniensem, inter se collatas prelo iterum mandantur, ad fidem manuscriptorum codicum emendata, notis et variis monumentis illustrata, Patrologia cursus completus series latina Vol. CCVII (Paris 1855), col. 987C, transl. Ashe.

4. Geoffroi de Charny, Le Livre de Chevalerie, ed. and transl. E. Kennedy & R. Kaeuper as The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: text, context, and translation, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1996), pp. 416-417.

5. I’m thinking of Barthélemy’s “La chevalerie carolingienne : Prélude au XIe siècle” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve d’Ascq 1998), pp. 159-175, transl. Graham Robert Edwards as “Carolingian Knighthood” in Barthélemy, The Serf, the Knight and the Historian (Ithaca 2009), pp. 154-175.

6. I’m guessing that this is covered in his “Fontenoy and after: pursuing enemies to death in France between the ninth and the eleventh centuries” in David Ganz & Paul Fouracre (edd.), Frankland: The Franks and the world of the early middle ages. Essays in honour of Dame Jinty Nelson (Manchester 2008), pp. 242-265, not least because I think I remember him saying something like this in a IHR paper that had the same title, but I confess that I haven’t yet made time to read the volume (not least because an awful lot of it is actually IHR papers I went to…)

7. Now handily translated by Bernard S. Bachrach and David S. Bachrach as The Gesta Tancredi of Ralph of Caen: A History of the Normans on the First Crusade, Crusading Texts for Historians 5 (Woodbridge 2005), but my quote here is solely from my memory of a handout put together by Jonathan Riley-Smith a long time ago so forgive me if it’s slightly off.

8. Classically argued in Christopher Tyerman’s “Were there any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?” in English Historical Review Vol. 110 (London 1995), pp. 553-577, repr. in his The Invention of the Crusades (Basingstoke 1998), pp. 8-29 & 127-136.

9. Geoffroi de Villehardouin, La conquête de Constantinople, transl. e. g. Michael B. Shaw in idem (transl.), Memoirs of the Crusades: Joinville and Villehardouin, Penguin Classics L124 (Harmondsworth 1963, many reprints); there’s also the IMSB version linked above from the translation of Sir Frank Marzials, where the bits you want are all in the first few ‘pages’.

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3 responses to “Seminar LXXVI: let him who is without sin start the Fourth Crusade

  1. Nice post! You’re quite right about Gillingham’s monetisation arguments being in the Jinty Nelson Festschrift, though I should perhaps add that they are but one part of his argument – and interestingly enough, if I remember correctly, he cites no less that you as warning him against elements of the argument!

    • Argh! That should, of course, read, ‘he cites no less THAN you…’

      • Oh, how generous of him! I made some coinage-related point that I now forget, but I doubt it was important enough to merit a footnote. I must examine my copy as soon as I’m next in the same room as it. Gosh, and I thought I only had two citations in print, how wrong I can be.

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