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Crusades in the 14th and 15th Century

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Published: Wed, 06 Sep 2017

To what extent did the idea of crusading remain integral to the chivalric culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries?

In the traditional view, the crusades started in the 11th century and ended in the last decade of the 13th. There is much debate, however, surrounding to what extent later crusading activity can indeed be considered ‘crusading’, and what role it played in chivalric culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The formation of chivalric culture was no doubt influenced to some extent by crusading ideology. Chivalry is made up of a range of activities, values and attitudes,[1] with crusading itself being viewed as a chivalrous activity and military orders formed during the crusades before the fourteenth century seen by some to be early examples of chivalry.[2] The first crusade gave birth to new ideas of the role of the warrior in Christian society; defence of the faith and reclamation of the Holy Land was, according to the church, the highest task to which a knight could dedicate himself and the 1099 triumph at Jerusalem set the standard for defence of holy places as the highest goal of chivalry.[3] Benedictine theologian and historian, Guibert de Nogent, wrote in the 12th century that God himself had started a holy war to allow knights to “seek God’s grace in their wonted habit and in discharge of their own office, and need no longer…seek salvation by renouncing the world in the profession of monk,”[4] suggesting that crusading elevated knights to positions similar to priests and emphasising the prestigious and highly pious aspect of knighthood. Similarly, crusader poet Aymer de Pegulhan writes that crusading allows the achievement of honour in life and joy in paradise “without renouncing our rich garments, our station in life, all that pleases and charms.”[5] This idea that crusading brought distinction and recognition was widely understood into the fourteenth century, and features as a common theme in contemporary texts. Chaucer’s Knight, for example, represents an embodiment of the loftiest chivalric ideals and an idealised aspiration of many fourteenth century English crusaders.[6]

In examining the extent to which crusading remained integral to the chivalric culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, one must first examine what is meant by the term ‘crusade’. The label ‘crusade’ was uncommon before the 1700s and, contemporarily, there was no single accepted term; words that suggested travel (often combined with references to Jerusalem, the cross, or the Holy Land) were used, and early sources often labelled participants as ‘pilgrims’ or simply ‘Christians’.[7] It is therefore understandable that what constitutes a ‘crusade’ is ambiguous and varies between scholars.

Constable[8] gives four approaches to defining the crusades: pluralist, traditionalist, generalist, and popularist. Pluralists see papal authorisation as the key criterion for a crusade, irrespective of the nature or location of the conflict,[9] which therefore includes such conflicts as the Alexandrian Crusade‎, Mahdian Crusade‎, Battle of Nicopolis‎, Crusade of Varna, and the Hussite Wars. In a similar vein, generalists see all wars with papal connections fought in defence of Christianity as “crusades”.[10] Traditionalists, on the other hand, view crusades as expeditions from 1095 to 1291 that aimed to defend or recover the Holy Land, thus dismissing all later activity[11] with some arguing that this would also have been the view held by contemporaries.[12] Similarly, the First Crusade alone is considered a crusade by popularists, who limit this label to conflicts characterised by popular religious upsurges.[13] It is understandable, therefore, that scholars from these different schools of thought will have different understandings of the extent to which the idea of crusading remained integral to the chivalric culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

A ‘golden age of crusading’,[14] ‘an epoch of crises and confusions’, ‘incoherent and diffuse’[15] and a ‘Indian summer of crusading’[16] have all been used to describe fourteenth century crusading and, indeed, there is much debate surrounding the nature of crusading in this period. The devastating loss of Jerusalem and Acre in the 12th and 13th centuries may have motivated Christians to act and roused them to the reality of Christianity’s precarious position in the Levant, and wandering kings such as Peter I de Lusignan and King Leon VI of Cicilian Armenia may have helped remind them of the fortune of fellow Christians in foreign lands.[17]

Even with repeated and expensive attempts, the early fourteenth century saw no successful crusades to recover the Holy Land.[18] Despite papal taxation, proposed by the Second Lyons Council, domestic needs of rulers, who accepted taxation insofar as they could benefit from it, meant that they could not support the idea of funds being used by another ruler in the organisation of a recovery crusade.[19] Traditionally, this failure to launch an expedition to the holy land is understood to indicate the end of the age of crusading and an increase in conflict which made difficult the international cooperation needed to launch such an expedition. The early to middle of the fourteenth century was certainly a difficult climate for crusading: the suppression of the Knights Templar had created a sense of confusion and anxiety, joined with a feeling of disenchantment due to the abandonment of attempts to reclaim the Holy Land.[20] Understandably, many nobles at this time regarded crusading with a sense of suspicion and caution, despite family tradition,[21] and financial and political factors upon which crusading relied were affected by plague, the Anglo-French war, and the collapse of the Italian banking houses (upon which papal taxation of the Church depended).[22] These factors make it easy to comprehend why many may have agreed with chronicler Salimbene of Adam that ‘it is not the divine will that the Holy Sepulchre should be recovered’.[23]

Traditionalists are inclined to label crusading activity in this period as an irrelevant “hobby” confined to enthusiasts, unimpressive compared to former achievements, far removed from the ‘harsh realities’ of the age,[24] and little more than an ‘aftermath’ in crusade history.[25] Indeed, crusading activity in this period was characteristically dissimilar from the general passagia before it; the Holy Land remained out of Christian control, with focus turning less towards seemingly unattainable holy places and more towards the hethenesse (that is, the land of heathens).[26]

Despite this shifting focus, religion was, of course, still a major factor in the continuation of crusading activity. According to Huizinga, medieval thought was “saturated in every part with conceptions of the Christian faith”,[27] and of the ten chivalric commandments assigned by Gaultier in 1883, three are concerned with the church and defence of Christian religion.[28] There was no doubt a strong religious factor in embarking upon crusades in the late Middle Ages. ‘The first and principle glory of the dignity of true chivalry is to fight for the faith” according to Philippe de Mezieres;[29] Duke of Bourbon, Louis II’s, motivation for commanding the Al-Mahdiya crusade in 1390 was his similar desire to serve God;[30] wanting to expand Christianity by dedicating himself to God’s service is apparently John of Nevers’s reason for his enthusiasm for the Nicopolis crusade; [31] and references to the honour of God and the Virgin were made at the Feast of the Pheasant in the mid-fifteenth century. Although it is hard, if not impossible, to know an individual’s true feelings in regards to faith, chivalric culture continued to emphasise religious piety and the lofty ideals of crusading, and there is no cause to suspect insincerity in such devotion: the knight John de la Ryvere, for example, supposedly abstained from all conflict that he deemed morally unjust whilst on campaign and Robert, Lord Fitzpayn, described a readiness to destroy bodies, friends and wealth for the sake of the crusade.[32]

No doubt an image of the sacrifice of Christ was not overlooked in these seemingly martyrlike desires to serve God,[33] and the great suffering involved meant crusading was often regarded as superior to other forms of pilgrimage. 12th century French Dominican friar, Humbert of Romans, for example, believed that crusading represented the highest form of pilgrimage, as crusaders “expose themselves to death” repeatedly.[34] Furthermore, Mamluks, Turks, and other enemies of Christianity must have seemed worthy targets of retaliation for the suffering of Christ.[35] Furthermore, crusading was also a means of redeeming the soul: in the fourteenth century, atoning for the sins of others, both living and dead, was encouraged of crusaders; concern for salvation of the dead was reflected in 1365 lobbying of the pope for indulgences for those who gave masses in memory of ancestors, and church rites and rituals for the crusades are well attested, such as a specially adapted group of psalms and prayers inserted between the breaking of the Host and the Pax Domini before communion to invoke divine aid for the Holy Land.[36]

Chivalry’s religious ideals were not the lone causes of the continued relevance of crusading; reputation and honour were major factors, alongside friendships and loyalties, encouraged by cultural contact between European courts[37] and the fact that crusading allowed a chance for knights to distinguish themselves from rivals. Social and material advancement was a coveted reward for the military prestige associated with crusading; for example, upon his return from Constantinople in 1368, servant of Sir John Mowbray, John Dodenill, was promoted to post of warrener.[38]

These factors are reasons for why the idea of crusading remained relevant to chivalric culture in the fourteenth century, and for why the importance of crusading activity in this period should not be overlooked or underestimated. Failure to organise an expedition to reclaim the Holy Land was not due to disinterest on the part of knights, but was instead caused by complex political factors of the time, such as the conflict between England and France, and the papal schism. The challenges of this period may have been discouraging, but it has been argued that, between 1307 and 1399, English knights enjoyed their greatest degree of opportunity and freedom, with shorter crusade service terms and a wide range of war frontiers encouraging an eager response that, according to Guard, can be considered to rival, if not eclipse, the response to crusading in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.[39] For this reason, it is not hard to see why many scholars have labelled the fourteenth century a ‘golden age of crusading’.[40]

Just as fourteenth century crusading differed from early crusading, the fifteenth century saw a further shift, with the September 1396 Nicopolis disaster viewed as a turning point[41] that saw the start of major changes taking place within both crusading and chivalry. Factors such as Henry IV and V’s increased demands for war, and domestic political crises at the end of the fourteenth century meant a reduction in crusading numbers and a decrease in the diversity and range of crusading which had been so characteristic of the previous century.[42] The Lancastrian revolution in the last year of the fourteenth century ended the atmosphere of co-operation and idealism which had supported crusade planning at intermittent times during the fourteenth century and ensured there were no additional attempts at organising a combined Anglo-French expedition. The romantic idea of crusading still held power, though; a desire for the king to eventually reclaim the Holy Land as a seemingly logical progression of the 1415 Agincourt victory is presented in the Gesta Henri Quinti, and according to Burgundian chroniclers, Henry V had exchanged crusade vows before the offensive against the Dauphin in 1420.[43] But times had changed and international crusading had come under pressure from many directions. The continuing centralisation of the monarchy and growing debate and criticism regarding the king’s duty to act for the greater good assisted an increasingly strong sense of the geographical confines of the crown. Church propaganda and patriotism validated a monopoly on military resources for the war with France, and thus focus was shifted closer to home, which can be seen in the fact that, after Henry V, a king would not fight at the head of an army outside the British isles again until Henry VIII and the Battle of the Spurs in 1513. Crusade opportunities began to dry up.

In short, the political and social climate previous to the Nicopolis crusade could not be recovered.[44] In the fifteenth century, crusading’s main adversaries became the Ottoman Turks.

English knightly traffic to Rhodes and other outpots of Christianity persisted, but their military impact and numbered were minimal and by the end of the Hundred Years War, the audience for which Chaucer and Mezieres had written had largely disappeared.[45]

Furthermore, the idea of chivalry as a value system was coming under increased pressure, and the role of the knight in English society was changing, edging towards a less martial occupation. Conventional ideology remained in place but in the first decades of the fifteenth century, decisive changes in the character of contemporary chilvary came to light, with movement away from the dynastic wars of the fourteenth century towards what was formatted as a struggle for the respublica.[46] Concepts of sovereign authority, legitimiate war making and the guiding principles of profit and loss helped shape military expectations, and from the very begin of the Hundred Years War signs of the pressure of standards quite other than those on which chivalry was founded had been apparent.

Therefore, in conclusion, it seems that crusading did remain a defining function of chivalric society, particularly in the fourteenth century, which was the so-called ‘golden age’ of English chivalry. In the fourteenth century, it was a diverse, multifaceted, and vibrant set of practices,[47] which is particularly impressive against the aforementioned backdrop of hindrances and setbacks.[48] Crusading remained integral to chivalric culture in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries because it exemplified so many chivalric ideals, from religious piety to

However, it is hard to say to what extent crusading itself is integral to chivalry, as much as its values are. Crusading exemplifies the idea of a pious, sacrificing knight, which is no doubt why it was a popular expression of chivalry in the fourteenth century. In the fifteenth century, but more recent views do tend to emphasise renewed vitality of this new crusading activity, This new crusading was characterised by its decentralisation and diversity, made up of smaller expeditions not in the Holy Land but on the edges of Europe.[49] Whatever the case, there is a lot to be said for stressing the adaptability, as well as the sheer resilience, of the movement. [50]

As a final note, it seems almost wilfully short-sighted to take a traditionalist or generalist view in this matter; to the participants, these crusades must surely have seemed as valid and as crucial as any before them. It is easy to overlook or underestimate their significance in retrospect, and one must remember that, to contemporary minds, recapturing the Holy Land was still an uncertainty. Even if the fighting was not in the Holy Land itself, it surely served the same purpose in the spiritual lives of the participants. Characterised by fighting in the hethenesse, as opposed to the expeditions to holy places that defined early crusades,



Constable, G. 2001. “The Historiography of the Crusades”. In Laiou, Angeliki E.; Mottahedeh, Roy P. The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World. 1-22.

Crouch, D. 2005. The Birth of Nobility: Constructing Aristocracy in England and France 900-1300

Gaultier, L. 1891. Chivalry: translated by Henry Frith.

Guard, T. 2013. Chivalry, Kingship and Crusade: The English Experience in the Fourteenth Century.

Hazard, H. W. (ed.) 1975. “Chapter One: The Crusade in the Fourteenth Century” in The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. 2-26. University of Wisconsin Press .

Housley, N. 1992. The Later Crusades, 1274-1580: From Lyons to Alcazar. Oxford University Press.

Housley, N. 1999. “The Crusading Movement 1274-1700” in Riley-Smith, J (ed) The Oxford History of the Crusades. Oxford University Press.

Housley, N. 2017. The Crusade in the Fifteenth Century: Converging and competing cultures. Routledge.

Huizinga, J.H. 1938. The Waning of the Middle Ages. London.

Kaeuper, R.W. 2009. Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry

Keen, M. 1984. Chivalry. Yale University Press.

Keen, M. 1996. Nobles, Knights and Men-at-Arms in the Middle Ages. Bloomsbury.

Lock, P. 2006. Routledge Companion to the Crusades. Routledge.

Manion, L. “The Loss of the Holy Land and “Sir Isumbras”: Literary Contributions to Fourteenth-Century Crusade Discourse” in Speculum. Vol. 85, No. 1 (JANUARY 2010). 65-90.

Powell, J.M. 1995. “Rereading the Crusades: An Introduction” in The International History Review, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Nov., 1995)

Riley-Smith, J. 2009. What were the Crusades? Palgrave Macmillan.

Saul, N. 2011. “Chivalry and Crusading” in For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England 1066-1500. Bodley Head.

[1] Keen, 2005. 44-45.

[2] Powell, 1995. 667-668.

[3] Keen, 1996. 2.

[4] Riley-Smith, 2009. 23.

[5] Keen, 1996. 2.

[6] Saul, 2011. 230.

[7] Constable, 2001. 11-12.

[8] Constable, 2001. 11-12.

[9] Riley-Smith, 2009. 27; Housley, 1992. 2-3.

[10] Constable, 2001. 14.

[11] Constable, 2001. 12.

[12] Housley, 1992. 3.

[13] Constable, 2001. 15.

[14] Housley, 1992. 402.

[15] Guard, 2013. 15.

[16] Saul, 2011. 230.

[17] Hazard, 1975. 5.

[18] Manion, 2010. 65-66.

[19] Housley, 1999. 262-264.

[20] Housley, 1999. 261.

[21] Housley, 1999. 261.

[22] Housley, 1999. 261.

[23] Housley, 1999. 261.

[24] Huizinga, 1938. 87.

[25] Housley, 1999. 266.

[26] Saul, 2011. 230.

[27] Huizinga, 1938. 65.

[28] Gaultier, 1891. 26.

[29] Keen, 1996. 3.

[30] Housley, 1992. 401.

[31] Housley, 1999. 261.

[32] Guard, 2013. 145.

[33] Guard, 2013. 157-158.

[34] Kaeuper, 1999. 73.

[35] Kaeuper, 1999. 73.

[36] Guard, 2013. 154.

[37] Guard, 2013. 173.

[38] Guard, 2013. 126.

[39] Guard, 2013. 208.

[40] Housley, 1992. 402.

[41] Hazard, 1975. 25; 647.

[42] Housley, 1999. 275-276.

[43] Guard, 2013. 213.

[44] Housley, 1992. 78

[45] Guard, 2013. 213.

[46] Guard, 2013. 214.

[47] Manion, 2010. 65-66.

[48] Housley, 1999. 266.

[49] Saul, 2011. 230.

[50] Housley, 1999. 266.

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