09.02.16, Kostick, The Social Structure of the First Crusade

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Helen J. Nicholson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.016


Kostick, Conor. The Social Structure of the First Crusade. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. xii, 324. ISBN: 9789004166653.

Reviewed by:
Helen J. Nicholson
Cardiff University

Modern histories of the First Crusade generally concentrate on the noble leaders of the Crusade, and it has been generally accepted by historians that it is not possible to produce a more detailed analysis of those who took part in the crusade because the narrative and documentary sources do not mention them. Conor Kostick challenges this view, arguing that the contemporary and near-contemporary sources make considerable reference to non-nobles on the crusade, and that by analysing their work in depth, and understanding their sociological perspective and how they use the key terms which refer to different social classes, it is possible to work out "which social groupings were present on the Crusade, in what proportions, and with what structural tension between them" (4).

The book begins with an analysis of eight contemporary commentators: eye-witnesses who took part in the crusade, and writers who did not take part themselves but who reworked the eyewitnesses' accounts, and/or relied on the reports of other eyewitnesses. Kostick examines the sociological perspective of these writers, noting that Raymond of Aguilers uses the term pauperes to mean "people in a state of weakness" rather than simply "the poor" (31), while Baldric, archbishop of Dol, attempted "to portray the First Crusade in the spirit of an imagined age of harmony between the social orders" (57), and in Robert the Monk's work "there is a sense...that all the events of the First Crusade were a fulfilment of biblical prophecies and that to some extent the entire expedition were 'the humble'" (69).

Kostick then moves on to discuss different social groupings on the Crusade: the pauperes, the milites, the iuvenes and the principes, discussing how these terms were used by the various medieval commentators whose work he analyses, and what these groups contributed to the crusade. He argues that the pauperes were not a passive social group but found a political voice which was acceptable to the society of their day: "the political demands of the pauperes were cloaked in the respectable and orthodox language of visions" (157). The pauperes, he argues, played an important role in the crusading army, contributing to the decision- making process of the crusade; the princes could not order the commoners to act, but had to negotiate with them (112). Kostick traces how the visionary pauper Peter Bartholomew developed a political voice, arguing for "a redistribution of wealth to the pauperes" (135). At last, argues Kostick, Peter died because he aroused the hostility of the "now politically active body of poor crusaders" (144) by suggesting that they were not making a sufficient military contribution to the campaign. The pauperes became "an active, creative force in the direction of the expedition" (157).

Discussing the iuvenes, Kostick argues that these were not necessarily young men, but "a distinct stratum of the nobility" (212) which was seeking glory, "champions out to prove their worth" (213) and who expected to be paid (262). Going on to discuss motivation for crusading in his conclusion, Kostick argues that these men's primary purpose for crusading was not religious, but "worldly and ambitious"; "they could advance their fame while simultaneously winning the approval of the Church" (298-9). After the crusade, these men returned to France and continued to seek military glory, including attacks on churches and abbeys, and preying on the poor.

The final chapters of the book discuss the leadership of the expedition, and finally the role of women on the crusade. Kostick admits (271) that the women "are not a social stratum in the sense of pauperes, milites or principes". But although women as individuals belonged to the same social layers as the men, medieval writers also treated them as a group separate from the men. Kostick considers their roles and the accusations of immorality levelled against them by contemporary commentators, and points out that "prostitute" could simply mean an unattached woman, who could thus be a source of sexual temptation to men but who in herself could be completely chaste, while the accusations of women dressing as men could be simply "a form of protection for the journey" (284). He also notes that there was extensive precedent in hagiography for saintly women to dress as men, which the contemporary writers apparently overlooked. He concludes that the majority of women who joined the crusade did so not as camp followers but "as participants, as pilgrims" (285) as the men did.

The conclusion moves on from the question of social structure to consider motivation for crusading. Kostick argues that motivation was "as heterogeneous as the various social classes who took part" (299) and that the currently dominant school of crusading historiography in the West is "idealist" (299), as it argues that the crusaders were motivated by pious ideals and not by materialism. This idealist view is understandable as a reaction against the previous dominant view, that the crusaders were irreligious and greedy men whose only interest was in slaughter and wealth. Kostick, however, argues that a materialist interpretation of the crusades is possible, one that not only studies the pauperes who "played a significant and notable role in the dynamics of the movement" (300), but also the more wealthy social groupings on the crusade.

While Kostick's arguments are persuasive, I have some doubts about the methodology which underpins this study. His study rests on a careful analysis of language and the meaning which each writer ascribed to each word. Kostick is aware that this approach has problems, that writers used classical terms without fully understanding their original meanings (202, 225, 234-5) and that his sources deliberately adjusted their language to put across the image of the crusaders and the crusade which they wished to convey to their readers. The works he uses were written in Latin, which was not the mother tongue of any of these writers; in effect they each wrote in an artificial language in which each of them devised his own terms of expression. In the case of Baldric of Dol, for example, "some of his language for social orders seems to have been chosen to display his powers of rhetoric rather than convey accurate social information" (54). Again, when Guibert of Nogent uses a "great range of terms" to describe "the upper social orders", he may in fact simply be displaying his rhetorical skills rather than "reflecting a sensitivity to gradations among them" (84), yet Kostick apparently accepts these gradations as having existed in the crusading army. Occasionally Kostick himself seems insufficiently familiar with the Latin of the day: by the late eleventh century loricati equites were knights in hauberks, mail shirts, not wearing breast plates (63); when he discusses the various translations used by modern historians for the word scutigeri (47), "the literal 'shieldbearers'" or "the more interesting 'squires'", he is apparently unaware that the word 'squire' derives from the Old French escuier, which means 'shieldbearer'. He then goes on to refer to armiger as a man "who had the prospect of becoming a knight" (48), although this term again simply meant "arms bearer". What is needed at this point is a discussion of what a squire was at the time of the First Crusade, and how squires might have been differentiated from a shieldbearer or other bearer of arms.

Nevertheless, despite such reservations, the detail and quantity of Kostick's evidence leads this reader to give his conclusions serious consideration. Overall, this is an interesting and thought-provoking study which will reward scholars' attention even though they may not agree with all of its contentions. It opens up possibilities for further exploration of how historians of the crusades might tackle the social history of the crusades.

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Author Biography

Helen J. Nicholson

Cardiff University