Defining the Crusades: Traditionalists, Pluralists, Generalists

Bringing this series to a close, I want to define the crusades, an oddly controversial task. Consider the following scholarly camps, outlined by Jonathan Riley-Smith (What Were the Crusades?, 3rd edition, pp xi-xii, 101-102):

(1) Traditionalists maintain that only the expeditions to the holy lands, and the recovery of Jerusalem especially, can be considered crusades (1095-1291). Hans Mayer is a good representative of this view.

(2) Pluralists claim that any campaign in which the participants took penitential vows and enjoyed special privileges (including those against the Muslims in Spain, the pagans in the Balkans, heretics in Europe, later wars against the Ottomans, etc.) should be considered crusades (1000s-1500s). Jonathan Riley-Smith is the most influential scholar here.

(3) Generalists resist defining or categorizing crusades at all, believing such concepts and structures to be the inventions of modern scholars. They locate the origin and nature of crusading in the general development of Christian warfare and ecclesiastical acceptance of violence, even before 1095. Carl Erdmann is a classic advocate of this position.

Christopher Tyerman is nonplussed by Riley-Smith’s groupings:

“Although neat, these categories remain artificial and not entirely helpful. Some traditionalists deny the centrality of Jerusalem in Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade. Some pluralists accept the emotional primacy of Jerusalem.” (Fighting for Christendom, p 229)

Tyerman himself seems to straddle both pluralist and generalist camps. In a controversial essay, “Were There any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?”, he was much the generalist, arguing that prior to Innocent III, “crusades” weren’t distinct from other forms of Christian warfare. In his newly released landmark, God’s War, he has backpedalled a bit, advocating both pluralist and generalist ideas. (He remains at least a quasi-generalist for the 1095-1198 period.)

I find Riley-Smith’s classifications more helpful than Tyerman does, even if overlap is inevitable: I’m a pluralist who recognizes some validity to the other positions. One can hardly dismiss the traditionalists entirely: there was obviously a sense in which the holy lands provided the center of gravity for the crusading movement. The generalists too have a point: ideas about holy wars were gestating decades before the first was summoned, and even after that it took a century for crusading to become fully and discretely institutionalized. (But I certainly can’t accept the early Tyerman’s claim that there were “no crusades to speak of” in the 12th century).

The pluralist position has the most going for it, because it focuses on the question of motive (instead of place, against the traditionalists) and looks to the index of canon law to distinguish crusading from other theaters of Christian warfare (against the generalists). A crusade, therefore, properly defined, was

(1) voluntary warfare waged against infidels, nominally in the defense of Christian places and/or people (regardless of more salient motives)

(2) approved by the pope, rather than a temporal ruler

(3) penitential, whereby the participants received remission for the penalties of confessed sins (reformulated after 1198 as a plenary indulgence), as well as a package of related temporal privileges (which grew over time)

So the crusades were not confined to the holy lands — the wars fought in Spain and the Baltic region being obvious cases — and yet were more distinct than granted by those who dismiss “crusading” as an artificial construct.

In the next and final post, I will offer some general reflections on the crusades.


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