Linda Paterson (in collaboration with Luca Barbieri, Ruth Harvey and Anna Radaelli and with an appendix by Marjolaine Raguin), Singing the Crusades: French and Occitan Lyric Responses to the Crusading Movements, 1137-1336 (Brian Ditcham)

Linda Paterson

Singing the Crusades: French and Occitan Lyric Responses to the Crusading Movements, 1137-1336

(D.S. Brewer, 2018) 350 pp. $99.00

As the rather complex bibliographic citation suggests, this is not a completely standard monographic publication. It is rather the hard copy companion to a website which brings together the edited texts of some two hundred lyrics (151 in Occitan, 51 in Old French) which to a greater or lesser extent can be linked to the Crusading movement. The website entries (accessible at, in turn linked to an Italian-hosted site for the Occitan texts) contain the detailed editorial and interpretive data on individual lyrics. Spoken performances of the Old French texts are also available, supplemented by sung versions where musical notation survives; this usefully reminds the reader that these texts were designed for oral performance even though they were ultimately collected and canonised by later generations as “pure” poetry. At times, particularly when dealing with the highly political but also highly allusive Occitan sirventes genre, analogies with the more politically oriented side of the contemporary singer-songwriter tradition came to mind. Bob Dylan’s Nobel Literature Prize may perhaps serve as a useful modern analogue to the ways in which the lyrics collected here shifted in status over time in ways which may obscure and complicate their textual transmission and original reception.

The first point to make is that this is an enormously valuable resource both for historians of crusading in all its ramifications and for literary historians seeking to place texts in the context of their creation. Obviously the linguistic limits (just Old French and Occitan) exclude crusade-related texts in, say, Middle German or Galego Portugues- though troubadours from modern Catalonia and Italy composed in Occitan and are represented in the corpus. Clearly also there is a degree of subjective judgement involved in deciding just what constitutes a “crusade” lyric and some might argue that the net has been cast a shade on the wide side (to cite a well known example, even though Richard the Lionheart’s crusading credentials cannot be denied, one might debate whether his lament from Austrian captivity “Ja nus homs pris” is strictly speaking a crusade lyric since it is aimed primarily at begging his vassals to come over with ransom money). While troubadours and their Old French trouvère counterparts did often put their bodies on the line in crusading environments (Richard and his younger near-contemporary Thibault de Champagne actually leading crusade expeditions), not all those who called out for crusade participation can be traced in the field and indeed some were mocked in their own day for wriggling out of their vows.

It goes without saying that these lyrics are a source to be used with due care and attention; while elements of the corpus gathered here are familiar enough, one senses that they have sometimes been cherry picked for memorable lines rather than being set fully in their context. Attributions are often shaky, which can leave a named poet appearing to flatly contradict himself in his attitude to a given crusading expedition or political leader (or was he simply a pen for hire writing for the highest bidder?). Dating, especially for items written in the sirventes genre, can be very uncertain, with some songs so obscurely phrased that they can credibly be fitted to events decades apart. There are distinct differences between the Old French and Occitan material- there is for instance very little French material in the sirventes mould. It is frustratingly unclear whether this reflects a genuine divergence in how poets in the different language traditions related to genre conventions or whether it is an artefact of how subsequent generations valued the works of their forebears when it came to creating the anthologies which provide many of the texts which have come down to us. It is also clear that much- especially in the years before 1150 and indeed before the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin- has been lost. The survival patterns do however perhaps bear out the views of historians like Christopher Tyerman when he suggests that crusading only became an ongoing feature in western Christian mentalities at the end of the twelfth century.

Looking at the corpus as a whole, it is striking that hardly any surviving poems are fundamentally hostile to crusading as a concept. The Fourth Crusade’s diversion to Constantinople and the subsequent wars in Greece clearly divided opinion. Poets- particularly Occitan ones- could be highly critical of what they depicted as the misemployment of crusading privileges for wars in Southern France, Italy or Philip III of France’s invasion of Catalonia in the so-called Aragonese Crusade. Charles of Anjou emerges as perhaps the best-hated individual in thirteenth century Europe (though Pope Martin IV might have run him close during the latter’s pontificate); it comes as no surprise to discover that the commune of Perugia had to pass a statute in 1268 criminalising the composition and performance of songs hostile to him. It is also intriguing to find his enemies playing back against Charles negative topoi associated by pro-papal propagandists with Frederick II like the employment of “Saracen” troops from Lucera. Going by the surviving texts it is clear that the Ghibelline devil had all the best songs- none of which prevented the papal-backed Angevin-led Guelf coalition from winning on the field of battle. Hostility to Charles amongst the poetry writing classes became so endemic that this reviewer began to wonder whether verbal swipes at him might have became a coded way of criticising his sainted elder brother Louis as well (admittedly not an interpretation suggested by Paterson). Venomous attacks on a reified “Rome”, home of all corruption and hypocrisy, echoed through the thirteenth century.

Despite this, it is extremely hard to locate forthrightly negative views of Holy Land crusading in the poetry. Some Occitan writers suggested that the fight against Muslim Spain should be seen as equally important and meritorious (as well as being closer to home). A tiny number of late thirteenth century texts treat crusading with levity or even embark on an argument with God over just why he so conspicuously seems to be favouring the Muslim enemy. In the end, however, clearly stated principled rejection of crusading on religious or other grounds is pretty well invisible in the poetry and verbal enthusiasm for crusading ventures continued years after the fall of Acre.

Paterson’s book gives a very fair overview of the riches contained in the website. At times one was surprised to find rather dated secondary material (Runciman, H E Mayer) cited in the passages setting the chronological framework for the lengthy citations of specific poems which constitute the core of the book but this is a minor concern. This is a very welcome way into a collection of source material which, while not always transparent and easy to use, future historians of the crusades will need to take full account.

Brian D.H. Ditcham
Independent Scholar

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