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Theorizing the Crusades: Identity, Institutions, and Religious War in Medieval Latin Christendom

First Crusade - Royal 15 E I   f. 161v   Attack of Jaffa - British Library Theorizing the Crusades: Identity, Institutions, and Religious War in Medieval Latin Christendom

By Andrew Latham

International Studies Quarterly, Vol.55 (2011)

Abstract: The “crusades” — a series of wars launched by the Latin Church between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries — pose a significant unresolved puzzle for International Relations Theory. The purpose of this article is to develop a historically sensitive yet theoretically governed account of the crusades that solves this puzzle. Empirically, the article draws heavily on a body of historiographical work that emphasizes the constitutive role of “religious” ideas and discourses in the evolution of the crusades. Theoretically, it adopts a constructivist approach, specifying the intersubjective factors that enabled the crusades to emerge as a significant instrument of papal “statecraft” and as a key element of medieval geopolitical relations. The article concludes with some reflections on the theoretical relevance of this account of the crusades for both medieval geopolitics and contemporary international relations.

Introduction: The “crusades” — a series of wars launched by the Latin Church between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries — pose a significant unresolved puzzle for International Relations (IR) Theory. Realists have sought to explain these wars in terms of the structural logic of anarchy, arguing that the Church-sponsored military campaigns against its various enemies were little more than a particular instance of the timeless pursuit of power by self-interested actors seeking power and wealth. Similarly, historical materialists have sought the roots of these ecclesiastical wars in the “land-hunger” generated by new forms of property relations ushered in as a consequence of the “Feudal Revolution” of the late-tenth and early eleventh centuries. Finally, constructivists have attempted to account for the crusades by specifying the pervading (religious) mentalites that made them both possible and meaningful. As I shall argue more fully later, however, the existing IR literature fails to provide a convincing account of the motive forces that propelled the Church — the one institution actually authorized to launch a crusade — to wage war against a variety of polities and social movements within and beyond Latin Christendom. This leaves us with an intriguing puzzle: how can we account for one of the most distinctive elements of the “international relations” of later Medieval Latin Christendom? What were the motive forces behind these ecclesiastical wars? Were they material or ideational? Were they religious or mundane? In short, given the shortcomings of the extant literature, we are left with the following problematique: how should we theorize the crusades as a geopolitical phenomenon, and what are the implications of this phenomenon for IR theory?

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