Murder Below Stairs: Killing Servants in the 12th Century

By Steve Tibble

Life in the crusader states and their Muslim enemies could be harsh – and the strictures of that life occasionally drove people to murderous violence.

The politics and accidents of life ‘below stairs’, in the servants’ quarters, could be particularly harsh. The irritability of the entitled classes could bring violent consequences with it very quickly. Workplace incidents might morph into attempted murder. Masters could exercise the power of life or death over those who served them – and, for the more enthusiastic lords, murder could start young.


In 1105 Usama Ibn Munqidh was a ten-year-old Shaizari princeling. But even as a child, he murdered one of his servants for being irritating. Tellingly for the society he was born into, he was proud enough of this charming incident to write a story about it – boasting of his precocious bravery in killing an unarmed man.

One day, wrote Usama, ‘an attendant belonging to my father…slapped one of the young servants of the house. The latter ran away from him and came and clung to my clothes. The attendant…caught up with him and slapped him again, even as he clutched at my clothes. So I…then pulled out a knife from my waist and stabbed him with it’. Taken by surprise, and hardly expecting a young boy to stab him, the dagger ‘struck his left breast and he fell down’. The wound was deep and mortal. By the end of the day ‘the injured attendant was dead and buried’.


We know, from the clues he left within his memoirs, that Usama was extremely unpopular in Shaizar, his hometown, and that he was treated with deep suspicion even within his own extended family. He was forced to leave Shaizar and subsequently spent most of his life on the move, relying on self-promotion, intrigues and his storytelling abilities to make a sometimes precarious living, as he sought employment amongst other ruling houses within the region.

He is never explicit about the source of his own unpopularity but perhaps the story of his first major act of violence gives us a clue – this shocking tale of a proud ten-year-old murderer, coupled with, as we shall see, his father’s own bloodthirsty temper, goes some way towards explaining why he was not trusted by those who knew him best. An arrogant psychopath could be a liability, even in the twelfth century. In fact, Usama was forced into exile in 1138 by his uncle. Usama never explained the reasons behind this life-changing punishment, but other sources confirm that the uncle feared, not entirely without reason, that Usama and his brothers might murder his sons in order to take control of Shaizar.

Usama’s nonchalance about using deadly violence against an unarmed coreligionist was largely learnt behaviour. The petulant abuse of domestic servants was something of a family tradition – life was cheap, and the lives of retainers were very cheap indeed.

See also: Warfare during the Crusades: Usama ibn Munqidh and his Memoirs

‘My father’, Usama later wrote in a different anecdote, ‘had a groom called Jami. Once, the Franks made a raid on us, so my father put on his kazaghand-armour [that is, a padded mail shirt] and left his house to mount up. But he could not find his horse, so he stood there for a while, waiting. Eventually Jami the groom, who had been delayed, arrived with the horse’.


Usama’s father lashed out and struck him with his sword. The weapon was still partially in its scabbard, but even so it was sharp enough to cut the unfortunate man’s arm off. Usama glowingly recalled his father’s virtuousness in regretting his temper. He commented approvingly that his father generously ‘supported this groom and his children after him on account of this wound’. The views of the injured man and his family are not recorded – their opinions have no voice in history but were probably far less fulsome.

Life as a servant in the Usama household was a high-risk occupation, and, more broadly, an indication of the prevalence of violent behaviour in this era. Another one of Usama’s servants, a man named Ghunaym, almost lost his life in Mosul, at a time when Usama was employed there by the Turkic warlord, Zengi.

Zengi’s legendary ferocity and penchant for casual violence was seemingly contagious. It happened one day that Usama and his retainers were staying in a friend’s house. ‘Ghunaym,’ he wrote, ‘led his mule into the stables of that friend of mine [along] with the servants of the other invited guests. Among us was a Turkish youth who got so drunk that he lost control of himself.’ Ghunaym, whatever his own attitudes to alcohol, was not a part of these increasingly loud revelries – he was feeling poorly, and soon slipped away to go to bed.


The Turks at this time were newcomers to Islam. They still enthusiastically practised their ancestors’ traditions of excessive drinking – and they did so alongside their famously uninhibited approach to the shedding of blood. The young Turkic servant managed to combine both these predilections in one frenzied evening of riotous behaviour. At one point he ‘went out to the stables, drew his knife and rushed at the [other] servants. They all fled and got out of there. But Ghunaym, because of his weakness and his illness, had…gone to sleep…So that drunkard stabbed him with his knife under his navel, slicing open his abdomen with a wound about four finger-widths wide. Ghunaym dropped on the spot’.

The Turk was beaten to the ground and arrested. He was taken to Usama, so he later wrote, ‘with his hands tied behind his back.’ The assailant was later freed without punishment, so it may be that this was thought to be a drunken fight between different parties. Perhaps, by local definitions at least, this was thought to constitute a ‘fair fight’.

The Middle East in the twelfth century was a far cry from Downton Abbey.

Want to learn more about crime during the Crusades? Check out Steve Tibble’s new book Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land.

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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.


You can check out Steve’s other books: Templars: The Knights Who Made BritainThe Crusader Armies and The Crusader Strategy