Creating a crusader saint: Canute Lavard and others of that ilk
By Kurt Villads Jensen
Of chronicles and kings: national saints and the emergence of nation states in the high middle ages, eds. John Bergsagel, David Hiley, and Thomas Riis (Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 2015)
Introduction: Divine approval of righteous warfare is an old phenomenon in Western Europe, going back to the sign that Emperor Constantine saw in the sky and through which he conquered in 312. Long before this episode, the Israelites were waging wars on behalf of “The Lord of Heaven’s armies” as God designates himself in the Old Testament, and the Maccabees saw angels riding on horses and getting intervening in the battles and protecting the just warriors (II Mac 10,29-30).
In the Middle Ages, saints were invoked before great, decisive battles, they sometimes participated directly themselves, and they did so more and more often after the eleventh and especially the twelfth century.
The crusades were understood by contemporaries to be the most holy of all wars, and they certainly did not lack support from above. After the sermon of Pope Urban II in Clermont in 1095, armies gathered in the spring of 1096 from all corners of Europe and began the long march towards Jerusalem. When in 1098 they were besieged in Antioch by a much larger Muslim army, they rode out of the city to fight, encouraged by the miraculous finding in St. Peter’s church of the lance that had pierced the side of Jesus when he hung on the cross. When they approached the Muslims, heaven opened, and an army of dead crusaders came riding out to fight together with the living ones, led by St George and St Demetrius. The crusaders received divine help from heaven, and with much greater right than had the Maccabees, the historian Guibert of Nogent remarked in 1108. The Maccabees had fought for circumcision and pork, the crusaders for cleaning the polluted churches and expanding the faith, and they had given their blood for Christ.
After the bloody conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, crusading became popular among the classical saints. The cult of the Warrior St George followed the crusaders back to Western Europe. St Nicolas began to work miracles by helping crusaders from southern Italy to escape from Muslim prisons. In Spain, St James of Compostela had his vita re-written in the early 1120’s and became the spiritual leader of the Reconquista, of the crusades against the Iberian Muslims. But he also became the practical leader and for centuries was seen repeatedly leading heavenly and earthly armies into battle, and he gained a new byname, Santiago Matamoros, St James the Moor-killer. Even the peaceful Bishop and etymologist Isidor of Seville began the twelfth century during to ride out on his white horse in front of the crusaders from León and secure victory for them. Saints were reshaped and understood in a crusading context.