Objectivity and Crusader motives: maybe not so simple

Nat Taylor has a recent post in his Genealogist’s Sketchbook, talking about the historian’s right, or not, to make a moral judgement of the period we study. Are our standards applicable to the age so long gone, when religion and fear were so much more immediate (at least, now the Cold War is over and we’ve all learned to stop worrying and love the bomb…)? Or should we just withhold judgement on things like pogroms, Crusades, witch-hunting (not really medieval that one, of course, but you know what I mean) and so on that unfortunately still sing with contemporary relevance? Can we afford not to take a moral stand, when others are using those precedents to justify continuing, or at least excuse, such atrocities? Aren’t we supposed to be the voice of truth?

Well, I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s our business to confront the messiness of the past in whatever level of detail is necessary, and that because objectivity is impossible given how messy our own perspectives are, the best we can do is consciously try to separate what the evidence says from an acknowledgement of our own stance on the issue. That is to say, we must judge, because we are doing so already whether we like it or not. So we must make our perspective obvious, and say things like, “I personally find this distasteful but it clearly happened” rather than idealising or hiding the bad bits. Sorry, Bede, I realise you wouldn’t agree, but I think that’s what we need to do.

Godfrey of Bouillon, King of Jerusalem, with some of his knights

That said, I’m not sure Nat has lighted on the best example of necessary judgement. He is talking of teaching the Crusades, and reports setting the question, “Why did the First Crusade succeed, and why should it not have?” His point is the rarity of moralising answers to this question, but his comment on one that he did get causes my antennae to twitch. He reports:

One student wrote: ”It should not have succeeded because it was ill-conceived, disorganized, and motivated in large degree by chauvanism, xenophobia, and greed.” In fact, an army largely motivated by those things should succeed quite well, I think: no troublesome scruples or complex perspectives to slow them up.

Well, if you look to the top right of this browser window or tab, you’ll see a link called “Crusader Motives”, whereat lies a full-blown scholarly paper which addresses the question of where this, what I call the ‘we’re only it for the money’ argument about why people went on Crusade, belongs in the historiography. That in fact has been the question that’s brought the most hits to this blog ever since I put that page up. Because, you may not realise, the money motive has been more or less dumped from the scholarly picture in the last twenty years, largely under the influence of Jonathan Riley-Smith and his school, who have brought out all kinds of spiritual motives, love of oppressed brothers, the honest desire to save one’s soul by a supreme sacrifice in the name of the Lord, or a lord, or the two together in a powerful feudal-religious complex, devotion to Saint Peter, I mean you name it, anything more moral than simply getting rich quick. And as I discuss there, one of the planks of the Riley-Smith argument is that getting rich on Crusade was tricky because it was really very expensive to go and the evidence for returns is pretty discouraging. My stance is that actually, people still did hope they might get rich, and indeed preachers told them they might, but obviously the plethora of other reasons to go made things easier, and they certainly didn’t think in only that way. So I think Dr Taylor’s student may need to read, well, me…


26 responses to “Objectivity and Crusader motives: maybe not so simple

  1. Touché.

    I can’t really be catty here, since I work and publish in crusading stuff, but I’d tend to agree with you. It would be nice if crusade historians read something other than crusade historians…

  2. Well, I don’t mean to imply a shortage of learning on Dr Taylor’s part of course, I just think his student has gone a bit monocausal. But the fact that monocausal explanations are still live in the historiography does bother me a bit. It’s almost like a deliberate exercise to whiten the Crusaders’ name from the popular misconception of them, but one that never seems to engage with the popular readership.

  3. The depth of religiosity in the Middle Ages is often no longer understood today. I’m sure it was a reason, though not the only one. Younger sons excluded from inheritage may have joined a crusade in hope to carve themselves a fief in the Holy Land. Some might have gotten carried on by the propaganda and once they found themselves thirsty and sweating in the desert simply could not return. :) Honour was another motive, I think.

    A reason for the popularity of the money motive may lie in the success the Templars had. Those guys surely got rich by the crusades, and they’re all over the place these days. :D

  4. But, Jonathan, I think that monocausality really speaks to the popular readership. Look at how JRS (and certain others) have become public intellectuals, “defending” crusaders from their detractors/ critics by “contextualizing” them. Especially after 9/11, it’s veered towards the contemporarily political.

  5. My unspoken response to Jonathan Riley-Smith’s arguments was always the California Gold Rush and the like. People sold up everything they had to go to California and dig. The vast majority of them didn’t get rich as a result. Therefore, according to JRS, they can’t have been motivated by wanting to get rich…

    But then I work on the Carolingian period where it seems to me nearly impossible to separate out ‘religious’ from ‘material’ motives, because their conception of religion is so shot through with materialism. If you are ‘good’ you get rewarded in heaven and on earth, (just like the Old Testament patriarchs). And you give to the saints in order to be given rewards that are not purely spiritual.

    So I’m quite happy with stressing ‘Christian’ motivations for the Crusades, but with the provisio, ‘not Christianity as it’s understood in the liberal West today’. (where ‘liberal West’ excludes those Americans who believe in prosperity theology). Unfortunately for him, JRS can’t do this because he’s committed to an understanding of Christianity and the Christian church that claims that Christianity/Catholicism is always and eternally the same.

  6. Magistra,

    Generally, I agree — but 1095 is a long, long, long way from 1848.

  7. One thing that’s perhaps necessary to account is that the warrior class of Europe found in the Crusades a respectable cause to help establish their legitimacy. Put that together with the fact that once committed to war as a way of life it was hard to uncommit without sliding down the social scale — unless one could enter the church. Like those old men who staffed Templar estates in the W in the 13th century?

    Warriors were in a high risk occupation anyway, and the chances of ending up comfortable and rich were not great even at the best of times. Going on distant expeditions with their extra dangers at least got you some macho points — as Charny (14th c.) and Froissart indicate pretty clearly for a later time.

  8. I’m falling behind here :-) Thankyou all for commenting.

    Gabriele first! Two things about what you said me strike me as possibly needing refining if you don’t mind. Firstly, though the Templars were certainly very rich, most of that wealth was generated by massive donations of landed estates in the West, not by plunder in the Holy Land, I think. I was thinking of an age before the Military Orders but the thing that made the Templars and others not just a standing army was their supporting revenues from overseas. Secondly, the `younger sons’ theory is one of the popular misapprehensions addressed by Jessalyn Byrd in her useful little essay, “The Crusades: Eschatological lemmings, Younger sons, Papal hegemony and Colonialism” buried deep in ORB so you might find that useful reading.

    Magistra, the California Gold Rush makes a better parallel than John France’s comparison to the National Lottery I think, but they both hit the same point of hope against the odds. All the same, as my paper says, I think that on the First Crusade at least there were several reasons why the people going might have thought their chances of wealth were higher than was really the case. I also think that’s why subsequent recruitment was so very different, and less popular (in both senses). I can’t speak about JRS’s particular flavour of Christianity, but it’s always bothered me a little that he is indubitably working `from the inside’ on this. That’s the sort of thing that should be made clear for the reader, exactly as I say above. This is not to say he’s wrong of course, but I think his perspective inclines him to take a monocausal view. Also, as Prof. Gabriele says, there seems to be exposure in that line…

    Prof. Muhlberger, if I read you right there that’s an interesting post-modern take on the problem of sinfulness in lay life, and I don’t think I’ve seen it elsewhere (though for a few years I haven’t been looking). But basically it’s a way of translating the dilemma that Ralph of Caen pictures Tancred in, isn’t it, where he doesn’t know whether to be a warlord and famous or a monk and save his soul, till the Crusade offers him a middle way. There’s probably a literature here I’m missing about pugnacious `aristocratic’ (sorry, Magistra) behaviour as a socially legitimising strategy, though, yes?

  9. Thank you for the clarification. I’m not a specialist on the crusades; the one that interests me is Duke Henry’s fight against the Vendes and Abodrites, even before the Teutonic Knights were founded. I had come across that second sons in search of a future argument to discard it for that particular crusade, because the land mainly remained in possession of the Abodrites and was only garrisoned. One of the differences was that the pagan Vendes and Abodrites in the end accepted baptism and got integrated in the feudal system; something that could not have happened in the Holy Land.

    I think I’ll dive into the Teutonic Knights in the future for my research about the Hansa, and then things began to change. The order owned a lot of land during its best days.

  10. I think there’s still a tendency by scholars of chivalry and the just war to underestimate how widespread throughout the Middle Ages was a Christian view, independent of the statements by the official church, that warfare was fine for Christians as long as you fought for Good and against Evil (regardless of whether it was a defensive war, against pagans, authorised by public authority etc). You can see it clearly in the Carolingian period, where the sources repeatedly descibe victory ‘by the grace of God’ against other Christian opponents and you can also see it in Arthurian literature. (Maurice Keen’s ‘Chivalry’ is good on the later period). I don’t think therefore that most warriors/knights worried that they were going to Hell *because they were warriors* (which doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t have appreciated getting extra spiritual brownie points). The Crusades may have (re)legitimated war in the eyes of the Church, but I think it was always seen as legistimate by most nobles (think of the continuing popularity of the Book of Maccabees).

  11. Well, all right, but what about the mass penance after Fontenoy? Is that just a particularly horrifying battle that needs special care? If I remember rightly the `just war’ scholars have other examples of Carolingian clerics feeling that warfare damaged the soul. How can we tell from that whether or not the laity cared about such things? Is there any more for us to go on than gut feeling?

  12. Fontenoy was, I think, a special case — others (Jinty et al.) have made the case better than I can here. But that being said, Jonathan, I think you’re absolutely right about there still being a real squeamishness among clerics about killing other Christians. David Bachrach’s book lays much of this out.

    Then again, you can see that things start to change in the 11th century — even/ especially in Bachrach’s book. That nice, tight organizational scheme that he uses seems to start to disappear and things become a big mess.

    As for getting at the laity’s ideas (and sorry I’m all over the place in this comment), do you think the “privatization” of royal diplomatic — the more meditative aspect it gets (quoting Psalms, etc.), both in royal and sub-royal documents — might be a case of Eigendiktat? That these nobles are having more a direct hand in these documents and are betraying their spiritual concerns?

    Let me know if that makes sense…

  13. John Gillingham has an interesting paper forthcoming on Fontenoy (which I heard in an IHR seminar), where he argues quite convincingly that there is a dirty secret that Nithard is trying to conceal about the battle, but it’s not that Charles and Louis attacked prematurely, but that the pursuit was unusually bloody. And there wasn’t actually mass penance after Fontenoy, in the strict sense. What the bishops tell the victors is that the fighting itself is fine: it’s only if individual combatants have committed sins specifically from ‘wrath or hatred or vainglory’ that they have to do penance. This is obviously quite a controversially lenient view and Raymond Kottje points out that Hrabanus Maurus specifically argues against this practice.

    As for Carolingian clerics worrying about killing fellow-Christians, I think you can exaggerate their concerns about this (and the just war people have). If you look at texts which discuss campaigns against the Lombards or Bretons or ‘rebels’ within the kingdom, fighting/killing them is just fine. The Pope even said at one point that if Charlemagne attacked Tassilo it was all Tassilo’s fault, so he was guilty of any sins by the other side of the campaign. (If I ever get round to writing my book, rather than just blogging, I’ve got a chapter discussing these issues).

    As for the Carolingian laity themselves, I was just looking at a case reported by Abbo where a ‘Count William’ kills another count in cold blood after a battle. And it dawned on me (as it should have done long ago) that this is William ‘the Pious’ of Aquitaine doing this murder. (Who is of course, Dhuoda’s grandson, which given that her son may have been responsible for killing Nithard, is not a very impressive record of family morality – although I blame Bernard of Septimania).

  14. Prof. Gabriele, nice points. I think that as far as the diplomatic goes, though, while the nobility may well be getting more literate, so also scribes and notaries are becoming far more common and more literate and trained, and there is documentary variation a-go-go towards the middle and close of the eleventh century just because of that, so I don’t think we can tell except maybe in individual cases. One of the interesting things about my pet count, Borrell II of Barcelona, is that in three charters of his, by different scribes, he uses more or less the same words to justify his political position. (He’s the first count in the area who even seems to think this necessary.) So either he’s genuinely wishing to make this point, or else he has a secretary or similar who does, redacting his documents that are then written up by the relevant institution’s scribe. Even then that would still suggest, to me, concern for such issues on Borrell’s part, because that would be a very close working relationship. There’s no clear evidence of such a guy anyway. So there I think we can tell it’s the count. On the other hand, when one scribe has him say of himself, “I recognise that I have transgressed many of the precepts of the divine law, and that I am subjected by various vices and iniquities, disobedient to the words of the divine mystery brought unto me and a worshipper of the delights of this military age”… I think that was probably the scribe :-)

    Magistra, I was indeed at that paper of John Gillingham’s, it was shortly before I started blogging alas so no online record remains. But I’d forgotten his Fontenoy theory so thankyou for the reminder. Interesting sidelight on Duke William too. Maybe we can pin down the stimulus to his foundation of Gellone then!

  15. Magistra,

    Fontenoy’s endlessly fascinating. I got to teach it last night, so I’m all fired up to talk about it.

    Anyway, you say:
    As for Carolingian clerics worrying about killing fellow-Christians, I think you can exaggerate their concerns about this (and the just war people have). If you look at texts which discuss campaigns against the Lombards or Bretons or ‘rebels’ within the kingdom, fighting/killing them is just fine. The Pope even said at one point that if Charlemagne attacked Tassilo it was all Tassilo’s fault, so he was guilty of any sins by the other side of the campaign. (If I ever get round to writing my book, rather than just blogging, I’ve got a chapter discussing these issues).

    Are we confusing 2 different things here though? There’s a difference (intellectually, at least) about killing non-Franks, which Franks didn’t seem to have a problem with, and killing fellow Christians. If you frame the enemy in one way, as rebellious Bavarians, then it’s not a problem Papa can go right ahead and tell Tassilo to do what Charles says or else Charles has every right to pillage right on through Tassilo’s lands. But, coming back to Fontenoy and after, what happens when Franks kill Franks and they’re both “true” Christians and, moreover, that difference of gens disappears? What happens when you get into the 11th century and most of Europe remembers a shared Frankish ancestry — even in odd places, like Aquitaine, Normandy, Bavaria, Saxony, Lombardy, etc.?

  16. That last point is very interesting.

    In Froissart there is definitely a difference between fighting people like you and others — like rebellious or independent peasants (Frisians/Frieslanders). See my Tales from Froissart web site for the latter.

  17. Isn’t that almost a general condition of writing about fighting, though, at least for Christians? If there’s fighting going on, the proper enemy must be made into the Other so that he can be more easily hated; but it doesn’t follow necessarily that it’s because he is the Other that he’s the enemy, rather than that he’s the Other because he’s the enemy…

  18. True, but conceptualizing that “otherness” can be fraught, right? I think you’re thinking of “othering” by reading back to justify what’s already happened. I’m trying (perhaps not sucessfully) to think forward, meaning looking at how you try to justify killing someone before you take their huge tracts of land…

  19. I think I was thinking of it in both directions, but certainly `othering’ (I’m not sure if I can like that term, but I like the analogy) as done by our subjects, not by us. I think they also did it both ways. The way that the Royal Frankish Annals talk about Saxons and Slavs in terms of perfidy and uselessness might be an example. Given that at times it’s supposedly close-to-contemporary, they are justifying both past and future campaigns against these fickle enemies, no?

  20. How the Carolingian sources justify attacking others:

    1) They are pagans
    2) They are bad Christians (handy for attacking the Bretons)
    3) They are harming the church’s interests (handy for Lombards and Aquitanians)
    4) They are rebels (handy for attacking pretenders (including your sons) and any people who you’ve ever previously subjected)
    5) They have oppressed their people and denied them justice (handy for attacking other Frankish kingdoms, even if ruled by your own brothers)
    6) They don’t bother to justify it, they just report a campaign was successful. Therefore, because God decides the outcome of battles, it must have been right to fight it anyhow.

  21. You know these sources better than me, of course, but it seems to me that of those the greatest is (4). Breach of faith everyone can get behind. Paganism, Alcuin will tell you (as the Charlemagne you naturally are), should really be fought with missionaries and preaching. Bad kingship is a fallback when nothing else will do, because really you want kingship to be sacrosanct for your own good, and do they really use (2) against the Bretons? The Bretons break treaties (we are told) so often that surely one never needs to question their ideology. And when they invade Spain, the bad Christians are not the targets. Meanwhile (3) is hard to call when local churches so often disagree, though of course the counter of that is that you can certainly find a church whose interests are being harmed, anywhere, unless the targets are unmissioned pagans in which case see (1) of course.

    I think (6) is in a different category. Certainly that’s how we see it in the sources; but at the councils and meetings where the campaign is decided on, the ruler or the war party must use one or more of (1) to (5) surely.

    Also, there is of course (0) “ZOMG they’re totally invading”, which is always good, and works even on territories you only took over again last week (e. g. Vikings in Aquitaine)…

  22. On 1) Alcuin doesn’t disapprove of conquering pagans, he disapproves of forced conversion of pagans, and even then, all he wants is that the pagans have to have things explained to them properly before they freely decide that Christianity is absolutely right. I don’t know of anyone in the period who accepted a free intellectual choice, i.e. that you could consider Christianity and then decide it wasn’t for you and that was OK (think of how the Carolingians react to Eleazar/Bodo). But anyhow, even if you’re having peaceful evangelism, you need to make sure your missionaries are safe by subduing/conquering the territory first.

    2) isn’t common, but Ermoldus Nigellus does use it about the Bretons (OK, after the fact).

    3) There is a lot of talk about infringement of ‘the rights of St Peter’ before various attacks on the Lombards, and that’s one of the claims allegedly made before the first Aquitanian campaign in 760

    Actually, if you’re talking about what they said at the assembly, there’s also ‘they refused the peace terms we made’ (when the peace terms are something like ‘You do exactly what we say and you can have peace’). And, that old favorite: They have lot of land/money that should be ours. (Cf the modern US comment: ‘Why is our oil under their land?’) There is a classic quote from Einhard on the Avar wars: “so much precious booty was captured in their battles, that it might be rightly believed, that they [Franks] had justly snatched from the Huns what the Huns had unjustly snatched from other nations”.

  23. Einhard was a master of the subjunctive, indeed. And that Ermold, too, no better than he should be :-) I am mostly answered here, which is all to the good as it means I’ve learnt something today other than what marks Miletus and Lampsacus used on their post-Alexandrine drachmae. But basically we’re back to Jinty’s, “You know, they weren’t nice people”, aren’t we? Except I haven’t posted that yet, damn this backlog. Thankyou as ever for lending your erudition.

  24. Perhaps what is considered the past in some countries is the present in others.

  25. Unless you’re willing to flesh that out a bit so that I can see what you mean to imply, I may have to just nod my head sagely and wave an encouraging hand to elicit more.

  26. Hi Jonathan. Short post of mine; much longer discussion here! I also have just read and like your motivation paper as well. As you rightly saw (but perhaps other commentators didn’t) my post didn’t engage in any critique of the student’s list of crusader motivations. My intention was to see the irony in the student’s causal link between the motives he attributed to the crusaders, and the success of their endeavor; obviously what he attributed to them is problematic in itself.

    As I usually try to point out while teaching, the historiography of attributed crusader motivations is as rich as the historiography of condemnation / defense of crusading; the two currents are closely intertwined. I hope I do a better job (than this exam showed) in teaching that monocausation is in fact a two-level fallacy: just as all participants in a particular crusade did not share the same single motive, likewise no individual crusader’s motivation could lie wholly within in one of the categories long held to be mutually exclusive (greed, piety, wanderlust, obligation, etc.). Marcus Bull and others have helped return the idea of lay piety to center stage; crusade students need to appreciate how such a complex phenomenon could coexist with the ‘baser’ ends of the motivational spectrum.

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