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Christopher Hill
Christopher Hill

Pop Culture Reshapes Role of Crusades

Hill's Talk Opens Humanities Forum

By Alex Pure '12  |  Contact Holly Foster 315-859-4068
Posted October 9, 2009
Tags History Humanities Forum
“The motivations of the people actually involved in the Crusades are completely alien to us,” remarked Christopher Hill, visiting assistant professor of history, to the members of his audience on Thursday, Oct. 8. And perhaps that’s why the significance of a structured religious hierarchy – the guiding force of the Crusades – is frequently downplayed (or downright subverted) in current pop culture dramatizations. The Western attitudes toward religion and war have surely come a long way since the 13th century.

Hill’s lecture, titled “Taking the Cross out of the Crusades: Pop Culture’s Secular Transformation of High Medieval Piety,” was the first in the Hamilton College Humanities Forum. The series’ purpose is to create an intellectual arena “to critically examine secularism as an approach to understanding the world, past and present.”

Hill explained that the Crusades were not a series of grandiose missions to bring religion to other parts of the world. Rather, they were first and foremost an “armed pilgrimage” – that is, a military campaign carried out by Christian Europe with the specific intention of protecting pilgrims heading to the Holy Land. Furthermore, the Crusades (which occurred approximately between 1195 and 1250) were waged primarily against the Seljuks, a Muslim dynasty that had overtaken Asia Minor and had mostly blocked off European access to the Holy Land.

Nevertheless, there were several major reasons why one wouldn’t want to go on a Crusade – the first of them being that the opponents were absolutely fearsome. The Seljuks had just beaten the Roman Army, one of the greatest military factions of the known world at the time. Hill explained that the knights probably knew that they were going to die if they chose to fight; “personal gain was not really a benefit here.” The second reason was that participation in the Crusades was massively expensive: one would almost certainly have to mortgage his land and liquidate around three years of income to finance his involvement. And the third major reason was that the Crusades took “time away from life.” Combatants would part with their families and businesses only to see them years later upon their return – if they returned at all. So then, all things considering, why did they even go?

“In a word: religion,” Hill said. The structured practice of Catholicism was deemed the only true access point into heaven, something obviously worth fighting for. Furthermore, theological sophistication was increasing and people were beginning to become more interested in what it meant to be a Christian. Many knights grew concerned over the divine state of their souls: slaughter was their business, but it seemed hardly a profession that Jesus would have approved. Were their actions Christian? At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II tried to appease those worries by issuing indulgences to those who fought in the Crusades. His actions worked; rallied and inspired, the knights in his audience cried, “Deus vult!” (“It is God’s will!”)

“I don’t go to the movies to learn about history; that’s why I went to graduate school,” Hill joked, citing the frequent examples of a-historicity in the film medium. And the depictions of the Crusades are almost always off-the-mark. “I find it interesting that it’s always the same attitude concerning (the Crusaders’) motivation.” Discussing such examples as The Crusades (1935), The Seventh Seal (1957) and Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Hill explained that following World War II, there was an increasing pattern of secularization within Crusades movies. The characters often ended up either disillusioned with the fighting, faced with an existential crisis, or suddenly enlightened regarding the intrinsically evil nature of religion. Often it was a mixture of all three.

Of course, the motivations and personas of these cinematic characters existed as almost diametrically opposite to their real-life counterparts. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the eponymous character has a sense of spirituality, but it’s against the church rather than for it. The religious bishop is cunning and evil almost to the point of caricature. The grubby friar, who lauds the greatness of beer, even comes off as an appealingly bawdy character. Additionally, the movie seems to espouse ecumenicism, a very modern philosophy (regarding the inherent unity of all major religions) that would have seemed absolutely outlandish to someone in the 1200s.

Likewise, the film Kingdom of Heaven (2005) also exemplifies all of these earlier themes. The church is demonized right off the bat when, in the beginning of the film, the inhumanely callous priest instructs some gravediggers to chop off a dead woman’s head because she was a suicide. And at the end of the movie, one of the important Crusader characters declares dramatically: “God be with you. He’s no longer with me.”

“It’s our need to rationalize the war experience,” Hill said. “It’s our belief that war is wrong, and that we can learn from it.” Typically when one watches a movie ostensibly about the Crusades, they’re not watching a movie that’s actually about the Crusades. Rather, they’re watching an interpretation of current Western attitudes that happens to be dressed up in medieval clothing. Hill pointedly explained that if a movie stayed true to the real motivations of the Crusaders, it would most likely flop at the box office. Modern audiences, he reiterated, are simply too far removed from that school of thought.

The next lecture in the Humanities Forum will feature Mount Holyoke College Professor of Religion Heath Atchley discussing “Disturbing the Secular,” on Thursday, Oct. 22, at 4:10 p.m. in the Science Center’s Kennedy Auditorium.

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