On the Paths of Hugues de Berzé: A Repentant Crusader Knight

By Lorris Chevalier

He who must see more must know,
for by hearing and sight,
that’s how it is known
what happens every day in a place for sure ~ Hugues de Berzé

The story begins in the heart of southern Burgundy in the chatelainnie or barony of Berzé. Between hunting, riding, fencing and administration of the household, Hugues, as a child, receives the classical education to become a lord. On a religious level, the involvement of Cluny Abbey is quite remote. An archpriest is dispatched from the abbey to care for the souls of the village and the staff of the castle. Preparing his whole being for the management of the household and inshrining the Berzé lineage in the sustainability of decisions, the father of Hugues, his namesake, takes his son to the signings of charters.


This mapped-out life will be disturbed by a call from Heaven, a true inner theophany in the life of Hugues de Berzé, the call to the crusade. In the autumn of 1201, in Cîteaux, surrounded by hundreds of lords, lay people and monks, Hugues listened to the zealous preaching of Foulques de Neuilly. On September 14, 1201, the day of the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross, convinced or following the family tradition, the young Hugues and his father received the cross from the hands of Father Abbot Arnaud Amaury. Their conduct will be forever affected.

Father and son organise for a few months the practical aspect of their departure, in particular by obtaining financial support from the Abbey of Cluny, even if it means sacrificing their rights as constabulary (marechaussee) and seneschalsy (senechaussee) over the town of Cluny. In the summer of 1202, the Crusaders headed south, stopping in Lombardy at the court of the Montferrats and then meeting up in Venice at the rallying point for their departure.


The Fourth Crusade

Only a third of the expected crusaders will be present, which will affect both the morale and the decisions of the whole crusade. To repay their debt, the Crusaders recaptured the city of Zara. Faithful to their crusade vow, the Berzé will remain in the corps of the army until the end of the expedition. The barons decide to secure their crusade and take the side of putting the legitimate Byzantine emperor back on the throne in return for substantial economic and military support.

On July 17, 1203, the city of Constantinople surrounded by the impregnable Theodosian wall fell for the first time into the hands of the Crusaders after an ingenious attack. Some crusade chroniclers like Robert de Clari relate with wonder the beauty, wealth and general exoticism of such a city. The emperor betrays his former allies and then is assassinated. A Byzantine general recovers the throne and raises the city against the Crusaders, burning part of their fleet. The Crusaders are almost bound to recapture the city to fulfill their crusading vow.

The city is taken for the second time and then looted, which is a law of medieval warfare. A great treasure is accumulated and a Latin emperor is appointed. The Bulgarian Emperor Kayolan, who had promised Innocent III to convert to Catholicism and was a former ally of the Byzantine Empire, took the opportunity to rise up against the Latins. Emperor Baudouin (Baldwin I) organises an expedition to secure his new territory which is falling apart. One Easter day in 1205, during the celebration of mass, the Latin camp was attacked by pagan Cumans in the pay of the Bulgarians. The crusaders, including Hugues de Berzé, were caught in traps then surrounded and taken prisoner after a fierce battle.

The opening lines of La Bible au Seigneur de Berzé – Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 378 fol. 3v

Hugues de Berzé returns home

The emperor and his most loyal soldiers, including Hugues de Berzé, were taken to prison in the fortress of Tsarevets in the north of the Balkan mountain range. The Emperor dies in prison, his rotting body left in full view of his men.


Meanwhile in Cluny, the monks take advantage of the weakening of the Berzé household and the announced death of its lord to legally regain all rights over the city. Relinquishing responsibility for financial and moral support and wishing to separate themselves from the harmful consequences of the sack, the abbots of Cluny named the crusade which they had previously encouraged as the “Berzé war”. The charters have kept track of a gift to Cluny made by the heirs to have masses said for the repose of the soul of Hughes.

Still alive, Hugues will remain locked up for at least a few months or even a year. It will be a deep introspective time. After a long journey home, Hugues returns between eight and nine and a half years after his departure. He finds a domain in the hands of heirs whom he considers ungrateful and unworthy. He begins to write a long introspective poem in which he invites his contemporaries to repentance through the crusade. He mentions his shortcomings, his fall, both material and above all spiritual. His sins being in the sight of everyone, his repentance passes through an explicit and missionary visible conversion. His path will be above all a path of experience on which he bases his authority to sometimes preach against the sins of the monks (especially Cluny against whom he seems to have a very personal resentment).

Hughes’ grant age makes him a wise (sage) man capable of superior vision, who could see or experience what he experienced? Who knew the four emperors had died? Rebelling against his pernicious and permissive century, he reprimands anyone who tries to escape his ordo whether from their social status or by entering a monastic order. A conversion is an alignment with the will of God.


By going to the confines of the known world, by all the means of travel available in his time, discovering the most exotic marvels, rubbing shoulders with all the religious currents of Jews, Muslims, pagan Cumans and Greek schismatics, Hugues above all made a much superior discovery, he found himself. While he thought of escaping his seigniorial duty by leaving his domain, he knew how to learn to be a true knight by harmonising secular values and moral virtues. Its peregrination corresponds to the end of the Romanesque period and the beginning of the Gothic period in the fashion of the theology of the Victorines where the primacy passes through human dignity. This know thyself corresponds to the aspirations of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 which, in canon 21, establishes compulsory annual confession and communion. Thus, conversion is then based on the effort of penance as a result of the awareness of the debita servitudo which is certainly the fruit of concupiscence but above all the result of the floods of graces received offered to the sinner for his redemption.

Thus, like Hughes, whoever realises the illusions of the century understands the need to endure duties, to carry (porter) virtues, to hold (tenir) order. To discover his ordo (for where and what God has placed him into society), Hughes, he who was educated to be served, understood, through a Christological journey in an eschatological combat (at a time when the apses of churches pass from the representation of Christ in the glory of the Last Judgment to a Christ of the Passion) that the Lord’s role is in service. Through the crusade, he had to be “so high so low” (“De si haut si bas”), that is to say, he suffered poverty, hunger, cold, pain, the feeling of incompleteness that fleeting delights and vains of the century be the reign of penances undergone in order to understand the needs of chosen penances. Once devoted to good, Hugh accomplished his conversion by offering himself humbly in the service of others and by inviting the world to good.

He puts in place what he preaches by freeing one of his outbuildings in 1216 and offering the villagers the right to use the Ferté mill. Hugues also chooses refinement and literary humility by offering the world an octosyllabic poem with flat rhymes (the Bible de Hugues de Berzé written in 1220) he who, in the absence of being literate knew the art of writing songs and poems with a more refined style. Hugues pushed his crusade preaching to the climax by leaving for the Fifth Crusade at the end of the year 1220, the date on which we lose track of him.

Dr Lorris Chevalier, who has Ph.D. in medieval literature, is a historical advisor for movies, including The Last Duel and Napoleon.

La Bible au Seigneur de Berzé – Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 378 fol. 4r