The Bible and Crusade Narrative in the Twelfth Century
An interview with Katherine Allen Smith
Professor Smith, thank you so much for joining this issue of the Medieval Herald. Can you tell us about the origins of your interest in medieval history?
As a child, I was fascinated by two books which brought the medieval past to life in different ways: David Macauley’s Cathedral (1973) with its gorgeous pen-and-ink drawings, and E. L. Konigsburg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (1973), a witty reminiscence narrated by Eleanor of Aquitaine. Visiting the Cloisters on a school trip when I was nine also made a big impression – it was so utterly different from anywhere I had ever been, or even imagined. I’ve since come to love (and love teaching) many different periods, but these early experiences were the beginning of an abiding interest in the long twelfth century.
What led you to the subject of your new book, the relationship between the Bible and the First Crusade as filtered through narratives of the conflict?
The book had its genesis in a course on the Crusades I started teaching in 2006, which has given me the chance to read some of the early narratives of the First Crusade over and over, and to share with my students the challenge of making sense of them. Reading these texts with students, I began to notice how full they were of biblical quotations and allusions. I mean really, really full. Once I started actively looking for it, I found the language of the Scriptures everywhere – it was much more pervasive than the modern translations we were reading acknowledged. When I went back to the original Latin texts I found many cases in which crusade historians lifted whole passages almost verbatim from the Bible, and many more in which they explicitly compared events from the crusade to scriptural events. I originally thought I might write an article about this and then move on, but as I kept reading and thinking, the project kept growing!
Can you give us a rough idea of how many narratives exist and when and where they were produced?
We have more than a dozen substantial narratives, some of which run to hundreds of pages in modern editions, as well as many ancillary sources such as letters, sermons, and hagiographies. By medievalists’ standards, this is an enormous number; we’re accustomed to having one or maybe two brief accounts of any given event from this period, so the documentary richness of the First Crusade is really extraordinary. In terms of geography, a majority of the sources were produced in what is now France or by authors with ties to that region, but people all over Europe (as well as in the Islamic world) were moved to write about the Crusade in the decades after 1099. It was so unprecedented, of such obvious importance, that it was hard for contemporaries to ignore.
How do the different narratives differ in their approaches? Do variations occur over time or across regions, or are they simply down to the particular motives of the authors?
One of the most interesting things I discovered is that each narrative has its own unique exegetical fingerprint, reflecting that author’s personal relationship with the Bible; thus, while two authors might express a similar broad interpretation of the crusade, they typically use a completely different array of biblical texts to ‘gloss’ the historical events. We can also discern some really interesting changes over time in how the medieval writers, as a group, used the Scriptures as an interpretive tool. While the first-generation chroniclers, including eyewitnesses, were eager to situate the crusade within the framework of the Gospels, by c.1100 a second generation of writers were much more focused on understanding the crusade in terms of Old Testament precedents.
Presumably the bible is consistently used to justify the endeavour, as well as explain defeats within the context of holy war? Can you give us an example?
It is, absolutely! To give you a sense of how thoroughly the Scriptures permeate these narratives, I counted about 1,400 biblical references across their roughly 1,300 modern printed pages. It’s hard to pick a single example, but I will share one that gave me chills when I first read it, in a variant of Fulcher of Chartres’s chronicle sometimes attributed to Bartolf of Nangis. Reflecting on the massacre that followed the crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the author – who almost seems to be thinking out loud here – suggests the crusaders were following a biblical script from the third Book of Kings, where God commands the Israelite king Saul to “smite Amalek and utterly destroy all he has,” down to the women, small children, and animals. When Saul ignored the last bit of the divine command and drove off the enemy’s animals as spoils of war, he lost God’s favor forever. The medieval chronicler essentially says, look, the first crusaders had this story in mind when they reached Jerusalem, and were determined not to follow Saul’s example lest they too suffer divine punishment. The biblical story became a way for historians to say, in effect, the crusaders were just following God’s orders when they put the majority of Jerusalem’s population to death.
What, if any, were the long-term effects or consequences of the Bible being used in this way?
Thinking about the long historical trajectory that got us to the present, it’s clear that sacred texts have played a hugely important role in justifying the conquests, informing the laws, and shaping the institutions that form the bedrock of the modern world. Certainly this is true in the case of the United States, where I live. And the habits of mind developed by medieval biblical exegetes have remained influential into the twenty-first century in ways that often fly under our radar. Once in a while, we get a powerful reminder of this, as when many thousands of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election because they read this event typologically, as a replay of God’s use of the Persian king Cyrus to deliver the chosen people.
What is next for you now? More crusade narratives?
I’ve gotten interested in what we might call crusading compendia: manuscripts containing collections of texts with some connection to the crusading movement. These are often catalogued as ‘miscellanies,’ but, like lots of manuscripts labeled this way, often seem quite purposeful in their content and organization. I have this idea that these manuscripts can help us understand how crusading opened up new ways of thinking about history, geography, and theology in the course of the twelfth century.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
The disruption caused by COVID-19 has forced us to rethink how we share information and build community, and for me it has been hugely comforting to know that publishers like Boydell & Brewer are continuing to function remotely. With the cancellation of scholarly conferences and seminars and the shift to remote teaching, I think publishers can help fill this void by continuing to build digital collections and experiment with new kinds of digital messaging.
KATHERINE ALLEN SMITH is professor of history and co-director of the interdisciplinary humanities program at the University of Puget Sound.
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