Living through the Crusades: 3 poems and songs that reveal how medieval people felt about the holy war
In 1095, Christian knights mounted a religious war against Muslims in Jerusalem in an attempt to reclaim the Holy Land. Known collectively as the Crusades, the military expeditions transformed the western world, and left a profound legacy in inter-cultural and inter-faith relations nationally and worldwide. Now, long forgotten songs and poetry that reveal contemporary responses to the holy war have been made publicly available online
In the first archive of its kind, researchers from the universities of Warwick, Royal Holloway College in London and La Sapienza University in Rome are uploading the works of troubadours and trouvères (medieval musicians and poet-musicians), which illustrate public perception of the Crusades.
The archive will be populated over the next four years with contemporary poems and songs, alongside translations and historical context of their original composition and performance.
Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council of the UK, the project promises to bring to life “the profound and disturbing legacy of the Crusades”.
Professor Linda Paterson from the University of Warwick, who is leading the project, said: “Modern editions of these medieval texts are very often out of date and scattered in journals and disparate publications. This project aims not only to edit and collate the texts, but make them easily available to the public; they are a valuable resource for not only academic researchers, but also students and school-teachers and are particularly relevant in the current global political climate.”
Here, writing for History Extra, Paterson shares three of her favourite poems and songs to feature in the archive:
1) Marcabru, Pax in nomine Domini
I chose this troubadour song because it’s perhaps the most brilliantly robust crusade song urging men to go on crusade: not to the Holy Land where the French have made a mess of the Second Crusade, but to Spain, to take part in the Reconquista. It has a powerful, solemn tune, a recording of which can be heard on the website – listen here (click the logo to the left of the title).
The modern English translation of the poem reads:
I. Peace in the name of the Lord! Marcabru made the vers and the tune. Hear what he says: how the heavenly Lord in His loving-kindness has created for us, in our vicinity, a washing-place such as never existed before, apart from over there near the valley of Josaphat in Outremer; but it is about the one over here that I exhort you.
II. We ought to wash night and morning, according to what is right, I assure you. Each has the opportunity to wash; he ought to go to the washing-place while he is still fit and well, for it is a true medicine for us, because if we go to death beforehand, instead of a lofty mansion we shall have lowly lodgings.
III. But avarice and no-faith divide youth from his companion. Ah, what grief it is, that all and sundry fly towards that place whose reward is infernal! If we do not run to the washing-place before we have our mouth and eyes closed, there is not one of us so puffed up with pride that he will not find a strong adversary at the moment of death.
IV. For the Lord who knows all that is, and knows all there will be and ever was, has promised us a crown and the title of emperor; and its beauty will be sapiential, for it will shine in the sky at the washing-place more than the morning star, provided that we avenge God of the wrongs that they do to Him both here and over there towards Damascus.
V. Akin to the line of Cain, the first evil man, there is a great number here of whom not one shows honour to God. We shall see who will be His close friend, for with the miracle of the washing-place Jesus will be in communion with you. And drive back the rabble who believe in augury and divination!
VI. But the lecherous wine-trumpeters, dinner-gobblers, brand-blowers, hearth-squatters will remain behind, those pilferers! For God wants to test the brave and the sound in His washing-place, and these others will keep an eye on the houses and dig their coulter into the garden (?), which is why I hound them to their shame.
VII. Here and in Spain the Marquis and all of Solomon’s Temple bear the weight and the burden of pagan pride, which is why youth gathers a base reputation; and the public outcry relating to that other washing-place pours down on the highest-ranking leaders: broken failures, weary of valour, who love neither joy nor delight.
VIII. The French are perverted if they say no to God’s cause, for I know how things stand! Antioch, here Guyenne and Poitou are in mourning for reputation and worth. May God conduct the count to His washing-place and lay his soul to rest, and may the Lord who rose from the tomb guard Poitiers and Niort.
2) Chardon de Croisilles, Li departirs de la douce contree
This trouvere song is typical of songs of departure and separation, when a crusader expresses his pain and sadness as he reluctantly leaves his lover for the Holy Land.
To read the original poem, click here.
The modern English translation reads:
I. Departure from the sweet land where lives my beauteous one has put me into great sadness; I am constrained to leave the one I have loved the most in order to serve the Lord God my creator, and yet I belong completely to Love, since I leave it all my heart and my thoughts: if my body goes to serve Our Lord, I have not forgotten true love on this account.
II. Love, this is too hard a parting, when I am forced to leave the best lady who ever existed or who was ever born; in her is all beauty and worth, and none should marvel if I weep at this; when my body goes to fulfil its destiny, see how my noble heart has already begun its return journey, musing and longing after my lady.
III. Lady, in whom is my death and my life, I depart from you more grief-stricken than I say; henceforth you have my heart in your power: keep it, or you have betrayed me. God, where shall I go? Shall I utter loud laments or cries when I am constrained to divide myself from my noble heart and leave it with the one who has never left me part of hers?
IV. Love justly thanks the false lover for the profit it receives from him, but I obtain no pity; it trusts the flatterer and the fraud, but I trust entirely to noble service; my loyalty, I know this well, deprives me of the joy which I have rightly deserved; it greatly grieves me that I ever set eyes on her, when on her account true love so defies me.
V. Sweet lady, whom my heart does not forget, for God’s sake please do not forget me! Never will I ever seek another love; for God’s sake, I beseech you, do not seek another lover! But if I learn that you are mocking me, I shall not die entirely, but only half; however you will not make an enemy of me if loyalty is not my enemy.
VI. At the moment of departure, sweet lady, I beg you, whatever a flatterer may say to you, do not forget me, and towards you I in turn will never behave basely.
Oracle of the Crusaders before Jerusalem during the First Crusade. © INTERFOTO/Alamy
3) Daspol, Seinhos, aujas, c’aves saber e sen
This comic fictional dialogue between Daspol and God has the the troubadour asking God some cheeky questions about why people don’t want to go on crusade any more, challenging His ordering of the world and offering Him some advice on improvements.
To read the original poem, click here.
The modern English translation reads:
I. Lords, you who have knowledge and sense, listen to what happened to me the other night when I was asleep. I was up in Heaven where God was holding assembly, and people were crowding all around here; and I’ll tell you about the charge He was making against Christians: that they behave falsely, since neither counts nor dukes nor princes nor clerics are claiming back His Holy Sepulchre.
II. And I stood up and spoke wisely in refutation: You are in the wrong here, God, and you should take a different approach: you give power to false people who commit the sin of pride and villainy with it every day, for they neither believe nor do anything that is good; and you give them heaps of gold and silver, so that Christians are spineless ‒ for after all, people can’t be fighting all the time!
III. Lord Daspol, since you confute me I’ll send the clerics every misfortune, and I’ll take property away from the Orders, so that if they’re rich now they’ll soon be in want, and on top of that I’ll make them gravely ill and the princes will lose tax revenues; then they will be shamed and dishonoured and eventually have their grave in hell!
IV. Fair lord God, you’re obviously powerful, since you live in a safe place and on high. Why do you think we should fight for you, since you honour Saracens and vicious people who leave you no stronghold or stockade, and raze the buildings to the ground? But this dispute has gone on a long time so I don’t know what’s the point of us accusing you.
V. Lord Daspol, if the princes and prelates had any love for me in their hearts, they ought to remember with true charity how I was put on the cross for the human race; each of them would willingly take part in the passage if they recalled the spilling of my blood, even if they died after such a hard endeavour; but none of them pays any attention to that journey.
VI. Fair lord God, you’ve talked a great deal, but you could easily repair this damage if you made each Saracen want to acknowledge his sin of his own accord; then no-one would need to go astray, since each would recognise his error. For we suffer death for their ancient sin ‒ and you think nothing of pitching us into a massacre.
VII. Lord Daspol, it’s turned out that the Temple and the Hospital and the Orders, begun in holiness, do evil instead of good, and are keen to go on sleeping in their wickedness, for all of them are full of pride and avarice and don’t want to think of any other task. But I’ll make them change room and lodging so that the very boldest of all will be in terror!
VIII. Fair lord God, you could achieve royal glory if you put a stop to base behaviour: since you recognise that they’re all disloyal, why do you let them carry on in their vile ways? And since the world is going to ruin through greed, give us enough so that we are all equal; and since we’ll all be true and faithful / high-minded and high-born, everyone will want to think about his nobility!
IX. Then I awoke. But may it please God through His holiness to ordain that the kings and cardinals, prelates and princes have a change of heart so that (lit.: be such that) each may desire to end in great goodness.
X. King of Aragon, father and son of prowess, castle of worth, fount of what makes a man worthy, I tell you my dream, lord, God save you, for you will direct your nobility aright towards Him.
To find out more about the archive, click here.