Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

David Morris, The Servile Mother: Jerusalem as Woman in the Era of the Crusades

According to Robert of Rheims, Pope Urban described Jerusalem in vividly anthropomorphic terms, visualizing “her” as a sexually-assaulted woman who had been “enslaved” (ancillari) by the Muslims.  Whether Pope Urban actually likened the Holy City to a woman in distress, or the image was a narrative embellishment of Robert’s, the fact remains that the vision of Jerusalem as woman would remain a consistent feature of crusading discourse as it evolved over the twelfth century.  Many accounts continued to describe the city as an ancilla, a slave woman who had been violated by the infidel.  Others turned to the Pauline imagery of  “our mother Jerusalem,” which subsequently gave rise to a whole range of family relationships involving the Holy City: God as cuckold, Muslims as adulterous paramours, and crusaders as Jerusalem’s revenge-minded sons.  The vision of Jerusalem as woman originated with the Old Testament prophets, who transformed Jerusalem into a spiritual vision of the community of the faithful, married to God.  Among Christians, this was the dominant interpretation well into the Middle Ages.  The application of these images to the actual city of Jerusalem after c. 1100 hence represents a striking departure from traditional exegesis.  What accounts for such an abrupt shift?  The image of Jerusalem and its church as an ancilla grew out of the discourse generated by the Investiture Contest: reformers such as Gregory VII used the language of gender and  subjugation to describe the perceived oppression of the Church by lay authorities.  Thus the metaphor of Jerusalem as ancilla was extended from the reformers’ vision of the Church, oppressed by evil Christians, to the actual Holy City, oppressed by Muslims.  We can thereby gain some understanding both of the medieval imagination, and also how two defining features of Latin Christendom—the ideals of reform and of crusade—related to each other.


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