"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 the message of New Testament pacifism reconciled, against all odds, with the radically new concept of holy war? Scriptures are malleable, but some avenues are almost impossible without the combination of many unlikely factors, and the Christian holy wars are an example.

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.

Interestingly enough, the following text was NOT used to justify the crusades:

“I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt 10:34-36; cf. Lk 12:51-53)

And the reason it wasn’t used is because the original meaning is just too obvious as it stands in the gospels: Jesus had been speaking metaphorically. Not even the boldest theologians and popes dared reinterpret this passage.

Jesus could, however, be seen as alleviating fears about leaving behind one’s family, taking on fiscal hardships, and facing likely death, as one embarked on crusade:

“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)

Revelation certainly does not advocate holy war. The faithful don’t engage in holy war, and they are specifically told not to. They conquer the Dragon through witnessing and pacifist martyrdom — basically to simply endure. Any hacking and slashing is reserved for Christ alone, and ultimate wrath is left to God. Chroniclers nonetheless cited the effects in Revelation 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 were acutely aware of the pacifism 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. As we saw in a previous post, 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 Truce 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.

Thus, in playing certain texts off each other and reinterpreting others, medieval theologians “legitimated” holy war as best they could. In the next post, we will look at Islamic responses to the crusades, in particular the jihad.

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4 thoughts on “"Taking Up the Cross": The Use of Scripture During the Crusades

  1. But isn’t this exactly what right winged American Christians are doing today in Iraq? We as Christians, fundamental or not, keep using the same arguements to justify war. Its easy to say ones view of Christianity is better than the other and win some supporters in our cause but when does it end? I’ll tell you when! When we all realise this is the human race and consciously get on our knees and look up!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. its not about “right wing,” or “left wing.” War is war. The best we as a faith and nation can hope for is peace to ensue after we leave. These extremist muslims dont understand anything but violence; history shows this to be true. What are we to do when Israel is persecuted and our president elects to give the Muslims the Holy Sepulcher? If you think Christians can safely pilgrimage to the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem when the Palestinians have control of it you're wrong. The sad truth is as long as man stays man the human condition will to be to wage war. Holy or not, its how you justify it in the end.

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