Invisible Weapons

Liturgy and the Making of Crusade Ideology

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M. Cecilia Gaposchkin
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , January
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book sets out, in the author’s words, to “understand something important about the culture of holy war in the middle ages” (4), and how the medieval Latin Church used liturgy as a secret weapon of war against the infidel. M. Cecilia Gaposchkin argues that liturgy, a ritual carried out by the Church on behalf of its members, constructed a theology of war which made the crusade a holy act. Moreover, through the liturgy, those taking part could travel to Jerusalem without physically going there.

Building her argument on a detailed analysis of the sources, Gaposchkin traces the origins of crusade liturgies back to the “contra paganos” liturgies of earlier Latin Christendom: prayers devised against pagans were adapted for use against Muslims. “The central images of the devotional ideology that defined the First Crusade” are shown to have been laid out “in the liturgical discourse of the tenth and eleventh centuries” (53). The image of the cross, so central to crusading, had been a symbol of victory over the devil, then developed into a symbol of the Incarnation and Christ’s suffering, before it became the symbol of crusaders’ service to God and God’s victory. Former liturgies for pilgrims going on pilgrimage were adapted into liturgies for crusaders going to Jerusalem.

As a form of spiritual warfare, liturgy played a significant role in the strategy of the crusade. Throughout the First Crusade, liturgical rites were developed as required, to meet every crisis and need, so that the crusaders were “enveloped in rituals” (97), as if every public communal action of the crusaders gained spiritual significance. Alongside fasting, prayer, alms, and processions, the liturgy drew participants into a cohesive group that communicated with God together. The crusaders’ demonstration of humility before God, as they took part in the ritual of the liturgy, drew them into the right state of mind for the military effort that they were about to undertake, while simultaneously undermining the courage of enemy onlookers. Liturgy played an active role on the battlefield, with prayers and masses before and after battle, asking for God’s favor. In short, liturgy had a crucial function in building up morale and convincing the crusaders of the certainty of victory.

Gaposchkin shows that liturgy was also a tool for memorialization. Liturgies were devised to commemorate the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 and for the rededication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1149. Liturgy was dynamic, changing as times and needs changed, so that the liturgies that followed immediately after the First Crusade, which spoke of the fulfilment of prophecy, the New Jerusalem, and the Second Coming, were by the mid-12th century being toned down as it became clear that the Second Coming was not coming yet. Liturgies in the West also took up themes from the new Jerusalem liturgies. After the loss of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, liturgies in Latin Europe included penitence and supplication, and called for victory and vengeance. Old prayers were adapted and new ones composed. These were warlike liturgies, using the sort of language in praise of killing non-Christians that appears in vernacular epic literature such as the Chanson de Roland and the epics of Aymeri de Narbonne and his sons. Such liturgies justified why God should help the Christians, drawing on Old Testament, as well as New Testament, examples.

Gaposchkin argues that the liturgy enabled all Latin Christians to be involved in the Crusade. From the late 12th century popes instructed the clergy to include prayers each day in the mass to call on God’s aid for the crusade, so that every Latin Christian who attended mass was also included in the crusade effort. Preachers urged all Christians to fast, give alms, and pray for crusaders. Even after the crusades to the Holy Land ceased, this extended involvement continued: in 1309 Pope Clement V asked the clergy, both secular and monastic, to recite prayers against the pagans in masses on behalf of the Knights Hospitaller fighting overseas. In the 15th century such prayers were recited against the Turks, and from the second half of the 15th century dedicated war masses against the Ottoman Turks became very common. Latin Christians could obtain an indulgence for saying masses or prayers as well as for personally taking the cross.

The inclusion of these crusade prayers in daily mass meant, Gaposchkin argues, that crusading became synonymous with being Christian. Thus, developments in the liturgy played a significant role in the transformation of the crusade from a movement to an institution: rather than the crusade being carried out by an isolated body of warriors, through prayer it became part of the daily activity of every Latin Christian.

The changing liturgy gives valuable insights into the changing mentalities of its participants. It reflected participants’ understanding of their relationship with God, their interpretation of events and their anxiety about Christendom’s enemies—first the Saracens, then the Ottomans—and about the forthcoming End Times. Initially a pilgrimage, the crusade became a war to protect Europe. Gaposchkin points out that the crusade liturgy of the 12th and 13th centuries was focused on Jerusalem, and only in the 14th century did this change, demonstrating that it was only in the 14th century that the crusade became truly pluralist.

This illuminating and detailed study clearly demonstrates the central role of the liturgy in Latin Christian holy war from the 11th to the 15th century. It demonstrates how the liturgy, the cult of the cross, and the cult of relics, were central to Christian communal experience in medieval Europe. It reveals an aspect of crusading that is too easily forgotten—the practice of prayer and its dynamic relationship with the practice of arms—and urges us to remember that medieval Latin Christians were as serious about their faith as they were about their warfare.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Helen Nicholson is Professor of Medieval History at Cardiff University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

M. Cecilia Gaposchkin is associate professor of history and Assistant Dean of Faculty for Pre-Major Advising at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Invisible Weapons: Liturgy and the Making of Crusade IdeologyThe Making of Saint Louis: Kingship, Sanctity, and Crusade in the Later Middle Ages, and coeditor of The Sanctity of Louis IX: Early Lives of Saint Louis by Geoffrey of Beaulieu and William of Chartres, all from Cornell, and the author of Blessed Louis, the Most Glorious of Kings.


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