Men, Women, and Beasts at Clermont, 1095
Gerish, Deborah (Emporia State University)
Middlebury College, Working Paper, Series 20 (2005)
When Pope Urban II called for a military campaign to the Holy Land in 1095, he launched what would be the first in a series of Christian crusades. But even more than that, he advocated a form of warfare that would be pleasing to God. Because the idea of spiritually based violence survives to this day, it is not surprising that scholars have scrutinized the pope’s initial call to arms very carefully. They have explored its Roman and early Christian roots, compared it to Islamic views of jihad, considered its impact on canon law, and traced its eventual influence on the Reformation. To date, however, scholars have not looked specifically at gender constructions in accounts of the sermon and how they factored into depictions of the heroes, villains, and victims.
This is a significant omission, for most recent scholarship indicates more continuity than not between the pope’s sermon and earlier understandings of Christian duty, pilgrimage, love, and so on. Many scholars have noted that crusade preaching succeeded because its message worked existing spiritual and social norms into a new framework—specifically, by offering a novel outlet for fighters that would incur God’s forgiveness. Contemporary gender assumptions also got incorporated and may have augmented the appeal of crusading. Accounts of this sermon showed in subtle ways how male crusaders could enhance their masculinity and become more human by saving a feminine object of desire from virile, ferocious, clever beasts. Thus the victims of Muslim atrocities were feminine or effeminate, while both the heroes and the villains were highly masculine and therefore a little too close to beasts. Yet the Catholic heroes could upgrade themselves, while the Muslims were doomed to beastliness. The rhetoric of difference in reports of Clermont helps us understand medieval efforts to define the Other in new ways, for it combines constructions of gender with a judgment of someone’s humanity in enunciating religious roles.
Gender assumptions within any culture interweave social understandings of biology and behavior. Several decades ago, gender theorists recognized that while biology determined one’s sex as male or female, societie s constructed gender by associating specific functions, roles, and behavioral norms with masculinity or femininity. Thus any culture could label a biological male as effeminate or a biological female as manly. Theorists further noted that these social constructions require at least two genders, for masculinity and femininity have to have complements, if not direct opposites.