“From 1066 to 1095: Family Traditions, Conquests, and the Appeal of the First Crusade”, a talk given at NCH on 6th December 2016 by Dr. Lars Kjaer, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History

Those present were: Dr. Lars Kjaer, Dr. Peter Maber (Faculty of English), Dr. Naomi Goulder (Faculty of Philosophy), Dr. Catherine Brown (Faculty of English), Dr. Daniel Swift (Faculty of English), Dr. Diana Bozhilova (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Dr. Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics), Dr. Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics), Dr. Olly Ayers (Faculties of History and of Politics & International Relations), Dr. George Zouros (Faculty of Economics), Dr. Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), Dr. Dan O’Hara (Faculty of English) and Dr. David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy)


In the intimate setting of the Thinkery, there was a good turnout to see Lars swim against the tide of recent interpretations of the First Crusade. The prevalent view, which Jonathan Riley-Smith has done most to promote, gives greatest weight to religious motivation in explaining the response of the leading aristocrats to the call which Pope Urban issued in 1095. Lars argued instead that at least as important a factor in an aristocrat’s joining the crusade was whether there was a family connection with the Norman conquests of the previous generation, in England in 1066 and also in Sicily in 1061. In making the case, he followed the same prosopographical method that is conspicuous in Riley-Smith, who found that of 51 dukes or counts participating in the Crusade fully 21 had in their past some distinguishing religious activity, such as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or taking up arms for the Papacy. Of those same 51, Lars found, the number with family links to the prior conquests is 22.

What sort of explanation does this correlation point to? For one thing, such family connections could supply useful knowledge as to how to go about an undertaking of this kind. But as for what drove these aristocrats to join up, Lars held that this evidence especially suggests the motive of emulation, in the sons, sons-in-law, nephews etc of those who had achieved renown in the conquests of the sixties. Lars illustrated the idea with a passage from one of the subsequent chronicles, while also acknowledging that these monks’ chronicles refer a great deal to religious motivations and very little to the exploits of the previous generation. But this, Lars maintained, is hardly substantial evidence in favour of Riley-Smith’s hypothesis, not least because Jerusalem was captured, and the elders’ glory thus eclipsed.

As the discussion which followed made very clear, Lars didn’t wish to deny the relevance either of religious considerations or of motives of material profit. In line with the case of Odo of Bayeux which Lars had said first set off his train of thought, it was notable that almost none of the counts or dukes involved were in 1095 significant landholders in Sicily or England. His claim was above all that family traditions have been given less than their due – at any rate in recent Anglophone scholarship. Sebastian reported that German and French historians don’t in his experience fit the Riley-Smith pattern, focusing rather on glory and profit. He also wondered whether, whatever the motives for setting out, one motive for keeping going would have been the great practical difficulty of an army’s retracing its steps; but Lars mentioned some cases of turning back. George, frankly confessing himself content with the materialistic explanation, asked whether many of those Lars had surveyed were second sons. Many indeed were.

Catherine posed the question how important a factor intra-familial emulation is in the jihadism of today. Sebastian was doubtful it is extensive, as many jihadi recruits are people from Britain or the Benelux countries who are driven by alienation; but Catherine wondered what an investigation of Chechen or Saudi Arabian jihadists might show. Certainly some of the same methodological issues would seem to arise in this connection as with Lars’ topic. In relation to how to explain responses to Urban’s call, David asked whether anything like it had been unsuccessfully issued before. Lars in reply mentioned a similar proposal in a letter of early in the 1070s from Gregory VII to some supporters, but also explained that by 1095, further factors had accrued, such as some particular setbacks for the reformed papacy, and a marked political weakening of the Arabs. And so it went on: Lars’ responses to points raised by colleagues were full of colour and curious circumstance, as if a medieval tapestry had been briefly unrolled in the Thinkery.

Written by Dr David Mitchell, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Convenor of the Ottoline Club, NCH’s faculty club for interdisciplinary discussion