Books Interviews

Sources on the First Crusade: Insights from Three Editors

In the last few months we have seen three important accounts of the First Crusade.  Each text offers new perspectives on the pilgrimage/campaign/movement that conquered Jerusalem in 1099.  To mark this occasion, we have interviewed the scholars who have prepared the editions/translations of these texts.  They are:

Carol Sweetenham is an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Warwick.  She has produced first English translation of Robert the Monk’s Historia Iherosolimitana, a Latin prose chronicle describing the First Crusade. In addition to providing new and unique information on the Crusade (Robert claims to have been an eyewitness of the Council of Clermont in 1095), its particular interest lies in the great popularity it enjoyed in the Middle Ages.  This book is part of Ashgate Publishing’s Crusade Texts in Translation series.  Click here to read the Introduction to this book.


The next text has been translated by the team of Bernard S. Bachrach and David Bachrach, who are professors at the University of Minnesota and the University of New Hampshire respectively.  They have produced the first English translation of the Gesta Tancredi, by Ralph of Caen.  This text provides an exceptionally important narrative of the First Crusade and its immediate aftermath, covering the period 1096–1105.  Ralph focuses his work on the roles played by Bohemond of Taranto and his nephew Tancred, who ruled the principality of Antioch from 1108 to 1112.  It is also published by Ashgate, and you can read the Introduction of this book here.

Susan B. Edgington is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of London (Queen Mary).  Her text is The Historia Ierosolimitana (History of the Journey to Jerusalem), attributed to Albert of Aachen, one of the most detailed and the most colourful of the contemporary narratives of the First Crusade and the careers of the first generation of Latin settlers in Outremer from 1095-1119. It comprises twelve books, the first six telling the story of the First Crusade through to the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 and its aftermath, and the final six describing the internal and external politics of the crusader states during the first two decades of settlement. This book, which is published by Oxford University Press, features the first modern edition and translation with original Latin text.


What first made you interested in editing and translating your text?

Carol Sweetenham: I came across Robert the Monk as part of the research for my doctorate. I edited the Occitan Canso d’Antioca (subsequently published in collaboration with Linda Paterson – click here for more information), a fragment describing the battle of Antioch on the First Crusade: as part of the research for it I read widely in primary sources. What appealed about Robert was above all his ability to write a good story. I do not think it accidental that his account was by far the most popular in the Middle Ages, surviving in around 100 manuscripts. This made it all the more surprising that he had received so little critical attention; he was overdue a translation and modern scrutiny.

David and Bernard Bachrach: Bernie had been working for some time on crusade topics, and I did some crusade work for my book on the role of religion in medieval warfare and we both wanted to do a project together in the crusade area. We were talking about this with John Smedley at the Byzantine studies conference that was held at Notre Dame in 2002 and he suggested we do a translation for Ashgate. Bernie knew about the Gesta Tancredi from his own work, and knew that it was not fully exploited because the Latin text is difficult and the French translation from the 19th century is useless, so we arranged with John Smedley to do the translation.

Susan Edgington: I was looking for a research project in 1968, and a chance remark from Prof. Hussey in class (she said, ‘We really need a definitive edition of this text.’) drew my attention to Albert of Aachen. I knew I had the linguistic equipment, and I was really lucky because I was allowed to register to do it — these days you have to do bite-sized projects for a PhD or your institution suffers financially.

It must take considerable time and effort to complete a project like this.  Can you talk about how you go about working on these  texts, and bringing them to a finished edition.


Carol Sweetenham: I already knew the source material well from doing the Canso. I did a first rough cut which I compared against the nineteenth-century French translation by Guizot as a cross-check. I also checked for readability. I then isolated the harder bits of the text for further work, comparing back to the source text the Gesta Francorum, the work of Gilo (which shows close parallels with Robert) and the Chanson d’Antioche (which uses Robert as a source for the last third or so). I regard writing an introduction to the text as important, particularly for an author like Robert who has attracted little scholarship. What I wrote was designed to give a modern reader everything they needed to position the text. I would have preferred to have had a modern edition to work from: however I thought it better to have a translation of the nineteenth-century Recueil edition than nothing at all. Incidentally I also visited Reims so I could see the Abbey of St-Rémi, where Robert may have spent some of his time.

David and Bernard Bachrach: Since Bernie was already pretty familiar with the Tancred text, we decided that I should crank out a rough draft of the translation and we would use this as the basis for a final product. In the summer of 2003, we were both in Heidelberg, where Bernie was teaching a course for Stefan Weinfurter, and we spent about 6 hard weeks turning the rough translation into a clean text.

Susan Edgington: My Albert is different from the other two texts because it includes an edition of the Latin, and to produce this was my prime objective back then; the translation came much later. Therefore I started from the published edition (in RHC Occ) and the manuscripts. I located 12 manuscripts in all, established that the RHC edition did not use the oldest or the best, and collated all 12, first from microfilm and then visiting the archives to see them ‘in the flesh’ (or skin). I found that all but 5 of the manuscripts could be disregarded, and it is from these 5 that the eventual edition was prepared. The edition was thus phase one, and was completed as my PhD thesis in 1991. I then set about the English translation, and an enormous programe of reading other primary sources and historians’ work in order to make the historical commentary as useful as possible.


When you make a translation you need to juggle a few issues, such as readability or how much do you need to follow the literal words of the text.  How do you handle these issues, and did you try consulting translations of other accounts of the First Crusade?

Carol Sweetenham: Always the key question. I aimed for a middle course between the two: I wanted my work both to be of use to scholars working on the text and to a more general readership about the Crusades. Robert’s Latin is generally pretty clear and I was able to stick closely to his sentence structure: I did however take a free hand with parataxis reflecting his own fairly loose approach. There were three particular issues. The first was the hexameters embedded in the text: I made no attempt to translate these into poetry, opting for indented prose to mark them out. The second was religious sentiment: twelfth and twentieth century mindsets are so far apart on this that all I could do as translator was to go for a literal approach which sat a bit oddly with what I had tried to do elsewhere. The third was the wordplay in which Robert sometimes indulges: some of this fell neatly into English, some definitely did not. Here I opted for clarity rather than literalism.

David and Bernard Bachrach: The two basic approaches for translations of this type are a verbum pro verbo approach and a sensum pro sensu approach. Because of the grammatical structure of Latin and the great differences from English, particularly the multi-valent way that a single word can function in a Latin sentence, we decided that a word for word translation would simply obscure what the author was trying to say. We therefore decided to proceed with a translation that presented the sense of the author’s text, but nevertheless keeping as close as we could to the language that he used. In this context, we made clear that some standard translations of Latin terms, most notable the regrettable habit of translating the word miles as knight, were very misleading. So we translated these terms as we think that Ralph meant them. We also did not attempt to turn Ralph’s poetic sections in poetry, because neither of us is poetically inclined. Instead, we used format presentation to indicate what passages were in prose and which passages were in poetry.

Susan Edgington: Although Albert didn’t use very sophisticated Latin, getting the right balance between accuracy and readability was difficult. It sometimes involved breaking up his very long sentences, or making sure he used a singular verb following a singular (collective) noun. He used duplication a great deal (e.g. ‘caedes et strages’) and at the risk of tautology I tried faithfully to preserve this trait (slaughter and massacre). Because an OMT edition stands for all time, I took care to avoid colloquialisms that would date — an incitatio is quite obviously a pep-talk!


The First Crusade is certainly a subject which gets a lot of scholarship.  How do you think your text will influence or change previous scholarship?

Carol Sweetenham: It will make available in an accessible translation (I hope!) the most popular account of the First Crusade throughout the Middle Ages. Robert does not tell us much new about the events of the Crusade. His interest to us lies in the creation of myths and perceptions about the Crusade. How far has his account shaped the way we see the Crusade? What does it tell us about what resonated with his contemporaries?

David and Bernard Bachrach: It is likely that this translation will make Ralph much more accessible to scholars of the first crusade and the immediate post crusade period. Ralph’s Latin is difficult and obscure and seems to have led a number of scholars to shy away from using his text. This can be seen in the fact that Ralph is cited relatively infrequently in works on the crusade and the early crusading states, despite his uniquely Norman, and specifically pro-Tancred viewpoint.

Susan Edgington: I have gone into print on this on several occasions, but, in brief, Albert’s account of the First Crusade is important because it is independent of the eye-witness accounts. Used with due care, it offers a corrective to their very Franco- and papal-centred interpretation of events. Albert’s Historia is even more important, though, for the reign of Baldwin I, which is covered in books vii-xii.

What would be the best way to use your text in a classroom setting, for either undergraduates or graduate students?

Carol Sweetenham: Firstly, as suggested above, to explore why Robert’s account was the most popular and what that tells us about contemporary perceptions. Secondly, to compare it against its source the Gesta Francorum and the other Gesta Francorum-derived accounts to explore how authors adapt their source material. Thirdly, to capitalise on the vividness of Robert’s writing to bring the Middle Ages to life for students with little previous knowledge.

David and Bernard Bachrach: The translation of Ralph could best be used in the classroom by assigning specific paper topics relating to Ralph’s agenda, or by comparing Ralph’s presentation of events with those of other contemporary writers who did not share his pro-Norman, and pro-Tancred viewpoint, or sources. Another approach would be to compare and contrast the prose and poetry sections of the text in order to make an argument about why Ralph chose to put some of the text in one format and other sections in another format.

Susan Edgington: It has to become central to any consideration of events 1095-1119, for example, by including extracts to compare with other sources on key episodes (Baldwin in Edessa, cf. Fulcher and Matthew; Holy Lance, cf. Raymond and Ralph).

Finally, I was wondering what, if anything, you wished that your author would have spent a few more lines talking about?

Carol Sweetenham: As translator you come to know your author very well, and there are lots of things I would love to ask Robert if I could have an hour with him. Top of my list though would be who commissioned him to write, what approach if any he was asked to take and how explicitly he saw himself as portraying a Cluniac view of the Crusade. I would ask him who his other source was alongside the Gesta Francorum. I would ask him what his favourite chansons de geste were and where he had come across them. I would ask him for a detailed account of the Council of Clermont, at which he says he was an eyewitness. And I would ask him about his career in the church: his occasional sardonic asides make me think he had long experience of ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

David and Bernard Bachrach: Bernie and I are very much institutional/administrative historians and so we would have liked to have seen much more direct quotation from the documents that Ralph refers to in his text, as well as to more specific information about economic affairs, e.g. prices and markets, as well as a more detailed discussion about military logistics. I should add that Ralph does discuss the positive arrangements made between the crusaders and Alexius much more fully than any other contemporary western source.

Susan Edgington: Where did he get his information from? I have laid to rest the old ‘lost Lotharingian chronicle’ hypothesis, and my own is that he was an oral historian, gathering accounts from returners, but it would be nice if he’d explained his working methods!

We thank each of these four people for kindly answering our questions.

See also our video interview with Bernard and David Bachrach