The Knight, the Cross, and the Song: Crusade Propaganda and Chivalric Literature, 1100-1400

The Knight, the Cross, and the Song: Crusade Propaganda and Chivalric Literature, 1100-1400

The Knight, the Cross, and the Song: Crusade Propaganda and Chivalric Literature, 1100-1400

The Knight, the Cross, and the Song: Crusade Propaganda and Chivalric Literature, 1100-1400


The Knight, the Cross, and the Song offers a new perspective on the driving forces of crusading in the period 1100-1400. Although religious devotion has long been identified as the primary motivation of those who took the cross, Stefan Vander Elst argues that it was by no means the only focus of the texts written to convince the warriors of Western Christianity to participate in the holy war. Vander Elst examines how, across three centuries, historiographical works that served as exhortations for the Crusade sought specifically to appeal to aristocratic interests beyond piety. They did so by appropriating the formal and thematic characteristics of literary genres favored by the knightly class, the chansons de geste and chivalric romance. By using the structure, commonplaces, and traditions of chivalric literature, propagandists associated the Crusade with the decidedly secular matters to which arms-bearers were drawn. This allowed them to introduce the mutual obligation between lord and vassal, family honor, the thirst for adventure, and even the desire for women as parallel and complementary motivations for Crusade, making chivalric and literary concerns an indelible part of the ideology and practice of holy war.

Examining English, Latin, French, and German texts, ranging from the twelfth-century Gesta Francorum and Chanson d'Antioche to the fourteenth-century Kronike von Priazinlant and La Prise d'Alixandre, The Knight, the Cross, and the Song traces the historical development and geographical spread of this innovative use of secular chivalric fiction both to shape the memory and interpretation of past events and to ensure the continuation of the holy war.


Toward the end of the fourteenth century, the English polemicist John Gower turned his attention to the Crusade, which was approaching its three-hundredth anniversary. Although he was not altogether opposed to the holy war, Gower argued that in his day the practice of crusading had fallen into disrepute because its supporters and participants no longer had the right motivations. the prelates who urged their flock to take the cross, he said, often merely sought to further their own worldly goals. Furthermore, those who took up arms against the unbeliever were rarely driven by noble aspirations. in the Mirour de l’Omme of ca. 1376–1379, Gower enumerated the reasons for which his contemporaries set out on Crusade, two of which he found especially reprehensible:

The first is (so to speak) pride in one’s own prowess—“I will go in
order to win praise.” Or also, “It is for my beloved, so that I may
have her affection—for this I will work.” … If you will work in pride
for worldly vainglory, whereby you may be superior to the others,
then you must give your garments and your wealth to the heralds, so
that they may proclaim with great clamor your valor and largess….
On the other hand, if it be that you go over the sea because of a
woman of whom your heart is enamored, hoping that on your return
the girl or lady for whom you have labored may deign to have pity on
you, then you are lacking the right medicine.

Rather than to serve God, which alone made Crusade worthwhile by Gower’s standards, his contemporaries were fighting out of a desire for worldly renown or to win the favor of women. Although Gower . . .

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