Say the word ‘cannibal’ and most people in the west have been brought up to think of some tribe of man eating savages located in the deepest jungle, maybe in a place like Borneo. But in a recent book on the Second World War by Max Hastings – called Inferno (nothing to do with Dan Brown) – he alleges that the people of Leningrad in Russia were so hungry during the Nazi onslaught that they ate their own. The Imperial Japanese Army has also been accused of cannibalism of prisoners in the same war – again in recent books on the subject.
So what about our favorite time period – the Middle Ages? I was asked by a regular visitor to this blog whether allegations of crusaders indulging in cannibalism were really true. Well, the chronicles suggest it happened – even if we have to treat all written accounts with a pinch of salt. But we should give some credence to the stories because those writing about crusaders eating their Saracen enemies weren’t Muslims – they were Christians.
Astonishingly, one person accused of cannibalism is none other than Richard the Lionheart. It’s said that he requested pork to eat while camped outside the Hospitaller fortress of Acre in modern Israel. His attendants cook him up some Saracens on the basis that they taste of pork (even though they’re not allowed to eat pork – go figure!). Richard bolts down his food and asks to see the pig’s head. Needless to say the attendants produce a Saracen’s head and Richard, far from being appalled, gets stuck into some more “pork” pointing out to his men that they shall never starve as this meat is so plentiful.
This story might have been intended as a sick joke or a boastful means of scaring the Saracens – conversely, the incident may have happened. You have to recall that Richard the Lionheart presided at a mass execution of prisoners so there was a very mean streak to the man.
In an earlier incident in 1098 during the First Crusade – a year before Jerusalem was taken by Prince Tancred – the crusaders overran a Syrian town called Ma’arra. Christian chroniclers, three of them, felt constrained to both record and try to excuse acts of cannibalism by the crusader. In his History of the Expedition to Jerusalem Fulcher of Chartres wrote the following about what happened at Ma’arra.
I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth
If you want to download the prologue and first chapter of Dan Brown’s new adventure Inferno – click HERE.
And here is one person’s YouTube analysis of the book – you can also refer to my earlier posts on Inferno and on Dante.
I was in Leicester last week and came across this statue of Richard III who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth nearby. His skeleton has recently been discovered under a car park, as I blogged previously.
Sometimes a historical site can be initially very confusing and making sense of it requires a little bit of detective work. I was in Leicester – in central England – last week. It’s a city that was hugely important in the Middle Ages and was a major town when the Romans ruled the province of Britannia.
So – in the pouring rain, I came across a chunky bit of masonry dating back to the Romans. It’s a thick, brick section of wall called the Jewry Wall. However, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Jews and wasn’t a boundary wall. In the eighteenth century, historians thought it was a temple to the god Janus. It wasn’t. In the nineteenth century, the Victorians decided it was a city gate. It wasn’t. Then it was believed to be the city’s Roman forum even when it was becoming increasingly clear that the wall was actually part of a bath complex.
So why was it called the Jewry Wall? Especially as Leicester’s Jewish population was expelled by Simon de Montfort in 1231, during the Templar era. It’s now thought the term is a corruption of the word ‘jurat’ – these were the senior politicians in the medieval era who held their council meetings near the wall. It is claimed on Wikipedia that buildings of unknown origin were attributed to the Jews in the Middle Ages – I’ve no evidence to support this assertion.
Next to the wall is a church to Saint Nicholas. I walked in and was immediately confronted by two windows in the nave that looked very Roman. In fact, they date to the Saxon period – around 880AD. But the masonry was part of the original Roman bath and was simply transplanted into the church – by the looks of things, mimicking the original positioning.
It’s a strangely laid out church with a Norman tower and some questionable changes made in the early nineteenth century when a wall of the nave was demolished and replaced by a brick arch. The church authorities actually wanted to demolish the entire church but didn’t have the funds.
The Roman “Jewry” wall
The Roman baths now excavated and the medieval church
Nineteenth century arch
A Saxon window made from Roman bricks
Nineteenth century arch and Saxon window