The Uses of the Bible in Crusader Sources

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Elizabeth Lapina, Nicholas Morton
  • Boston, MA: 
    , June
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is a deeply interesting, impossibly important book that successfully builds upon existing scholarly trends related to medieval Christian holy war but then also manages to move in new, exciting directions. Despite its rather outrageous price tag, the book is still a good value for the money, as the essays here are all to be commended for their rigor and creativity in confronting an intrinsically difficult problem. As those who study medieval Europe well know, the Bible permeated the written world, infused into nearly everything via direct citation or allusion. But this was a world before sola scriptura. The Bible was never alone in any of these texts. Verses were always cloaked in tradition, weighted down with the heavy burden of commentary. This is true across genres and perhaps no more true than in the written sources related to holy war. 

The volume as a whole moves thematically and not strictly chronologically, beginning with a section on violence, then one on the contemporary chronicles composed just after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 CE, followed by another on papal correspondence. We jump next to three essays on the well-known and prolific preacher James of Vitry (d. 1240) and conclude with a kind of catch-all section that includes pieces on the Baltic Crusades, the military orders, poetry, legal documents, and art. Despite these disparate topical foci, the book remains tightly focused, bound together (as the editors note in their introduction) first by the issue of violence and second by the plank embedded in the eye of traditional historiography. 

Violence and its religious uses, of course, might make sense here given the subject of the book. The question of historiography, however, might be more puzzling. As Elizabeth Lapina and Nicholas Morton note, the study of biblical material in these sources might be “as old as the hills” but these medieval citations and allusions were treated as supplementary—a way of anchoring some other point but rarely considered for the intellectual work they did in the narrative on their own. The exegetical tradition of those citations and the meaning that carried with it has been virtually nonexistent. 

Happily, not so anymore. 

The very first essay, “The Crusader Conquest of Jerusalem and Christ’s Cleansing of the Temple” by Katherine Allen Smith is a wonderful entrée to the volume. Focusing very narrowly on early 12th-century accounts of the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, she masterfully demonstrates how the writing of history in this period could itself be exegesis, how these writers’ collective descriptions of this contemporary event “carved out a place for the events of 1099 within salvation history … [and] added an original chapter to the corpus of Gospel commentary that stretched back to Late Antiquity” (40-41). The piece by Thomas Lecaque is of a very different character, but still of exceptional quality. Lecaque’s piece is reads outwards from the cathedral chapter of Le Puy to see just who Raymond d’Aguiliers was and what he thought his expedition meant. In the end, Raymond is revealed to have been an astute reader and intellectual compiler who was primed to read the events around him through an apocalyptic lens. 

The final two sections tend towards the prophetic, the eschatological, and the apocalyptic. Lydia Walker and Jan Vandeburie’s chapters present James of Vitry as a preacher concerned about the loss of Jerusalem to the Muslims as a matter of salvific importance, as Vandeburie says, “the last scourge before the final confrontation and the anticipated recapture of Jerusalem that would precede the Second Coming” (358). The geographical and textual scope of the overall project broadens in the final section, as we see how the Baltics (Torben Kjersgaard Nielsen), the Military Orders (Nicholas Morton), and the Frankish East itself (Julian Yolles, Adam M. Bishop, and Iris Shagrir) were fit into the arc of sacred history. 

In the end, this might be the most important contribution of all these fine essays—to remind us that the lens of analysis refracts, that it shapes how an author sees their subjects. Almost every author under discussion here was a cleric of some sort, educated in a monastic or cathedral school. They learned to read from biblical excerpts and exegesis that doubled as grammars, spent their waking hours in the liturgy, walked amongst images of scenes drawn from that text, and thought that God’s plan for all human history was embedded in its pages. Fighting on God’s behalf, so they thought, would require exegesis of those 11th-, 12th-, and 13th-century actions. Thanks to this collection of essays we now understand better how religion was embedded not just in how the medieval Christian holy war was conducted but also in how it was narrated and reimagined, both in the Middle Ages and today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Gabriele is Professor of Medieval Studies and Chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech.

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

Elizabeth Lapina is assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She is the author of Warfare and the Miraculous in the Chronicles of the First Crusade and co-editor of Crusades and Visual Culture.

Nicholas Morton is a lecturer in history at Nottingham Trent University. He is the author of several books and articles on crusading and the military orders, most recently Encountering Islam on the First Crusade.


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