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‘De civitatis utriusque, terrenae scilicet et caelestis’: Foundation Narratives and the Epic Portrayal of the First Crusade

Siege of Antioch - from a 15th-century miniature painting.

Siege of Antioch – from a 15th-century miniature painting.

‘De civitatis utriusque, terrenae scilicet et caelestis’: Foundation Narratives and the Epic Portrayal of the First Crusade

Paper given at the University of London, Institute of Historical Research

Carol Sweetenham (University of Warwick)

Last week I attended this paper given by the Crusades and the Latin East department at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research. The paper compared the differences in the Crusade narratives of Antioch and Jerusalem. Why did Antioch needed a mythology in a way that Jerusalem did not? Whether you’re a Crusades specialist or not, it was a fascinating paper on the First Crusade.

The Aims and the Portrayal of the First Crusade

The First Crusade was the only Crusade to end in success. The aim was simple: liberate Jerusalem. Many participants were entirely clear that this was their goal and once Antioch had fallen, the crusade pushed onto Jerusalem. Cluniac sources are clear that Jerusalem was the clear key of this crusade. They wanted to save the city from the “filthy practices” of the Saracens. There was no doubt about the significance of Jerusalem to Crusaders; it was the Holy City of the bible, the counterpoint to Babylon and the city where God had walked. Its importance went well beyond the crusade: celestial, terrestrial, it was the city of the future.To the average medieval person, it was literally the centre of the universe.

Later accounts of Antioch differ from those of Jerusalem. Half of the Gesta Francorum contains details about Antioch. The events there were told in much more detail than the events at Jerusalem. The focus on Antioch continues in later references, like one in 1196, by a Catalan jongleur. He put the Seige of Troy on par with the Seige of Antioch. This implies the crusade was about Antioch and that the success of the First Crusade appear to be synonymous with Antioch.

The Creation of the Narrative around Antioch and Jerusalem

Both narratives contain a similar arc and tended to follow the same formula even if they differed slightly in the details. The Antioch account contains exciting events: The discovery of the holy lance,  the story of Peter the Hermit, and how the battle was won with supernatural help, although the details amongst sources vary.

The narrative at Jerusalem is fairly undramatic in comparison. The only features that stand out and make it differ from a normal siege story in any city are the slaughter of the people inside Jerusalem. There is no supernatural aid in the sources as there were in the Antoich narrative.

Why the Difference in the Approach Between These Two Cities?

Sweetenham surmised that more happened at Antioch than in Jerusalem. The Crusaders were there for nearly nine months versus six weeks in Jerusalem. People had to have stories to tell over the course of a long siege. Antioch was also a key strategic turning point for the First Crusade. It was the only route to Jerusalem through the high mountains and the Crusaders knew a win here opened the way to Jerusalem. Antioch also marked the transition from a western army needing Byzantine help to an army that was strong on its own. Many sources cite the abandonment of the Crusaders by Byzantium.

Psychologically and spiritually, Antioch was a potent symbol. The odds were overwhelming and their win was tenuous and the Christians knew it. They were starving, out numbered and outclassed by the Turks. The win, according to Sweetenham, was ‘deeply seared in their collective unconsciousness’. It gained a supernatural power that wasn’t present at the taking of Jerusalem. It’s not surprising, therefore, that there was such a strong emphasis on Antioch in First Crusade texts.“Jerusalem comes as something of an anti climax”. This mythology at Antoich continued well past its current age and for many years after.

Peter the Hermit shows the crusaders the way to Jerusalem. French illumination (about 1270)

Peter the Hermit shows the crusaders the way to Jerusalem. French illumination (about 1270)

Mythology and the Evolution of the Foundation Myth

Jerusalem had a far more potent mythology than anything that had been manufactured. Antoich was very different. It had fallen to the Turks in 1084 and its recovery was key to Western Christians. It had strong connections to Saint Peter and the Maccabees were buried there. Antoich had no mythology to validate the presence of the Crusaders taking back this city; consequently, a foundation myth was created. Foundation myths are often created in times of disagreement and war to prove a point who should own a piece of land. Antoich was disputed by the Byzantines and the Crusaders needed a compelling case to claim it.

Bohemond, Prince of Taranto (later Bohemond I of Antioch) came back to look for help to defend Antioch in 1105. He had to justify his possession of the city. In the preaching that followed to obtain aid, he spoke about Greek treachery and his right to the city. The foundation myth was built, but the myth fell apart because he didn’t go back to Antioch and lived the final three years of his life in Italy.

In 1119, another foundation myth came crashing down. Roger of Salerno recklessly fought Ilghazi of Mardin in the Battle of Ager Sanguinis (The Battle of the Field of Blood), eager to fight on June 28th, the same date as the win of the battle of Antioch twenty years earlier and the feast days of Saints Peter and Paul. Unfortunately, this time there was no divine intervention and the Christian army was slaughtered. There was shock and bitter disappointment in the Christian world. By 1119, Antioch was one of the weakest cities in the region when it was once the most powerful. The foundation myth had lost its potency and those who believed in it were now left dead on the battlefield.

Antoich was a frontier state: i.e., the movement of people, a contact point with different cultures and a place of occasional violence. Antioch lived in a constant state of tension with Byzantium, culminating in 1137 when Byzantine emperor, John II Komnenos, lay siege to Antioch. It was a fragile state, especially after Bohemond II died in 1130 and another ruler was needed to replace him. Sweetenham concluded, ‘By this stage, Antioch was no longer Norman and the First Crusade was a distant memory’, however, it was still a frontier state and still required a story around it’.

~Sandra Alvarez 

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