"Taking Up the Cross": The Use of Scripture During the Crusades
In the last two posts, we examined the motives of the pope in preaching the holy war and the crusaders in taking up the cross. Now it's time to consider how scripture was used to justify and makes sense of the crusades. How was "New Testament pacifism" reconciled with the radically new concept of holy war?
The first point is that there is no uniform pacifism emerging from the New Testament. If Jesus insisted on turning the other cheek, he also used a whip of cords to drive moneylenders out of the temple. If he said "blessed are the peacemakers", he also said he himself hadn't come to bring peace but a sword. It's true that he would have been shocked by the crusades, but he would have been shocked by almost everything later Christians did in his name. (Is there any Christian group today which patterns itself on his original movement of itinerant exorcist-healing and apocalyptic fervor?) The 11th-century reformers were doing what all theologians do: reinterpreting tradition in light of contemporary beliefs and crises.
The favorite and most frequently cited text during the crusades was the following synoptic piece, around which the holy war was understood to revolve:
"If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." (Mt 16:24/Mk 8:34/Lk 9:23)"Taking up the cross" amounted to having a cloth in the shape of a cross sewn into one's clothes. As one then donned the sword, the following became relevant:
"I have come not to bring peace, but a sword." (Mt 10:34-36; cf. Lk 12:51-53)Finally, Jesus could be seen as alleviating fears about leaving behind one's family, taking on fiscal hardships, and facing likely death:
"Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life." (Mt 19:29/Mk 10:29-30/Lk 18:29-30)By the time of the Second Crusade, Bernard of Clairveaux was focusing on this deutero-Pauline passage:
"Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against the flesh and blood... Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace...taking the shield of faith...and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God." (Eph 6:11-17)Like all innovative theology, Bernard's reworking of tradition stood in contradiction to it:
"The knight who puts the breastplate of faith on his soul in the same way as he puts a breastplate of iron on his body is truly intrepid and safe from everything... So forward in safety, knights, and with undaunted souls drive off the enemies of the Cross of Christ." (De laude novae militiae, Sancti Bernardi Opera, ed J. Leclercq, 1963, pp 214-215)The amazing success of the First Crusade popularized "bloody prophecy":
"The winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles." (Rev 14:20)Chroniclers often cited this when describing the slaughter in Jerusalem. For instance:
"It is sufficient to relate that in the Temple of Solomon and the portico crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses." (Raymond of Aguilers)Medievalists, of course, were acutely aware of the pacifistic leanings of the New Testament. "Love your enemy" was the savior's most famous saying, and Christianity had always been averse to violence because of it. In the fourth century, Augustine excused violence in cases of "just war" but still insisted it was evil. This exacerbated a warrior's guilt, and by the eleventh century, Christianity had become so suffused with Germanic values that knights were left in a state of contradiction. How could they possibly love their enemies? The Peace of God movement tried curtailing violence (banning it on certain days of the week), but that was doomed to fail from the start. It was simply impossible for a medieval knight to practice loving/forgiving his enemy.
But crusading theologians now saw a way out of this. In Jerome's Latin Vulgate, the word for enemy is inimicus, implying a personal enemy. The Latin word for a public enemy, hostis, never appears in the New Testament. Medievalists began arguing that there was no contradiction between personal, individual forgiveness and certain forms of public violence. Love your personal enemy, yes; but hate and kill your public enemy (the Muslims).
Finally, it was inevitable that the Old Testament would become more relevant. Pope Gregory VII had actually tried to get a quasi-crusade off the ground decades before Urban II, and his favorite text was
"Cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed." (Jer 48:10)Theologians began to see pre-Christian figures like Joshua, Saul, David, and Judas Maccabeus as crusading prototypes -- as holy as the spiritually elect preached about in the New Testament.
In sum: what strikes many people as obvious -- that holy war is at odds with peace and forgiveness -- isn't so obvious. In playing certain texts off each other and reinterpreting others, medieval theologians were doing no differently than the early rabbis who cited Ezek 18:20 against one of the ten commandments (Exod 20:5/Deut 5:9). Like the Protestant and counter-Catholic movements of the 16th century, the crusading reformers relied on the malleability of scripture to serve their ends.
In the next post, we will look at Islamic responses to the crusades, in particular the jihad.