09.06.04, Yeager, Jerusalem in Medieval Narrative

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Peter Edbury

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.004


Yeager, Suzanne M.. Jerusalem in Medieval Narrative. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 255. ISBN: 978-0-521-87792-3.

Reviewed by:
Peter Edbury
Cardiff Univeristy

Well before the expulsion of the crusaders from their last strongholds on the coast of Syria and Palestine in 1291, the recovery of Jerusalem, out of Christian control since 1244, had ceased to be a practicable proposition. That is not to say that the hopes for a crusade to regain the Holy Land had disappeared, and, indeed, the fourteenth century witnessed a considerable amount discussion as to how a crusade expedition could be mounted. Turning crusading aspirations into actual campaigns, however, proved difficult; the brief occupation of Alexandria in 1365 was exceptional, and no crusading force was ever to make serious inroads into the lands of the Egypt-based Mamluk sultanate. But although it is easy for historians viewing the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to write off the idea of a Christian recovery of the Holy Land as being hopelessly unrealistic, the appeal of Jerusalem and the conviction that Jerusalem ought to be in Christian hands remained as potent as ever. So too did the sacred associations that the very mention of Jerusalem conjured up in the minds of Christians in western Europe.

Suzanne Yeager has explored the ways in which a selection of late medieval English authors viewed Jerusalem and its appeal, and how they attempted to influence their audiences. She has made use of a wide variety of literature: pilgrim guides (concentrating on the anonymous Itinerarium cuiusdam Anglici, 1344-45, the mid-fifteenth-century William Wey and the early sixteenth-century Richard Torkington), romance (taking as examples the poems Richard Coer de Lyon andThe Siege of Jerusalem), prose narrative (Mandeville), and Guillaume de Deguileville's devotional poem The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode. In addition Yeager broadens the range of her study still further by discussing the various political and allegorical writings by the Frenchman Philippe de Mézières.

In their different ways all these writings testify to the potency of Jerusalem in the devotional life of late medieval English people. The pilgrim accounts follow in the footsteps of earlier works in this genre, mixing practical advice for future pilgrims with descriptions of the Holy Places and the associated relics that would permit those who would never have the opportunity to visit the Holy Land to undertake a "virtual pilgrimage" in which they could meditate on Christ's Passion by imagining the places associated with it. For those who could undertake the journey, the dangers and discomforts of the journey and the proximity of the Muslim "Other" would guarantee the efficacy of what remained an essentially penitential act.

More complex, and therefore more problematic, are the romances. In both works there are a number of layers of meaning. Richard Coer de Lyon is a fictionalized version of the Third Crusade. Richard, who, as is well known, rarely set foot on English soil, is transformed into an English hero, whose probity and prowess distinguish him from the French king, Philip Augustus. This idea had been present in earlier histories but had clearly been reinforced by the experiences of the Hundred Years War. Among the fictive elements is the story of Richard eating the flesh of slain Muslims; clearly he transcends the taboo on cannibalism, and by this act he appear to acquire something of the potency of his victims without being tainted by their unbelief. The poem carries with it the message that the English are more worthy to possess Jerusalem than the French and thus promotes the idea of the English as the people of God. The Siege of Jerusalem is a retelling of the story of the Roman siege of 70AD. Here the emphasis on Rome as the repository of relics taken from Jerusalem and hence as a successor to Jerusalem as the centre of Christianity would appear to reflect English support for the Roman pope in the Great Schism. There is an ambiguity about the protagonists: in this poem the Romans are Christians and display certain characteristics that call to mind the crusaders; the Jews, on the other hand, are the community of God's people, and their sympathetic treatment reflects the positive appreciation of the Jews to be found in the writings of Augustine and his followers. Jerusalem itself is the Holy City and its control is both an expression of earthly power and irrefutable proof of divine favour. But here too there is an ambiguity, since Jerusalem is destructible and may lose its powers, as symbolized by the loss of its relics of the Passion. If the number of manuscript copies is to be trusted, this was a highly successful work, and it would seem that part of its popularity lay in its devotional models for meditation on suffering and purification, on the struggle for Jerusalem as a metaphor for the battle for the soul, and on the warning that, just as the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem lose Jerusalem because they have displeased God, so too the people of England can suffer invasion if they too displease God.

The appeal of the book attributed to "Sir John Mandeville" lay largely in the fact that, drawing on a huge range of diverse sources, it had something for everyone. Yeager, however, emphasises is function as a devotional narrative, pointing out the central importance of Jerusalem within the text. The author harks back to the idea that it is the sinfulness of western Christians that prevents Jerusalem's recovery, but the description is not a guide for actual pilgrims so much as a guide for meditation on the Passion of Christ. Here again there are what would appear to be allusions to the war between England and France and the Schism of the papacy, with a clear slant towards the idea that it is the English who are more deserving of God's favour in recovering Jerusalem. Even so the author calls for peace in the West and the need for moral regeneration before the goal of the recovery of the earthly Jerusalem or the goal of the celestial city can be attained.

As a Cistercian monk Guillaume de Deguileville was not supposed to go on pilgrimages, and for him the pilgrimage to Jerusalem serves as an allegory for the journey of the soul through life. Although he clearly subscribed to the idea of the recovery of the earthly Jerusalem, he also dwelt on the spiritual significance of Jerusalem as the soul's true home for those who wish to enter. Guillaume wanted both a crusade--like "Mandeville" this requires peace in the West--and a spiritual pilgrimage through meditation on the Passion of Christ and its location. This two-fold view of Jerusalem is also a feature of Philippe de Mézières's writings. In his case the fact that he had lived several years in Cyprus gave his crusading ambitions a far greater forcefulness, but he too recognized that there could be successful crusade without peace between France and England and without spiritual regeneration. A distinctive feature of his contribution to the literature lay in the idea that he sets out in those of his writings intended partly for an English audience that, with peace in the West, France and England could share in the recovery of Jerusalem.

Various threads run through these texts. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth century crusading idea and the goal of Jerusalem retained their currency, whilst meditation on the Passion of Christ and the use of Jerusalem as a focus for such meditation reached new heights. What is new, or at least given a new emphasis, is the idea of the role of the English in all this, and that in turn reflects a growing national awareness at a time when the Hundred Years War and the Papal Schism did much to shape mentalities. The value of Yeager's work is her assertion of the place of Jerusalem and crusading ideas and imagery in the thought-world of late medieval England and the ways in which they relate to national identity. It thus confirms what we know from other types of evidence that, for all the failures and frustrations, crusading was ingrained in people's consciousness, and that an interest in crusading was not the preserve of the few.

In short: a stimulating study. However, it has to be said that there are places in which the material is not set out as cogently as might be wished, and there are odd failings along the way. Thus, for example at p. 130 Ordoric (of Pordenone?) makes an abrupt and unexplained appearance in the discussion. As a study of attitudes to Jerusalem, this work would have benefited from a consideration of the late Sylvia Schein's 2005 monograph, Gateway to the Heavenly City: Crusader Jerusalem and the Catholic West (1099-1187). The index is rather too selective.

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Peter Edbury

Cardiff Univeristy