An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

December 31, 2016

Cassidy-Welch: Remembering the Crusades and Crusading

Remembering the Crusades and Crusading (Paperback) book cover
Megan Cassidy-Welch (ed.), Remembering the Crusades and Crusading. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017

Reviewed by: Andrew D. Buck (

The study of crusading memory is a flourishing field, with this volume, edited by Megan Cassidy-Welch, the latest scholarly contribution. As Cassidy-Welch notes in the introduction, this book aims to “draw attention to the diverse ways in which Crusades and crusading were remembered in the Middle Ages and beyond” (p. 8) and clearly hopes to be a stepping stone for future scholarship. To set the scene for this, the introduction provides an overview of concepts of “medieval” memory, and how pre-modern memoria was understood as both the physical storing of information and the communication of remembrance through objects, texts or actions. Cassidy-Welch thus argues that crusaders saw themselves as part of, and regulated their behaviour according to, certain social and religious traditions, such as Christ’s sacrifice and the emulation of the deeds of crusading forebears. Following a fairly useful discussion of current scholarship, Cassidy-Welch sets out the book’s methodological framework, namely the interplay between “communicative memory” (the lived, immediate memory of an event) and “cultural memory” (the process by which memory evolves into an official story, often to create social, political or organisational legitimacy); before setting out its three thematic strands: sources of memory, communities of memory and cultural memory. While more could have been done to lay out the available theological approaches to memory, especially for those new to the field, one certainly leaves the introduction with a clear sense of the road ahead. 

The book’s first thematic strand – Sources of Memory – explores the respective roles of preaching, liturgy, images, material cultures, texts and romances in shaping and preserving crusading memory. It begins with Jessalynn Bird’s (perhaps overly-ambitious) contribution on crusade preaching, which outlines the processes by which crusade preachers incorporated the past, both Christian and heroic, into recruitment sermons. By emphasising remembrance of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ and the holy martyrs, drawing on heroic tradition, and tapping into existing liturgical practices, Crusade preaching became a multi-sensory experience. Eventually, this ensured that the crusading past became something to emulate, with crusaders embodying pious devotion and Christian sacrifice. In a similar vein, M. Cecilia Gaposchkin’s interesting discussion on the liturgical feast which commemorated the First Crusade’s capture of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099, demonstrates that this liturgy cemented the crusaders’ identity as the new Israelites and placed the First Crusade as a key “node” in eschatological history. Thus, by drawing on broader theological and exegetical context, as well as practices from the Advent–Epiphany liturgy, it promoted the notion that, through the Franks, the New Jerusalem had come.

Next comes Elizabeth Lapina’s study of the role of church murals depicting the crusades and how these served to create an imagined past and signify religious and cultural identity. Thus, images of knightly battles or of returning crusaders, when placed alongside heroic figures like Charlemagne or Arthur, could serve to legitimise dynasties. Of particular significance, though, are eleven images of the saintly intercession at the Battle of Antioch in 1098, produced in northern France and England between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Through these, Lapina shows the emergence of a fascination with Saint George – for his appearance as a warrior, rather than martyr, served to legitimise knightly involvement in crusading – and that Jerusalem, not Antioch, acted as the site of this intercession: almost certainly because it held greater spiritual, Christological, miraculous and eschatological significance. These images thus show how the past served to define the present. Following this is Anne Lester’s illuminating discussion on how objects also created and transmitted crusading memory. Thus, objects bought, brought, or, as was often the case, commandeered, on crusade, could evoke particular events or places related to crusading or the Holy Land. In turn, this allowed family traditions to be created and maintained, while these objects also affirmed social status and relationships and could also cultivate group identity. Through the particular focus on Christ relics, it is argued, we can even see the greater interest in crusading as an act of Imitatio Christi. For Lester, as with Lapina, objects therefore provide an important window into the ways in which crusading entered medieval society, and stayed there.

The final two contributions to this thread offer a more textual focus. The first is Darius von Güttner-Sporzyński’s discussion on the early-twelfth-century Polish dynastic chronicle, the Gesta principum Polonorum. In this, it is argued that this text shaped the identity and Christian legitimacy of Poland’s ruling family, the Piasts, through their involvement in “proto-crusading” (wars of conversion against Pomeranian and Prussian pagans). To tie this more effectively with crusading, Güttner-Sporzyński also looks to place the text as part of the outpouring of Christian historical literature after the First Crusade, and so includes a lengthy discussion of the now well-known process by which the crusade’s history was told and re-told from eye-witness texts to the second-generation, largely Benedictine, “theological refinement”. Given that the subsequent attempts made to form links with the First Crusade sources do not rely on issues of provenance, this seems fairly unnecessary. Perhaps more problematic is that, with a couple of notable exceptions – the evocation of the Maccabees and saintly intercession in battle – the links made between the two strands are tenuous, at times misleading. For example, he sees in the Polish description of large pagan casualties an allusion to descriptions of the 1099 massacre at Jerusalem, despite no apparent textual similarities and it being a common trope of any text aimed at demonstrating the legitimacy of a victory (see, for example, William of Poitiers’ account of the Battle of Hastings). In the end, the nub of the matter lies with a problematic attempt to equate a Just War supported by God – which the Gesta principum Polonorum clearly portrays the anti-Pagan wars as, just as William of Poitiers did with the Norman Conquest – with the First Crusade, which was viewed as a salvific act of a penitence, even a pilgrimage (Just War ≠ Penitential War). Thus, while this does provide a useful insight into how memory could create Christian political and dynastic legitimacy, that it seeks to place this within the context of crusading, particularly the processes of memorialising the First Crusade, is rather less convincing. Far more effective is Lee Manion’s examination of crusading romances – in particular the Chanson d’Antioche, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Willehalm, and the prologues and epilogues of William Caxton’s fifteenth-century printed middle-English translations of two crusading romances: Godeffroy of Boloyne and The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prince, Charles the Grete – which explores how vernacular literature transmitted crusading memory and shaped it for didactic purposes. Of most interest is his examination of Caxton, who printed his texts when crusading was in abeyance, and England was riddled with civil war, in the hope that the crusading past could divert martial attentions towards a worthier pursuit. This aptly demonstrates how crusading memory was in a constant dialogue with the present, even beyond the high middle ages, and that, rather than simply re-telling the narratives, vernacular texts were shaped to provide models of Christian behaviour.

The book’s third section – Communities of Memory – then turns to the groups who preserved crusading memories, including monasteries, kings, Jews, and the nobility. It begins with Katherine Allen Smith’s excellent discussion on the role played by monastic orders in preserving, interpreting and transmitting the memory of the First Crusade. Whether by supporting departing crusaders, serving as repositories for relics or the bodies of crusaders, or producing crusading texts, monasteries were hubs of crusading memory. Yet, while several monastic authors placed the crusade within sacred time, they also used it to demonstrate the spiritual superiority of monasticism. For example, it is demonstrated, through the Vita Sancti Adjutoris, written by Hugh of Amiens c.1130 to commemorate a former crusader, Adjutor of Tiron, who became a monk at Tiron after nearly two decades in the East because St Mary Magdalene had engineered his release from Muslim captivity, that, although crusading was considered praiseworthy, it was only one step on the true path to spiritual conversion, which culminated in monasticism. A little less convincing, but still interesting, is James Naus and Vincent Ryan’s contribution on how crusading legitimised and memorialised royal status. Indeed, despite a useful introduction to the various problems and motivations of royal crusading, the case study of Richard the Lionheart is perhaps under-explored, and there are occasional slips in insight or critical engagement. As such, whereas they offer the insightful suggestion that Richard’s reportedly impetuous decision to take the Cross without seeking the counsel of his father, King Henry II, was imbedded in both pious concerns and issues of dynasty and legitimacy, the piece then rather skips through the problems and successes of Richard’s crusade planning and execution, and then his legend. As such, the authors skirt around the fact that, while they argue that Richard sought to succeed where his forbears had failed by circumventing the crusading heritage of both his parents, for whom there had been little success and a lot of prevarication, his subsequent two-year delay in departure – which is conveniently sidestepped – does serve to undermine this.

Following from this is Rebecca Rist’s somewhat concise discussion on how Jewish communities memorialised crusading, particularly the issue of papal protection. It examines two chroniclers of the First and Second Crusades respectively, Shelomo bar Shimson and Ephraim of Bonn, through whom it is argued that, while Shelomo’s text offers a very negative portrayal of papal protection during the First Crusade, Ephraim is altogether less interested in pontifical pronouncements and instead focuses on monarchs. Roughly half the length of the other pieces, this feels somewhat incomplete, and whilst the practical assertion is made that papal protection was clearly valued by Jewish communities, and remembered when it did (and did not) come – though Ephraim’s silence does raise unanswered questions regarding this argument; it would have been interesting – in lieu of the surprisingly long notes and bibliography – to see further examples and a lengthier discussion of the ideas of memory being explored elsewhere in the volume. More illuminating, and one of the book’s strongest pieces, is Nicholas Paul and Jochen Schenk’s study of the role of family memory in disseminating and memorialising the crusading ideal. In this, the pair outline how crusading was remembered and promoted through familial traditions of participation – particularly for those families with multi-generational involvement in the Crusades – and through commemoration in epitaphs, and architecture. Likewise, some families also commissioned dynastic histories to glorify past familial crusading exploits, even in competition with the more traditional oral and written texts (particularly of the First Crusade). Through such traditions, and the artefacts or texts which preserved them, the feats of past crusaders, real or mythologised, were transmitted to serve as markers of status and instructional messages for later generations. Dynastic crusading memory was thus crucial to noble legitimacy and identity, and even helped to construct the crusading movement itself.

Statue of Saladin, Damascus
Perhaps of greater interest to the readership of this site, is the final thematic strand – Cultural Memory – which frequently deals with post-medieval memories of the Crusades. It begins with Jonathan Harris’ interesting discussion on Byzantine memories of the crusades, particularly the Fourth Crusade. This event, which saw the capture of Constantinople in 1204 and the creation of a Latin Empire, displaced many Greeks to Nicaea, where accounts of the crusade and its aftermath were composed. In this so-called Nicaean tradition, four key strands of memory were crafted. The first was the memory of the looting and desecration of Byzantine churches, with texts and oral traditions transmitting enduring dismay at the losses suffered at the hands of greedy Latins. Secondly, the Latins were criticised for their schismatic beliefs – which, by the fourteenth century, was as much about anger over 1204 than theological differences. Thirdly, the culpability of Venice in 1204 – though by the 1450s this had so evolved that Venetians were asked to defend Constantinople against the Ottomans because the city had once been theirs. Finally, stories also endured regarding Byzantine culpability in 1204 through the incompetence of the Angeloi and the mistreatment of earlier crusading expeditions. These case studies thus aptly demonstrate how Byzantine society adapted and utilised the traumatic memory of 1204 as a cultural and diplomatic tool.

Next is Anna Rodríguez’s discussion on the complex inter-relationship between crusade and Reconquest in Iberia (albeit largely the Kingdom of Castile) from the twelfth–fourteenth century. Rodríguez argues that although the fourteenth-century Castilian Infante, Don Juan Manuel, the descendent of Reconquest heroes, provided an idealised view of Iberia’s crusading past in a series of moralistic tales, the reality was less clear. Indeed, Castilian monarchs lacked any practical interest in Holy Land crusades, prioritising instead the war in al-Andalus. Likewise, although Castilian nobles took the cross in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, they did so to protect themselves from the king during times of conflict. Even when French crusading forces aided Castile against the Almohads at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, Castilian memorialisation of this victory saw it not as a papally directed holy war, but as a royal victory which cemented monarchical legitimacy. Therefore, while late-medieval chivalric moralism sought to unite Iberian and crusading memory, this only occurred after the Holy Land’s loss de-politicised the movement’s relationship to the Reconquest.                

The book’s penultimate chapter is Alex Mallett’s contribution on Muslim memory of the crusades. Starting with early-twelfth-century reactions to the First Crusade, Mallett charts the memorialisation of crusades and crusaders by Muslims up to the current day. It is demonstrated that the earliest reactions, while decrying Frankish violence, primarily criticised Muslim disunity. Likewise, as jihad intensified under Nur al-Din and Saladin, and later the Mamluks, the increased level of invective directed against the crusaders served to legitimise these rulers in uniting the Muslim world under their leadership. This was no monochromatic process, though, as Mallett shows that during the rule of the later Ayyubids in the early–mid thirteenth century, whose approach to the Franks was more pragmatic, their policies were either criticised or passed over by authors depending on personal allegiance. In an important corrective to recent scholarship, Mallett also shows how memory of Saladin and the crusades did not disappear during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, and nor is the modern Islamic view of the crusades limited to the Arab nationalists and Islamists who see an endless “crusading” conflict between East and West (as seen through the varied approaches to the crusades found in the school textbooks of Islamic nations). Mallett thus aptly demonstrates the complex ways in which the Islamic world, and its ruling elites, used (and still use) the crusades as a “yardstick by which the actions of the rulers of Muslim states can be judged” (227).

The final chapter is Carsten Selch Jensen’s interesting study on how the Baltic Crusades have been remembered and used in Estonia and Latvia (or, more broadly, Livonia). Starting with a brief overview of Baltic crusading, Jensen leaps forwards to the Enlightenment, demonstrating that although many thinkers saw the Baltic campaigns, like those to the Holy Land, as wasteful ventures in brutality and greed, which placed an innocent, religiously pure indigenous community under slavery, there were also Germanic nobles who used their perceived crusading ancestry as a tool for legitimacy. In the nineteenth century, this brought German nationalists, who utilised crusading to demonstrate their cultural superiority, into conflict with Estonian and Livonian nationalists who romanticised their own past, emphasising the innocence and freedom of the pre-crusading era (as opposed to the slavery and oppression of the crusaders). These divisions endured into the twentieth century, as calls for independence increased following the First World War, with anti-crusader chieftains or tribes evoked to promote resistance, until Nazi and Soviet occupations ensured that, after 1945, a single narrative was created of a Marxist Baltic war against materialism and greed. As Selch aptly demonstrates, therefore, the crusading past here, as elsewhere in Europe and indeed the Near East, provided the backdrop for nationalism and political struggles far removed from their original events.

Overall, this book has much to its credit. Not all the contributions are of equal value, and there are certainly those which try to do too much, or lack coherence or relevance to the volume’s overall aims, but there are several chapters which should serve as the ideal starting point for anyone looking to explore issues of crusading memory, and which provide important correctives and addendums to traditional ideas or avenues of scholarship. Given the impressive bibliographical data also available for each chapter, this should be a must for scholars of crusading memory, as well as university libraries and teachers of the crusades.     
Andrew Buck
Queen Mary University of London