Category Archives: crusade

“Certainly God is angry with us” – a sermon on the Vikings

In a previous blog, I gave some (admittedly lighthearted) advice on how to fend off a vampire attack, culled from a twelfth-century chronicle. In a slightly more serious tone, this blog’s about how to defend against the Vikings.

It’s a truism of the lecture-hall, the textbook and the documentary to point out that the Vikings didn’t write down their side of the story, at least not in the early Middle Ages. But nor did their secular opponents, at least not on a large scale. Instead, we’re dependent on texts produced by their ecclesiastical victims.  Historians mostly draw on monastic annals of one kind or another – the Annals of St-Vaast are a particular favourite for this purpose, filled with terror and horror at the Scandinavian depredations.  In other words, the perspective on the Vikings from the written sources is thoroughly ‘monastic’.

Actually, though, other kinds of texts do survive that shed a somewhat different light. In the course of research into a forthcoming article, I came across a short but very rich sermon by the Paris monk Abbo of St-Germain-des-Pres, written around 900 or so, and was so delighted by it that I’ve made a quick translation (I think the first into any modern language) so more people can read it too:

Abbo’s theme was how to fend off the Viking attacks. What makes his sermon especially interesting is that it seems to be aimed at Carolingian lay aristocrats. This is still a monastic text, then, but it’s one that’s reaching out beyond the monastery, and not written purely or even primarily for monastic consumption.

It’s pitched at a fairly low level, in very straightforward Latin and with an easy-to-follow take-home argument. The main thrust is that the Vikings are a punishment from God for moral and ethical failings: “But how are you able to please God and to have victory, you who always have your hands full of perjury and rapine?”. Abbo draws on Biblical and Roman history to underline the point, and also draws on British history too (contemporary or ancient?) as a warning of what might happen if things don’t improve.

It’s however the last paragraph that’s perhaps the most interesting of all. Despite the general argument that what’s required is moral reform, Abbo concludes not by urging fasting or donations to the church, but by urging his audience to go out to battle:

Do not let your enemies multiply and grow but, as Scripture commends, fight for your homeland (patria), do not fear to die in God’s war (bellum Dei). Certainly if you die there, you will be holy martyrs. And know truly that no man will die before his term, foreknown by God. A man is not able to be killed amongst all the swords, if it is not his time. For it is written, “You have set the limits which they cannot pass”. And therefore enter confidently into the Lord God’s war. And when you enter into God’s war, shout out with a loud voice, “Christ conquers, Christ rules, Christ commands!”.

Abbo here encourages his listeners to go out and face death, with an interesting combination of ideas of holy war and fate: Beowulf meets First Crusade. Whether this kind of pep-talk worked, we can’t of course know. But Frankish armies did win quite a few battles around this time – and Abbo’s sermon is maybe as close to their state of mind as we’re likely ever to get.

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A History of Violence: Europe and the Conquest of Lisbon

Some 868 years ago today, on 24 October 1147, the city of Lisbon fell to a combined force of besiegers from England, Scotland, Germany, Holland and France. Thanks to a surviving report written by an eyewitness Anglo-Norman cleric, we have an excellent grasp of developments leading up to the siege, the weeks of the siege itself, and its immediate aftermath. From the point of view of a historian, that makes it an absorbing event to study. But it’s also an episode that raises troubling questions about coming to terms with a challenging past, in particular the way that violence has long been intertwined with European history.

At the time of the siege, Lisbon was under the control of a Muslim emir: it was part of Al-Andalus, the Islamic polity created in the eighth century by the invasion and defeat of the Visigothic kingdom. Its capture in 1147 was far from bloodless, as our chronicler, the author of the Conquest of Lisbon, recounts with relish, at least where enemy losses are concerned.[1] Heads are chopped off, ambushes bloodily sprung, and civilians killed (though most of the latter were in the end spared their life, if not their property, in contrast to the massacres commonly reported elsewhere).

Today, this kind of violence is increasingly segregated from general European history and treated separately as part of ‘The Crusades’, an active field of research for which there are specialised courses, journals, conferences, and of course shelves of books in libraries and any local bookshops that happen to survive.[2] In just this vein, the conquest of Lisbon is traditionally considered as part of the Second Crusade, indeed its ‘only success’, after the dismal failure (from a Latin Christian point of view, anyway) of expeditions in the Middle East.

Yet we need to be careful: any notion that there was an entirely distinct compartment of life in the Middle Ages labelled ‘crusading’ is misleading. Holy war or armed pilgrimage were thoroughly interwoven into medieval society, not separated from it. And despite common assumptions to the contrary, there is no convincing evidence that the participants in the siege were following any specific papal orders, or that the attack on Lisbon was pre-planned as part of the ‘Second Crusade‘. It was merely the latest in a series of ad hoc ventures launched by northern sailors (or pirates, depending on your point of view) passing through to the eastern Mediterranean, more or less under their own collective steam.

Viewed from 2015, what makes the violence carried out at Lisbon particularly troubling is precisely its importance in, and for, European history in general terms, beyond the study of ‘The Crusades’. That’s partly because the conquest of the city was a vital moment in the history of a major European state. In 1147, the kingdom of Portugal was just a few years old and was greatly strengthened by the victory at Lisbon. Understandably, the city’s capture resonates to this day in Portuguese culture, for instance in a celebrated (and highly recommended) novel, the History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago, or in modern paintings like this blog’s header image.

More than that, though, the conquest itself was in a sense an example of collective European action, centuries before the European Union was dreamed up. To be sure, the besiegers did not think of it in those terms; they probably did not think of themselves as ‘Europeans’ at all (though the concept of Europe was not quite so unknown in the Middle Ages as is sometimes breezily asserted).[3] Yet the fact remains that the siege was undertaken by a multi-national group of people, or in the words of our eyewitness chronicler, ‘people of so many different tongues’.

What’s more, the besiegers were for the most part not knights, barons and kings, but townsmen from the growing urban communities around the North Sea. These ordinary men came together voluntarily and organised themselves in line with ideas of popular consensus, complete with elected officials. This was not modern democracy, but an arrangement closer to the parliamentary assemblies of medieval Europe – and the popular councils that increasingly ran its towns – than to its royal courts. That was something that the Portuguese king himself found out when negotiating terms with the assisting force:

And when the king inquired who our chiefs were or whose counsels were pre-eminent among us or if we had commissioned anyone to answer for our whole army, he was briefly informed that such and such were our chief men and that their acts and counsels carried especial weight, but that we had not yet decided on anyone on whom authority should be conferred to make answer for all.

In a sense, then, the Conquest of Lisbon was an early and quite remarkable episode of popular and effective international ‘European’ collaboration, undertaken not by heads of state but by ordinary people, giving an institutional form to the trust created through long-term friendly interaction, facilitated by geographic proximity, mutual interests and a broadly shared culture. The kingdom that they helped would go on to play a vital role in European affairs; conversely, so important to Portugal’s future was the siege that we could even say the kingdom was in part created by ‘European’ collaboration.

Yet the fact that this extraordinary and influential collaboration took place in such a terrible context – essentially an act of unprovoked aggression, notwithstanding the crusaders’ lipservice to the Islamic conquest of Spain some three centuries previously – should perhaps give us pause for thought, especially at a time when the European Union, and what Europe means, is once again under scrutiny. How best to deal with the violence inherent in European history is a challenge that isn’t restricted to the recent past, and a problem which hasn’t gone away.

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This was first posted on the History Matters blog.
For a longer study of the siege of Lisbon, see ‘All in the Same Boat? East Anglia, the North Sea World and the 1147 Expedition to Lisbon’ in David Bates and Robert Liddiard (eds.), East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 287–300, or a pre-publication (unpaginated) version at

[1] Conveniently available in English facing-page translation, together with a useful preface by Jonathan Phillips, in David, ed. and tr., The Conquest of Lisbon (2001). All quotations are drawn from this translation.

[2] Particularly recommended is Christopher Tyerman’s new How to Plan a Crusade (2015), with some luminous pages on the Lisbon siege.

[3] The most thorough guide is now Klaus Oschema, Bilder von Europa im Mittelalter (2013). For Anglophone readers, the best remains Timothy Reuter, ‘Medieval ideas of Europe’, History Workshop Journal 33 (1992).

The last words of a crusader. Or, why archives are sceau exciting

Today I visited the departmental archive of the Haute Marne, in the quiet eastern French town of Chaumont. I’m interested in how monastic communities dealt with ‘secular justice’ – building on my earlier research into Carolingian advocacy – and I was chasing up a few leads. Archives are places of wonder, though, and you never know what you’ll stumble across, even when the material’s been carefully catalogued. And this piece made me pause.

AD HM 9 H 19 (1)

It’s a charter that records how Geoffrey IV of Joinville, ancestor of the famous Jean de Joinville, gave up certain rights over an estate formally owned by the monastery of St-Urbain.

It’s not much to look at, admittedly. In fact, it’s a singularly scrappy piece of parchment, no more than 10cm high.  Geoffrey, it seems, was letting standards slip.

But that’s understandable when we take into account how and when the charter was produced. When he made it, Geoffrey was taking part in the long siege of Acre (1189-1191), part of the so-called ‘Third Crusade’. Geoffrey promised that the grant would be valid whether he lived or died. He was presumably hoping for the former, but it turned out to be the latter. His brother Geoffrey V nevertheless later dutifully confirmed the grant, this time with a much nicer piece of parchment, with a surviving seal. Geoffrey V also brought back his brother’s remains for burial.

And by the looks of it, he (or someone) also brought back this slip of parchment, too, which gives every impression of having been hastily drafted in a tent outside the city. Unimpressive though it may seem, it was carefully preserved by the monks of St-Urbain, along with his brother’s more formal confirmation.

As it happens, the charter hasn’t been edited (at least as far as I know) – but a normal edition of the text alone couldn’t, I think, transmit the fascination exerted by the original. Not in spite of its scrappiness, but because of it.