Dan Jones

Every history of the Crusading era that I’m familiar with has spent a lot of time addressing the question of the crusaders’ motivation. The usual explanation for why the nobility of Western Europe invaded the Holy Land is the same as that traditionally given for the conquest of the Americas: faith and gold.

I don’t think it’s because we live in an especially cynical age that today we tend to emphasize the latter. Even at the time, crusaders were being called out for their shabby materialism. Dan Jones takes as his epigraph for this highly readable new history a quote from Adam of Bremen (ca. 1076): “In those days, men cared as much for furs as they did for their immortal souls.”

It’s a leitmotif sounded throughout. A later chapter heading will quote the 1108 Magdeburg Letter’s call for Christians to go on holy war “so save your souls and, if you wish it, acquire the best land in which to live.” “These were not wars of religion,” Jones kicks things off by telling us, “indeed, religion was often very plainly secondary to commercial and geopolitical considerations. But they were wars between religious men . . .” I don’t know what to make of that qualification. What of it? Everyone was “religious” in the middle ages.

Gradually, and I guess predictably, what began as a Christian mission became a business and then turned into a racket. It’s only in a footnote that Jones lets us know about how the innovation in Innocent III’s bull Quia Major (1213) allowed financial donations to bestow the spiritual benefits of actually going on crusade. It’s a parlour game as to when the Crusades finally ended, but by that point (at least) it’s clear they were dead.

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