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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Europe's Cast-Offs? Crusaders Reconsidered

Throughout most of the last century, historians contended that crusading armies were composed primarily of younger sons, fortune-seekers and ne’re-do-wells. The theory, which resonated well with a cynical, anti-clerical public, was that crusaders were people with few prospects at home who flocked to the Holy Land for material gain. 

However, the “advent of computer databases” has enabled much more thorough analysis of who participated in the crusades — and, as Professor Thomas Madden pointed out The Concise History of the Crusades points out this evidence-based research has completely disproved the popular theory.[i] Yet while the data is unambiguous, the results have not been widely acknowledged with the result that the out-dated theories of the last century still dominate popular understanding of the crusades today. Today I take a closer look.

The theory that crusaders were motivated by the expectation of loot and land had its roots in the Reformation and the Enlightenment, movements that viewed crusading askance either because of its connections with the papacy or because of its religious character as such. The Protestant Reformation associated the crusades with an ascendant, over-weening and hopelessly corrupt papacy. The Enlightenment associated the crusades with superstition, fanaticism and irrationality on the part of the masses and cynicism and greed on the part of the elites. By the twentieth century, the notion that the crusades were “madness,” and — with the benefit of hindsight — obviously futile from the outset was so widespread that Western historians found it ipso facto implausible that anyone would undertake a crusade for altruistic reasons. Ergo: all (or most) crusaders must have had materialistic (rather than spiritual) motivations.

Hollywood's version of a crusader: greedy, ruthless, cynical and mad.

This theory was soon bolstered by initial studies in northern France that noted that the introduction of primogeniture was spreading in the century before the first crusade. Primogeniture created a new social phenomenon: the landless younger son. French historian George Duby hypothesized that these younger sons, who had previously been integrated into society, were now an increasing threat to it. 

Raised to view themselves as privileged and trained in no profession except that of arms, they were the restless and violent men who needed wars to survive. Logically, they were the men Pope Urban addressed when he criticized Christian knights for fighting each other. They were the “natural” recruits for a crusade. The crusade, so the theory goes, offered them an opportunity to win not only fame and a remission of their many sins, but a chance to gain loot and most important land. In short, younger sons were drawn to the crusade because it offered them an opportunity to regain what they had lost through the introduction of primogeniture: riches, land and titles.

The only problem with this immanently logical and believable theory is that “it has not stood up to the rigorous examination to which it has been subjected in the last generation of crusader studies.”[ii] For a start, two of the regions that produced the largest numbers of crusaders, southern France and Germany, did not have primogeniture at the time of the crusades. Secondly, it was at precisely this time, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that considerable marginal land and frontier land become available for settlement, cultivation and control. In short, there were easier ways for younger sons to obtain land than to travel all the way to the Levant to improve their fortune. 

Furthermore and decisively, “the documentary record [demonstrates] that the great majority of these knightly crusaders were not spare sons but instead the lords of their estates.”[iii] Indeed, all the leading crusaders were great landlords, the most obvious being Robert, Duke of Normandy, but also the Duke of Lorraine and the Count of Toulouse (an extremely wealthy lord). 

Of course, even the already rich might want to get richer. So, theoretically, even if one dispenses with Duby’s hypothesis about who the crusaders were, the thesis that they were motivated by loot and land might still be correct. Theoretically.

Unfortunately for proponents of this theory there is, again, evidence to the contrary. A large number of medieval charters documenting the transfer of land from one owner to another have survived from the Middle Ages. In recent decades these charters have come under increased scrutiny. As Professor Jotischky summarizes it: “…the financial details evidenced by [charters] confirms the crushing expenses incurred by crusaders — and thereby provides ammunition against the argument that crusaders took the cross for economic enrichment…”[iv]

Professor Madden adds the following information on the costs of crusading:

The cost of crusading was truly enormous. A knight who planned to bring a few family members (as many did) and an army appropriate to his position and authority would have to assemble funds equal to five or six times his annual income. Few had that sort of money lying around. They were forced to sell freeholds or settle property disputes to their disadvantage to raise funds. In many cases, they also turned to their relatives, who liquidated their own assets to support the crusade. All this represented a significant, in many case dangerous, drain on the resources of a crusading knight and his family.[v]

Well, so a capitalist would argue, nothing ventured nothing gained. If it was very expensive to go on crusade, then obviously it was the wealthy who did it — which only goes to prove that (just like nowadays), the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, because it always takes money to make money.

The problem with this is that the facts again get in the way. While some prominent crusaders (Godfrey of Boulogne, Bohemond of Taranto, Raymond of Toulouse in the first crusade, Reynald de Chatillon in the Second, Henri de Champagne in the Third etc.) did indeed stay in the Levant to make their fortunes there, very few surviving crusaders stayed in the Holy Land at all. Indeed, “the vast majority [of crusaders] returned to Europe with neither riches nor land.[vi] Crusading was not a lucrative business except for the very exceptional few, and crusaders knew that before they left home. We can say with certainty that economic motives were not what sent most men and women on the long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem.

Next week I will look at what did motivate crusaders.

[i] Madden, Thomas. The Concise History of the Crusades. Rowman and Littlefield, 1999, p. 11.

[ii] Jotischky, Andrew. Crusading and the Crusader States. Pearson Education, 2004.

[iii] Madden, p. 11.

[iv] Jotischky, p. 15.

[v] Madden, p. 12.

[vi] Ibid.

 Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent releases are a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus and a new series on the baronial revolt against Frederick II

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