The Holy Lance of Antioch

Discovery of the Holy Lance

In June of 1098, after a lengthy siege of their own, Christian Crusaders had captured the city of Antioch. The crusaders only held the city for two days before they themselves were under siege by the army of Kerbogha of Mosul.

On the fifth day of the second siege of Antioch, a French priest, Peter Bartholomew, claimed to have had visions of St. Andrew, who told him that the Lance that had stabbed Jesus Christ upon the cross. The Lance is mentioned in the Gospel of John 19:34: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water.” The mixture of blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ body was taken by theologians as evidence of his simultaneous humanity and divinity.

Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse and commander of the army at Antioch, believed Peter Bartholomew, though Adhemar of Le Puy—the Papal legate—was unsure, having seen a relic purported to be the Holy Lance in Constantinople. Regardless, Count Raymond, Raymond of Aguilers (the Count’s chaplain), and William, Bishop of Orange began searching for the spear in the Cathedral of St. Peter.  Peter ultimately produced the Lance from a pit in the church.

The Battle of Antioch

Besieged within their newly captured city, with food running low and slim chances of reinforcement, the Crusaders remained in dire straits.  Cognizant of the worsening situation, Count Raymond of Toulouse, a believer in the newly discovered Holy Lance, argued that the Crusaders should engage the besieging Muslims in a pitched battle outside the city.  On the surface, this prospect appeared ludicrous.  In addition to greatly outnumbering the crusading army, Kerbogha’s men were relatively fresh and well supplied, while the Crusaders had just fought their way through an exhausting siege and were in the process of starving to death within the walls.  Despite these potential pitfalls, the princes agreed to the plan.  In preparation for the attack, the military and religious leaders of the Christian forces, even those such as Le Puy who doubted the authenticity of the Lance, ordered a religious fast, stretching their diminishing food reserves while simultaneously raising morale.  They also held masses to focus the morale of the troops, in which they emphasized the significance of the Lance’s discovery.

On Monday, June 28th, to the surprise and eventual despair of Kerbogha, the gates of Antioch opened and the Latin army filed out onto the plain.  Bishop Adhemar Le Puy commanded the left wing carrying the Holy Lance itself as a battle standard.  Battle was soon joined, and despite their apparent advantage in numbers and preparation, the Islamic forces broke quickly, leaving the Crusaders victorious.  Unbeknownst to the Crusaders, Kerbogha had only tenuous control over his army, and when Duqaq, Ruler of Damascus, deserted in the middle of battle, he had sparked a total route.

Having seemingly witnessed a military miracle, the crusaders heaped praise upon the Lance, resulting in a variety of fantastic accounts of divine intervention in the battle. According to one account:

“The lines of the enemy fell upon us who were in the squadron of the Bishop, and though their forces were greater than ours, yet, through the protection of the Holy Lance which was there, they there wounded no one; neither did they hit any of us with arrows.” [1]

Some accounts describe a host of heavenly warriors joining the Christian army on the field, while others recount the intervention of specific saints.

Peter’s Trial by Fire

Even after the Crusader victory at Antioch, Peter Bartholomew faced many skeptics. One of the most vocal disbelievers was Bohemond of Taranto, who is recorded as having found fault with the way the Lance was found only once Peter alone descended into the digging site: 

“Oh, boorish foolishness! Oh, boorish credulity! Oh, credulity, easily won! So be it! His integrity corroborates the man, and nearness to the crucifixion the place. Is this most recent fraud of that man not evident enough? If he had walked purely, simply, in the way of God; if he had trusted in the apostle who appeared to him, he would himself not (alone) bear witness to this discovery but would obtain another’s testimony. But why do I devote so much scorn to that person? Because the Provencals ascribe our victory, which is from above, like light from the Father, to their piece of iron.” [2]

Eager to disprove his skeptics, Peter demanded that he undergo trial by fire to show that he had divine protection. Raymond of Aguilers recorded Peter’s plot to prove the authenticity of the Lance:  

“I wish and beg that a very large fire be built; and I will pass through the midst of it with the Lance of the Lord. If it is the Lance of the Lord, I will pass through the fire unhurt, but if it is not, I will be burned in the fire. For I see that neither signs nor witnesses are believed.” [3]

Indeed, a “very large fire” was built. Peter was horribly burned by this challenge and died 12 days later, though some held to the belief that both Peter and the Holy Lance were authentic.

The Lance Opens the Floodgates of Religious Motivations

The episode of the Holy Lance of Antioch set a precedent for how spiritual visions and the course of war would interplay throughout the rest of the First Crusade. The sequence of the Crusaders being down for the count, inspired by a religious sign, then overcoming near certain defeat to achieve victory would repeat itself beyond the borders of Antioch. In fact, it would happen again in Jerusalem during the summer of 1099 when the Crusaders faced a lack of water due to poisoned wells, strenuous work building catapults, and quarreling leaders all before a city that was too big to seize in one blow. Though conditions outside the walls of Jerusalem in the sweltering summer of 1099 were hopeless, the Crusaders found the resilience they needed to capture Jerusalem after receiving a message of encouragement from the late Bishop Adhemar via a vision announced by a priest named Peter Desiderius. Peter Desiderius’s vision galvanized the Crusaders into a frenzy of religious fervor that culminated in a circumambulation of the city of Jerusalem where the Crusaders brandished sacred relics, including the Holy Lance of Antioch, that helped propel them to victory over the Arabs in Jerusalem.

Religious Illusions (or Delusions?) and their Real Effects

The Holy Lance of Antioch opened the floodgates for religious symbols to serve as an impetus to the Crusaders and that had the power to change the course of the war. Because of these battle-changing visions, the First Crusade took on an entirely new hue of religiosity. Not only was the First Crusade colored with religious enthusiasm because of fanfare generated by the call of holy war from Pope Urban II or the symbolism of the crosses sewn onto the Crusaders’ clothing, but also because religion played a role in the minds and motivations of every individual fighter.

It is true that the Crusaders’ victory at Antioch can be almost equally attributed to the problems within Kerbogha’s fractioned, squabbling army as to the military power of the Crusaders. However, the Crusaders themselves were not fully aware of the weakness of Kerbogha’s army. Firsthand accounts of the First Crusade by Crusaders specifically cite the discovery of the Holy Lance as the factor that influenced them to stay in Antioch. In the Gesta account of the Crusades, the author describes how the Holy Lance was carried into battle as a token of God’s grace, and Raymond of Aguilers credits the Lance with changing the course of battle at Antioch:

“…when our men were beaten, discouraged, and in narrow straits, divine aid appeared. And the blessed Andrew taught us through the youth who had spoken of the Lance [Peter Bartholomew] how we ought to conduct ourselves before the battle and in the battle…” [4] 

Thus, the will power of the Crusaders not to give up at Antioch must be attributed to the discovery of the Holy Lance. Proof of the importance of religion to each individual Crusader lies in the power of one holy vision coupled with the finding of one holy relic in Antioch to feed the Crusaders when there was no food, arm them when there were no provisions, and, ultimately, to give them the will to fight when defeat seemed almost inevitable. Political scientist Michael Horowitz also points out in his article “Long Time Going: Religion and the Duration of Crusading” the relationship between religious visions and pre-battle rituals as proof of the religiosity of the First Crusade. He notes “after the exaltation that followed the ‘discovery’ of the Holy Lance, the battle preparations of the Crusaders at Antioch in June 1098 consisted of fasting for three days. There is no conventional military reason for this behavior.” [5] That religion spurred unique “battle preparations” that had “no conventional military reason” is further evidence of how spiritual devotion permeated even the most unreligious part of the Crusade – the warfare itself. While Pope Urban II and the early preachers of the First Crusade made the First Crusade a symbolically religious effort, holy visions had the power of making the First Crusade a concretely religious pursuit.

There is endless debate among the eyewitnesses of the First Crusade over the legitimacy of the discovery of the Holy Lance. But questions of whether the Holy Lance was just a piece of scrap metal or the actual blade that pierced the side of Christ, or if Peter Bartholomew was a holy man with a direct connection to the heavens or a delusional lunatic seeking attention, are not questions worth asking. Enough of the Crusaders believed in the religious visions that they had tangible effects regardless of their veracity. Thus, regardless of the Lance’s supposed mystical powers, it held definite military value for its much needed ability to raise morale and inspire unity in a crusading army that often faced seemingly impossible dilemmas and suffered from internal discord.

Notes 

[1] August C. Krey, trans. and ed. The First Crusade; the Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 188. HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed April 24, 2016 http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015066067755.

[2] Ibid., 240

[3] Ibid., 230

[4] Ibid., 181.

[5] Michael C. Horowitz, “Long Time Going: Religion and the Duration of Crusading,” International Security, Vol. 34, No. 2, 181, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40389216.

Sources

Horowitz, Michael C. “Long Time Going: Religion and the Duration of Crusading.” International Security, Vol. 34, No. 2, 162-193. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40389216 (accessed April 24, 2016).

Krey, August C., ed. and trans. The First Crusade; the Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958. HathiTrust Digital Library. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015066067755 (accessed April 24, 2016).

Madden, Thomas F. The Concise History of the Crusades. 3rd ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.