Post-classical history


Holy Lands

CRUSADING SACRALIZED THE LANDS it attacked or conquered. These were seen in terms of recovery of the heritage of Christ (Palestine), His Mother (Livonia), or His disciples, such as James (Spain) and Peter (any region placed under papal protection or lordship). Less obviously, crusading also tended to sacralize the lands from which the holy warriors had been drawn. The numinous distinction bestowed by participation in crusading merged with concepts of just wars fought for the patria, the homeland. These consecrations provoked a series of anomalies between image and reality. Crusade frontiers, in Spain, Syria, Prussia, or Livonia, were at once ideologically rigid while physically, culturally, or politically porous. Promoters and chroniclers of conquest proclaimed sharp religious and ethnic divisions when economic contact and the mechanics of lordship required social exchange leading to cultural transmission. The universal homeland of these New Israelites, Christendom (Christianitas), became fragmented into distinctpatria, kingdoms or cities, appropriating to themselves the concept of a “Holy Land” where, for the political elite, involvement in the crusade stood as a touchstone of identity, respect, and authority. Crusading stood as an objective of national policy and an analogy for national war. No less than the holy lands of crusader conquest, these patria were bolstered by images derived from the Israel of the Old Testament and egregious apocalyptic political propaganda and thought, in which any successful crusader king could lay claim to the prophecies of the Last Emperor at the End of Time. The consequent habit of equating national aggression with transcendent universal good and vice versa constitutes a lasting inheritance. “One nation under God” has a complex ancestry but it includes the medieval holy wars of the cross.

The Holy Land Overseas: Outremer and Colonial Myths

Shortly after the First Crusade, the northern French writer and abbot Guibert of Nogent coined the phrase “Holy Christendom’s new colonies” for the Christian conquests in Syria and Palestine. The question of whether the Christian settlements in the east can be described as colonies in any modern sense has exercised historians for two centuries. If a colony can be understood as, in some fashion, deliberately created to act as a subordinate in a larger commercial, economic, or strategic system operated by a distant colonial power in its own interests, then Outremer, despite its name, hardly fits the model. If, however, a colony implies a plantation of an alien population of rulers and settlers who retain their cultural identity and association with their regions of origin, then Outremer displays colonial characteristics. However, Outremer formed part of no secular or ecclesiastical western empire except as provinces of the Latin Church. Unlike Prussia, the kingdom of Jerusalem, while paying Peters Pence to the papacy, was not a papal fief, and in the thirteenth century fiercely resisted attempts to incorporate it into the Hohenstaufen empire. Despite intimate dynastic links with western aristocracies, no trans-Mediterranean lordships were created. Despite a constant flow of pilgrims and, in the twelfth century, settlers in both directions, contacts between immigrants and their countries of origin quickly faded, Franks tending to adopt local places as surnames. No reigning Frankish monarch of Jerusalem ever visited western Europe.

While the constant need for western reinforcement and an increasing reliance on the international networks of Italian commercial cities and of the Military Orders never permitted relations between Outremer and the west to lose their umbilical quality, the polity of Outremer (twelfth-century Byzantine claims to Antioch excepted) remained socially and institutionally autonomous. Westerners and easterners increasingly traded mocking insults about each other. Outremer’s distinctive characteristic of a garrison society did not guard vital sea lanes, trade routes, markets, or sources of raw materials but what many regarded as a huge religious relic, “Christ’s heritage.” Direct material profit had not driven the conquest of Outremer, although this did not impede subsequent economic exploitation. The most self-evidently colonial element in Outremer were the representatives of the Italian commercial cities who established quarters in ports such as Acre and Tyre to house a transient population of merchants and sailors from their home ports. Most of these agents did not become permanent settlers in the east. While Outremer conformed to the medieval pattern of foreign settlements in replicating home societies rather than to the modern colonial model of voluntary or enforced dependency, it did not compare in emulation with the thirteenth-century Frankish establishment in Greece—“new France” as one pope called it—in emulating the old country. In contrast with Spain and Prussia, where land frontiers with Latin Christendom ensured heavy potential immigration, or with Prussia, Livonia, and Estonia, where religious conversion of the conquered allowed a measure of acculturation of the natives with the intruders, there was no melting pot shared by immigrant and native in twelfth-century Outremer. Instead, Outremer presented a mosaic of faith and ethnic communities, pieces of social tesserae wedged tightly together to form a single pattern.

Although cast in a holy land and founded by crusaders, Christian Outremer was not a “crusader society.” While permanent peace with Muslim neighbors was, for both sides, conceptually impossible, during much of the period of Frankish occupation 1098 to 1291, truces and alliances nourished. Parts of the kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-twelfth century were more peaceful than contemporary England, France, or Italy. Most castles and fortified houses lay far from the frontiers and played the same administrative rather than military role in the organization of lordships as their counterparts did in England. The rulers and settlers were neither technically nor actually crusaders. Unlike thirteenth-century Prussia or Livonia, Outremer was not ruled by crusading Military Orders, however significant their role in its defense and aggression. Although the rulers’ rhetoric spoke differently, with popes, politicians, and chroniclers presenting a particular frontier myth of heroic conquest and battle to justify the Franks’ presence and excite western support, Outremer society, while sustained by this cohesive ideology of “exiles” for the faith, reflected a far more humdrum diversity of experience than such crude caricatures allow.

Following behind soldiers of the Crusades, Italian merchants and sailors settled in cities like Acre, today part of Israel. This 1843 lithograph shows boats in Acre’s harbor; minarets rise above the city.

The task of occupation fell far below the epic vision, still less did it fit either of the alternative modern interpretations of Outremer as a conduit of inter-cultural exchange and cooperation or as a bleak, arid, and doomed system of apartheid. Demographic imperatives ensured diversity in Outremer, as in its Muslim-ruled neighbors, but no deep cultural synthesis. The Franks’ clothes (such as the fashionable turban or the prudent loose garments and surcoats), food, domestic architecture (even the rugged Hospitallers seem to have installed bathrooms at their castle of Belvoir), personal hygiene, and medicine were adapted to the environment. Franks learnt Arabic, a process accelerated by commerce, lordship, and the unfortunately frequent habit of their leaders getting captured and spending long years in Muslim custody. In some ways, the Frankish ruling elite resembled in status and relationship to the indigenous population the Turkish atabegs who ruled elsewhere in Syria, foreigners sustained by military strength and the extraction of revenues from an alien local labor force.

The Castles of Outremer

In Outremer, religion not race formed the technical test of civil rights and citizenship. Intermarriage occurred between Franks and local Christians and converted Muslims. The idea that the Franks faced an exclusively Muslim native population seems far from the case; in parts of Outremer, Muslims were not even a majority. Where necessary, Frankish rulers occasionally extended patronage to Muslim settlers, doctors, and merchants, while at the same time showing no qualms about using Muslim slave labor. A few shared sites of religious worship survived, such as in the suburbs of Acre in the twelfth century, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the thirteenth century, or the remarkable Greek Orthodox shrine of Our Lady of Saidnaya, north of Damascus. After the initial stage of conquest, Muslim resistance to Frankish rule, in the absence of political leadership, which had fled, rarely reached beyond the level of localized banditry. The new rulers’ and settlers’ enjoyment of resources did not entail systematic persecution of other faith communities. Overt aggression to non-Christians seemed the preserve of zealous, boorish newcomers. In market courts at the port of Acre, jurors were drawn from both Latin and Syrian Christians and witnesses were permitted to swear oaths on their holy books—Christians on the Gospels, Jews and Samaritans on the Torah, and Muslims on the Koran—“because,” the Jerusalem law code insisted, “be they Syrians or Greeks or Jews or Samaritans or Nestorians or Saracens, they are also men like the Franks.” The Hospitallers, who ran the great hospital in Jerusalem that could accommodate hundreds of patients at a time, agreed. They treated anyone regardless of race or religion. Only lepers were excluded, for obvious reasons.

This does not imply that Christian Outremer operated as a haven of tolerance. Medieval racism was largely cultural, revolving around external differences in customs, law, and language, more than the distinctions of blood inheritance preferred by some modern racists. In that sense, discrimination on the grounds of religion was inherently racist. This extended to the de facto religious discrimination against native Christian communities—Armenians, Greeks, and Arabic- or Syriac-speaking Melkites, Nestorians, Jacobites, and Maronites—not in terms of civil but ecclesiastical rights. The Franks Latinized the Church in Outremer, occupying all the top jobs and monopolizing much of the endowment and income. However, local Christians, at least in chroniclers’ descriptive language, charters, and the law courts, were not confused with the Muslim settled population, the Bedouin on the borders, or the Turci beyond the frontiers. The Jewish population of Palestine declined sharply after 1099, although the remaining communities avoided direct persecution, many working in the dyeing business. Local Christians lived within the ambit of Frankish society and law, owning property, intermarrying, and in some rural areas actually sharing villages with immigrants, who tended to be attracted to regions already occupied by co-religionists. Muslims and Jews dwelt apart, except in towns and cities, where trade, agriculture, tax collecting, or revenue gathering brought the communities into contact. As a special distinction, all Franks were, ipso facto, free. Political and social barriers precluded multiculturalism just as firmly as differences of religion, race, and ethnicity. Occasionally, more general cultural hostility erupted, as in 1152 in Tripoli after the assassination of Count Raymond II, when “all those who were found to differ either in language or dress from the Latins’ were massacred. Such racial rather than religious discrimination was grounded on certain mundane but inescapable differences in language and manners: Syrians shaved their pubic hair not their beards; Franks did the reverse or neither. Yet at the non-threatening margins of civility, transmission of customs could flourish.

Tripoli in the twelfth century was the site of hostility and violence resulting from cultural and racial differences, rather than simply religious contentiousness. The city fell to the Mamluks in 1289, as depicted in this thirteenth- or fourteenth-century painting.

Although, unlike in Sicily after its eleventh-century conquest by the Normans, there were few anti-Muslim riots, Outremer presented a picture of recognized diversity and enforced inequality. In 1120 laws were promulgated forbidding sexual congress between Christians and Muslims and imposing dress discrimination. The Jerusalem law code listed severe penalties for Muslim violence on Christians, but none vice versa. Taxation fell more heavily on the peasantry and most severely on Muslims, who had to pay a poll tax (as Christians had under Muslim rule). In Galilee in the 1180s, local Muslims referred to King Baldwin IV as “the pig” and his mother, Agnes of Courtenay, as “the sow.” One settler, encountering black Africans for the first time, “despised them as if they were no more than seaweed.” At either end of the twelfth century some Muslim communities aided invaders. In Antioch, treatment of Muslims veered from economic encouragement to extortion, prompting sporadic uprisings. Although in Muslim rural areas, and even in cities such as Tyre, public Islamic worship was permitted, Muslim shrines and cemeteries fell into disrepair and in the 1180s old men recounted tall stories of the heroic defense of the coastal cities against the invading infidel. Muslim slaves, including women in shackles, were a common sight. Without a Muslim social or intellectual elite, either in exile or denied status, their popular cultures inevitably stagnated.

Always a minority, especially in the thirteenth century when effectively penned in to the narrow coastal strip, the Frankish peasantry and artisans adapted to local methods of agriculture which would have been familiar, if tougher, to settlers from southern France, Italy, and Spain. Perhaps the most distinctive feature imported by westerners were pigs. The Franks lived in villages of their own, or beside local Christians, but mixed with all other groups in towns and cities. The experience of Nablus, north of Jerusalem, illustrated the tensions and accommodations of inter-communal relations. A Frankish wineshop stood opposite a Muslim guesthouse. A local Muslim woman who had married a Frank murdered him and took to a life of crime, ambushing and killing passing Franks, while the Frankish wife of a local draper became the expensive mistress of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Not all was conflict. The Frankish viscount invited an Arab emir from northern Syria to witness a trial by battle between two Franks over allegations that one of them had set Muslim thieves onto the other’s property. A bullying local Frankish landlord forced a community of devout Muslims to emigrate to Damascus while at the same time the local Samaritan sect was allowed to continue with its annual Passover ritual that attracted worshippers from across the Near East. Such practical coexistence punctuated by extremes of faith or criminality undermines neat generalizations about the colonial experience.

At the top of society, the Frankish aristocracy created a world as much like the west as possible, in law, landholding, military organization, religion, and language. However, the setting inevitably impinged. Slavery, dying out in western Christendom, formed a staple of Near Eastern society which the Franks adopted. Proximity bred contact, especially where non-Franks, even non-Christians, possessed useful talents. King Baldwin I of Jerusalem (1100-1118) took a Muslim convert as an intimate servant, probably lover, giving him his name as well as religion. The royal court of Jerusalem in the twelfth century was almost as cosmopolitan as those of Norman-Greco-Arabic Sicily or the Arab-Turkish-Kurdish-Armenian-Jewish courts of the Near East. King Amalric (1163-74), who campaigned in Egypt and visited Constantinople, was married to a Greek, employed as family doctors and riding masters Syrian Christians who had worked for the Fatimids of Egypt and later served Saladin, and a tutor, William of Tyre (c.1130-86), steeped in the finest state of the art learning from Paris and Bologna. Some Frankish knights and nobles seemed to have forged amicable relations with Muslim counterparts across the frontiers during times of truce; a number regularly sought service with Turkish armies. Alliances between Franks and Muslim powers were commonplace, even if former allies happily slaughtered each other when the diplomatic and military wheel turned. “Apartheid” seems an inappropriately narrow and monochrome description of such a society.

Yet Outremer did own a unique status that made integration with native non-Christians impossible. The western settlement only occurred because of the religious aspiration of the conquerors. Although the motives of immigrants remain hidden, one element in persuading non-noble settlers to try their luck in such a relatively inhospitable and distant region was the desire to live in the land where Christ and His saints had lived. The pious rhetoric of exile on one level matched the reality. With a largely immigrant higher clergy and a constant influx of lords from the west, the sense of mission kept on being renewed. The holiness of the Holy Land exerted an important influence in Outremer society. The conquests of 1098-99 opened Palestine to a flood of pilgrims from Christendom with expectations fuelled by Biblical and crusading stories. At any one time, there could be seventy pilgrim ships docked at Acre, some capable of carrying hundreds of passengers. Traveling on one of the two annual “passages,” when the currents and winds in spring and autumn allowed for easier journeys, these tourists found eager hosts. The Jerusalem kings exacted tolls on them (just as their Muslim predecessors had done). The two great Military Orders of the Temple (1120) and Hospital (1113, militarized probably by 1126) were founded to protect and heal them. The catering trade grew rich on them. Residents in Outremer gave them places to visit, by sprucing up old sites, excavating others, such as the relics of the Patriarchs at Hebron in 1119, and imaginatively recreating the Biblical landscape, “New Holy Places newly built” according to John of Würzburg in the 1160s. In re-mapping the sacred landscape, the Latin Christians were following a process familiar from the Roman emperors Titus and Hadrian in the first and second centuries, the Greek Christians in the fourth century, the Muslims after 638, 1187, and 1291, and the Zionists and Israelis in the twentieth century.

This habit of importing or annexing a new sacred landscape was common to conversion, colonization, and crusading. As on the Spanish and Baltic frontiers, in Outremer it served to reinforce a particularly strong sense of exceptionalism, at least among the articulate, and was of a piece with the “fractured colonialism,” as it has been described, of Frankish society. How far settlers and rulers felt the pull of divine immanence in their material surroundings can only partly be reconstructed from the opinions of their interpreters, such as William of Tyre, or from their behavior. Those modern historians such as Joshua Prawer who have accused the Franks of cultural myopia in regard to other communities miss the point. By definition, the Frankish settlement could not overtly compromise with other ethnic models. Yet neither could—or did—they ignore them. It has become modish to condemn the western settlements in the east as a brutish intrusion into a more civilized and sophisticated Islamic world. Yet the Turkish invasion of the mid-eleventh century was more disruptive. The warring political and religious factions within the Islamic polity—Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Mamluk, Sunni, Shia, Ishmaeli Assassins—created violent contest and instability only resolved by greater violence practiced by unscrupulous warlords such as Zengi, Saladin, or Baibars, none of whom flinched from barbaric atrocities to further their material ends. Like the Franks, they promoted a self-serving ideology of legitimate force. Western Christians held no monopoly on intolerance, any more than they did on sanctity. Islamic lawyers warned against inter-faith fraternization; an eleventh-century Baghdad legist proposed discriminatory dress for Christians and Jews. The fate of non-Christian communities in Outremer was little different to that of Christian communities under Islam. It appeared harsher because the social configuration of the remaining Muslim population, largely peasant or artisan, lacked a skilled or wealthy elite, in contrast to Muslims in Christian Spain or Christian communities in the Islamic world. This is not to deny the exclusive and discriminatory nature of Frankish rule in Outremer. However, to romanticize those whom they discriminated against is to rewrite the past to suit present sentimentality.

In his twelfth-century chronicle of the Crusades, History of the Outremer, William of Tyre recounted the events of the first crusade and the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. King Baldwin II of Jerusalem is depicted in this thirteenth-century manuscript illumination from William’s history.

The Holy Lands on the Frontiers


In Spain, as in the Baltic, crusading was secondary or complementary to secular considerations and wider association of Christian conquest and holy war. A decade before the First Crusade, Alphonso VI of Castile had characterized his capture of Toledo from the Moors in 1085 “with Christ as my leader” as a restoration of Christian territory and the recreation of “a holy place.” It is not entirely clear how far the explicit religiosity of twelfth-century accounts of earlier campaigns against the Moors in Spain reflected the assimilation of crusading formulae, an older tradition of holy war or a separate local development. While defense and restoration of Christian lands matched the new rhetoric of the Jerusalem war, indigenous writers and religious leaders transformed the Iberian patronal saint, the Apostle James the Great, Santiago, into a “knight of Christ” and heavenly intercessor for the success of Christian warfare. Such promotion of a distinctive pan-Iberian war cult helped local rulers retain ownership of their campaigns even when enjoying papal crusade privileges, while at the same time reinforcing Christian solidarity. St. James, an international saint through his shrine at Compostella, did not become the exclusive preserve of any one Iberian kingdom, his cult sustaining the political ideologies of all of them. The same was generally true of the half dozen Iberian Military Orders founded in the second half of the twelfth century, including one dedicated to St. James.

An Apostle of Christ, Saint James is depicted as a conqueror of the Moors, in this eighteenth century painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The incongruity of this transformation of one of Jesus’s disciples into a warrior saint escaped most medieval observers.

Crusading in Spain adopted a local flavor. The great warrior kings of the thirteenth century, Ferdinand III of Castile (1217-52) and James I of Aragon (1213-76), rolled back the Muslim frontier self-consciously in the name of God and each flirted with carrying the fight beyond Iberia, to Africa or Palestine. Yet neither found the commitment that led their contemporary Louis IX of France to the Nile. Although some conquests, such as the capture of Cordoba by Ferdinand III in 1236, were accompanied by religious gestures of restoration and purification familiar from the eastern crusades, and in places, as at Seville (captured 1248), foreign Christian settlers were recruited, much of the Reconquista involved negotiation and accommodation of the religious and civil liberties of the conquered: James I “the Conqueror” of Aragon’s annexation of Mallorca (1229) and Valencia (1238), and Ferdinand Ill’s conquest of Murcia (1243). Christian complaints about the calls of the muezzin persisted in some areas for centuries. Although suffering from the problems of being ruled by an elite with separate laws and religion, Muslims under Christian rule, the mudejars, and Jews and converts—conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity) and Moriscos (Muslim converts)—were a feature of Spanish life until the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when a recrudescence of a manufactured neo-crusading religious militancy led to the imposition of intolerant Christian uniformity under the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon (1479-1516) and Isabella of Castile (1474-1504), coinciding with the final expulsion of the Moorish rulers from Granada (1492). This new identification of a crusading mission, which persisted under Charles V and Philip II, depended as heavily on recasting Castile, in particular, as itself a new holy land with a providential world mission as it did on genuine Aragonese crusading traditions. In turn, this spawned a myth of the crusading Reconquista and the providential identity and destiny of Catholic Spain later insidiously expropriated by General Franco and his fascist apologists, academic as well as political.

“Isabella the Catholic” is the title of this c.1839 engraving depicting Isabella of Castile (r. 1474—1504), queen of Spain during the completion of the Reconquista.

Ferdinand II of Aragon (r. 1474–1516), seen here in a Madrid monument, was king of Spain during the Reconquista—an era which led to the portrayal of Catholic Spain as another holy land.

The fate of Peter II of Aragon (1196-1213), father of James the Conqueror, reveals the nuances and contradictions in the Iberian experience. The twelfth-century invasion of Spain by the Almohads, Muslim puritans from North Africa, had placed the Christian advances of the previous century in jeopardy. In 1212, a large international crusader host combined with Iberian kings to resist. Before confronting the Almohad forces at Las Navas de Tolosa, most of the French contingents abandoned Peter and the kings of Castile and Navarre, partly over disagreements with the local rulers’ leniency toward defeated Muslim garrisons, a frontier pragmatism that, as in Palestine, struck the French as scandalous. They also did not care for the heat. The subsequent Christian victory became, as a result, almost wholly a Spanish triumph, a useful detail in the later projection of Spanish destiny. Fourteen months later Peter was defeated and killed at the battle of Muret in Languedoc by an army of French crusaders led by the church’s champion, Simon de Montfort, testimony to the political cross-currents upon the surface of which crusading bobbed, and the impossibility of divorcing “crusade” history from its secular context.

After the conquests, new (or in propaganda terms restored) sacred and secular landscapes were created, from converting mosques to churches to changing Arabic place names. In some areas, notably in Castile, immigrant settlement from further north was encouraged. Elsewhere, the pre-conquest social and religious structures felt only modest immediate impact. It may be significant of a decline in frontier militarism that after 1300, the cult of Santiago faded before that of the Virgin Mary. Nonetheless, the holy war tradition, in its crusading wrapping, persisted among the knightly and noble classes, available to those engaged in wars against infidels, Muslim or heathen, a living cultural force as well as a stereotype. While his captains were observing West Africans outside the straitjacket of crusading aesthetics, the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) fervently embraced crusading aspirations and campaigned in North Africa. As late as 1578, a Portuguese king, Sebastian, at the head of an international force armed with indulgences and papal legates, fought and died in battle against the Muslims of Morocco. The penetration of Latin Christendom into the islands of the eastern Atlantic in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries attracted crusading grants for the dilatio, or extension, of Christendom. The Iberian tradition ensured a sympathetic hearing for the Genoese crusade enthusiast Christopher Columbus. It formed one strand in the conceptual justification for the conquest of the Americas and, more tenuously, in the mentality of the slave trade which some saw as a vehicle for expanding Christianity. This was made possible by the idea, popular by c.1500, that Spain itself (however imagined) was a holy land, its Christian inhabitants new Israelites, tempered and proved in the fire of the Reconquista, championing God’s cause whether against infidels outside Christendom or heretics within.

The Baltic

On the face of it, the idea that the crusades in the Baltic were directed to conquer holy lands appears fanciful, given that the regions attacked had no Christian pre-history. Yet perhaps precisely because of its extreme incongruity, this concept gained credence: alone of the regimes established in the wake of crusader conquest, Prussia and Livonia were ecclesiastical states. The association came early. A propagandist exhortation to attack the Wends east of the Elbe in 1108 described the campaign as being to liberate “our Jerusalem.” This challenging analogy operated in ways that remained central to the early association of crusading with German expansion eastwards; cashing in on the new impetus to holy war provided by the Jerusalem wars; the need to defend Christendom; and the implication that the wars were aimed at recovering lost Christian land. Some lands beyond the Elbe targeted by German crusaders in the twelfth century had been occupied by the Ottonian emperors before the great Slav revolt of 983 drove them back. Other areas had experienced more recent missionizing of fluctuating success. On the shifting German-Slav frontier, areas that had been conquered, even as far back as the tenth century, and then lost could attract accusations of apostasy. This confusion could work the other way; one contingent of the 1147 crusaders found themselves besieging recently Christianized Stettin.

The distinctive character of the Baltic crusades lay in the explicit alliance of crusade and conversion, or, as saintly Bernard of Clairvaux put it, conversion or extermination. Innocent III freely employed the language of compulsion to “drag the barbarians into the net of orthodoxy.” This unsound doctrine acknowledged the religious component in ethnicity, cultural identity, and racial awareness. In contrast with Spain or the Near East, in the Baltic, conversion came as the inevitable corollary and recognition of conquest. Paradoxically, this allowed for greater cultural accommodation and transmission from Slav to German and vice versa. Descendants of the pagan Wendish prince Niklot, victim of the first crusader attack in 1147 and killed by Christians in 1160, became the Germanized princes and dukes of Mecklenberg, one of whom joined a crusade to Livonia in 1218. However repellent to the religiously fastidious, enforced conversion worked; by 1400 the Baltic had become a Latin Christian lake, even if elements of pagan culture swam freely beneath the surface. Conversion not backed by coercion would have had a harder struggle, as the successful resistance of pagan Lithuania showed, only accepting conversion undefeated on its own terms in 1386. The application of crusading incentives from the mid-twelfth century did not manufacture this link between force and faith, it merely recognized a process of cultural and political imperialism already well established.

Crusading in the Baltic contributed to the twelfth-century German expansion into territory between the Elbe and Oder and western Pomerania; thirteenth-century German penetration into the southern Baltic lands between the Vistula and Niemen, Prussia, Courland, and later, in the fourteenth century, Pomerelia west of the Vistula; the transmarine colonization of Livonia by a combination of churchmen and merchants from German trading centers such as Lübeck and Bremen; the aggressive expansionism of the Danish crown, especially in northern Estonia; and the advance of the Swedes into Finland. Until the thirteenth century crusading, as opposed to more general associations of war with Divine favor, played only an intermittent role. The application of crusade privileges to the summer raids on the western Wends during the Second Crusade in 1147 had more to do with buying Saxon support and internal peace within the empire in Conrad Ill’s absence in the Holy Land than the institution of a new sustained crusade front. One of the protagonists in the 1147 expeditions, Albert the Bear, did not need crusade privileges to carve out a principality of Brandenberg beyond the Elbe; his territorial acquisitiveness was in any case portrayed by apologists as attracting God’s approval. Such conquests went together with the implanting of bishoprics and monasteries and so earned clerical plaudits. The secular reality was brutal for the conquered, harsh for the German and Flemish settlers, and, as one pious frontier priest lamented, encouraged the avarice rather than the piety of another 1147 crusader, Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. Between 1147 and 1193 only one papal crusade grant was directed toward the Baltic, in 1171. However, the often savage wars of conquest and conversion conducted against the Slavs by the German princes and kings of Denmark were recognized by the papacy as “inspired with the heavenly flame, strengthened by the arms of Christ, armed with the shield of faith and protected by divine favor,” as Alexander III put it in 1169. Nonetheless, to ascribe responsibility for medieval German imperialism on the crusade would be misleading; one might as well accuse the Christian Church. It might also be added that the Baltic pagans were no less keen on massacring opponents and eradicating symbols of an alien faith. Although, except in Lithuania, the pagan holy wars ended in defeat, this does not mean they did not happen.

Crusader Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, commemorated in this statue in Braunschweig, Germany, combined holy war with secular territorial wars in the Baltic region.

The real impetus toward affixing technical apparatus of crusading—vow, cross, indulgence, and so on—to Christian conquest in the Baltic came when attention shifted from the western Slavs of the southern Baltic to the heathen tribes further east, in Livonia, Estonia, Finland, and Prussia, the theatres of crusading operations that dominated the period from the 1190s. While defense of the missionary churches established in Livonia or Estonia around 1200 were relatively easily justified, support for extensive conquests in either region, still less in Prussia, demanded these areas acquire a new holy status. Each answered this need in different ways. The campaigns of the kings of Denmark along the southern Baltic coast and the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland in northern Estonia attracted sporadic papal grants of crusade privileges familiar elsewhere, while the monarchs surrounded themselves with the useful aura of Christian warriors, “active knights of Christ,” to justify foreign conquest and internal authority. The pagans were to be rooted out by force and Christendom expanded. Here the conquerors were performing holy tasks and thus their conquests, by incorporation into Christendom, became ipso facto holy.

Away from the muddled but powerful religiosity of Christian monarchy, the consecration of crusade targets followed more precise lines. From c.1202, the missionary bishop of Riga recruited a religious order of knights, the Militia of Christ or Sword Brothers, to defend and extend his diocese in Livonia centered on the River Dvina. A few years later his colleague on the Polish-Prussian frontier assembled a similar body, the Militia of Christ of Livonia against the Prussians, also known as the Knights of Dobrin (or Dobryzin) after their original headquarters on the Vistula. Again, the status of the conquests was defined by that of the conquerors, bishops, and sworn professed, as well as professional, knights of Christ. The dedication of the Christian settlement created at Riga by the missionaries and merchants to the Virgin Mary allowed Livonia to be depicted as the land of the Mother of God, her dowry, allowing crusade apologists in the region to describe crusaders there as pilgrims or “the militia of pilgrims.” This brought them further into line with crusaders elsewhere; even crusaders against the Albigensians were called pilgrims by some, almost as a sine qua non of legitimacy. The first two churches built in the new town of Riga before 1209 were dedicated to Mary, the patroness, and Peter, the guarantor of ecclesiastical privileges. When the Teutonic Knights took over war and government in both Prussia and Livonia in the 1230s, absorbing the other military orders in the process, and from 1245 the direction of a permanent crusade in the region, the identification with the Virgin Mary was complete, as she was the patroness of the German order. In Livonia the knights bore her image as a war banner. With the papacy designating Prussia a papal fief (as part of its anti-imperial policy) in 1234, the Teutonic Knights’ territory was doubly sanctified. In the absence of a historic justification for war, a late thirteenth-century rhyming chronicle from Livonia, probably by a Teutonic Knight, insinuated a transcendent context. Beginning his work with accounts of the Creation, Pentecost, and the missions of the Early Church, the author admitted that no apostle reached Livonia, unlike the myth of James converting Spain. Instead, a higher mission was being pursued in the wastes of the eastern Baltic, the holy task begun by the Apostles of proselytizing the world now carried forward through service and death in the armies of the Mother of God in defense of Her land.

Twelfth- and thirteenth-century Christian settlements in the Baltic region were often dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as depicted in this seal of the Hochmeister, Grand Master, of the order of the Teutonic Knights.

Such literary devices could reassure participants and attract recruits while not fully reflecting the nature of war in Prussia, Livonia, and Estonia. Not all enemies were pagan. In Estonia, the Teutonic Knights competed for power with fellow crusaders, the Danes. In 1242 an attack on the Orthodox Christians of Russian Pskov ended in the famous defeat on Lake Peipus/Chud by Alexander Nevsky, evocatively imagined in Eisenstein’s memorable propagandist film. In Prussia, especially in the west, German and Flemish settlement appeared substantial; in Livonia and Estonia, only accessible by a tricky and expensive sea voyage when the water was free of ice, negligible and almost exclusively limited to the fortified religious trading posts on the main rivers. Prussia witnessed a slow process of acculturation similar to that between the Elbe and the Oder. Slavs became Germans, an uncomfortable thought for later racial nationalists on both sides of the linguistic divide. The judicial pluralism and segregation familiar from other crusading fronts did not prevent the Prussians adopting elements of German inheritance laws. Over generations, the brutality of forced conversion, occupation, alien settlement, and discrimination against natives transformed Prussia into a distinctively German province. By contrast, only a small military, clerical, and commercial elite survived in Estonia and Livonia, where the Teutonic Knights remained until 1562, thirty-seven years after the order’s secularization in Prussia. In the shadow of this past, Hitler, with his obscenely warped historical squint, rejected the loss of any part of Prussia from the Reich, demanding Memel, established by the German invaders in 1252, from the Lithuanians in March 1939, an act that provoked Britain’s guarantee to protect Poland. Yet a few months later, he consigned the Baltic states to the lot of the Russians as if they were less “German.”

Centuries after the Crusades, Adolf Hitler, pictured giving a speech in 1942, repeated old German claims to parts of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

However, the link from the Teutonic Knights to the SS and the nationalized racism of the Third Reich, lovingly traced by Himmler and his historically illiterate ghouls, relied on rancid imagination not fact. The crusades did not drive the expansion of German power, nor the expansion of Spain. Wider cultural, economic, demographic, social, and technological forces did that. In so far as these impulses were articulated in religious terms, crusading offered a particular vocabulary, both practical and inspirational, that could service self-referential ideologies and self-righteous policies of domination. Holy symbols achieved cultural and political significance, the Catholic churches and churchmen transmitted a distinctive western culture, yet, for all their importance, in the expansion of Latin Christendom across its frontiers, the grammar and syntax remained resolutely secular.

The Holy Lands within Fortress Christendom

The image of Christendom as a beleaguered fortress, with bastions or antemurales opposing the advance of the infidel, had a long history. In 1089, Urban II so described the projected rebuilding of Tarragona on the Spanish coast south of Barcelona. From the fourteenth century, the whole concept of antemurales gained wide currency along the frontier with the Ottomans from Poland, through Hungary to the Adriatic. As defense of these bastions clearly formed one aspect of holy war, rulers along these frontiers themselves adopted holy war rhetoric and promoted the sacralization of their individual territories, thereby engendering a strong sense of national exceptionalism.

Away from the front line, participation in crusading also became a central feature of emergent myths and rituals of corporate or national identity. Pisa, Genoa, and especially Venice proudly proclaimed their civic involvement in the eastern crusades in art, literature, and civic ceremony. In Florence, where the cross acted as a sign both for the crusade and the city’s popolo, or populace, participation in crusading provided opportunities to reinforce civic exceptionalism; the banner borne at Damietta in 1219 became a revered relic in the Church of San Giovanni. Similar attention to their role in crusading, especially in the east, came from the cities of northern Europe, such as Cologne and London. The Danish kings adopted the cross as their symbol around 1200. The canonization of royal holy warriors and crusaders became widespread: Charlemagne, regarded as a proto-crusader (canonized in 1166); St. Eric IX of Sweden (d.1160, canonized 1167), scourge of the Finnish “enemies of the faith”; Ferdinand III of Castile (d.1252, a recognized cult figure from the thirteenth century, officially canonized 1671); and Louis IX of France (d.1270, canonized 1297). Some of the legends circulated after the canonization of King Ladislas of Hungary (d.1095, canonized 1192) portrayed him as the lost leader of the First Crusade, in fact evoking the career of Bela III (d.1196) who had sponsored Ladislas’ sanctification. Politically and diplomatically having pulled Hungary, like Denmark and later Poland, toward Latin Christendom, the crusades were then recruited to sanctify local royal dynasticism.

This association was most evident in France. The French kings’ habit of crusading helped create what has been called the “religion of monarchy” with its elevation of the kingdom by royal propagandists from c.1300 into a Holy Land, and the French as God’s Chosen People. A striking illuminated manuscript produced at Acre c.1280 depicted Louis IX at Damietta in 1249 emblazoned with fleurs de lis; there is not a cross in sight. The crusade and the providential destiny of France and its ruling dynasty merged in the later Middle Ages into a form of apocalyptic royal or national messianism. One contemporary prophesied that Joan of Arc’s victories over the English in 1429 would result in her leading King Charles VII (1422-61) to conquer the Holy Land, a theme recalled in 1494 when Charles VIII of France (1483-98) launched his invasion of Italy by declaring his intention to recover Jerusalem. Even after the French religious polity had been shattered by the Reformation and the destructive Wars of Religion in the second half of the sixteenth century, the image of crusading as the special preserve and responsibility of “the Most Christian Kings” of France (a twelfth-century courtesy title) survived among both Catholic and Huguenot apologists of Henry IV (1589-1610). This French experience found a close parallel in late medieval Spain, in particular Castile, where a prophetic tradition nurtured by the Reconquista inspired a sense that the Iberian holy wars required ultimate fulfillment in the recovery of Jerusalem. The expulsion of the Moors from Granada led to North African forays by Ferdinand and his grandson Charles V (1516—55) which were cast by royal polemicists as preludes to the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre. For Charles’s son, Philip II (1555—98), the synergy of God’s war and Spain’s war occupied the center of his worldview.

This transformation of lands of crusaders into crusading kingdoms and thus into holy lands went one step further by harnessing the model of the Old Testament Israelites and the Maccabees defending God’s heritage, which had occupied a prominent place in traditional crusade semiotics. If the Holy Land or Christendom were patria, why not the crusaders’ own kingdoms or city states? Pope Clement V’s answer in 1311 was clear: “Just as the Israelites are known to have been granted the Lord’s inheritance by the election of Heaven, to perform the hidden wishes of God, so the kingdom of France has been chosen as the Lord’s special people.” Others could play the same game. Reflecting on English victories in the Hundred Years’ War to parliament in 1377, Chancellor Haughton, bishop of St. David’s, commented that “God would never have honored this land in the same way as he did Israel… if it were not that He had chosen it as his heritage.” One popular verse of the time even suggested that “the pope had become French, but Jesus had become English.” God’s career as an Englishman had many centuries to run.

This nineteenth-century painting by Sir John Gilbert shows the morning of the Battle of Agincourt, as Henry V’s chaplain uses the language of the crusades to bless soldiers dressed “in the armor of penitence.”

These Scriptural borrowings operated within a pre-crusading tradition of finding Old Testament precedents for the defense of homelands, and cannot necessarily be linked directly with crusading. However, the language employed by those attempting to sacralize national warfare was so congruent to current crusade rhetoric as to make neat distinctions impossible; propagandists probably deliberately elided the two. Of course, not all national holy wars were associated with crusading. The Hussites in fifteenth-century Bohemia self-consciously created their own holy land, renaming cult sites after places in Palestine, such as Mount Tabor or Mount Horeb, while rejecting utterly the crusade tradition that fuelled the campaigns launched against them. By contrast, within Catholic Christendom, from the fourteenth century crusading motifs were increasingly recruited to national causes, such as the conflicts between France and Flanders, England and Scotland, and, most pervasively, England and France. Occasionally, as in 1383 or 1386, actual crusade grants were applied to campaigns in the Hundred Years’ War. More frequently, language and images of holy war made familiar by crusading were inserted into descriptions or justifications of events. Henry V’s chaplain presented the English at Agincourt (1415) as “God’s people,” dressed “in the armor of penitence,” encouraged by their king to follow the example of Judas Maccabeus. Such transference was eased by the ubiquitous appropriation of the cross as national uniform across Europe in the later Middle Ages (for example, the red cross of the English), a symbol that spoke more loudly than legal or canonical logic-chopping. There were many influences on the creation of national holy lands and the sacralizing of political rule and identity in the later Middle Ages. In so far as self-defining civic, dynastic, or national conflicts adopted some ideological and rhetorical features derived from the most charismatic expression of medieval holy war, the crusade was one of them.

The Lutheran Frauenkirche rises over Dresden, Germany. The Protestant Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther, questioned the legacy of the Crusades, since Protestants did not consider the holy wars as being exclusively Catholic efforts.

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