Looking Back on the Second Crusade: Some Late Twelfth-Century English Perspectives

Looking Back on the Second Crusade: Some Late Twelfth-Century English Perspectives

By Peter Edbury

The Second Crusade and the Cistercians, edited by Michael Gervers (New York, 1992)

Introduction: It was as long ago as 1953 that Giles Constable published his seminal study, “The Second Crusade as seen by Contemporaries”. By contrast, my concern is to consider very briefly not what contemporaries knew or thought, but how people writing a generation or so later viewed the crusade, and ask what, if anything, they have to say that is distinctive, and whether subsequent events influenced their perceptions. As we might expect, English writers of the late twelfth century or early thirteenth tended to rely heavily on histories com–posed nearer the events. Two authors were especially influential: Henry of Huntingdon, who must have composed his account of the crusade by 1155 – in other words within seven years of the expedition itself – and the Norman abbot of Mont St. Michel, Robert of Torigni, who would seem to have been writing rather later. Roger of Howden, for example, lifted his account of the crusade verbatim from Henry of Huntingdon, while the description of these events in the annals of the Cistercian abbey of Waverley in Surrey is copied word for word from Robert of Torigni. Roger of Howden’s lack of originality is especially disappointing in view of his importance as a source for the Third Crusade. Another invaluable writer, Ralph of Diceto, mentioned only the preliminaries to the crusade, not the crusade itself. What has happened is that his Abbreviationes Chronicorum breaks off in 1148; his Ymagines Historiarum begins in the same year, and the events of the crusade would appear to have been lost in the hiatus between these works. It also came as something of a disappointment to discover that neither of those two late twelfth-century gossips, Walter Map and Gerald Wales, has any comments on the crusade. Gerald, it is true, does have what I take to be an oblique reference: recalling his own preaching of the Third Crusade at Haverfordwest in 1188, he compared his success at moving an audience made up of Welshmen while speaking in a language they did not understand to Bernard’s earlier success in preaching in French to the Germans.

Gerald’s memory of St. Bernard’s role as a crusade preacher, though mentioned by Robert of Torigni, found few other echoes among the English writers of my period. Of the historians I have seen, only Ralph of Diceto made any significant allusion to his role. Ralph described Louis VII’s conflict with the Church over the archbishopric of Bourges. The affair was resolved thanks to Bernard’s mediation, and the king agreed to back down and go to Jerusalem to atone for the sacrilegious oath he had sworn during the quarrel. He thereupon took the cross and prepared for his crusade. The idea that Louis was concerned principally with a pilgrimage for the expiation of his sins rather than with undoing the damage wrought by the Muslim capture of Edessa has been discussed elsewhere by Aryeh Grabois; Ralph of Diceto is the only one of these English writers to suggest that the motivation for the crusade was anything other than the needs of the Holy Land.

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