The Knight, the Cross, and the Song

Crusade Propaganda and Chivalric Literature, 1100-1400

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Stefan Vander Elst
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , March
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the early 1990s, scholars have examined Crusade propaganda more specifically. This propaganda includes chronicles, letters, sermons, and songs. In The Knight, the Cross, and the Song: Crusade Propaganda and Chivalric Literature, 1100-1400, Stefan Vander Elst analyzes numerous texts associated with chivalric literature and the Crusades. In so doing, he connects the study of Crusade propaganda with the songs of knightly deeds (chansons de geste) and chivalric romances. Primarily, Vander Elst seeks to demonstrate how the authors of various texts related to the Crusades, appropriating themes from these songs and romances. Scholars have noted the connection between the chivalric literature and the Crusades, in particular, examining how Crusades propagandists imbued their texts with inspirational messages of knightly courage and pious sentiments.

Vander Elst used an impressive number of primary sources in Latin as well as numerous medieval vernacular languages. He provides numerous translations of these sources into modern English. These texts vary in genre from historical chronicles to poetic tales of knights and Crusaders. While the authors of these sources include clergy and laity, the sources have certain common characteristics. First, they all seek to recount the history of the Crusades or an  individual Crusader’s action. Second, these texts served as propaganda for the Crusades in various forms, and finally, these texts appropriate themes and tropes from chivalric literature in order to accomplish that goal.  

The author divides this monograph into two main parts. In the first part, Vander Elst examines the influence of the chansons de geste on Crusade propaganda from the 12th century. Two chapters focus on early 13th-century chronicles of the First Crusade. Vander Elst demonstrates how both the anonymous Gesta Francorum (c. 1101) and Robert of Reim’s Historia Iherosolimintana (c. 1110) used secular, knightly literature to describe the events of the First Crusade, and exhort others to support future ventures. While Vander Elst recognizes the basic religious nature of the Crusade, he argues that the medieval writers integrated secular themes from the chansons de geste into their Latin chronicles. The last chapter of the first section of the book analyzes the Old French Crusade Cycle (c. 1350-1425). These poems reveal how Crusade propaganda influenced the development of vernacular literature and illustrate the significance of familial obligations in that literature.

In the second part of the book, Vander Elst shifts his focus toward the 13th century and chivalric romances. While the traditional themes of the chansons de geste continued to influence Crusade propaganda, the development of the new romance literature emphasized the more troublesome theme of courtly love. Vander Elst argues that Crusade excitatoria—exhortatory literature usually in poetic form—avoided the themes of courtly love, but did draw upon the idea of a grand quest. Another famous poet, Count Thibaut IV of Champagne, focused on the crusader’s love of God and the Virgin Mary.

Vander Elst examines famous texts associated with the 14th-century Baltic region in the sixth chapter. Here he analyzes themes in Peter of Duisburg’s Chronica Terre Prussie (c. 1326) and Nicolaus of Jeroschin’s Middle High German translation of the same text (c. 1335). Vander Elst also explains how the German poet, Peter Suchenwirt, described his own journey to Lithuania with Duke Albert III of Austria. Vander Elst argues that these works emphasized the defense of damsels in distress, and the grand adventure of the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic region. In so doing, these texts show how Crusade propagandists more closely associated the Crusade with chivalric romances.

In the last two chapters, Vander Elst considers the themes of Old French literature from the 14th century. First, he examines the ideas set forth in the “Second Old French Crusade Cycle,” which consists of three poems and one partial prose text. Vander Elst argues that these texts promoted the crusading by connecting it with popular literature. In the last chapter, Vander Elst analyzes La Prise d’Alixandre, Guillaume de Machaut’s French poem on the Crusade of Peter I of Cyprus (c. 1360). While these texts expressed the themes of adventure and romantic love, they also associated the Crusades with Arthurian tales.

Vander Elst writes an informative book based on a thorough analysis of several texts in various languages. He examines how the writers of these texts associated with the Crusades used characteristics of chivalric literature to draw upon specific motivations for going on a crusade, explaining the Crusade propagandists’ appropriation of the themes found in the chansons de geste in the 12th century and the chivalric romances in the following centuries. Vander Elst’s work also brings together various fields of study to explain Crusade propaganda and its relationship to medieval culture. In so doing, he demonstrates a great knowledge of many sources associated with various medieval languages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. Matthew Phillips is Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stefan Vander Elst is associate professor of English at the University of San Diego.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.