As I continue to work on producing and editing an educational video on the crusades for our local public access channel, I thought I’d share a written excerpt of some of the material that will be covered. Some of this might be a bit of a shock for those whose average view of the crusades and the middle ages comes from movies like “Kingdom of Heaven” and the average middle school textbook.
It may come as a surprise that in the minds of both clergy and laity, crusading was deeply tied to the ideal of Christian love. Since love is considered one of the most fundamental (if not chief) of Christian virtues, ethics of war and violence have always been, and will continue to be seen in light of what true love is.
In his groundbreaking 1980 article “Crusading as an Act of Love” in the journal History, Jonathan Riley-Smith noted that the pious idealism that motivated the preachers and crusaders included both love for God and love for neighbor. When Urban II preached the 1st Crusade in the Italian City of Bologna, he observed that the crusaders “committed their property and their persons out of love of God and their neighbor.” The great St. Bernard of Clairvaux, honored throughout the different traditions of Western Christianity, responded to the Muslim victories of the 1140’s by asking, “If we harden our hearts and pay little attention, where is our love for God, where is our love for our neighbor?” Many of the crusaders honestly believed that they were following the command of Christ literally when he said to “take up the cross and follow me” as found in the gospels. Urban II is also said to have preached on Matthew 10:37 and 19:29 at the Council of Clermont, in which Christ says that those who love their families more than Him are not worthy, and that those who left family and land for His sake would receive a hundredfold in return. This preaching by Urban seems to have caused and outpouring of fervent devotion. As an anonymous poet says:
You who love with true love
Awake! Do not Sleep!
The lark brings us day
And tells us in this hideaway
That the day of peace has come
That God, by his very great kindness,
Will give to those who for love of him
Take the cross and on account of what they do
Suffer pain night and day
So that he will see who truly loves him.
This line of thinking was often juxtaposed by what Christ did for humanity, demonstrating how little the crusading act was in comparison. As Innocent III wrote in 1208 to Leopold of Austria, “You receive a soft and gentle cross; He bore one that was sharp and hard. You were it superficially on your clothing; He endured it reality in His flesh. You sew on yours with linen and silk threads; He was nailed to His with iron and hard nails.” By taking the cross on an armed pilgrimage in the context of a war of defense and restoration, the crusader was demonstrating in action his love for Christ.
It is also important to realize that for both the Lords and commoners of the medieval era, the bond between vassals and lords was so close, so emotional, and so honorable, that proponents of courtly love often borrowed feudal terminology to describe the ideal lover. Because Christ was considered the ultimate Lord of Lords and King of kings, Christians felt duty-bound to reclaim what was rightfully Christ’s earthly domain. Innocent III sums up this belief well when he says,
“Consider most dear sons, consider carefully that if any temporal king was thrown out of his domain and perhaps captured, would he not, when he was restored to his pristine liberty and the time had come for dispensing justice, look on his vassals as unfaithful l and traitors against the crown and guilty of ‘injured majesty’ unless they had committed not only their property but also their persons to the task of freeing him?…And similarly will not Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords, whose servant you cannot deny being, who joined your soul to your body, who redeemed you with his precious blood, who conceded to you the kingdom, who enables you to live and move and gave you all the good things you have…condemn you for the vice of ingratitude and, as it were, the crime of infidelity if you neglect to help him?”
While some preachers were quick to note that the relationship to Christ was not the same as earthly feudalism, the idea of expressing love, honor, and loyalty by righting and injustice done to Christ and his Church was the height of spiritual devotion and love for the average Christian warrior on crusade.
In addition to demonstrating one’s love of God, Crusaders also believed that they were acting out of brotherly love. It must be remembered that the initial call for the 1st Crusade was closely linked to a cry for help from the Byzantine Emperor who was besieged by the continuing advances of Islam. Here was a Christian Empire with Christian subjects, who had been dishonored and done an injustice, and was facing a real and imminent threat. Acting out of love for their Christian brothers in the east was considered quite noble and just. Those who preached the Crusade were quick to point out that it was ludicrous for Christian knights to fight amongst themselves when their Christian brothers in the east were suffering and facing persecution. Innocent III again provides a good example of how brotherly love was a prime motivator for the Crusader in his work Quia Maior:
“How does a man love according to divine precept his neighbor as himself when knowing that his Christian brothers in faith and in name are held by the perfidious Muslims in strict confinement and weighed down by the yoke of heaviest servitude, he cannot devote himself to the efficacious work of liberating them? In this he transgresses the command of that natural law which the Lord declared in the Gospels, ‘whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you also to them.’ Is it by chance that you do not know that among them (the Muslims) many thousands of Christians are held in servitude and in jail, tortured with innumerable torments?”
In the Middle Ages, the system of vassalage and honor also applied to one’s family. This idea of kinship provided a sense of place and was a source of strength to each individual. Crusading was portrayed in these terms, with the war against the forces of Islam seen as an expression of family love. Urban II at the council of Clermont noted that the Christians of the east were, “your full brothers, your comrades, your brothers born of the same mother, for you are sons of the same Christ and the same Church.” This sense of kinship and place led many to believe that Christ was being threatened his rightful inheritance as the great patriarch or family head of all Christians. This of course was also couched in the language of love, in this case, love for family.
So whether it be for the love of God, the love of one’s brothers in the faith, or the idea of family loyalty and honor, for the average Crusading knight, reclaiming the East was a multi-faceted act of love.