‘God helped thee; The eagle got food afresh’: Norse Crusaders and the Pleasure of Killing

‘God helped thee; The eagle got food afresh’: Norse Crusaders and the Pleasure of Killing

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“God helped thee; The eagle got food afresh”: Norse Crusaders and the Pleasure of Killing

By Pål Berg Svenungsen

Paper given at the 2013 International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds

Introduction: The 12th century minstrel Bertran de Born told in a war hymn of what gave him great pleasure: ‘I tell you, that neither eating, drinking, nor sleep has as much savour for me as when I hear the cry “Forwards!” from both sides, and horses without riders shying and whinnying, and the cry “Help! Help!”, and to see the small and the great fall to the grass at the ditches and the dead pierced by the wood of the lances decked with banners.’ To Norbert Elias this was a clear example of the relationship between pleasure and killing in medieval society. Knights often took great pleasure in killing and torturing people, something that according to Elias was a socially permitted pleasure caused by a lack of social control. It was, however, these warriors that pope Urban II wanted to recruit to his new undertaking; the new kind of armed pilgrimage that was later to be known as the First Crusade.

This paper, however, will not focus on the relationship between the emotion of pleasure and killing on crusade from the perspective of the European knightly class, but rather from the perspective of crusaders from the northernmost periphery of Christendom, the kingdom of Norway. The men of the north are often depicted in the Norse sagas as taking great pleasure in killing, even doing it for no good reason; as famously illustrated in the comment of Þórgeirr Hávarsson, who struck the head of a shepherd for no other reason than that “he was well placed to receive a blow.” How then did these men behave on crusade?

The clerical attitude towards violence in the Middle Ages was largely shaped by the thoughts of Saint Augustine and thus also shared his ambivalent attitude towards warfare. On one side warfare could according to Augustine be justified as a function of divine providence, while on the other it was condemned for the inward faults to which it inevitably gave rise. Church attitudes were further nuanced by value judgments based on a host of variables, but special attention was given to three criteria; the state of mind of those performing the violence, the ends sought and the competence of the individual or body which authorized the acts, which in combination allowed the Church considerable ideological flexibility. Crusading, however, was also a penitential act that, at least in theory, was regulated by the doctrine of iustum bellum which stipulated that no more force than necessary was to be employed. Among chroniclers there was a strong tendency to emphasize the pain and suffering experienced by the crusaders as a sign of devotion; to carry the cross of Christ also meant to re-enact the pains of his passion. But while he Church focused on the pleasures of being killed, the crusaders themselves also revealed some tendencies to take pleasure in the actual killing.

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