Universitas Helsingiensis

Fighting the Holy War

Fighting the Holy WarIn the deepest Middle Ages, the Crusades turned into a true mass movement that attracted people from all walks of life and age groups. Somewhere on the way towards the Holy Lands of Christendom, killing turned from sin into a Christian virtue.

It is fascinating to try and imagine the fervent faith and feeling that prompted Medieval Christians to travel thousands of kilometres to the sacred apex of their universe to do battle, build impressive forts, to brave disease and even death in the name of their faith. The First Crusaders referred to the Crusade as a pilgrimage, a personal devotional exercise that would allow them to atone for their sins. It was a new feature that the pilgrims would participate during their journey in Holy War against the enemies of Christendom, all with the blessing of their church.

“The purpose of pilgrimage for the early crusaders was to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to visit the other important Syro-Palestinian pilgrimage sites. Their military goal was to claim Jerusalem for the Christians, together with as much as possible of the Holy Land, left to the Christians as the heritage of Christ, and which was perceived to have been taken from the Christians by the Muslims against the will of God,” explains Sini Kangas, a researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Department of History.

Very soon, the concept of the Chris-tian heritage expanded into an idea of a Christian universe. “This explains why there were crusades to areas where Jesus had certainly never set foot during his time on earth,” Kangas says.

Kangas, who defended her doctoral dissertation this spring, studied concepts relating to the use of violence by Christians in the early Crusades, specifically in 1095–1100. One of the persistent myths about the First Crusade is that the Holy War was far more violent and cruel than war in general. According to Kangas, this interpretation arose from a striving on the part of the Western sources on the Crusades to chronicle the Crusade in a Biblical context on the one hand, and to follow the narrative traditions of the military elite at the time on the other; both of these traditions were extremely violent ones.

“In Old Testament Sacred wars, the unbelievers were totally annihilated and the blood flowed in torrents. The same applies to Medieval tales of chivalry: battlefields are filled with glory, weaponry glints in the sun, and the good knight skewers his enemy on his lance with a force that spills the enemy’s guts onto the ground,” Kangas says.

The army of the faithful was an expensive project

The First Crusade involved an estimated 50–60,000 combatants. This huge army left its mark on the areas it marched through.

Providing sustenance for the troops soon exceeded the resources even of the wealthiest farming community, and the price of food increased almost without exception everywhere the crusaders went. At times, smaller contingents broke off from the main body of crusaders to look for food further afield. The huge mass of people, consisting of men, women, children and old people, all moving on foot, advanced slowly.

Equipping the military campaign was a huge financial sacrifice that was sponsored from home. Horses and armour such as chain mail shirts were expensive, and so were weapons such as swords and lances. Siege engines with towers, ladders and battering rams also made quite a dent in the sponsors’ funds; catapults were particularly expensive and required the presence of special experts who had to be well paid. Even the basic upkeep was expensive on a campaign that lasted for years and during which people had no source of income.

The everyday reality of the Crusade was a mix of genuine piety and brutal violence. The crusaders believed that their fight was justified and also essential in order to root out the evil at the heart of Christendom. Although eyewitness accounts and secondary sources produced in the West present the Crusades as being exceptionally violent and bloody, the war was, in fact, fought according to the same conventions as back home.

“This is evident particularly from non-Christian sources,” Kangas says. “The crusaders strove to conquer cities chiefly through negotiations, and if an agreement could be reached, it was honoured: local people’s lives were spared and, generally, they were also allowed to keep their material possessions. If negotiations failed, the area was taken by storm and the winning side was then entitled to do as it pleased. That generally meant killing, burning, rape and pillage. Nevertheless, a merciless slaughter of the locals was atypical, and wealthy people at least were generally able to save their own lives by paying a ransom. People that no one would pay ransom for were sold as slaves in the big cities of the Middle East.”

But what was violence like at the heart of the Middle Ages?

“Most of it consisted of killings, wounds and bruises sustained in battle. There are mentions of torture, and typically of the time, the crusaders also physically punished their own deserters by whipping or mutilation.”

The crusaders who made it back generally only brought spiritual treasures with them, such as relics. Then again, the acquisition of material wealth was not considered at all to be at odds with the spiritual goal, should the occasion present itself.

Everything happened according to the will of God. If God chose to reward his faith-ful, it was simply a cause for gratitude.

The right to Holy War

It seems like a contradiction in terms to go to war for Christianity, since Jesus preach-ed non-violence. However, the concept of violence justified on religious grounds was quite prominent in the medieval ethos.

“The First Crusaders’ conception of violence against non-Christians was always ideological in nature. However, the religious background to this was not purely Christian; it was more a question of a convergence of popular and High Church beliefs. The roots lie primarily in the Roman justice system, in the Old Testament wars of Jahve and in pre-Christian beliefs.

Violence is always bad, but at least in theory there could be situations where a greater evil can be avoided through a lesser evil.”

The crusades were held in high regard throughout the Middle Ages and even the reformers did not attack their fundamental idea. ‘Crusade’ is a strong and emotionally appealing term that implies defending oneself against the arch-enemy. Consequently it may be utilised even by a head of state of our own time, committed to democracy and presumably well aware that contemporary Western society does not condone the idea of war on religious grounds. President George Bush Jr drew on thousand-year-old rhetoric in justifying his decision to go to war in a live television broadcast. Osama bin-Laden is an evil man whose evil ways threaten the entire Western community of Christians.

“I feel it is important to understand the roots of the suspicion and rancour that we see, for instance, in the world today, where Christians and Muslims still engage in actual violence. I will be satisfied if my research can prove that the roots of holy violence are no more holy than any other cultural convention created by mankind,” Kangas concludes.

Sini Kangas: Deus vult: Images of crusader violence c. 1095-1100. http://ethesis.helsinki.fi

Arja-Lenna Paavola