03.03.24, Skovgaard-Petersen, A Journey to the Promise Land

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Dr. Kurt Villads Jensen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.024


Skovgaard-Petersen, Karen. A Journey to the Promise Land: Crusading Theology in the Historia de profectione Danorum in Hierosolymam (c. 1200). Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001. Pp. 84. ISBN: 87-7289-714-7.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Kurt Villads Jensen
Odense University

The news of the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 reached Denmark at Christmas. All the nobles, gathered at the royal court in Odense, had begun the long and drawn out celebrations when a legate entered. He read the aloud the bull Quoniam divina patiencia from the pope, who "cried in the bitterness of my soul, martyred by the troublesome longings, which brings sadness, while a stream of tears pours down the letter and destroys the page. Jerusalem has fallen. Listen, Oh Earth, and all who live upon it: Do not let the attack upon Christ remain un-revenged for long." Everyone sat silent and filled with sorrows, until one of the great nobles, Esbern Snare, rose and gave a long and eloquent speech. Enthusiastically and immediately, they decided to liberate Jerusalem and swore to go on a crusade.

These dramatic events during Christmas, and what happened afterwards during the prolonged sea journey to Acre, are known from the Historia de profectione Danorum in Hierosolymam, which is the subject for Karen Skovgaard-Petersen's small but important book. The Profectio was composed around 1200, forgotten, and then found in one sole manuscript in Luebeck in the early 1620s, which soon afterwards disappeared again. Three seventeenth- century copies of this manuscript are the only basis for the 1922 edition by M.Cl. Gertz and the new one by Karen Skovgaard-Petersen, which is soon to be published together with a translation into English by Peter Fisher.

The Danes came to the Holy Land late. When they eventually reached Acre, a truce has been concluded between Richard Lionheart and Saladin. The preparations took so long because the Danish crusaders had to built new ships and after that decided to sail to Norway to pick up some friends before setting course for the Holy Land. Some of the men got drunk in Norway and began quarrelling with locals and were imprisoned. And when in the end the small fleet of some 400 men from both countries set off, it was hit by a strong tempest in the North Sea. Ships sank, men drowned, and the company decided to continue over land from Flanders to Venice from where they resumed sailing, but now on hired ships.

Danish and Norwegian historians have been much occupied with the first and shortest part of the narrative, the background and description of the trip to Norway. Since Norway's independence from Denmark in 1814, discussions have sometimes been heated as to whether the anonymous author of the Profectio was a Dane or a Norwegian. Skovgaard-Petersen's approach is much different. She wants to examine the crusading rhetoric and crusading themes in the Profectio. That is a very new thing. Such an investigation has only been undertaken before in sketchy form by Christopher Tyerman who in 1998 concluded that there is no standard rhetoric of the Cross in the text. Skovgaard-Petersen strongly disagrees.

The Peregrinatio is compared to contemporary crusading texts, five narratives of the First Crusade (Robert the Monk, Albert of Aix, Fulcher of Chartres, Baldric of Bourgueil, Guibert of Nogent), to contemporary papal crusading bulls, and to two German contemporary histories of the Third Crusade, Ansbert and the Historia peregrinorum. Parallel themes are abundant: the sacrality of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, where God walked as man; the conquest of Jerusalem as a qualitatively new step in world history; the crusade as an imitation of the apostles who left everything to follow the Lord, the promise of martyrdom to those who die for Christ, etc. The text contains a copy of a papal bull, Quoniam divina patiencia, which is discussed in detail. The bull is not known from other sources and most scholars have concluded that it must be a fabrication of the anonymous author of Profectio. Skovgaard-Petersen rightly stresses that the text of the Profectio explicitly designates its rendering of the bull as a paraphrase and not a verbatim copy. She proceeds to discuss the themes of the bull -- some are common and well known from other papal crusading bulls, while some themes that one would expect in such a bull are not mentioned at all or are only hinted at. Although Skovgaard-Petersenhe does not solve the puzzle of whether Gregory VIII actually published the bull or whether it is a forgery, her discussion of crusading themes in papal bulls around 1200 is of much more general interest and merits careful reading.

The speech of Esbern Snare consists of three parts, of which the longest commemorates the magnificent military deeds of the audience's forefathers and concludes that they had behaved so valiantly only in quest for glory, but that modern knights were now fighting for a much higher goal. Skovgaard-Petersen sees a parallel to the First Crusade chroniclers' comparison between the Old Testament Maccabees, who are actually mentioned by Esbern, and the modern crusaders (e.g. in Guibert of Nogent, ca. 1108). The old had not been Christians, but still noble fighters ready to die for people and religion. The parallel between Esbern's speech and international literature is obvious, but Skovgaard-Petersen could also have pointed to a Danish background, the nostalgic interest in the past which became so common in Denmark around 1200 that even the archbishop began to raise stones with runic inscriptions in imitation of pagan monuments.

The Profectio goes on to state that crusade was preached in churches and at all legal assemblies. Fifteen of the magnates had taken the cross at the Christmas celebration, but because of the Devil, only five actually kept to vow. They set out for the promised land that flows with milk and honey, an allegory for the two natures of Christ, the milk coming from the flesh and the honey from the dew of heaven, as the Profectio explains with a tacit reference to Isidore, in which the Holy Land is actually Mary. On the way, the crusaders were hit by a storm, and many drowned and became therefore martyrs and gained remission for all sins. Indeed, the anonymous authors stresses that they died on the same day and in the same hour that our Saviour died on the cross. The imitatio Christi theme is important to the narrator, but his relation also reflects contemporary discussions about whether a cross signed gained full remission for sin also if he died on the way before reaching Jerusalem. And again the parallel is obvious to the First Crusade chronicles, which tell that the first crusader set foot on the wall of Jerusalem on a Friday at the exact time that Jesus had died on the Cross.

The visit of the Danish survivors to the holy places does not take up much space in the narrative, but when they return via Constantinople they experience a Marian miracle, an icon that every seventh day moves itself around in the procession without being carried by anyone. Skovgaard-Petersen suggests that this may be the spiritual high point of the Profectio, meant to show that the crusaders actually reached the spiritual goal of their journey. In conclusion, Skovgaard-Petersen briefly discusses the intended audience of the text. It may be international, but it certainly also is Danish, because an important aspect of the text is to explain that this grandiously conceived expedition was a true success, even despite the fact that the participants never actually fought for Jerusalem.

Skovgaard-Petersen's book is extremely important for a Danish and Scandinavian historical milieu which has, with few exceptions, totally ignored the significance of the crusades for Scandinavian history. The book is of interest also to an international audience because of its collection of themes and biblical references in twelfth-century crusading narratives and papal bulls. It is a splendid appetizer with which to await the new and commented edition of the Historia de profectione Danorum in Hierosolymam.

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Dr. Kurt Villads Jensen

Odense University