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Cannibals and Crusaders

The First Crusade -- 14th century depiction of the Battle of Antioch

Cannibals and Crusaders

By Jay Rubenstein

French Historical Studies, Vol. 31 (2008)

first crusade -- 14th century depiction of the Battle of Antioch

Introduction: The First Crusade began in 1096 with massacres of Jews along the Rhine, and its penultimate act in 1099 was the killing of nearly all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants — men, women, and children. The events sparked serious discussion among contemporary witnesses and continue to do so among scholars today. Most twelfth-century observers condemned the killing of the Jews and distinguished its perpetrators from the real crusaders. The killings at Jerusalem, on the other hand, they accepted either as a glorious cleansing of pagan contamination or else as a strategic necessity to hold the city against immediate counterattack. The events were troublesome, but for medieval observers comprehensible within the framework of the crusade story. One incident, however, resisted any attempt at integration into this celebratory narrative: the cannibalism committed around the siege of Ma‘arra in 1098.

Almost all the dozen chroniclers who wrote books about the Crusade in the twenty years following Jerusalem’s capture acknowledge it, sometimes with disbelief or disgust or denial, but always with discomfort. The broad details of the story are clear. On November 28, 1098, Count Raymond of Saint-Gilles laid siege to Ma‘arra (today the Syrian town Ma‘arrat al-Numan). Two weeks later, on December 11, with the help of other Crusade leaders, Raymond’s army broke down the city’s defenses and took possession of it the next day. The various armies then waited for a month as their leaders debated how to settle proprietary claims born of their conquests. Finally, on January 13, 1099, under intense pressure from his followers, Raymond gathered his forces and continued the march to Jerusalem. At some point during this activity — as we shall see, the sources diverge significantly — an indeterminate number of soldiers ate from the flesh of enemy dead.

Crusade historians have largely confined this cannibalism to the fringes of the main narrative, treating it at times inconsistently, at times incoherently. Its most sustained analysis remains a 1959 article by Lewis A. M. Sumberg, who blamed the cannibalism on a subgroup of impoverished crusaders called the Tafurs, whose origins he sought to locate. An article by Michel Rouche attributes a sacral character to the cannibalism, comparing the flesh picked from Muslim corpses to the manna sent to the children of Israel as they wandered those same deserts, an argument that, according to Jonathan Riley-Smith, asks the evidence to carry more weight than it can bear. Riley-Smith himself sees the cannibalism as a response to famine and does not blame it all on the Tafurs, whom he still archly describes as “very hungry.” Other scholars continue to associate the cannibalism with the Tafurs. Few, however, would go as far as Amin Maalouf, who in his often incendiary book, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, titles his chapter on the capture of Jerusalem “The Cannibals of Ma‘arra.” He observes, “The memory of these atrocities, preserved and transmitted by local poets and oral tradition, shaped an image of the Franj that would not easily fade”; and, “The Turks would never forget the cannibalism of the Occidentals.”

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