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21.08.27 Spacey, The Miraculous and the Writing of Crusade Narrative

21.08.27 Spacey, The Miraculous and the Writing of Crusade Narrative

Medieval historians frequently cast the events they narrated in miraculous terms. This was particularly true for the Crusades, from sermons in support of them to key moments on the battlefield. In such narratives, God's hand guides the crusading armies to victory, decides their defeat, or reveals signs that shed light on a campaign's significance in sacred history, justify crusaders' actions, or castigate the sins that resulted in a temporary withdrawal of divine support. For a long time, such supernatural episodes in the medieval histories perplexed and embarrassed modern historians, who tended to dismiss them in their efforts to reconstruct what "really happened." More recently, however, scholars have begun to set aside questions about the credibility of miracle stories in medieval histories--not only whether we today should believe them as reliable witness accounts of empirical reality, but also whether their medieval authors and readers would have believed them thus--to turn their attention to the narrative functions and effects of these episodes, in accordance with the "social logic" of the texts (Gabrielle Spiegel) and their aesthetic and ideological aims.

It is in this spirit that Beth C. Spacey's The Miraculous and the Writing of Crusade Narrative sets forth an ambitious systematic treatment of miraculous accounts of many types, in many texts, from the First Crusade to the Fourth, and from Pope Urban II's speeches to the Chronica of Alberic of Trois-Fontaines. Her study builds upon textual studies of crusading narratives by scholars such as Marcus Bull, Stephen Spencer, and Elizabeth Lapina to take a longer view of how the narratives' miraculous elements change shape according to the changing fortunes of the crusaders and the changing priorities of the powerful actors and institutions promoting a crusading agenda. Comparing patterns in the narratives over time, Spacey observes an overwhelming trend: the miracles of the First Crusade hail its victory as God's will, those of the Second and Third seek to explain and rationalize defeat, and those surrounding the Fourth Crusade seek to justify its controversial conquest of and theft of relics from Eastern Christians. Having established this overall trajectory, the book analyzes the narrative features and agendas of several different categories of miracle stories and their deployment in a variety of contexts.

The book is organized in three parts of two chapters each, according to three categories of the miraculous, broadly conceived. Part I, "Miracles and Marvels," covers miraculous occurrences, or supernatural events that can only be explained as God's direct intervention to bend the laws of nature to his will, and their close counterpart, marvels, or extraordinary natural events that follow natural laws, but that might still be read as directed by God for the purpose of communicating or enacting his will. Chapter 1, "Divine Agency," outlines the development of these categories in medieval theology. The chapter goes on to outline several different types of miraculous episodes in First Crusade narratives that reinforce the idea of God directing its course, in accordance with a common understanding of the First Crusade as itself a miracle. For example, some texts refute rumored miracles in order to bolster trust in the implied author's authority, in the face of anticipated skepticism, when he claims other miracles to be authentic. Others associate preachers of crusade like Urban II and Bernard of Clairvaux with miracles at their speeches or attached to their person, demonstrating their sanctity and the divine sanction of their message. Still others tell of divine interventions on the battlefield, such as mysteriously appearing white-clad knights who came to the aid of the crusading armies. The main purpose of these miracles, Spacey argues, is to support of the idea of the Crusades' missions and outcomes being determined by God's agency, with the crusaders acting as "instruments of salvific warfare" (40). In contrast, chapter 2, "Writing Failure," considers the different ways authors use miracles, as the crusaders' early victory was followed by a series of defeats. Spacey argues that narratives about failed or controversial campaigns did not portray those Crusades as miracles as did accounts of the First Crusade. The relatively few miracles depicted in Second and Third Crusade narratives tend to focus on smaller divine acts of punishment to rationalize defeat in terms of God withdrawing favor from individuals and groups on account of their sins, while still portraying the crusading project as a whole as a legitimate undertaking aligned with God's will. Finally, the chapter turns to accounts of the controversial but successful conquest of Lisbon and sack of Constantinople, whose miraculous episodes justify them with signs of divine approval while also castigating momentary excesses of greed or misdirected violence along the way. Notably, Spacey demonstrates, the Fourth Crusade narratives mimictranslatio narratives, as the relics produce their own miracles to prove their rightful transfer to Western Europe.

Part II, "Visions and Dreams," examines the use of visionary experiences in crusading narratives to foretell or interpret crusading outcomes, to portray those outcomes as part of a divine plan, and to ascribe piety and divine favor to those said to have received messages from God in dreams or visions. Chapter 3, "The Mockery of Dreams," first lays out medieval Latin Christian theories and classifications of prophetic dreams and visions as conceived by authorities such as Augustine, Macrobius, John of Salisbury, and Caesarius of Heisterbach, and demonstrates their influence on visionary episodes in the crusading texts. Then, it considers in detail some accounts of visions related to the 1098 discovery of the Holy Lance of Antioch during the First Crusade. Comparing several versions narrating visions attributed to Peter Bartholomew and Stephen of Valence, Spacey argues that while an early account by Raymond of Aguilers presents their revelatory experiences with ambiguity as to the conditions in which they occurred, some later Benedictine versions draw from authoritative texts and terminologies to make them more credible according to anticipated expectations of how divinely granted visions should appear and to whom God should reveal them. Chapter 4 further investigates the use of visions in crusading narratives to achieve rhetorical goals such as to justify a crusade, portray crusaders as martyrs, assert the authenticity of or a rightful claim to relics, or, in some cases, to criticize individuals or their actions. In Spacey's examples, visions inflect moments of crisis with sacred significance and attribute turning points in the campaigns--for better or for worse--to divine will. They follow a similar pattern to those of the miracles in Part I, as vision narratives related to the First Crusade emphasize its divine approval and orchestration, to the point of portraying its leaders literally following the instructions of saints who appear to them, whereas narratives of the failed Second Crusade lack such visions. Meanwhile, visions could serve to support calls to action (rebuking, for example, King Henry II's failure to go on crusade), or validate the martyrdom of crusaders who died in battle, even having them appear in visions to other crusaders, thus reassuring prospective crusaders of the reward awaiting them should they perish.

The third part of the book, "Signs and Augury," considers the narratives' treatment of these more ambivalent means of foretelling and interpreting events through natural signs. Despite a general attitude of skepticism and disapproval among medieval theologians concerning astrology and other practices of reading natural events, Spacey finds that crusading narratives employ them in ways that parallel miracles and visions, if with greater ambivalence about their reliability. Where authors cast doubt on readings of the movements of the stars, eclipses, and other predictable natural events, such refutations bolster the credibility of the narrator's discernment in distinguishing "true" signs from God from uneducated superstitions. Where taken seriously, such signs draw upon classical and biblical precedents to highlight the predestined nature of crusading victories and the wisdom or specialized learning of the person interpreting them. However, Spacey also observes a trend of attributing dubious practices of astrology and augury to non-Christians, usually to caricature Muslims as pagan idolaters, to portray Saladin's power and successes as supported by magic, and to assert Christian superiority. Finally, chapter 6, "Signs of the Times," focuses on more unambiguous examples of deliberate signs from God that "work to situate the relevant expedition alongside what contemporaries viewed as appropriately momentous events, and to flag the divine disposition regarding the events narrated" (133). Astronomical events (shooting stars, eclipses) are read as portending victory or defeat or as connecting the Crusades to eschatological prophecies. Several authors refer to ancient prophecies of the fall of Constantinople, reportedly carved into columns, as proof of a predestined outcome. Spacey shows how these signs achieve the same narrative purposes as the other kinds of miraculous episodes, but also interpret the causality of events after the fact, inscribe them in a larger narrative of sacred history, and imbue them with the authors' hopes and concerns for the eventual outcome of the crusading enterprise.

I have very few criticisms of the book. As a minor point, while she does refer to biblical sources for medieval ideas about miracles, visions, and signs, the author might have given more space to Old Testament models for the idea of divine intervention in combat to guarantee victory to God's presumed "chosen" side (where the crusaders--paradoxically, given their extreme animosity toward and violence against contemporary Jews--identified with the Jewish armies). I think for example of the Books of Maccabees, which are full of divine signs and miracles both aiding Judas Maccabeus's army and punishing acts of greed, blasphemy, and theft of temple treasures, including perhaps most notably the mysterious knights that appear in the sky in 2 Maccabees 5: 2-5. Many of these episodes share patterns and motifs with some of Spacey's examples, and could have strengthened a perhaps underdeveloped thread about the medieval authors' proposed reading of the crusades through the lens of biblical history. I also wonder if the book's argument might have been rendered less repetitive if organized differently, namely to lay out the three categories of the miraculous at the beginning and then organize the remaining chapters according to the context and purpose of the miraculous episodes (i.e. asserting the First Crusade as a miraculous exercise of God's will, demonstrating God's wrath in the punishment of sinners, traitors and enemies, and justifying controversial actions, especially the Fourth Crusade) rather than according to the type of miraculous event. Such a reordering might have also enabled more thorough treatment of the connections among different types of narratives serving the same purpose. However, I see advantages to either method of organization, and the argument remains effective as is.

On the whole, I found the book enjoyable, thoroughly researched, and convincingly argued. It is of a manageable length and approachable for non-specialists, making it a valuable resource for interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching. It fits very well into its series, Crusading in Context, where it contributes important context for understanding why crusading narratives take the form they do. Its textual supplements, including a timeline of texts and events and an appendix introducing the main sources for the book, support its use as an introductory text for graduate students beginning research into crusading narratives, even as it also makes important specific, original contributions to scholarship on the miraculous in crusading narrative. Personally, I can see myself using it as a supplemental resource for a course I regularly teach on medieval biblically inspired literature, in which we devote some time talking about the influence of crusading ideologies on the reception and rewritings of biblical stories and, in turn, the deployment of biblical narratives to promote and justify crusade. In this context, Spacey's book offers an important crossover study of use to scholars and students not only of medieval historiography, but also of literature and religious studies.