Crusader lore

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Crusader lore

Crusader lore

Overlapping the output of the Angevin empire (12th and early 13th centuries), and covering lands from Ireland to the Pyrenees, the literature generated by two centuries of Christian crusades to the Holy Lands displays a unique aura of medieval grandeur, mission, and self-sacrifice. When, on November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II began the quest to capture Jerusalem from Muslim forces, his religious and political aim targeted the advance of the Seljuk Empire—a realm reaching from Turkey to the Punjab and south to Arabia—into the Levant (present-day Turkey) and, potentially,

northwest into Europe. The pope exonerated and blessed Christian warriors for proselytizing Muslims by the sword and for reclaiming from the infidels the burial place of Christ in Jerusalem, or Zion, two place names that dominate crusader verse. The collision of cultures required that both sides promote the “big lie”—in this case, the demonization of both Muslims and Christians as godless imperialists. To unify troops from varied states, the Catholic Church promoted the use of the Christian cross and the pilgrim's insignia in place of national banners and combat badges. The pope promised reception into paradise as an everlasting reward to volunteers risking bankruptcy, exhaustion, pestilence, capture, torture, and death.

Crusader literature drew on a noble model. From the age of CHARLEMAGNE, the warrior-king of the Frankish Empire, the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland, ca. 1080), the oldest French text, stood out as a pinnacle of the medieval chanson de geste (song of deeds). Set in the Spanish sector of the Islamic Empire, the epic gained renown as well as imitators for its depiction of a Saracen attack on the Franks at Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees on August 15, 778. The blowing of bugles to summon the French leader invigorates the climax: “The pagans say: ’The emperor is returning. Hear how the men of France sound their bugles; if Charles comes, we shall have great losses. Our war will begin afresh, if Roland is alive; we have lost Spain'” (Song of Roland, 96). The emperor's blessing of his forces and his prostration before God enhanced the concept of the divine right of kings, a justification for Frankish hegemony. The tragic clash ennobled the ideals of knighthood and mercy and anticipated by over three centuries the Christian campaign against Islam in the Middle East. Norman soldiers under William the Conqueror sang of Roland at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, as they assaulted the forces of Harold of England. By the end of the First Crusade in 1099, hagiography, epic poetry, memoir, song, and the chivalric verse of MARIE DE FRANCE were finding eager audiences.

War and Sanctity

In all, there were eight crusades: 1096-99, 1147-49, 1189-92, 1201-04, 1218-21, 1228-29, 1248-54, and 1270. Under the aegis of religious leaders, the exotic elements of holy war underpin generations of crusader balladry, romantic and penitential poems, sermons, legendary genealogy, folklore, FABLES, and chansons de geste. In the Middle East, crusader lore influenced the historian ANNA COMNENA'S Alexiad (1148), a chronicle of Byzantium up to the death of her father, Alexius I Comnenius, emperor of Constantinople. During the struggle in Iberia to oust Muslims from southwestern Europe, an anonymous author compiled French conventions and motifs into the Portuguese Demanda do Santo Graal (Quest for the Holy Grail, ca. 1400). The 70- volume chivalric cycle of the deeds of Lancelot and his son Galahad remained in manuscript form until editor Augusto Magne first published it in 1944 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The soldier Charles the Good of Flanders (1084-1127; First Crusade) and Louis IX of France (1214-70), the spearheads of the Seventh and Eighth Crusades, dominated the lore of saints admired for battlefield feats. Geoffrey de Villehardouin (ca. 1160-ca. 1212), a knight-poet from Champagne, France, immortalized the French king Philip II in Conquete de Constantinople (The Conquest of Constantinople, 1207). In the style of the Greek historian THUCYDIDES, Villehardouin accounted for the numbers of ships, war steeds, squires, knights, and infantrymen involved in the Fourth Crusade. The chronicler perpetuated the folk belief in God's favor by promising warriors, “If God permits you to restore his inheritance to him, he will place his whole empire under the authority of Rome” (Joinville and Villehardouin, 1963, 50). A century later, Jean de Joinville (ca. 1224-1317), the famous chronicler of medieval France, described Louis's military feats in the Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville (1309), a recap of the Seventh Crusade.

The Grail Quest

From 1180 to 1240, grail romances—stories focused on the quest for the Holy Grail—flourished by grafting onto adventure and HERO tales the elements of religious dedication, celibacy, reverence for the Virgin Mary, and asceticism espoused by the papacy. Following an era of theocratic dominance, grail lore introduced a departure from feudal fealty to kings, focusing instead on the high-mindedness of individual knights who operated outside royal courts and religious institutions. Medieval entertainers called jongleurs performed the narratives to stir audience interest and portray Christian heroes as invincible. The chivalric notion of the Holy Grail, the chalice that Jesus consecrated to distribute the Eucharist to his disciples at the Last Supper, dominated a medieval cycle containing the Percival (or Perceval) idylls, a subset of Arthurian lore. Gradually, the selfdenial and mysticism of early medieval literature gave place to crusader sagas with robust religious fervor and feats of daring and romance.

The first star trouvere (troubadour), Chretien de Troyes (ca. 1150-ca. 1190), of Champagne, France, advanced grail literature and frauenlieder (women's songs) by combining the vigor of Celtic mythology and the elegance of the Roman poet OVID'S Metamorphosis (Transformations A.D. 8) with Arthurian romances. Funded by Philip of Flanders, a noble of the Holy Roman Empire, Chretien's chi- valric songs Erec et Enide (Erec and Enide, ca. 1170) and Cliges (ca. 1176), a tale of imperial power in Constantinople and Greece, set the tone and atmosphere of his later works. Chretien developed concepts of courage and self-denial in Yvain, le chevalier au lion (Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, ca. 1177) and Lancelot, ou le chevalier de la charrette (Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart, ca. 1181), a metrical verse cycle based on courtly love and completed by Godefroi de Leigny, Chretien's colleague.

Chretien achieved lasting fame with Perceval, ou le conte du Graal (Percival, or the Account of the Grail, ca. 1182), a popular spiritual quest that he left unfinished. The bildungsroman (coming- of-age tale) follows the neophyte warrior from na'ivete and folly to sophistication and insight. The author's vision of knightly character as both deadly and righteous emphasizes the contradictions of crusader traits. The militarism of the Christian mercenary imbues the knight Gawain, whose support includes “knights with first-rate shields and lances, helmets and swords,” evidence of the “arts of battle” that crusader lore idealized (Chretien de Troyes 1999, 152, 47).

In search of the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea reputedly collected Christ's blood after the Crucifixion, Chretien's campaigners ride into danger while the women left behind, claw their faces in grief, swoon from a welter of emotion, and sob over the risk to young manhood from alien forces. In an idealized depiction of crusading, the symbolic quest story dispatches the hero Perceval alone to battle evil on symbolic terrain. The narrative pictures him in a castle, where a wounded king guards the Christian treasure. A handmaiden presents Perceval with a series of mysterious gifts— Longinus's bloody lance, a silver salver that once held the Paschal lamb, and the jewel-crusted grail. This tableau is a transcendent moment that lifts crusader lore from ordinary combat literature to the sublime.

The Chivalric Motif

Chretien's Perceval characterized a verse genre featuring crusaders who live pure, devout lives and who devote themselves to a 12th-century concept of holy endeavor—the recovery of the Holy Grail. In France a three-part cycle of chansons de geste celebrated the First Crusade. Composed in Picardy, the cycle began with the Old French epic Chanson d’Antioche (Song of Antioch, ca. 1130), an introduction to the original Christian campaign to reclaim the holy land. Tradition names its author as Graindor de Douai, an obscure Flemish writer or redactor who supposedly based events on the eyewitness account of Richard the Pilgrim, who accompanied Godfrey de Bouillon to Palestine and died before crusaders captured Jerusalem. The text claims that God selected French champions to establish a Christian dominance in the Middle East, challenging the Islamic Empire.

In Homeric style, the narrative covers the organization of forces, the march to Constantinople, and the triumph of crusaders at Antioch following a nine-month siege from October 21, 1097, to June 2, 1098. The boasts of a single slice of the French sword through a Saracen's chain mail attest to the divine empowerment of Christian arms with superhuman strength. Dialogue features the exhor- tatory speeches of leaders who detect occasions when crusader enthusiasm lags and who revive esprit de corps by stimulating soldiers' pride in family and ancestry. The story seethes with sexual implications—in the proposed French emasculation of Saracens by shaving their beards and in the Saracen threats to rape French wives. As a change from male superiority, the chanson depicts women forming a female battalion to aid their crusader husbands by bearing water and hurling stones at enemy ramparts. At a dramatic point, the warrior Robert II of Flanders sets an example of selfless valor by volunteering to lead invaders up a ladder and over the walls of Antioch. Literary historians surmise that performances of the epic entertained and inspired men and women who gathered at postwar feasts to honor martyrs and to commend veterans of the First Crusade.

The last two parts of the cycle, the Chanson de Jerusalem (Song of Jerusalem, ca. 1150) and the Chanson des Chetiffs (Song of the captives, ca. 1150) furthered the theme of character enhancement through service to the faith. The two verse sagas systematized and embellished adventure stories of a Christian knight, Godfrey de Bouillon (1058-1100), duke of Lower Lorraine, a Belgian descendent of Charlemagne. Under the command of Emperor Alexius Comnenus of Constantinople, Godfrey de Bouillon led the first expedition of 70,000 French and German troops through Hungary to seize Jerusalem from the pagans. In 1099, he became the first Latin ruler of Palestine. His followers reflected his zeal by accepting a military pilgrimage as an opportunity to commune with saints at holy shrines. Prior to the pilgrimage, the bishop of Martirano directed campaigners to depart shoeless and in humble shirts. For the warriors' willingness to abandon greed and glory, he blessed their efforts. The poems follow their historic combat, including the capture of stragglers from Peter the Hermit's armies and the seizure of Jerusalem in 1099. The height of the march, entering the Holy Sepulchre, served as reward for sacrifice and hardship.

Literary historians surmise that the three-stage Old French Crusade Cycle had a propagandist purpose—to recruit men and donors for the Third Crusade, which began in 1189.

German Minnesingers

In the decades after the French chivalric surge, the Spielleute (wandering minstrels) turned the campaign stories and prowess of German crusaders into entertainment. Unlike the poets of earlier propagandist verse, German epicists focused on dilemma and discomforts of life in the field. The most successful, the Bavarian hero tale Konig Rother (King Rother, ca. 1150), an adventure from the Teutonic combat tales of the Lombard Cycle, involves the king of Rome and his 12 cohorts in disguise. The action features storytelling, rescue, and bride abduction from the court of King Constantine of Constantinople. Later writers evolved a poetry of disenchantment with religious crusading and expressed doubts about risking life and health in a land dominated by Saracens. Friedrich von Hausen (ca. 1150-90), of Mainz, Swabia, a casualty of the Third Crusade who died at the battle of Philomelium near Antioch, was perhaps the earliest Rhineland minnesinger (songwriter). In ambiguous reflections on a military career, Hausen wrote courtly love plaints that stressed the absence of sweethearts, a pervasive theme in war literature. His imagery in “Civil War” epitomizes a dissociative state—a body in Christian battle against the infidels and a heart at home with his ladylove. In the poem “Home Thoughts,” he regrets that he is not “somewhere by the Rhine” (quoted in Nicholson 1907, 2). In “Scala Amoris” (Stairs of love), the speaker confesses a human failing common to young men—that earthly love outweighs the crusader's pledge to God: “This is my wrong, to have forgotten God so long” (19). The candor of his plaint suggests that skepticism lurks in the spirit of the common foot soldier.

A decade after Hausen, the second of the major German poet-knights, Hartmann von Aue (ca. 1160-ca. 1215) of Swabia, steeped himself in the French verse of Chretien de Troyes. When Hartmann began writing his own court epics at age 20, he published crusader lore in Der Arme Heinrich (Poor Henry, 1195) and introduced into German literature two Arthurian romances, Erec (ca. 1190s) and Iwein (1203). He composed antiCatholic, anticrusade scenarios in Gregorius (1195), a religious study of double incest and penance by a knight whose guilt condemns him to chains and near starvation. After Hartmann's departure on a year's crusade in 1197 for Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, the poet's love lyrics spoke more vividly of the individual. He identified with the young knight's struggle to remain chaste while on campaign in the Middle East. In “Dejection,” the soldier regrets the daily yearning for his lover, which interferes with his attempt to focus on religious devotion through his feats in battle. In “The Journey,” Hartmann mentions the enemy Saladin by name. The text describes warring for Jerusalem as a quid pro quo with the almighty: “If I by this crusade can bring him any aid, I'll yield him half the store. May I see him in heaven once more!” (quoted in Nicholson 1907, 63). Unlike earlier ecstatic crusader verse, Hartmann’s lines exonerated the troubled warrior for remaining fiscally earthbound.

In a retreat to original themes and tone, the epic poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. 1170-ca. 1220) from Ober-Eschenbach, Bavaria, produced two outstanding works in Middle High German. Through the patronage of Hermann I of Thuringia, Wolfram wrote Parzival (ca. 1210) and began an unfinished tragic warrior epic, Willehalm (ca. 1217). Parzival clarifies the ideal of the courageous crusader as the “highest man, so proven in loyalty, devoid of all falsity” (Wolfram 2006, 145). In token of devotion to the task of reclaiming Jerusalem from the Muslims for Christianity, Wolfram carries religious obsession to the extremes of human expectation: “I will say no word of joy until I have first seen the Grail, whether the time till then be short or long. That is the end to which my thoughts hunt me” (139). The knight’s fixation on the relic reflects the fanatic religiosity that fueled crusader zeal to achieve an unlikely victory for Christianity in Islamic territory, where European knights were seriously outnumbered. The fervor and fluidity of the minnesingers’ work influenced the literary development of Danish-Norwegian author SIGRID UNDSET, recipient of the 1928 Nobel Prize in literature, who favored the perspective of Hartmann’s clear-eyed fighters to Wolfram’s dreamers.

Post-Crusade Literature

The worldliness of the Renaissance supplanted otherworldly grail lore, which in the 19th century returned to splendor in the paintings of the Pre- Raphaelite brotherhood; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s cycle Idylls of the King (1869); Richard Wagner’s music spectacle Parsifal (1882); and T. S. Eliot’s apocryphal poem The Waste Land (1922), a resetting of crusader lore in the post-World War I era. In the 1930s, the Nazi paramilitary brotherhood fed on the fanatic crusader mentality and the cult of the man of destiny, a description fitting Adolf Hitler. Of great interest to the Nazis were tales of the Holy Grail; the Roman soldier Longinus’s spear, which pierced the side of the crucified Christ; the Far Eastern empire of the Christian king Prester John; and the loss of the True Cross to the Saracens on July 4, 1187, at the battle of Hattin, the height of despair for a doomed cause.

When World War II and the cold war threatened Western confidence, writer T. H. White, born in Bombay during the British Raj in India, reprised crusader lore in The Once and Future King, composed in four installments: The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), and The Candle in the Wind (1958). A stream of films captured elements of crusader lore: The Knights of the Round Table (1953), Walt Disney’s animated movie The Sword in the Stone (1963), the film version of the Broadway musical Camelot (1967), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), First Knight (1995), and King Arthur (2004).

Crusader lore took a new twist in 2003 with the publication of the thriller-detective novel The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, the source of a film three years later featuring Tom Hanks in a tangle of crusades symbology in modern Europe. The legends of Christ’s marriage to Mary Magdalene and the crusaders’ protection of their offspring generated a cottage industry of reviving fantasies and mysteries that have been common knowledge since the 13th century. Buoying the mystique of Knights Templar secrets from the Holy Lands, Brown laced his text with secret societies, puns, cryptograms, alchemic code, mazes, anagrams, and puzzles. A feminist parallel, Kathleen McGowan’s The Expected One (2006), redirects androcentric warrior lore to the writings of a fictional Mary Magdalene, who summarized the story of her marriage and widowhood after the crucifixion and the salvation of her child and subsequent generations by crusaders.


Chretien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail.

Translated by Burton Raffel. Hartford, Conn.: Yale

University Press, 1999.

Edgington, Susan, and Sarah Lambert. Gendering the Crusades. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Hartmann von Aue. Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyric Poetry: The Complete Works of Hartmann von Aue. Translated by Frank Tobin, Kim Vivian, and Richard H. Lawson. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Hindman, Sandra. Sealed in Parchment: Rereadings of Knighthod in the Illuminated Manuscripts of Chretien de Troyes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Jackson, William E. Ardent Complaints and Equivocal Pietry: The Portrayal of the Crusader in Medieval German Poetry. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2003.

Joinville, Jean de, and Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Chronicles of the Crusades. Translated by Margaret R. B. Shaw. London: Penguin, 1963.

Nelson, Jan, ed. La Chanson dAntioche. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.

Nicholson, Frank Carr, trans. Old German Love Songs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1907.

The Song of Roland. Translated by Glyn S. Burgess. London: Penguin, 1990.

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival and Titurel. Translated by Cyril Edwards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.