How to justify a crusade? The conquest of Livonia and new crusade rhetoric in the early thirteenth century

How to justify a crusade? The conquest of Livonia and new crusade rhetoric in the early thirteenth century

By Marek Tamm

Journal of Medieval History, Vol.39:4 (2013)

Map of Europe, drawing of c. 1570

Abstract: This article addresses the issue of how it was possible to justify a crusade to a region, such as the eastern shore of the Baltic, where there were no sacred shrines to protect or Christian lands to reconquer. Adopting a pluralist perspective of crusades, it argues that the Livonian crusade of the early thirteenth century offers some interesting clues to the new developments of crusading ideology. Conceiving of the conquest and conversion of Livonia as a crusade, albeit not quite equal to the liberation of Jerusalem, its initiators and apologists employed legal and rhetorical devices to justify the occupation of a region under the auspices of a crusade. This article examines these strategies through the medium of contemporary chronicles and papal letters.

Introduction: This article examines an apparently simple question: how to justify a crusade that did not aim at recovering the Holy Land. Or, put more precisely: how could one motivate a crusade in a region which had neither sacred sites to be visited nor Christians to be protected? These questions presume a particular notion of crusading. In recent decades, a close connection has been re-established in scholarly literature with the medieval tradition which represented the twelfth- and thirteenth-century wars of conquest and mission in the Baltic region through the prism of the crusades. In this line of thought, first formulated in the middle of the twelfth-century by the papal court in Rome, the idea of a crusade, originally devised as a means of (re)capturing Jerusalem, was expanded to cover other areas by guaranteeing the participants in these new campaigns benefits equal or comparable to those afforded to the crusaders heading for the Holy Land.

This tactic, however, necessarily forced popes and other apologists of the crusades to face a serious dilemma familiar to modern students of the crusades: how to explain the transfer of the privileges granted for crusading in the Holy Land to participants in campaigns in other regions. How could one speak about a crusade if the target of the campaign were not a (former) Christian area? Some modern historians have responded to this question by explicitly refraining from employing the word ‘crusade’ to characterise campaigns that were not directed at the Holy Land: to identify them as crusades would be an abuse of the idea as advanced by twelfth-century popes and its continuation by at least some modern scholars.

This view, however, forces on us a very clear-cut definition of what a crusade might be and fails to note that, like all other historical phenomena, its nature changed over time. Indeed, the main aim of the present paper is to demonstrate that at the beginning of the thirteenth century the notion of a crusade as it had previously been conceived underwent significant elaboration, both legal and rhetorical, with the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea and specifically Livonia being one of the main ‘laboratories’ where these new developments were worked out.

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