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It’s too hot! I’m hungry! : The Challenges of Going on Crusade

Crusaders arrive at Constantinople
Crusaders arrive at Constantinople
Crusaders arrive at Constantinople

It’s too hot! I’m hungry! : The Challenges of Going on Crusade

The journey to the Holy Land by crusaders was often a perilous trip. However, the biggest fear for many crusaders was that the climate would be dangerously hot for them.

These are some of the findings of Joanna Phillips, who spoke earlier this week at the Institute of Historical Research. Her paper, ‘Marching on their Stomachs? Crusader Marches to the Holy Land in the Twelfth Century’ dealt with issues related to food, health and travel during the crusades in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Phillips, a PhD student at the University of Leeds, noted the challenges crusaders faced in both reaching the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Holy Land. She is interested in this highly unrepresented facet of Crusades history: medical writing. The focus of her paper was twelfth century Crusades en route to Jerusalem.

How Did They Get There?

The marches through Europe were often loosely structured affairs, with different groups travelling by ship, on horseback, or on foot. Those crusaders coming from northern parts of Europe, such as England or Germany, would soon be find themselves heading south, where the climate was warmer. However, this was seen as a serious problem for crusaders. Marches were long, miserable affairs as the crusaders struggled with disease, poor weather, exposure to infection, and malnourishment due to intermittent food supplies. The Crusaders took this in stride believing that the difficulties were a necessary part of the spiritual nature of a crusade. The perilous journey to the engagement was part of the sacred fulfilment of crusading.

A good portion of marchers were on horseback, supported by ships along the Danube. Crusaders often travelled in different units and with different leaders. There were also many non-combatants (women, children, the elderly, and camp helpers) who tagged along and encumbered the fighter’s march to the Holy Land.

What to Eat?: The Provisioning Problem

Food Intake

Provisioning needs were largely dependant on the non-combatants and camp followers. Pack animals weren’t always available, so Crusaders had to use dogs and sheep at times to carry supplies. Another problem encountered on the road was that some non-combatants were unable to assist carrying the army’s supplies.

Phillips examined provisioning formulas, like the one created by Donald Engels for the army of Alexander the Great. She suggested that the added complications of extra non-combatants, and the fact that Crusading armies were not the well oiled machines of the Macedonian army meant these formulas were not applicable to crusader logistics.

Phillips also compared four primary First Crusade sources: Fulcher of Chartres, the Gesta Francorum, Raymond of Aguilers and Peter Tudebode’s. She searched the sources to determine the number of times food availability or lack thereof was mentioned in the text. What she found was intriguing. Unsuitable foods were mentioned many times but she removed these from the study to get a more balanced view. Barley, which was mentioned frequently was considered an inferior product and meant for the coarse lower classes because it was believed that the upper classes could not digest it. Barley was often mentioned in times of scarcity, meaning if knights and elite Crusaders were reduced to eating such unsuitable food for their station, they must have hit hard times indeed. Meat references were usually live animals gained by booty or trade, or animals accompanying the march. Oxen were common because they could served a dual purpose as beasts of burden and a good source of food. There are no accounts of poison except in one concerning ingesting inedible food. Unfortunately, as it relates to health, she stated, ‘Food is not discussed in an overtly medical way’. She explained that there was not much from the First Crusade on medical topics because this was before the age of the great universities and movement to translate medical texts.

Crusaders marching to the Holy Land
Crusaders marching to the Holy Land

The Crusader Understanding of Ecology and Environment

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that there were six “non-naturals” that affected humoral balance: air quality, food and drink, motion and rest, sleep and waking, excretion and repletion, and the passions of the soul.

Marches were not suspended for those who fell ill. The sick were left by the side of the road and died or were eventually dispatched by roving enemies. What made these marchers sick? Medieval thought that their constitution was based on their humors. If they were in their natural climate they were fine but when they went to other climates it could imbalance their humors and cause illness. There was also the idea of climatic zones in the Middle Ages as shown in the Macrobian Map the world.

Phillips explained that “geography and health were related in the medieval mind,”; she discussed medical beliefs and treatments based on the four humors. The despair of the Crusaders was thought to have an impact on their humors and their bodies. In terms of the non-naturals, air was the most important one. Air quality could affect the crusaders as well. There were medieval theories of disease transmission through the air by corruption and pollution. Pollution was the odour of bad smells, like those of dead, rotting bodies.

Phillips also asked at what point was territory considered alien for a crusader and therefore negatively impacted their health? According to her research of the primary sources, Northern crusaders were afflicted by the time they reached southern Italy as they deemed the air intemperate. Italian crusaders, who were used to warmer climes, were more suited to the environment in the Holy Land so they were not as badly affected. Louis VII’s army met with illness in Bulgaria and again when they got into Greek territory. In 1189, German crusaders were also affected by disease in Bulgaria. The German march through Bulgaria was punctuated by many deaths; over one hundred crusaders died from quartan fever and dysentery. In 1190, others were affected by heavy rains in Adrianople and died there.

As difficult and arduous as marching to the Holy Land could be, Crusaders understood their travels in terms of a medical framework, and an important spiritual journey. While medieval writers were more concerned with georgraphy, climate and location than with food but their writing still gives us glimpse into the issues surrounding Crusading, travel, medieval medical knowledge and dietary

~Sandra Alvarez

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