A Bunch of Bull: Papal Decrees and the Evolution of the Crusades

Many people have the impression that holy wars were born overnight — that Urban’s sermon in 1095 ushered in an “age of crusading” — and that this age came to an abrupt halt when the Latins were expelled from Palestine in 1291. Neither is true. It took a century after the First Crusade for holy wars to become firmly established, and once they did, they remained so into the 16th century. In this post we’ll sketch the evolution of the crusades, particularly through the papal bulls which formalized them in reaction to events and trends.

The First Crusade to the fall of Edessa (1095-1144)

In summoning the first holy war (for reasons already explained), Urban II promised the remission of sins to those who went to liberate Jerusalem. He didn’t issue a bull or formalize any privileges — ideas about holy wars were gestating even as the first was born. It would take half a century for crusades to be codified, mostly because enthusiasm for the experiment cooled after its incredible success: “In no sense,” writes Christopher Tyerman, “did the early twelfth century knowingly witness the dawning of a pervasive ‘age of the crusade’. Pilgrimage, not holy war, proved the most immediate legacy of the Christian occupation of the holy city.” (God’s War, p 251). Aside from a few mini-crusades, holy warfare was carried out almost exclusively from within the new Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, as the first crusaders and their heirs waged border wars with Shi’ites to the south and Sunnis to the east. Only when the County of Edessa fell to Zengi in 1144 was Europe jerked into the Second Crusade.

The Second Crusade to the fall of Jerusalem (1145-1187)

Now it took more than inflammatory sermons to get a crusade off the ground. Bulls had to be drafted, logistics formalized, and the war given constant publicity. In summoning the Second Crusade, Eugenius III issued the bull Quantum Praedecessores (1145), which offered crusaders

• the remission of all confessed sins as instituted earlier by Urban II
• the church’s protection for their families and property
• immunity from civil law suits begun after they had taken the cross
• exemption from payment of interest on loans and debts
• the right to raise money by pledging land or possessions to churches or other Christians.

Eugenius then commissioned Bernard of Clairveux to preach the crusade, which he did in amazing tour of France and Germany (1146-1147), reminiscent of Urban’s tour of France fifty-one years before. Bernard was just as successful, calling forth responses so massive and zealous that he had to tear up his own clothes to make enough crosses for the crowds.

But the Second Crusade ended up an embarrassing failure — as much as the First had been a success. The goal was to neutralize the threat of Zengi’s forces in Aleppo (which the crusaders simply ignored), and then take Damascus (which they failed to do despite their numbers). The defeat ushered in a long period of European criticism, even contempt, for the holy wars. The crusaders had made fools of themselves, and the enterprise became viewed as wasteful and self-indulgent. “The Second Crusade cast a deep shadow,” says Tyerman (p 341), putting the Kingdom of Jerusalem on its own for the next forty years. But when Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187, European crusading fever was reignited with a vengeance.

The Third Crusade to the election of Innocent III (1187-1198)

Gregory VIII’s bull Audita Tremendi (1187), issued right after the fall of Jerusalem, restated the crusading privileges of Eugenius’ Quantum Praedecessores, while invoking classic Deuteronomic theology: the sins of Christendom were responsible for the loss of the holy city. Gregory urged the people of the west to repent, take up the cross, and re-establish the Latin Kingdom.

There would be no repeats of Urban and Bernard’s ambitious one-man tours of the previous crusades, which had often drawn uncontrollable mobs. Preaching was now tightly organized and controlled. In addition, the church levied taxes to finance crusades, which allowed for more professional recruitment: the English and French kings agreed to levy 10% on movables (called the “Saladin Tithe”). Travel by sea became more standard than the more hazardous overland routes of the first two crusades. The word “crusader”, crucesignatus, appeared for the first time in 1191 as a serious movement began taking shape. The Third Crusade’s failure would ensure the survival of that movement, standing as a perpetual mark of divine disfavor. The agenda to recover Jerusalem became embedded in western European politics for a long time.

The Reign of Innocent III to the end of the Latin Kingdom (1198-1291)

Crusading came into its own under Innocent III, the pope who practically held Europe in his fist. His bull Quia Maior (1213), and appendix to the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council, Ad Liberandam (1215), guaranteed the remission of sins not only to those who took the cross, but to those who sent and paid for proxies to fight in their stead (and, of course, to the proxies themselves). In addition to the provisions established by Eugenius’ Quantum Praedecessores decades before, Innocent also offered crusaders

• the ability to count the crusade vow as an adequate substitute for another taken but not yet fulfilled
• the right to church hospitality
• freedom from tolls and taxes
• license to have dealings with excommunicates and freedom from the consequences of an interdict
• the right to have a personal confessor, who could often grant pardon for serious sins like homicide, which were usually reserved to papal jurisdiction.

Innocent demanded the active support of all Christians on pain of damnation. Crusading itself was still voluntary, but it encompassed a general moral agenda which manifested in the form of mandatory public processions, special prayers at mass, taxation, and alms-giving. Even the church was taxed to help finance crusades. “No longer simply a matter of marching or sailing to Palestine, the crusade found itself in a more pervasive role in Christian society paradoxically at the same time as its exclusiveness, some might argue distinctiveness, was diluted.” (Tyerman, p 488) Crusading touched the lives of the laity on a daily basis, in the way religion itself did.

The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) represented the church’s greatest and last attempt to run a crusade through its own leadership. [Note: the Fourth Crusade of 1202-1204 was a perversion of crusading and will be dealt with in a future post.] It failed — just like the lesser crusades which followed it — but crusading went on regardless, even after the Latin Kingdom (based at Acre rather than Jerusalem since 1187) was ended in 1291.

The Later Middle Ages (1291-c.1500)

Crusading changed after 1291, evolving as it had over the previous two centuries, but now becoming a “way of being” more than waging war per se. Military campaigns did continue — primarily in Spain, Italy, and against the Ottoman Turks — but the holy-war movement was kept alive primarily as a devotion realized through festivals, confraternities, guilds, charities, taxes, public processions, and a cult of relics. Tyerman calls this “imagining the crusade” (p 827):

“The relative scarcity of crusaders was masked by cultural ubiquity. Independent of fighting and wars, crusading evolved as a state of mind. Crusading became something to be believed in more than something to do.” (pp 825-826)

In the field of biblical studies, Jacob Neusner similarly described the way post-70 rabbis imagined the priesthood: students of the Torah became new priests in the wake of the temple’s destruction; table-purity at home reinvented sacrifice on the altar. For the rabbis as much the later crusaders, the material loss of Jerusalem and its environs necessitated the imagining of tradition to keep it alive.

All of the papal logistics and apparatus remained in place, and crusading indulgences became even more institutionalized. Indulgences evolved commercially as military actions gave way to sale and payment — an understandable move, despite later Reformationist critiques. In the bull Unigenitus (1343), Clement VI established the doctrine of the Treasury of Merits, a divine bank account made available to the penitent faithful. Crusading manifested increasingly on a non-literal level.

The 16th Century Onwards

The crusades finally disappeared, because they were incompatible with competitive political structures developing in a divided Europe. Says Robert Wright:

“Because Europe was politically fragmented [from the Protestant Reformation], there were lots of polities experimenting with forms of political and economic organization that would let them best their neighbors. The more experiments there are, the more likely you are to find a winning formula — such as the combination of political and economic liberty that was proving its power in the Netherlands by the late 16th century and in Britain by the late 17th. The success of this formula gave nearby Christian nations little choice but to adopt it, and their Christianity evolved accordingly.”

Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan, and it’s obviously impossible to do business with people while slaughtering them. (Capitalism has its faults, but religious intolerance isn’t one of them.) The crusades were foreordained to pass, never having a proper grounding to begin with. They had always cut against the pacifist grain of the New Testament, and the church always knew it. In the secular state, crusading seemed archaic to secularists, religiously wrong-headed to religionists, and anti-Christian to Christians. Put simply, there will never be another crusade. The Islamic world, on the other hand, did not, and still has not, evolved in this direction. This is not only because of its political canvass, but because violence is built into Islam’s DNA. Muhammad is the jihad exemplar. Jesus would have excoriated the crusaders with every fiber of his being.

In the next trio of posts, we’ll look at perversions and distortions of crusading: the anti-Semitic pogroms of the First and Second Crusades, the appalling Fourth Crusade, and the mysterious Children’s Crusade.


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