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  • On the Use of the Crusades and the Holy War in Medieval History

    Daniel BALOUP

    Maître de conférences en histoire médiévale, Université Toulouse II Jean-Jaurès


    This is a time when the authorities who establish interaction between the academic world and a non-specialist public (magazines, associations, etc.) continue to accord increasing importance to the Crusades and the Holy War in their programming. However, when an author or lecturer is asked for their thoughts on the matter, they can but admit to a degree of discomfiture. The first thing that must be said is that historians themselves have a great deal of difficulty agreeing on the proper use of the term “Crusade.” In order to examine the aspects of the controversy, we can start with the fact that schoolbooks have long used the term “Crusades” to refer to eight expeditions launched from the West between 1096 and 1270. The crusaders’ goal was to fight the Muslims and to preserve or retake the sites where Christ lived and his tomb. Ultimately aimed at Jerusalem, the crusades were valued as a pilgrimage: those who took part in the enterprise were granted a series of spiritual and judicial privileges by papal bull. The pope who initiated this was Urban II and its moment of inception, his speech given at Clermont in 1095. The essential premise of the crusade and the terms by which it was defined were contained in the appeal of Urban II, and the First Crusade is widely perceived as an ideal exemplar. Several objections can be formulated regarding the traditional views of the phenomenon. The main one would be the distinctions made between different types of crusade. In point of fact, the pontifical rules quickly extended the official privileges of a “crusade” to other lands besides the Near East and other causes besides the recovery of the Holy Land. The knights who fought the Muslims on the Iberian peninsula benefited from its privileges from the 11th century on, and these same privileges were accorded to those who fought against any declared to be heretics – as in the Albigensian crusades of the beginning of the 12th century – or enemies of the Papacy, as in the Crusade of Aragon (part of the War of the Sicilian Vespers) in 1283. Then, from the 14th century on, as the hopes of retaking Jerusalem were plummeting, the nature of the confrontation with Islam changed. From that point on, it was a matter of resisting Ottoman expansionism and the popes consequently hoped to make crusading into a tool for mobilizing troops for the conflict against the Turks. Of course, traditional historiography does not ignore the crusades that were not directed against the Holy City of Jerusalem, but they are seen as secondary and considered the products of a deviation, even a perversion, of the movement’s original intent. An alternate viewpoint that has long prevailed was proposed at the beginning of the 1980s by the advocates of a movement that labels themselves as “pluralist” – one of its main proponents is Jonathan Riley-Smith. Although they do not deny the inaugural character of the expedition that led to the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, the “pluralists” support a wider reading of the events comprising the field of study, choosing legal criteria, and defining the term as applying to all expeditions that the papacy supported through the granting of a bull of crusade, that granted the same advantages as those conferred upon expeditions to the Holy Land. This position has the advantage of not inferring any value judgments regarding enterprises that traditional viewpoints classify according to largely arbitrary criteria, thus enabling one to encompass the phenomenon in all its diversity and chronological range. In the view of the pluralists, the history of the crusades does not come to an end in the late 13th century but continues on, at least to the second siege of Vienna in 1683. On this point, they share the opinions defended by Nicolae Iorga or Aziz Atiya who, in their pioneering works, have demonstrated the importance of these crusades, now generally termed as “late” (croisades tardives). Despite their undeniable success, the “pluralistic” approach was not universally accepted. Its detractors accused it of diluting its discourse on the subject and of not taking into account, under the permanency of the law, the evolutions that would affect the very essence of the crusade. The events cannot be merely resumed as a series of military expeditions or an institution – the Crusades were also a spiritual movement, as well as a theological construct. In the 1930s, Carl Erdmann, along with Étienne Delaruelle a decade later, set out to study the genesis of the notion of crusade, which they tracked back to the Carolingian period. In this difficult area of the analysis of the motivations of the promoters and participants in these expeditions, Alphonse Dupront is undoubtedly the one who has taken the idea the furthest, particularly in his doctoral thesis dedicated to the “myth of the Crusades,” which he defended in 1957 and was posthumously published in 1997. Contrary to Erdmann, Delaruelle or Jean Fiori, who took up their work, Dupront (along with others, notably Paul Rousset) focused primarily upon the “posterity” of the concept of crusade, that is to say to its manifestations during the 16th and 17th centuries. The interest of these works is to put the events of 1095 into perspective. Certainly, Urban II imbued the occurrence with a hitherto unknown breadth by pointing the way East, but the expedition that gained momentum in 1096 was not the first campaign convened by the papacy with the promise of spiritual compensation. The call to arms at Clermont was the fruit of a long process of a sanctification of war. After 1095, this construction consolidated itself, to the point of acquiring an institutional dimension over the course of the 12th century. As I have mentioned, the flexibility of the military presence allowed for its mobilization in a variety of diverse situations, according to the needs of the papacy. The proliferation of military failures in the Holy Land, and later, against the Ottomans, and, above all the inability of the Sovereign Pontiffs to mobilize Christian forces in the 15th century incite historians to subsequently speak of a decline. Nevertheless, the institution itself remained active: in Spain, the Commissioner General of the Bull of the Crusade remained active until 1851, and the concept remained remarkably resilient and even today retains a rather troubling topicality.
    To return to the question of the denomination of the phenomenon, one might say that the old use of the term "crusade" to refer to any clash between powers of different religions is now unanimously condemned in the academic community. However, at least two definitions of "crusade" compete with each other – the traditionalist and the pluralist. This lexical quarrel has resulted in a deepening of the notions, without however arriving at a satisfactory conclusion. The term "crusade" appeared in the 13th century and it was slow to spread: most of the expeditions that we currently designate under that name were not referred to as such by contemporaries. As a result, "crusade" remains a disputed historiographical category. The same is true of the terms used to describe various forms of wars of faith that occurred before 1095, or those that followed but which were not declared by a papal bull. In France, the term guerre sainte (“holy war”) seems to have been able to gain ascendancy, in accordance with the work of Jean Fiori, but the increasing variety of alternative terms used demonstrates that it is not unanimously accepted.

    Daniel BALOUP, 14 September 2016
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  • Bibliographie

    On the Use of the Crusades and the Holy War

    - DEMURGER Alain, Croisades et croisés au Moyen Âge, Paris, 2006.
    - DUPRONT Alphonse, Le mythe de croisade, Paris, 1997, 4 vol.
    - FLORI Jean, La guerre sainte. La formation de l’idée de croisade dans l’Occident latin, Paris, 2001.
    - POUMARÈDE Géraud, Pour en finir avec la croisade. Mythes et réalités de la lutte contre les Turcs aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles, Paris, 2004.
    - RILEY-SMITH Jonathan, What were the Crusades?, Londres, 1977.

    Daniel BALOUP, 14 September 2016
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