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God, Money, & the Crusades

In response to:

Deus le Volt? from the May 21, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Barraclough’s valuable survey of recent literature on the Crusades, published in the May 21st issue of your Review, presents a battery of opinions constituting a serious indictment of medieval society. At the base, however, his argument, partly persuasive, does seem to rest upon a modest appreciation of evidence from the military and fiscal history of warfare in the late Middle Ages. Archival research indicates the strong possibility that the incidence of war became directly proportional to the availability of cash and credit. We now recognize that the employment of mercenaries was becoming quite general throughout Europe during this period. Improvement in church administration and the rapid growth of secular bureaucracy combined, with the diffusion of money and credit instruments, to increase the capacity of states to war.

While the word “democratization” may appear a-bit out of place in any discussion of eleventh and twelfth century militarism, yet reason exists for contending that traditional values clustering around notions of secular glory were no longer the monopoly of a restricted military aristocracy. Perhaps decisive changes in patterns of violence occur at historical moments when warfare includes or excludes particular social orders. In the late Middle Ages war ceased to be the exclusive preserve of an élite; now, repeated appeals were made by religious reformers who would involve the laity in nothing less than a “Christian conquest of the world.” The effect of papal policy in the second half of the eleventh century was toward a spiritual democratization that nourished those popular movements concerned with altering the world rather than escaping from it. The consequence was an extension of martial values to new cadres in medieval society now summoned to struggle for the right ordering of the Christian world.

The militant church of Gregory VII deepened the religious conscience of western Europe, and of course the results were unforeseeable. Holy War had been preached by Islam and total war practiced by tribal peoples such as the Huns, Vandals, and Mongols. Bulgar-slaying Byzantines can be bracketed with Tamerlane and his ilk. Warfare between Christians and Moslems had been chronic before the Crusades with Spain and the islands of the Mediterranean were among the bloodiest of all European real estate. Pisan imperialism for trade advantage and its Genoese counterpart were in bold evidence before 1095. Metaphors concerning “Faustian Western man” and his innovation—total war—conceal non-Western contributions and camouflage rational imperatives. Moreover, we run serious risks if we overstress the role of ideas in promoting crusading movements. Identical prophecies describing a final struggle between the hosts of Christ and Antichrist stimulated crusaders to slaughter Moslems as well as inspiring the poor of Europe to improve their lot through rebellion. The same clergy sponsoring Crusades also attempted to instruct a brutal nobility in their sacred obligation to the weak and defenseless. Without denying alterations in the psychological character of war from the eleventh century forward, I would emphasize the change in the material base proving to be so supportive of this ongoing tragedy. The fact remains that only after that time did secular rulers and the church have at their disposal the necessary money and credit for mounting far-flung military campaigns over the next centuries. The reconquest of the Mediterranean from Islam was the most notable military consequence. What the resources of Justinian and the Eastern Roman Empire had been unable to achieve, the moneyers of the late Middle Ages were able to underwrite. Indeed, a persuasive case can be made for the contention that warfare was to become the principal business of Europe after the eleventh century. The single argument for peace proving effective over those years was imminent government bankruptcy….

Marvin B. Becker

Professor of History

University of Rochester

Geoffrey Barraclough replies:

Mr. Huttenbach complains that my attempt to explain the origins of crusading ideology is “too facile.” Perhaps. But his explanation and Mr. Becker’s seem to me more facile still.

For Mr. Huttenbach, apparently, there is nothing to explain. The Crusades, in his view, were merely the continuation, raised to “fever-pitched proportions,” of a militancy which had infected the Church from the moment of its compromise with “pagan Rome” in the days of Constantine. Unfortunately the truth is not quite so simple. Mr. Huttenbach knows as well as I do that, in actual fact, “the armies of Christ” did not “march across the face of the earth” from Constantine’s time onward. That contact with Rome affected the ethos of Christianity, just as, later, it was affected by contact with “the semi-Christianized barbarians” of northern Europe, no one would deny. But it was a long step from the persecution of heretics to “holy war,” and for that step to be taken, some other “warlike and aggressive ingredients,” not derived from the late Roman Empire, had first to come into play. My intention was to locate and pin down these new ingredients. I did so (as I thought) very tentatively, and my analysis may have been faulty; but I really do not think that Mr. Huttenbach helps by simply asserting that the problem did not exist.

Mr. Becker, if I understand him correctly, is expounding in a rather more sophisticated fashion the old view that the Crusades were the outcome of economic change. Unlike Mr. Huttenbach, he apparently shares my view that important “alterations in the psychological character of war” occurred in the eleventh century, but he thinks that I have given too little attention to the “material base.” I hope not. It is common ground among historians that the eleventh century saw a great economic upsurge in western Europe, and many historians (as I pointed out) have explained the Crusades as the outcome of economic pressures. The paradox, however, is that the “fiscal” changes, the improvements in “Church administration” and the growth of “secular bureaucracy,” on which Mr. Becker rests his argument, followed and did not precede the first Crusade. They were features of the twelfth (and thirteenth), not of the eleventh century, and though they were doubtless important at a later date, they do not help us to explain the origins of the new crusading ideology. The “availability of cash and credit” may have been a factor; but to raise it to the status of an operative cause seems to me to be a simplification every bit as illusory as Mr. Huttenbach’s attempt to pin the militancy of the late eleventh century on the emperor Constantine.

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