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10 Unusual Things that happened during the First Crusade

The First Crusade was one of the most written about events during the Middle Ages. Many writers, including some who took part in the pilgrimage/campaign, left detailed accounts of what happened. They sometimes also included more unusual tales, ranging from battles with bears to sitting on a throne when you were not supposed to.

1. The People’s (and Animal’s) Crusade

Peter the Hermit leads the first crusade
Peter the Hermit leads the first crusade

The First Crusade would include thousands of peasants, who made their way through Europe. Many of the contemporary writers were dismissive of the so-called People’s Crusade, and portrayed them in a less than favourable light. For example, Albert of Aachen writes:

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There was also another abominable wickedness in this gathering of people on foot, who were stupid and insanely irresponsible, which, it cannot be doubted, is hateful to God and unbelievable to all the faithful. They claimed that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Ghost, and a she-goat filled no less with the same, and they had made these their leaders for this holy journey to Jerusalem; they even worshipped them excessively, and as the beasts directed their courses for them in their animal way many of the troops believed wholeheartedly, claiming it was the truth.

2. Making Yourself Comfortable in Constantinople

Anna Komnene, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, was less than impressed with the crusaders as they began to arrive in Constantinople. She writes:

when the Franks had all come together and had taken an oath to the emperor, there was one count who had the boldness to sit down upon the throne. The emperor, well knowing the pride of the Latins, kept silent, but Baldwin approached the Frankish count and taking him by the hand said, “You ought not to sit there; that is an honor which the emperor permits to no one. Now that you are in this country, why do you not observe its customs?” The insolent count made no reply to Baldwin, but said in his barbarous language, as if talking to himself, “This must be a rude fellow who would alone remain seated when so many brave warriors are standing up.” Alexis noted the movement of the man’s lips and called an interpreter in order to learn, what he had said; but when the interpreter had told him he did not complain to the Franks, although he did not forget the matter.

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3. Bohemond accepts, refuses, and accepts, Alexius’ gifts

Bohemond I of Antioch
Bohemond I of Antioch

Anna also offers an account of how Bohemond of Taranto, who had previously fought agains the Byzantines and after the First Crusade would be their enemy again, was very wary of the Emperor, even refusing to eat his food. To obtain his allegiance, Alexius had a room filled:

with garments and stamped gold and silver, and other materials of lesser value, that one could not even walk because of their quantity. And he told the man who was to show Bohemond these things, to throw open the doors suddenly. Bohemond was amazed at the sight and exclaimed “If all these treasures were mine, I should have made myself master of many countries long ere this! ” and the attendant replied, “The Emperor makes you a present of all these riches to-day.” Bohemond was overjoyed and after thanking for the present he went away to rest in the house where he lodged. But when these treasures were brought to him, he who had admired them before had changed his mind and said, ” Never did I imagine that the Emperor would inflict such dishonour on me. Take them away and give them back to him who sent them.”

But the Emperor, knowing the Latins’ characteristic fickleness, quoted the popular proverb, ‘Let bad things return to their own master.’ When Bohemond heard of this and saw the porters carefully packing the presents up again, he changed his mind – he, who a minute before was sending them away and was annoyed at them, now gave the porters pleasant looks, just like a polypus that changes its form in an instant. For by nature the man was a rogue and ready for any eventualities; in roguery and courage he was far superior to all the Latins who came through then, as he was inferior to them in forces and money. But in spite of his surpassing all in superabundant activity in mischief, yet fickleness like some natural Latin appendage attended him too. So he who first rejected the presents, afterwards accepted them with great pleasure.

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4. Godfrey fights a Bear

Godfrey of Bouillon slaying a bear, f. 41v. Sébastien Mamerot, Les Passages d’Outremer, Fr. 5594, BnF
Godfrey of Bouillon slaying a bear, f. 41v. Sébastien Mamerot, Les Passages d’Outremer, Fr. 5594, BnF

As he was making his way through present-day Turkey, Godfrey of Bouillon, a minor Crusade leader, fought a bear. Albert of Aachen writes that Godfrey

saw that a bear of most enormous and frightful appearance had seized a helpless pilgrim out gathering twigs, and was pursuing him as he fled round a tree to devour him, just as it was accustomed to devour shepherds of the district, or at least those who went into the forest, according to their account. The duke, then, as he was accustomed and ready to help his Christian comrades at all times of misfortune, hastily drew his sword, vigorously spurred his horse and swooped down upon the wretched man; he hastened to snatch the distressed pilgrim from the butcher’s teeth and claws, and racing through the middle of the thicket with a loud shout he was exposed in the way of the cruel beast. When the bear saw the horse and its rider bearing down on it at a gallop, trusting its own fierceness and the rapacity of its claws, met the duke face to face at no less speed, opened its jaws to tear his throat, raised up its whole body to resist – or rather to attack, unsheathed its sharp claws to rip him to pieces; it drew back its head and forepaws, carefully guarding against a blow from the sword, and, wishing repeatedly to strike, it feinted. Indeed it roused all the forest and mountains with its dreadful roaring, so that all who were able to hear it wondered at it.

The duke, reflecting that the cunning and evil animal would oppose him him with bold savagery, was keenly provoked and violently angry, and with the point of his sword turned towards it he approached the brute in a rash and blind attack, to pierce its liver. But by an unlucky chance, as the beast was escaping the blow of the sword it suddenly drove its curve claws into the duke’s tunic, the duke fell from his horse, brought down to the ground embraced in its forepaws, and it wasted no time before tearing his throat with its teeth. The duke therefore, in great distress, remembering his many distinguished exploit and lamenting that he who had up to now escaped splendidly from all danger was now to be choked by this bloodthirsty beast in an ignoble death, recovered his strength; he revived in an instant and was on his feet, and, seizing the sword, which had got entangled with his own legs in the sudden fall from his horse and the struggle with the frenzied wild beast, he held it by the hilt and aimed swiftly at the beast’s throat, but mutilated the calf and sinews of his own leg with a serious cut. But nevertheless, although an unstaunchable stream of blood poured forth and was lessening the duke’s strength, he did not yield to the hostile brute but persisted most fiercely in defending himself until a man called Husechin, who had heard the great shout of the poor peasant delivered from the bear, and the butcher’s violent roaring, rode at speed from the comrades scattered through the forest to the assistance of the duke. He attacked the terrifying wild beast with drawn sword, and together with the duke he pierced its liver and ribs with his blade.

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5. Discovering the Holy Lance

One of the most famous episodes of the First Crusade took place during the siege of Antioch, when a soldier named Peter Bartholomew claimed that he had visions of Saint Andrew where revealed the secret location of the Holy Lance that had once pierced Jesus Christ. Many of the chroniclers relate this story, including the Gesta Francorum:

There was a certain pilgrim of our army, whose name was Peter, to whom before we entered the city St. Andrew, the apostle, appeared and said: “What art thou doing, good man?”

Peter answered, “Who art thou?”

The apostle said to him: “I am St. Andrew, the apostle. Know, my son, that when thou shalt enter the town, go to the church of St. Peter. There thou wilt find the Lance of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, with which He was wounded as He hung on the arm of the cross.” Having said all this, the apostle straightway withdrew.

But Peter, afraid to reveal the advice of the apostle, was unwilling to make it known to the pilgrims. However, he thought that he had seen a vision, and said: “Lord, who would believe this?” But at that hour St. Andrew took him and carried him to the place where the Lance was hidden in the ground. When we were a second time situated in such (straits) as we have stated above, St. Andrew came again, saying to him: “Wherefore hast thou not yet taken the Lance from the earth as I commanded thee? Know verily, that whoever shall bear this lance in battle shall never ‘be overcome by an enemy.” Peter, indeed, straightway made known to our men the mystery of the apostle.

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The people, however, did not believe (it), but refused, saying: “How can we believe this?” For they were utterly terrified and thought that they were to die forthwith. Thereupon, this man came forth and swore that it was all most true, since St. Andrew had twice appeared to him in a vision and had said to him: “Rise’ go and tell the people of God not to fear, but to trust firmly with whole heart in the one true God and they will be everywhere victorious. Within five days the Lord will send them such a token that they will remain happy and joyful, and if they wish to fight, let them go out immediately to battle, all together, and all their enemies will be conquered, and no one will stand against them.” Thereupon, when they beard that their enemies were to be overcome by them, they began straightway to revive and to encourage one another, saying: “Bestir yourselves, and be everywhere brave and alert, since the Lord will come to our aid in the next battle and will be the greatest refuge to His people whom He beholds’ lingering in sorrow.”

Accordingly, upon hearing the statements of that man who reported to us the revelation of Christ through the words of the apostle, we went in haste immediately to the place in the church of St. Peter which he had pointed out. Thirteen men dug there from morning until vespers. And so that man found the Lance, just as he had indicated. They received it with great gladness and fear, and a joy beyond measure arose in the whole city.

6) Peter’s Ordeal

Peter Bartholomew Undergoing the Ordeal of Fire, by Gustave Doré.
Peter Bartholomew Undergoing the Ordeal of Fire, by Gustave Doré.

However, many of the crusaders doubted Peter Bartholomew and accused him of fabricated the discovery. Nine months after the discovery, Peter decided to go through the Ordeal of Fire to prove himself. Here is how Ralph of Caen described the scene in the Gesta Tancredi:

By means of this examination, the truth of the discovery would be proved by his unhurt state while its falseness would be proved by his burns. He was ordered to undertake a three-day fast that would serve as a period of quiet in which to pray and keep vigil. And so, this is what happened. But, soon after, on the day after the fast ended, there was another assembly. The logs burned in a double row. Peter, who was wearing nothing but a tunic and trousers, passed through the burning logs and fell down at the exit after being burned. He died the following day. When the people saw what happened, they decided that they had been fooled by clever words and regretted having erred.

7) Cannibalism

One of the most shocking episodes of the First Crusade took place at the Siege of Marra in the fall of 1098. Fulcher of Chartres writes, “here our men suffered from excessive hunger. I shudder to say that many of our men, terribly tormented by the madness of starvation, cut pieces of flesh from the buttocks of Saracens lying there dead. These pieces they cooked and ate, savagely devouring the flesh while it was insufficiently roasted. In this way the besiegers were harmed more than the besieged.”

8) Is this a good eclipse or a bad eclipse?

As the Crusader army neared Jerusalem, a lunar eclipse took palace. Albert of Aachen describes the scene:

In that place an eclipse of the moon, which was the fifteenth, happened the same night, such that it totally lost its brightness and was entirely changed into the colour of blood up until the middle of the night, bringing all who saw this no little fear, except that comfort was offered by certain who understood the knowledge of stars. These people said that this portent would not be a bad omen for the Christians, but they were certain the absence of the moon and its being shrouded by blood showed annihilation of the Saracens. They claimed that an eclipse of the sun, indeed, would be an evil portent for the Christians.

First Crusade quiz9) Sorceresses at the Siege of Jerusalem

William of Tyre offers an unusual tale from the siege of Jerusalem, when the Crusaders’ siege machines were inflicting a great deal of damage against the city:

When the infidels perceived that no skill of theirs could prevail against this, they brought two sorceresses to bewitch it and by their magic incantations render it powerless. These women were engaged in their magic rites and divinations on the wall when suddenly a huge millstone from that very engine struck them. They, together with three girls who attended them, were crushed to death and their lifeless bodies clashed from the wall. At this sight great applause rose from the ranks of the Christian army and exultation filled the hearts of all in our camp. On the other hand, deep sorrow fell upon the people of Jerusalem because of that disaster.

10) Badmouthing the Patriarch

Shortly after the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, the leaders began deciding who would be running their new territory. Arnulf of Chocques, the chaplain of Duke Robert of Normandy, was named the new Patriarch of Jerusalem, which was not a popular choice. Raymond d’Aguiliers was not happy with this choice, writing, “At this time, Arnulf, chaplain of the Count of Normandy, was chosen Patriarch by some, the good (clergy) opposing it not only because be was not a subdeacon, but especially because he was of priestly birth and was accused of incontinence on our expedition, so much so that they shamelessly composed vulgar songs about him.”

Arnulf would be removed from the position within a few months.

Learn more about the First Crusade:

Why did the First Crusade succeed while later Crusades failed

Byzantium and the First Crusade: Three Avenues of Approach

Fear and its Representation in the First Crusade

Sources on the First Crusade: Insights from Three Editors

Take a Quiz about the First Crusade

And more about the First Crusade

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