An Approach to Crusading Ethics

An Approach to Crusading Ethics

By Jonathan Riley-Smith

Reading Medieval Studies, Vol.6 (1980)

Priests Exhorting Crusaders by Gustave Doré
Priests Exhorting Crusaders by Gustave Doré

Introduction: The crusades were supported overwhelmingly by contemporaries. Critics were few; and those critics who questioned them fundamentally I as opposed to those who merely wanted to improve them or were doubtful about certain aspects of them, were very rare indeed. Men and women of all classes were prepared to embark on enterprises that involved much hardship and suffering and endangered their lives. Of course they had all kinds of motive, but it is clear that ideals did play a very large part. These ideals, therefore, including the moral theology of violence, are worth studying. But the ethics, as opposed to the laws, of crusading is a subject that historians have shied away from, choosing to adopt, in place of rational enquiry, expressions of high-minded moral outrage which are fair enough, but really only show how much moral perceptions have changed. Many of the popes who proclaimed crusades and the preachers who recruited the faithful for them were moral men, some of them recognised by their contemporaries as saints, with a real concern for Christian ethics, and the same is true of many of those who answered their call. Condemnation does not help us to understand why sincere men believed crusading violence to be positively good and something demanded of the faithful by God.

A crusade was a form of holy war, but holy war was itself only one expression of a wider concept, that of sacred violence. Crusading thought emerged from a ferment of argument about rebellion and throughout its history it was fuelled by ideas justifying the physical repression of heretics. Sacred violence requires as a premise the conviction that God and his intentions for mankind are intimately associated with the well-being of a political structure here on earth which has become threatened. It is therefore positively sanctioned, even ordered, by God, since it is employed to preserve something that embodies his wishes for mankind, and participation in it is a moral imperative. The fundamentals of this idea were laid down very early, particularly around 400 by St Augustine, who established certain criteria according to which, he believed, sacred violence could be recognised. He required a just cause, which always related to injuries inflicted by others, the only response to which could be a violent one, With regard to legitimate authority, he envisaged violence not only authorised by ministers of God like emperors, but also directly commanded by God himself. And he maintained that right intention must mean that the participants should always be motivated by love.

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The first and most important stage of theoretical development had ended by 600 and it is today a sort of orthodoxy to see the Church in the eleventh century turning to force after 400 years in which its views had been ambiguous if not predominantly pacifist. This is probably wrong. It is true that, except for a short period in the ninth century, there was very little theoretical writing on force. But over and over again one comes across rather unthinking applications of the old ideas, and it is clear that during this time merit, which along with free will had been played down in Augustine’s thought, come to be attached to participation in sacred violence. It is, however, true that I although by the eleventh century a large body of writing on Christian violence was in existence, it was scattered and not easily available. Certain ideas had passed into Christian thinking and had been put into practice, but what was required was synthesis and systematisation; and this process began in the 1080s.

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