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Siege of Jerusalem

For a summary of Siege and a full-text version, see Mike Livingston’s online edition from the Middle English Texts Series.

The events in Siege of Jerusalem take place long before the First Crusade, but the poem itself is infused with allusions to crusading nevertheless.  The text stages the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and Vespasian as a virtual crusade that invites Christian audiences, as Suzanne Yeager has observed, to "'besiege' the holy city in their minds" (13).

The lurid descriptions of violence enacted on the bodies of the Jews in the poem facilitate this meditative practice, an aspect of the poem that tends to make modern readers, scholars included, deeply uncomfortable. Ralph Hanna, for instance, calls the Siege "the chocolate-covered tarantula of the alliterative movement . . . . so offensive as to exist on the suppressed margins of critical attention, unaccompanied by commentary" (109).  But, as Mike Livingston observes, such mentalities—while understandable—ultimately reveal far more about the reader's culture than they do about medieval culture (2). As such, it is important to fully consider Siege in its social and political contexts.

Livingston argues that the socio-political upheaval of the late Middle Ages had a measurable impact on the composition of Siege, particularly in terms of its inclusion of crusades references. In his assessment, the combination of the tensions between France and England (even after the Truce of Bruge in 1375), the Papal Schism, and the rise and condemnation of heretical sects like the Lollards all contributed to social unrest, producing a cultural climate in which texts like Siege might flourish (24).  Moreover, the crusades that did occur during this time were often criticized for being more political than religious in motivation; the Despenser Crusade Led by Hugh Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich, for instance, consisted of an English army journeying to French-controlled Flanders to war against the supporters of the Avignon Pope. The Roman Pope deemed the venture a crusade in order to assist its financing. As Livingston observes, its complete failure and the criticisms raised against it as a false crusade contributed to anti-monarchical sentiment in England. It also, by implication, highlighted the fact that similar ventures were not being made to Jerusalem (24).

This combination of internal discord and the politicizing of martial pilgrimage contributed to the production of texts that fantasize upon alternatives to the vexations of their contemporary culture (Manion, "The Loss of Jerusalem"). Moreover, the production of recovery literatures during this time—especially the writings of Philippe de Mézières — called for a joint crusade against the Turks that would ensure the recovery of Jerusalem. Mostly located in France, these writers encouraged both French and English monarchs to join forces in order to make such a crusade possible, and such an alliance almost occurred between Richard II and Charles VI. The disastrous battle of Nicopolis (1396), however, largely contributed to that dream's dissolution.

Siege was composed against this historical backdrop, and responds to it—as so many of the texts explored in this project tend to do—by rehearsing on the page what cannot be enacted in reality (Norako 22).  In Siege, the Romans and Jews serve less as representations of historical figures and more as palimpsests onto which alternative (oftentimes crusades-related) identities and circumstances might be grafted.  This deliberate lack of historicity or consistent temporality facilitates a fantasized vision of Christian ascension over Muslim enemies. The Romans are, in certain respects, configured as a Christian army—even though, as Suzanne Yeager observes, they are also occasionally cast as "depraved persecutors" (71).  Jewish identity in the poem is similarly varied; when the text requires, they serve as either representatives of Christianity or as inimical Muslims (Yeager 71).  These overlapping and competing allusions prevent Siege from serving as a streamlined crusades narrative like Richard Coer de Lion or Sir Isumbras, but they nevertheless allow for moments of crusades-inspired rhetoric. Of particular note is the "crusading theme of violence for the wrongs done to Christ and His Cross," which Mary Hamel argues remains "the primary motivation for the campaign" in the text (178). As she argues, the idea of warring to avenge Christ can be found in other, more overt, crusades romances such as Richard Coer de Lion and Siege of Milan, and its presence in Siege links the latter to the sub-category of crusades literature rather directly. In this way, she argues that understanding the work in light of these historical contexts helps to put the bigotry that fuels the poem into an accurate, less anachronistic perspective (179).

Siege’s crusades imagery, in contrast to many of the other texts explored in this project, remains allusive and implicit. The shifting symbolic roles given to the Romans and the Jews in the text make it impossible to consistently read the extermination of the Jews as solely tied to matters of crusading. Nevertheless, the text draws often enough on themes of crusading for it to be linked legitimately to other works whose content revolves more centrally around the matters of holy war and anxieties about religious Others.


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 656, (fifteenth century).

London, British Library, MS Additional 31042.  (c. 1450) Fols. 50r-66r.

London, British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A.ii, part I (c. 1500). Fols. 111r-125r.

London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian E.xvi (c. 1500). Fols. 70r-75v.

Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Mm.v.14 (c. 1475). Fols. 187r-206v.

London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491, part I (c. 1450).  Fols. 206r-227v.

San Marino Huntington Library, MS HM 128 (c. 1425).  Fols. 205r-216r.


Select Bibliography:

Froissart, Jean. Froissart’s Chronicles. Trans. John Jolliffe. History Book Club: London, 1967.

Hanna, Ralph and David Lawton. The Siege of Jerusalem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Hamel, Mary. "The Siege of Jerusalem as a Crusading Poem." In Journeys toward God: Pilgrimage and Crusade. Ed. Barbara N. Sargent-Baur. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992. Pp. 177-94.

Livingston, Michael. The Siege of Jerusalem. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004.

Norako, Leila. "The Crusading Imaginary of Late Medieval England." Forthcoming. Chaucer Review, 2012.

Yeager, Suzanne M. "'The Siege of Jerusalem' and Biblical Exegesis: Writing about Romans in Fourteenth-Century England." The Chaucer Review, 39 (2004): 70-102.