Interview with Conor Kostick – The Social Structure of the First Crusade


Photo credit: Mark Granier

Dr. Conor Kostick is a Research Fellow in the Department of History at Trinity College Dublin.  His latest book is The Social Structure of the First Crusade, which is published by Brill.  He is also a well-known writer of non-ficiton and fiction books.

1. The First Crusade is perhaps the most written about topic from the Middle Ages. How does your book provide fresh insights into our understanding of it?

I set out to understand as precisely as possible what the social structure of the First Crusade looked like. Who are the sources talking about when they refer to pauperes, minores, mediocres, milites, nobiles, principes, etc.? How did the different social layers present on the expedition interact? Were they united by a shared theological view? By a common purpose? Or did they strive against one another, even to the point of open conflict? Perhaps because economic and social historians such as Rodney Hilton and Georges Duby never devoted a full study to the subject even very eminent crusading historians of a more ‘idealist’ tradition make unwarranted assumptions in this area and fall into error. So the first section of the book is rather sociological, in that I analyse the main sources for the First Crusade to pin down as much as possible their meaning and their outlook when it comes to social structure. But having done this, I was then able to read the material in such a way as to illuminate quite a range of questions. From the purely narrative point of view, I believe historians in the main have seriously underestimated the impact of the lower social orders on the political debates that took place during the crusade. Visions and miracles have been read as evidence for the credulity and zealotry of the poor, but I see the rise to prominence of the visionaries as an expression of social discontent, aimed against the princes and offering alternative perspectives for the direction of crusade. And at times of division at the top, the humble visionary agitators were able to direct the whole movement. Several incidents, including the notorious sack of Jerusalem in 1099, look a little different through this lens. I also have been able to shed some light on whether the term milites was employed simply for mounted warriors at this time or whether it was applied to members of a distinct social class, the nobility. In the context of the First Crusade, the material strongly indicates that to be described as a miles meant that you were indeed more than a mounted soldier, you were a knight. For a long time now, the Enlightenment image of the ferocious and bloodthirsty crusader, using religion to disguise their love of battle and plunder, has been replaced by the image of the pious knight, taking the cross as ‘an act of love.’ But I discovered a previously unnoticed sub-category of magnates in the sources, knights described as iuvenes. These warriors were not necessarily young, what defined them was that they were yet to establish themselves as heads of households. Two generations after the Crusade, such iuvenes are very visible in the turbulent crowds of knights attending tournaments across northern Europe. But I was surprised to find that they had a distinct presence as early as the First Crusade. Their behaviour, both courageous but very violent towards combatants and civilians, reintroduces to some extent the earlier view of the mentality of the crusading knight, now, however, on a different basis. My study also allowed me to distinguish between the various layers of the upper social orders and I have some new insights with regard to the leadership of the crusade, essentially portraying it as being more fragmented, more widely extended and more fluid than many modern authors, especially narrative historians, have depicted it. Finally, I gathered a considerable amount of material on the role of women in the First Crusade.

2. The main sources you used in this study – chronicles and accounts by eyewitnesses and contemporaries – must have had their own unique qualities when it came to how they organized and termed the various social strata who took part in the First Crusade. What challenges were involved in stitching together these different accounts into your own analysis?

There is almost no uniformity of usage of social terms across the eight authors whose works I examined in depth. The anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum, for example, had a very limited vocabulary for the lower social strata. At one point he clumsily hit upon the phrase gens minuta for them. Literally, the ‘small people’, doesn’t this image evoke the disdain of someone on horseback for the persons below them? By contrast, Raymond of Aguilers had a great sympathy for the poor on the crusade, seeing their suffering as a means by which the expedition earned divine approval. Raymond was also writing within a framework that saw the mighty pagan powers being confronted by a Christian force that, although in appearance lowly and weak, was powerful through the assistance of God. From this theological point of view the entire movement and not just lowly non-combatants could be considered to be one of pauperes. The vocabulary employed by the sources for the higher social layers is just as varied and lacking in standardisation. And as for the middle ranks, all sorts of experimental formula were coined when these authors wanted to write about them. This lack of standardisation in the social vocabulary of the sources meant that much as an astronomer might find they need to master particle physics to explain celestial phenomena, before I could begin a discussion of social dynamics of the First Crusade I had to involve myself in the minutiae of contemporary language and the idiosyncrasies of each author in regard to their sociology.

3. You mention that you made use of the online versions of the Patrologica Latina, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, and Recueil des Historiens des Croisades. Could you tell us about your experience in working with these online versions?

Suppose you come across an unusual social phrase, such as Guibert of Nogent’s statement that homines extremae vulgaritatis took up the cross. Twenty years ago, only a Du Cange or a Niermeyer would have known if this idea of ‘the men of the furthest level of the vulgus’ had antecedents, perhaps classical ones, or whether Guibert had invented it. Did it then go on to become an accepted phrase, used by others? Did any other contemporary author use it? Those would have been questions that even a lifetime’s study could not answer comprehensively. Now we can resolve them in less than a day. The digitisation of vast amounts of medieval sources is revolutionising our discipline and it will continue apace. Our generation can see with extraordinary precision the impact of influential texts, the dissemination of ideas, both new and old, and we can detect previously unnoticed connections between texts. The existence of such databases means you can place an author much more firmly and confidently in a certain intellectual context, something that is very valuable if you want to understand their philosophy, theology, or, as in this case, their sociology.

4. Your final chapter examines the women who took part in the First Crusade. Many historians have dismissed this group as just camp followers and prostitutes, but your findings portray them in a new light. Could you tell us more about these women who took part in the First Crusade?

For centuries historians have been well aware that a certain number of aristocratic women came on the First Crusade, but as these women played no prominent role, they are not generally portrayed as crusaders in their own right, more the appendage of the husband or guardian who brought them. To be fair, this reflects the reality of the experience of women of the nobility. Only under exceptional conditions, such as when she was a regent for an heir, did medieval aristocratic women become powerful political figures and of course those conditions were not present on the First Crusade (though they soon appeared once the Latin knights settled in the Near East). Much more unjustly neglected are the women of the lower social orders who came in their thousands. This is truer for the First Crusade, with its emmigratory character, than any other crusade. Entire families of farmers, men and women, loaded their goods and children into a cart and set off behind their oxen for a new land. Once you start to gather the source material on these women, it is abundant and fascinating. I won’t be able to do it justice here, but I will say that in the three examples of popular crusading contingents following women leaders towards Jerusalem and in the examples of the women who dressed as men to join the crusade, we are clearly looking at a very different phenomenon to that of the camp follower. These women clearly saw themselves as participants, as crusaders.

5. Finally, you are also well known as a fiction writer. How did your experience as a writer help you with developing this book, and could you offer any suggestions to other medievalists about the writing process?

A really great formulation in a work of history arises after a considerable amount of conscious thought, internal and external discussion, and, of course, research. The best lines in fiction appear on the page almost unconsciously, or semi-consciously. This is not to say that writing fiction is a mystical experience, but it is certainly one where to be too clinical about what you want to say will deprive your work of any drama and your characters of life. So they are very different forms of writing and the author is in very different mental states when engaged in them. It is true that the best works of history are very well written, but I think that comes from a lucidity about the subject and insights derived from a great deal of research rather than training in writing. It tends to be the historian’s later works, when they can distil a lifetime’s study into a compelling study, that are their best. So I don’t think I can pass on any observation about writing fiction that will help medievalists in the writing of history. It might be relevant to note in this regard though that I experienced a considerable difference between the writing of analytical and narrative history. I have just finished The Siege of Jerusalem a narrative of the fall of the city to the Christian army in 1099. In that book I found myself free to express my thoughts with ambitious generalisations about the individuals involved, about what it must have felt like to die of thirst before the city you had dreamed of during three years of cruel hardship, or about the fears of the inhabitants. That book, while still having immovable foundations set by the sources, nevertheless allowed me far more room to stretch in than did The Social Structure of the First Crusade. The writing experience for The Siege of Jerusalem is very hard to define, but it felt unlike either the assembly of scaffold-joint by scaffold-joint construction of an analytical argument or like swimming in the fast flowing currents of fiction. Perhaps this kind of narrative history draws on the imagination in a similar way to the writing of fictional works; but even so, I would qualify this comment by observing that the writing style of narrative history is very different to that of fiction because you are trying to immerse the reader in a particular time, not a particular consciousness.

We thank Dr. Kostick for answering our questions.