Armed Pilgrimage

Book cover
Fighting for the Crossby By Norman HousleyYale Univ. Press. 356p $38

The Crusades are typically thought of as the wars between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East that occurred during the 12th and 13th centuries. While this was their most famous manifestation, it was not the only one. They also involved conflicts against the Moors in Iberia, heretics in southern France, pagans in northern Europe and the political opponents of the papacy on the Italian peninsula. Yet, though medieval Christians viewed all these various campaigns as crusades, fighting in the Holy Land was understood as being the ultimate form of crusading. In his latest book on the subject, the prolific Norman Housley, a professor of history at the University of Leicester, provides a full immersion into the origins, experience and impact of crusading to the Middle East.

Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a noticeable surge of books on the Crusades. The “politically incorrect,” “idiots” and even those with short attention spans have all had titles aimed at satisfying their apparent thirst for crusading knowledge. In contrast to most of these recent tomes, however, Housley’s book is not a narrative history of the Crusades. While he does provide a short overview of the various crusading campaigns in the East so that the average reader has the foundation to proceed, his primary aim is to determine what crusading meant for the men and women involved.


For many, the decision to go on crusade was rooted in personal piety. We tend to think of crusading as a holy war, but medieval people perceived it primarily as a new type of pilgrimage. Pilgrimages were an increasingly popular spiritual activity during the 11th century, and Jerusalem was considered the holiest place on earth. Pope Urban II’s fusion of penitential and pilgrimage language with warfare in proclaiming the First Crusade received great support throughout Europe. His message resonated especially with those who felt weighed down by an aching sense of sinfulness—namely the knightly class. While the audience was ripe, recruitment efforts were still necessary to secure the involvement of potential enlistees. Crusade preachers employed a variety of techniques and approaches. Some argued what a great bargain crusading was, since the punishment for one’s sins would be wiped away in exchange for participating in the expedition. Other preachers used motifs that played particularly to aristocratic audiences. For example, the Holy Land was portrayed as Christ’s fief and the crusaders as his vassals, who needed to regain their lord’s lost domain.

The fact that they were motivated chiefly by piety does not mean that all crusaders maintained entirely pure motives. Some certainly enlisted to gain worldly riches. Others probably saw this as a secondary advantage to taking the cross. However, the old argument that crusading was mainly undertaken for financial reasons is no longer viable. As Housley convincingly demonstrates, crusading was a financially draining enterprise. At different times the crown or the church tried to help underwrite the costs, but most crusaders had to rely chiefly on family resources to fund their expeditions. Cash was crucial, and to raise it lands were often sold for a fraction of their actual value. Many were bankrupted by crusading.

Others have claimed that crusading was mostly for younger sons who had no prospects for inheritance. It was the “land” part of the Holy Land that moved their hearts. Studies of the crusaders’ backgrounds, however, have indicated that the oldest sons were the most likely to participate. On the other hand, if the Crusades were really a thinly veiled land-grab by impecunious younger sons, the evidence does not support such a view. When the First Crusade ended, after venerating the Holy Sepulcher most of the remaining participants returned home.

While the sections on preparation and motivation might be the most interesting parts of the book, the chapters on travel and warfare are enlightening on a number of issues. Gaining converts was a minimal concern for either side. Famine and disease were often more deadly than combat. The crusaders’ horses were extremely important. The Muslims understood their great military value and began targeting these animals. The Christian sources often indicate how crippling food shortages were for both the crusaders and their steeds and sometimes discuss casualties in terms of horses lost. An anecdote about a crusader lamenting having to ride a donkey (since all his horses had perished) is amusing, but also quite telling.

Though it is published by an academic press, Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land is accessible to a general audience. Housley regularly incorporates quotations from contemporary sources, which, along with an assortment of maps, photographs and illustrations, further enhance the average reader’s understanding of different aspects of crusading. The book loses some momentum in the last chapter and ends somewhat abruptly. A more focused conclusion or summation would have been useful. Also, the subtitle of the book is slightly misleading, since three of the key expeditions that Housley considers had ultimately little to do with the Holy Land. The Fourth Crusade was permanently sidetracked to Constantino-ple, and the Fifth and Seventh Crusades were focused on Egypt. But as a title, “Crusading to the eastern Mediterranean” doesn’t have quite the same ring. Clearly, these minor shortcomings detract little from a study that succeeds in providing us with a better understanding of what the experience of crusading entailed.

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