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Winner of Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize
2020 Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize

The Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize recognizes a first article of outstanding quality in the field of medieval studies. This year, out of many excellent submissions, the committee has selected Randall Todd Pippenger’s gripping article, “Lives on Hold: The Dampierre Family, Captivity and the Crusades in Thirteenth-Century Champagne,” Journal of Medieval History 44 (2018), 507-28.

Many of our surviving sources speak of crusading as a glorious activity. The reality was surely far different, but it remains difficult to imagine what going on crusade might have meant for most participants. In “Lives on Hold,” Pippenger explores what he calls “the worst possible outcome for a crusader and his family”: being captured and imprisoned while on crusade. Pippenger observes that more than one third of crusaders between 1095 and 1270 never returned from the Holy Land. Of these, most died on crusade, some settled in the Crusader States, and some were captured, imprisoned, or enslaved.  A new order was dedicated to ransoming captives, the Trinitarians, but of the captives’ fate, and the impact of their captivity on their families, we know very little.

Into this dark corner of crusading history, Pippenger opens a shaft of light. He examines the case of Renard II of Dampierre, a Champenois baron who spent nearly half his life imprisoned in the Holy Land.  When he departed on crusade in 1202, Renard was thirty years old, had three children, and his wife was already deceased. His oldest son was no more than eleven years old, so the lordship was placed in his brother’s hands. Through a masterful analysis of archival, administrative, and legal documents, Pippenger reveals the difficulties faced by the Dampierre family in Renard’s decades-long absence.  He demonstrates how Renard’s captivity crippled this powerful family, putting them into a legal limbo that, over time, badly eroded the Dampierre lordship.  From the perspective of the family’s interests, Renard’s death would have been preferable to his captivity.

In 1231, after thirty years of legal paralysis and administrative chaos, Renard returned home. Pippenger’s account of this return reads like the catastrophe of a Greek drama: Renard’s brother had been dead for almost twenty years, his eldest son had died the previous year, and his son’s widow had already remarried. And then, just after his return, his eldest grandson and heir, Renard IV, died still a child. Renard had to comprehend thirty years of losses to his lordship.

One of the qualities that makes makes this article stand out is Pippenger’s sensitivity to the human tragedy told by the kind of documents that often resist our efforts to humanize them. Pippenger’s is a different kind of Crusading history, one that focuses not on the fervor of the cross, the clash of cultures, or a geopolitical landscape tilting one way or another, but on a single family, powerless to shape its fortunes in the absence of its head.

Respectfully submitted,
Irina Dumitrescu
Rachel Koopmans
Daniel Hobbins, Chair
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