10.03.29, Constable, Crusaders and Crusading

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Thomas F. Madden

The Medieval Review 10.03.29

Constable, Giles. Crusaders and Crusades in the Twelfth Century.. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2008. Pp. 371. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6523-6.

Reviewed by:
Thomas F. Madden
Saint Louis University

For more than half a century Giles Constable has been producing important studies that have helped to shape our understanding of the crusades today. His work is particularly constructive, not only for the thoroughness of its research and the sharpness of its analysis, but also because Constable approaches the crusades within the context of the religious history of the medieval West, which is his primary interest. In this way Constable continually reminds historians that the crusades were a spiritual activity grounded firmly in the ecclesiastical reform and pious vitality of the high Middle Ages.

In this volume, Constable has brought together the best of those contributions as well as several other newly published studies. Chapter 1, "The Historiography of the Crusades" is among the most important in the volume. Originally published in 2001, this essay finds its place among a group of studies by scholars such as Jonathan Riley-Smith, Edward Peters, and Christopher Tyerman that examined the shifting ways in which the crusades have been perceived since the Middle Ages. What has made Constable's essay seminal, however, is his classification of modern historiographical schools, which has become a standard in crusade studies. Constable describes four. The traditionalists, like Hans Mayer or (at one time) Tyerman, hold that crusades include only those bound for the east to assist Christians or to redeem the holy places. Pluralists, such as Jonathan Riley-Smith, define the crusades more broadly as any campaign called by the pope for the defense of Christendom or the Church that carried with it an indulgence and privileges. Popularists, such as Paul Alphandéry, approach the crusades from the spiritual motives of the participants. This has the effect of embracing movements such as the Children's Crusade, which traditionalists and pluralists reject, while rejecting many of the crusades that the other two accept. Finally, Constable identifies the generalists who define crusade as any holy war or military action in defense of the faith. This is the most expansive approach, including most of the expeditions which the other schools reject. Appended to this study is a entirely new section on "Crusading Studies in America." After a short discussion of pioneers such as Dana Munro and John LaMonte, Constable focuses most heavily on the "Wisconsin" History of the Crusades, edited by Kenneth M. Setton. Surprisingly, with the exception of the last two volumes of the History, there is no discussion here of American contributions to the field after the 1970s.

Chapter 2 "The Cross of the Crusaders" is a fascinating catalog of the ways in which the sign of the cross was used to signify the mission of the crusader. It draws together a wealth of information from sermons, chronicles, and art. Chapter 3, "Medieval Charters as a Source for the History of the Crusades," is another seminal study that helps point the way for what has become a fruitful avenue of crusade research. Scholars such as Riley-Smith, Marcus Bull, and, of course, Constable himself have used these previously neglected sources to reveal not only crusader motivations, but also the means by which crusade ideology was formed and disseminated. Constable provides similar insights here, while also warning of the difficulties inherent in these widely scattered sources.

Charters are among the sources that Constable employs in Chapter 4, "The Financing of the Crusades." This is a reprint of an article from 1982, with a few minor revisions or additions, such as a mention of the Arab historian Ibn al-Athir. Constable's focus is solely on the twelfth century (which was clear in the title of the original, but has fallen away here). It is a very useful study of the difficulties that financing something as expensive as crusading could be for participants. As with other chapters, Constable appends a useful note referencing studies produced after the essay's original publication.

"The Place of the Crusader in Medieval Society," originally published in 1998, deserves to be read more widely. Here it is divided into two chapters, 5 and 6. It is a perceptive analysis of the ways in which twelfth-century Europeans tried to fit crusaders into an otherwise rigid system of orders. Churchmen especially were conscious of the proper place of all of God's people and worried over those who crossed clear social boundaries. Even St Bernard of Clairvaux, who championed the Knights Templar, condemned the concept of fighting clerics. In the first part, Constable demonstrates where the crusader fit into existing concepts of pilgrim, but also where he was set apart as something genuinely new. In the second part he deals with the military orders and their relationship to both crusaders and monks. After presenting the scholarly arguments, Constable lays out medieval testimony to demonstrate that the precise status of the men in the military orders was just as uncertain in the Middle Ages as it is now. Were they monks living in common under a shared rule? Or were they laymen, who, like crusaders, had taken a solemn vow? Or, as Constable suggests, were they something altogether different?

The next three chapters provide slightly revised versions of studies on the early crusade movement. Chapter 7, "Cluny and the First Crusade," uses charters to reveal just how involved both the mother house and its dependencies were in laying the groundwork for crusading. Going beyond Urban II's experience as a prior of Cluny, Constable argues that the monastery financially supported some crusaders and that its experiences with Spain had already exposed it to warfare in the defense of the faith. The peace and truce of God, which the Cluniacs promoted, may also have played a role in the genesis of the crusade. In Chapter 8, "Early Crusading in Eastern Germany: The Magdeburg Charter of 1107/8," Constable provides a translation of this interesting document, which calls for a war against the pagan Slavs to the east. After surveying the historiography, Constable argues that the charter must be seen within the context of the recently successful First Crusade. Thus, the idea that a crusade need not be bound for the Holy Land was nearly as old as the movement itself. Finally, Chapter 9, "The Three Lives of Odo Arpinus: Vicount of Bourges, Crusader, Monk of Cluny," as the title suggests, explores the interesting life of this early crusader.

With Chapter 10, "The Second Crusades as Seen by Contemporaries," we come to another of Constable's seminal studies--indeed, perhaps the best well known of all his articles. Published in 1953, this extensive essay rewrote the narrative of the Second Crusade. Most importantly, it stressed that the crusade was not understood as simply the royal expeditions to the East, but also included the attack on Lisbon and the campaign against the Wends. The article also masterfully surveys the reaction to the failure of the eastern portion of the crusade, from angry finger-pointing to penitential breast-beating. The revisions to the article as it is reprinted here are minor, and fully explained by Constable in a concluding note. He is wise to take care with this study for, as he rightly points out, "it has taken a place in the historiography of the second crusade" (300). That is an understatement. For more than half a century this article was the standard work on the subject. Only with the publication of Jonathan Phillips' The Second Crusade: Extending the Frontiers of Christendom (2007) is there a solid monograph on the topic and it, of course, is built on the foundation of Constable's important study. The essay is here appended by a report of a lost sermon by St Bernard on the failure of the crusade (Appendix C) as well as two notes on the Lisbon operation, which constitute Chapter 11. The Second Crusade is then rounded out with a short article on a proposal for a follow-up crusade, supported by Suger, St Bernard, and others (Chapter 12).

The final chapter in this volume is a marked departure from the rest of the essays, both in its subject and century (the thirteenth). A new essay on the Fourth Crusade, it was originally delivered as a plenary lecture at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2004, the eight-hundredth anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople. As he has done with earlier expeditions, Constable seeks to understand the Fourth Crusade within a religious context and as a spiritual activity. He rightly points to an old historiographical tradition which cast the crusade almost as a secular event--undoubtedly because it had earned a papal excommunication and was acting contrary to repeated papal commands. Constable points out, however, that the main chroniclers describe this crusade in much the same religious terms as other crusades and that the participants certainly saw themselves as part of a spiritual enterprise.

The point is well taken, but not surprising. In the past three decades most crusade historians have not only rejected the old conspiracy theories surrounding the diversion of the Fourth Crusade, but have approached the topic with a steady gaze on its spiritual character. One thinks, for example, of Donald Queller and my The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople (1997), which placed the conflicting interpretations of how best to fulfill the crusade vow at the center of events. Or there is Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2004), which places great emphasis on the preaching of Abbot Martin of Pairis and the subsequent insecurity of the rank-and-file with the crusade's twists and turns. One could also point to John C. Moore's Innocent III: To Root Up and to Plant, (2003) or Marco Meschini's 1204: L'Incompiuta (2004), which both place religious motivations at the heart of the matter. My own, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice (2005), while not a history of the crusade, devotes considerable attention to the spiritual considerations of the Venetian crusaders, including Doge Dandolo's long fight to receive absolution for himself and his countrymen.

The second portion of the essay attempts to evaluate contemporary ideas about the legitimacy of the conquest of Constantinople. Based on centuries of insults and disagreements between Greeks and Latins, Constable argues that the latter saw the former as impediments to success in the crusades. He is unquestionably correct in that. Yet he goes further, suggesting that Constantinople was also viewed as a legitimate target because of its strategic value for launching attacks on Muslims. Here, in my opinion, he goes too far. The evidence that Constable presents on this point is not convincing. For example, post facto assessments of the strategic value of the city for future crusades tell us little about what people thought before the city was actually taken. Innocent III certainly did not believe that Constantinople was a legitimate target before 1204, despite the fact that he came to see its strategic value for future crusades after the conquest. As far as we know, the strategic argument was not preached to the crusaders themselves. While Constable is correct that Gunther of Pairis (who was not a participant on the crusade) stated that "by assuring a friendly Constantinople" the passage to Syria would be safe, the monk was referring to the installation of Alexius IV as a friendly emperor, not the conquest of the city. Similarly, while Dandolo did indeed tell the pope that "the city of Constantinople had to be conquered...for the assistance of Christianity," he was referring to intolerably hostile situation in the capital after the elevation of Alexius V, not the strategic value of the city for future crusades.

Constable also resurrects the suggestion that Constantinople was regarded as a holy city because of its storehouse of relics and was therefore considered a legitimate target for the crusade. Given the large number of relics transported to the west after the conquest, this has always been an attractive theory. Unfortunately, there is simply no evidence for it. Although several crusader memoirs mention the rich booty of relics that were obtained, none make the slightest suggestion that their presence legitimized Constantinople as a crusader target or even that they factored into the decision to attack the city. Constable points out that some crusaders believed that their vow had been fulfilled by the conquest of Constantinople and that the papal legate encouraged this belief. Yet the legate specifically defined one year's service to the new empire as fulfilling the vow, not the conquest itself. Most crusaders remained in Constantinople for precisely one additional year, strongly suggesting that they did not view the conquest itself as the fulfillment of their vow.

The simple fact is that the legitimacy of Constantinople as the object of the crusade was a vexed question at the time. The crusaders who had been assured that it was legitimate on April 9, 1204 had grave doubts when the winds blew their boats away from the walls. In any case, the arguments used by the crusader clergy to justify the attack on Constantinople are well attested in the sources. It was said that Alexius V had murdered his lord, something which made him "worse than a Jew." His people, moreover, had condoned that murder. Furthermore, the emperor had withdrawn the Greek church from obedience to the pope, claiming that all who obeyed Rome were "worse than dogs." For all of those reasons, the clergy judged the attack on Constantinople as not only righteous, but the legitimate goal of the crusade. Did it require any further legitimization? To be fair, Constable refers to this portion of his essay as "speculative." Although I find some of it problematic, there is no doubt that he has brought further food for thought to the banquet that is Fourth Crusade historiography.

Constable concludes with two short appendices that treat contemporary terminology of the crusades and the modern tradition of numbering some crusades.

From cover to cover this volume is bursting with some of the most important crusade scholarship of the past fifty years. With a remarkable breadth of knowledge Constable has changed the way that historians understand the crusades. The essays in this volume are how he did it.

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Author Biography

Thomas F. Madden

Saint Louis University