16.08.04, Lapina, Warfare and the Miraculous in the Chronicles of the First Crusade

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John Joseph Giebfried

The Medieval Review 16.08.04

Lapina, Elizabeth. Warfare and the Miraculous in the Chronicles of the First Crusade. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. pp. 224. ISBN: 978-0-271-06670-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
John Joseph Giebfried
Saint Louis University

The greatest miracle of all time, save only the incarnation of Jesus--that is how the contemporary chronicler Robert the Monk described the First Crusade. Somehow, despite being outnumbered, surrounded, lacking supplies and abandoned by Greek allies, a band of armed pilgrims made it across most of the known world and captured the holy city of Jerusalem. To contemporaries such an event seemed only possible by the assistance of God, something which was visibly expressed in a series of miracles during the course of the crusade. Of these miracles the most dramatic was the appearance of a trio of warrior saints at the battle of Antioch: Sts. George, Mercurius and Demetrius, according to the anonymous crusader author of the Gesta Francorum, or alternatively Sts. George, Theodore and Demetrius according to eyewitness chronicler Peter Tudebode. These saints, dressed in white, led a celestial cavalry charge which helped the crusaders turn the tide against the besieging army of Kerbogha of Mosul which heavily outnumbered them. This divine intervention is at the center of Elizabeth Lapina's Warfare and the Miraculous in the Chronicles of the First Crusade. This saintly sortie is not the only miracle discussed in the book, but it forms the core of her analysis.

The first chapter, "Eyewitnesses of Miracles," is the most interesting and groundbreaking part of this survey. In it, Professor Lapina looks at the medieval preference, inherited from the classical tradition and propagated by Isidore of Seville, for eyewitnesses as the most reliable sources for historical events. However, she notes how the chronicles of the First Crusade mark a challenge to this orthodoxy. In particular, she explores how monastic chroniclers who did not accompany the crusade, like Guibert of Nogent or Robert the Monk, tried to assert that their recastings of the eyewitness account of the Gesta Francorum were in fact a more authoritative history, because they could better appreciate the spiritual significance of the crusade. In Lapina's words, "True witnesses were not those who saw, but those who understood" (36).

The next three chapters set up the two central arguments of Professor Lapina's book. First, she argues that the appearance of these traditionally Byzantine warrior-saints represents an appropriation of the Eastern warrior-saint tradition by the crusader leader Bohemond of Taranto and his fellow southern Norman crusaders to justify their usurpation of Antioch from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I. Second, she argues that this appearance represents a deliberate program by the formerly Viking Normans to create a narrative in which the saints, who used to fight against their pagan ancestors, now fight alongside the Christianized Normans.

To make her argument, she begins in chapter two, "Supernatural Interventions in the Battle of Antioch: The Origins," with a very complete and comprehensive history of divine interventions in battle from the Trojan War to the time of the Crusades, focusing primarily on classical and Byzantine sources. From this, in her third chapter, "Hostile Appropriations of Byzantine Saints by the Normans of the South," she argues that the crusaders' use of four Byzantine warrior saints who were relatively unknown in the West should be traced to the Norman campaigns of Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond against the Byzantine Empire in the decades preceding the First Crusade. Lapina notes one particular incident of the Normans praying at a shrine to St. Theodore before the battle of Durazzo in what she sees as an attempt to usurp the divine protection of this saint from the Byzantines; thereupon, she extrapolates that the battle of Antioch is another example of the Normans appropriating Byzantine saints to justify their conquest.

While it is a fair hypothesis to say that the crusaders, especially the Normans, became aware of these warrior-saints through interactions with the Byzantines, there is no evidence that the miracle at Antioch is a hostile appropriation of those saints by Bohemond and the Normans. Professor Lapina cites the example of Durazzo, but there is no record of visible saintly intervention at that battle; moreover, the appropriated saint at Durazzo, Theodore, is the one saint not mentioned at the battle of Antioch by the Gesta Francorum. Moreover, although the author of the Gesta Francorum is regarded by historians as pro-Bohemond, that does not mean every event in his text must be seen through a propagandist lens. The wording of the event (namely that some crusaders, but not the author, saw these saints) suggests a bottom-up popular piety, which is not even necessarily connected to the Normans, as travel across the Byzantine Empire had brought all the crusaders into contact with these saints. There simply is no smoking gun presented by the author to show this miracle had any anti-Byzantine/pro-Norman connotations: no Bohemond claiming to see the saints personally, no intervention specifically linked with the Norman troops, no later reference to the appearances as part of Bohemond's case to claim Antioch as his own. In my opinion, the best argument for the appearance of these saints remains the one advanced by Jonathan Riley-Smith: that the crusaders saw the East as the territory of eastern saints, and thus in their time of need, it was these eastern saints that should literally ride to the rescue (56).

I also found that the argument presented in Professor Lapina's fourth chapter, "The Normans of the South: From Scourge of God to Chosen People," oversteps her evidence. Here she notes how the intervention of saints in battle in Latin accounts only comes to the fore with the Viking invasions, and dies down again until southern Norman authors report the intervention of warrior-saints both at Antioch and in the Norman conquest of Muslim Sicily. Looking at these two poles, she claims that the Normans represent a "missing link between the two spikes in saintly intervention," the Viking invasions and the Crusades (86). She argues she can prove this link by showing there is an awareness by late tenth-century Normans of the interventions against their Viking ancestors. She does this successfully, but she does not then provide concrete evidence to show that later Norman authors invented new saintly interventions primarily because saints had once intervened against their ancestors. Meanwhile, she overlooks the simple answer--both these time periods saw Christian Europe fighting defensive wars against infidels, where the appearance of a saintly warrior is most appropriate.

From this point onward, Lapina's arguments find a much firmer footing. The last two chapters examine the issues of warfare and the miraculous from different angles. Chapter five, "Judas Maccabeus: A Jewish Warrior, a Christian Patriarch and a Muslim General," provides a fascinating picture into how Judas and his fellow Maccabees were understood by crusaders as, at different times, villains, martyrs and holy warriors assisted by the angels of God. These understandings ranged from being a favorable model for crusaders in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux to placing Judas as one of Kerbogha's generals in the Chanson d'Antioche alongside Herod, Pilate and, ironically, Antiochus IV.

The final chapter, "The West Prepares to illuminate the East," examines how the First Crusade marks a reversal in traditional Christian thought, where the East was once the area of light and the West a bastion of darkness. She examines how the East-West dichotomy was overturned through the story of a comet, which descended from West to East during the course of the crusade according to several chroniclers and which can now be confirmed through East-Asian astronomical records.

The book is short, totaling only 151 pages, with an additional 25 pages of endnotes. However, it is clearly the work of many years of study and demonstrates how Dr. Lapina devoted intense research into the secondary scholarship of all the various fields discussed in here. This base of research is both one of the great strengths and weaknesses of the book.

At times, it feels like Professor Lapina is going off on long diversions from the central point of her book. To each reader the relative value of these digressions is different. For instance, I greatly enjoyed her in-depth survey of all the primary sources written in the early twelfth century which discuss the First Crusade. This historiographical summary is the best overview of this topic I have ever read and I would assign it to my students as a starting point if they wanted to research the First Crusade. However, other scholars might not find this section particularly valuable, as it devotes significant time to several sources that only come up in passing in the rest of the book. There were other points, like the history of divine interventions in classical Greek and Roman texts, which may interest some scholars, but which I felt was a long digression on a topic which only really required a sentence or two to prove her overall argument.

Trying to say something new about the First Crusade is a daunting task. Professor Lapina proves her mettle here by advancing not one, but a whole series of arguments relating to the miracles of the First Crusade. Some of these overstretch their evidence, while others will certainly leave their mark on the field of crusader studies. Her analysis of the problem of eyewitnesses in chapter one is clearly one of those lasting contributions, but perhaps the way that this book most reshapes my view of the crusades comes in the closing pages of this book. Here she argues that the real significance of the First Crusade is not its short-lived military success, but instead how the crusade changed the way people looked at the world (150-151). The crusade overturned old paradigms and created a new framework for medieval thought which, unlike crusader Jerusalem, survived the battle of Hattin. That is the idea I will primarily take away from this book.

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