True Crusader Crime: Medieval Muggers

By Steve Tibble

We often visualise the crusades as a time of bloodshed, cruelty and violence – and this is not entirely unrealistic. The levels of violence were shocking by any standards. One might imagine, in the face of such unremitting horror, that people would enjoy the relatively peaceful times in between conflict – perhaps, in times of peace, levels of more mundane criminality would drop as a result?

Human nature being what it is, however, that was rarely the case. When there was no war to fight, the same groups of men often just turned to banditry and robbery – and that was just as true in the Middle East of the crusaders as it was with other displaced medieval mercenaries, such as the routiers and free companies of the Hundred Years’ War. Travelling from one village to the next was a hazardous procedure, to be conducted only with an appropriate assessment of the risks involved.


Even petty crime was still common, and was enormously difficult to stop.

Punishment, crime prevention and policing were always expensive, and in short supply. These were states with precious little economic surplus, and huge military expenses to shoulder. There was almost nothing left over for dealing with minor crimes – there were few courts, even fewer prisons and (at best) embryonic police forces. In a time with little infrastructure, the authorities needed other ways to stop crime.

Extremely serious crimes – murder, treason and so on – could quickly be dealt with by execution or mutilation. But most crimes were far less serious, and far less easy to punish. The best approach to criminality, then as now, was to try to stop it before it happened. One way was through deterrence – by occasionally inflicting exemplary and highly gruesome punishments. Another was to have frequent crackdowns on pawnbrokers and secondhand clothes dealers, as both of these groups habitually operated as fences for stolen goods.


There were also frequent attempts to limit some of the other factors which served to make crime more violent. There were, for instance, measures to restrict gambling, which was in itself a contributory and exacerbating pastime. More importantly, there were regular attempts, across the whole of western Christendom, to try to ban the carrying of arms. In the Latin East, however, societies which were in a continual state of war, awash with mercenaries and private armies, such prohibitions were impossible for practical reasons.

The ‘crusades’ might now be synonymous with the horrors of war, but they were also a time of far more prosaic criminality.

An attack depicted in the 15th century – Wikimedia Commons

Police officers, or their medieval equivalent, were hard to find – but even in the rare instances where they existed in any significant numbers, they were famously corrupt. This was partly inevitable, given that they operated in societies where there were few distinct boundaries between the interests of the state, the dictates of the feud, and the needs, however corrupt those ‘needs’ might be, of the individual. So, ironically, some of the most outrageous cases of muggings were actually perpetrated by the police, rather than the ostensible criminals.

The French royal sergeants were particularly known for their poor behaviour. They enforced the law with great brutality, and often exploited their position of authority for their own interests. Many were known as rapists – some even as murderers. In one particularly notorious case in Merck in 1288, a policeman was found to have killed one of his personal enemies and then doctored the evidence to make it look like suicide. This was clearly a case of murder, but it was also a more intricate example of premeditated fraud. Anyone who committed suicide automatically lost the right to pass their possessions on to their heirs – the policeman had hoped to keep all his victim’s goods for himself.


But criminality was a dangerous business in such a violent time, even when policemen were committing the crimes. In 1248, for instance, in the midst of King Louis’s preparations for what became known as the Seventh Crusade, John of Joinville came across a bloodbath perpetrated on the police force – but, counterintuitively, it was also a massacre carried out by an innocent civilian.

‘As I was on my way to Paris’, wrote John, ‘I came across three dead men on a cart whom a clerk had killed, and I was told that they were being taken to the king. When I heard this, I sent one of my squires after them to find out what had happened. The squire told me that the king, when he came out of his chapel, stood on the steps to look at the dead men and asked of the prévôt of Paris [that is, the local administrator of royal justice] what had happened. The prévôt told him that the men were three of his sergeants from the Châtelet, and that they had gone into the back streets in order to rob people.’

Ironically, the Châtelet was the foremost law court in Paris, and the ‘sergeants’ referred to were the nearest thing the state had to what we might now term ‘policemen’.


The prévôt had an extraordinary story to tell. He said that the policemen ‘came across this clerk you see here and stripped him of all his clothes. The clerk, wearing only his chemise, went to his lodgings and took up his crossbow’. Ominously for his assailants, he also sent a boy fetch his falchion – a short, hefty sword with a broad, curved blade, similar to a large machete. The robbed man was determined to be better prepared when he next met the police.

The clerk was an unlikely vigilante – the word ‘clerk’ in this context denoted someone who was preparing to enter full religious orders. But the police had picked on the wrong man this time. He ran after his assailants and when ‘he saw the robbers he shouted to them and said that they would die on the spot. The clerk drew his crossbow, fired and struck one of them in the heart. The other two took flight, while the clerk took up the falchion the boy had been carrying and chased them by the light of the moon, which was bright and clear.’

The intrepid clerk, who, as a trainee for the priesthood, was encouraged not to draw blood even when confronting criminals, could not contain himself. ‘One of the robbers decided he would cut through a hedge and [escape] into a garden, but the clerk struck him with that sword,’ said the prévôt, ‘and cut right through his leg so that only the boot is holding it on, as you see. The clerk resumed his chase of the other robber, who had decided to enter a stranger’s house where people were still awake. The clerk struck him in the head with the falchion, splitting it down to the teeth, as you can see,’ said the prévôt to the king [and pointing at the bodies in the cart]. ‘My Lord,’ he said, ‘the clerk showed what he had done to the householders in the street and then he went to give himself up to your custody.’

The king, who was mustering an army for crusade, knew a useful man when he saw one. With ecclesiastical employment now extremely unlikely, Louis gave him the opportunity to make a profound career change. ‘My lord clerk,’ said the king, ‘your bravery has lost you the chance of priesthood, but because of it I will retain you in my pay and you will come with me overseas. I would have you know that this is because I strongly desire my people to see that I will not uphold them in any of their wrongdoings.’


The Church’s loss was the Seventh Crusade’s gain.

Louis IX on a ship departing for the Seventh Crusade, as shown in a 14th century manuscript.

There was always something about an impersonal and anonymous urban environment, whether in Paris or Damascus, London or Cairo, that encouraged muggings. The career of a couple of muggers and cutthroats who lived on the mean streets of Cairo towards the end of the crusader period was every bit as colourful as that of the French policemen who were unlucky enough to cross paths with their cleric-turned-crusader victim in 1248.

Muslims certainly had their own equivalent experiences and anecdotes. Thieves were everywhere. The headman of the village of Araja, in the area of Kafartab, in north-western Syria, once told a story to Usama. He said, ‘I once went on a hot day to the well at Araja to drink and I saw a man wearing a woman’s get up [probably a woman’s wrap, used as a common disguise by bandits] and on his shoulders a sack of clothes. A desire for this sack came over me, and so I said to him ‘Hand over the sack’ ’.

The bandit fought with the headman and was able to overcome him by pulling a knife. He did not kill him, however. He just gave him a shirt from the sack and walked off, saying that he had got the clothes ‘from Ma’arrat [a town to the north of Kafartab]. Yesterday I knocked over a dyer’s shop and took everything in it.’ It is interesting to see that the thief was himself the victim of crime, and, that the headman, presumably the main upholder of law in the village, slipped so seamlessly into the role of mugger. Even more strikingly, it is apparent that no one seemed to take a mugging too personally – it was so ingrained in the social norms of the time that it was almost to be expected.

What was true of village life was even more apparent in the anonymity of large cities. The higher profile and bullying criminal leaders in Cairo at this time, for instance, had an established, albeit disreputable, place in their society. They had reputations. They were men of substance, within their own milieu at least. And their activities were often ‘successful’ enough to attract the attention of those in authority at the highest levels.

According to the Egyptian historian Ibn al-Furat, in Cairo in 1280 ‘a fellow appeared known as al-Jāmūs [a redolent nickname, meaning ‘Water Buffalo’, which probably says much about his physical presence], pretending to be a trickster and a bawdy fellow. He would wield a sword, a scimitar [simanṭāra], alone, and try to duel with those who opposed him outside of protected Cairo, then take whatever he wanted from them. People were afraid of him, and he stayed with a number of people in their homes, as he overawed them and they gave him what he wanted.’

His criminal activities grew in size and ferocity. The Water Buffalo became increasingly bold and violent and ‘he killed a number [of people and] another fellow appeared together with him called al-Maḥwajab, and the both of them were active for a while.’

A dangerous reputation was helpful for someone like the Water Buffalo. He was a man who traded in intimidation – ‘people were afraid of him, used him as a by-word, and began to talk about him a lot. Proverbs were even made about him.’ But a high-profile was only useful up to a point. He began to believe his own propaganda, and his personal reputation eventually, inevitably, became his downfall.

His antics became an embarrassment for the authorities. Finally, ‘the Sultan al-Malik al-Manṣūr summoned the governors of Old Cairo and Cairo, so they were threatened if they did not [arrest] the both of them, speaking to them coarsely. It happened that one of the Mamluks of the emir `Alam al-Dīn Sanjar al-Masrūrī al-khayyāṭ’s, governor of Cairo, who was present close to one of the villages outside of protected Cairo, then saw a fellow, who he didn’t like, but then became aware that he was al-Jāmūs. So he shot him with an arrow, whereupon the latter fled, entering one of the orchards where he was detained.’

High-profile criminality demanded high-profile justice. The Water Buffalo and his henchman were ‘brought before the governor…so the Sultan ordered them to be nailed up, so they were, at Zuwayla Gate, one of the gates of protected Cairo. There they stayed for days until they both died.’ People entering the city had to pass the two men as they were slowly crucified.

Visibility was everything.

Everyone could see the message – crime does not pay and no one can evade justice indefinitely. But more specifically, no one can embarrass the authorities without taking the consequences.

Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

His history of ‘Templars  The Knights of Britain’ (Yale) is due out in 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.

He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.

Further Reading:

Baybars’ Successors – Ibn al-Furāt on Qalāwūn and al-Ashraf, Cook, D. ed. and tr., Farnham, 2020, pp. 70-1.

Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades, trans. C. Smith, London, 2008.

Skoda, H., Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330, Oxford, 2013.

Usama Ibn-Munqidh. The Book of Contemplation, tr. P.M. Cobb, London, 2008.

More True Crusader Crime:

Murder in an Age of Crusading – A Surfeit of Blood?

The Mysterious ‘Lord S’

The Murder of the Bishop of Acre

Murdering Monks

Murder Below Stairs

What Bloody Man is That? Murder, Government and Power

Muslim Murder and Political Drama