Exploring the peasant crusaders

Issue: 122

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Conor Kostick, The Social Structure of the First Crusade (Brill, 2008), £93.99

In 1095 Pope Urban II called on the faithful to retake the Holy Land for Christianity. This unleashed a crusading movement which saw hundreds of thousands of Europeans flock to the Middle East, capture Jerusalem and establish a crusader kingdom in Palestine which persisted for almost 200 years.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given the concept of crusading a particular contemporary resonance for both critics and cheerleaders of Western imperialism. George Bush’s first phrase for the war on terror was a “crusade against terrorism”. However, despite the relevance of crusade history, the domination of the field by a right wing view of crusading as religious, noble and an all round “good thing” has meant that materialist analysis of the Crusades has been limited.

This book is a welcome attempt to address this deficiency in Crusade studies, although it is obviously aimed at an academic rather than a general socialist audience. The liberal use of untranslated Latin terms and lack of a narrative description of the course of the First Crusade would make it a difficult introduction to the subject. However, there is much here that is valuable for anyone interested in a Marxist view of crusading.

Kostick concentrates on the experience of the poorest crusaders, analysing the Crusade from below by reinterpreting the contemporary narrative accounts. The usual assumption is that large numbers of poor peasants, including serfs, attempted to join the First Crusade, particularly those mobilised by Peter the Hermit and others in the People’s Crusade of late 1095-6 but that only very few of these actually managed to reach the Middle East.

Kostick argues that, on the contrary, large numbers of poor non-combatants remained alongside the armies right up to the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. They were not simply a burden on the armies, requiring food and protection, but were sometimes able to determine the course of the Crusade. When, for example, the princely leaders of the Crusade wanted to stop and consolidate their conquests, Kostick suggests that it was the pressure of the poorest crusaders that forced them to keep on to Jerusalem.

These are important arguments but they could have been further developed to draw out their significance, not just for the history of the First Crusade but also for our understanding of class struggles in medieval society.

I am not entirely convinced by Kostick’s portrayal of large-scale peasant and serf participation in the Crusade, as there are counter-arguments to which he gives perhaps too little weight. It is possible that the People’s Crusade’s reputation as a popular, rather than an elite, movement may not reflect its actual social composition. It was these crusade armies which perpetrated the massacres of Jewish communities in many Rhineland towns, and it may be that description by the authors of the contemporary accounts of the People’s Crusade as a mob of poor peasants was designed not to reflect reality but to deny elite participation in these atrocities. It would not be the only example of elite writers blaming the poor for the crimes of the ruling class.

However, if Kostick is correct about the substantial enthusiasm among the poorest in medieval society for joining the First Crusade, the important question is why this should have been. Kostick’s reassessment of the social composition of the First Crusade does not change the nature of the Crusades as a ruling class project, part of an emerging relationship between the nobility and the church that enabled the peasantry to be increasingly exploited.

The church was a significant factor in the feudalisation of Western Europe. In the 10th and 11th centuries increasing church involvement at village level, from the prescription of working hours to control over the personal lives of peasants, meant that production could be much more closely controlled than it had been before. This spread from lands owned by the church to those of the secular nobility but was accompanied by the increasing expectation that those nobles should accept the church’s authority and, most importantly, abandon their habit of attacking church personnel and possessions.

The Peace of God movement in France in the early 11th century showed the power of the church to mobilise sections of the peasantry on its behalf against noble violence, although this was not without its problems, as the peasant movements showed a distressing tendency to get out of the church’s control. The Gregorian Reform, from the mid-11th century, was a wide ranging, top down programme to rid the church of secular influence and establish it as independent of noble control.

The Crusades can be seen as part of these processes as the church, having set down rules to control secular violence against itself within Europe, then provided a religiously sanctioned outlet for it in conquest in the Middle East. If Kostick is correct and the church was also able to mobilise the peasantry for crusading, this demonstrates a remarkable enthusiasm from the peasantry for a project that was helping to drive forward their own exploitation—extending not only to risking (and mostly losing) their own lives for it but also massacring large numbers of Jews and Muslims in its cause.

Kostick is clear that different classes would have crusaded for different reasons, and the reader is left with the impression that, in comparison to the material concerns of the nobles, peasant participation was driven by religious conviction. This opposition of religious and material motivation reflects one of the major debates in Crusade history. But it serves to separate religious concerns from economic and social realities in a way which precludes dialectical analysis.

At various points in the book Kostick demonstrates a view of medieval religion as a factor with which the historian has to dispense in order to reach the material issues to be studied. So, for example, when discussing the value of the contemporary Crusade historian Albert of Aachen, Kostick comments that he is particularly useful as a source because he does not “organise his material to suit theological themes”, by implication rendering it easier to get at the reality beneath the theological veneer.

This approach effectively separates base and superstructure in medieval society, whereas the church should be seen as both the product and the producer of social relations. The church in medieval Europe was an integral part of the ruling class—both a major landowner in its own right and a significant force for feudalisation. Religion provided both the language of oppression and the language of dissent in medieval Europe, and as such it cannot be excluded from a materialist analysis of medieval society.

Large-scale peasant participation in the First Crusade, even participation arising from sincerely held religious convictions, would have been a social, not just a religious, phenomenon. As such, it could shed much light on class relations in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is possible, for example, that the apparent lack of major peasant rebellions against feudalisation in the 12th century could be explained by a large proportion of the peasantry in the late 11th century being already so under elite control that they were prepared to flock to an elite project such as crusading.

Kostick’s work will be a useful contribution to the academic debates about the First Crusade and a valuable corrective to much of the recent Crusade scholarship. However, a more dialectical view of the relations between the church and secular society as revealed by crusading would have raised this from a work of academic importance to an advance in the socialist history of the medieval past.