Cannibals on crusade – eating flesh in the Middle Ages

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.

CannibalismSo 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

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Saladin the merciful – think again!

Artistic representation of Saladin

Artistic representation of Saladin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An excellent new BBC series The Crusades takes a fresh look at Saladin and his fight with Richard the Lionheart in the second episode.   Jihadi warrior and unifier of Islam – is the description of Saladin from the programme presenter Dr Thomas Asbridge.  It’s hard not to agree.  It is an incredible story of how a Kurdish soldier – Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – unified Egypt and the Middle East as sultan.  His reputation has remained strong over the centuries and he is revered by many Arabs today as a vanquisher of the crusaders – a reputation he established at the slaughter of Templars and Christian warriors at the Horns of Hattin.

But Saladin has also been cast as a man of mercy – and this is with particular reference to his refusal to slaughter the population of Jerusalem when he won it back in 1187.  The chronicler Bahā’ ad-Dīn who traveled with Saladin on his campaigns makes it clear that Saladin did not have mercy in mind when he took back the holy city.  He was going to avenge the mass killing that had been perpetrated when the crusaders had taken Jerusalem a hundred years before and he was going to burnish his credentials as a jihadi warrior in no uncertain terms.  There would be no mercy and the streets would run with blood.  Anybody who doubted Saladin’s intent only had to look at how he’d put down a mutiny by a Sudanese garrison in Cairo.  They had been burnt alive with their wives and children in their barracks, Dr Asbridge recounts.

The Christians knew full well what was in store for them from Saladin.  The legends that followed were stuff and nonsense.  When Jerusalem had originally been taken, Islam had been badly divided and Asbridge says many Muslims didn’t really understand what exactly had landed on their soil.  Many apparently thought the crusaders were Byzantine mercenaries come to take the city for Constantinople.  It was this confusion and division on the Saracen side that allowed the crusader states of outremer to develop and consolidate.  And Asbridge makes the point that their position was surprisingly strong – the eastern Mediterranean was Christian Europe’s back yard and they could ship in troops by sea whenever they wanted.

But Saladin was the unifier and he slowly encircled Jerusalem.  After the defeat of Hattin, he closed in for the kill.  So why didn’t he massacre the city’s population – as they clearly expected he would.  Well, the Franks of Jerusalem engaged in some pretty gritty diplomacy.  If you come to kill us, they said, we’ll slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners in our jails and demolish all the Muslim holy places including the Dome of the Rock.  This proved too much for Saladin, it seems, and he backed down.  Many Christians were sold in to slavery but many were also ransomed and able to slip out.

However, this was not something that pleased Saladin – who Asbridge says worried that his image would actually be damaged by this act of supposed mercy.  There have been many views of Saladin created down the centuries but the primary one in modern times has been of some kind of medieval Arab nationalist.  I’ve flagged up this movie before made during the Nasser period in Egypt but it’s worth bringing to your attention again.

Here we have Saladin depicted in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’

Saladin animated in a cartoon series!

“Good” King Richard? Re-appraising the Lionheart

Coronation of Richard Lionheart, King of Engla...

Coronation of Richard Lionheart, King of England (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 347v) Deutsch: Krönung von Richard Löwenherz, König von England (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 347v Français : Sacre de Richard Coeur de Lion (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 347v) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during...

Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during his coronation in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard the Lionheart, an illustration from a ...

Richard the Lionheart, an illustration from a 12th century codex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all know from the story of Robin Hood that Richard the Lionheart – the first king of England called Richard – was a thoroughly good egg who went off to fight the wicked Saracens in the Holy Land.  The moment he was out of his country, the kingdom of England, his wicked brother John would seize power and begin a reign of tyranny.  Then Richard would have to come back – three lions emblazoned on his tunic – and put everything right again.

Hmmm. Is there any truth in this at all? Let’s go through a little list:

1) Richard was more a Coeur de Lion than a Lionheart – he was thoroughly French in background and outlook.  His ancestry was in the county of Anjou and from his father he inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine and was also Duke of Normandy. Together, these domains were bigger than the kingdom of France – of which they are now a part.  And more often than not, the ‘Angevin’ monarchs of England were more powerful than the kings of France.  For Richard, Aquitaine was arguably more important than England – he certainly spent more time there – even though he was a mere Duke in Aquitaine compared to a King in England.

2) Richard’s coronation in England was marred by a massacre of the Jewish population – hardly an auspicious start to a reign.  The Jews had previously enjoyed the protection of the Norman kings but clearly no longer.  After being crowned king of England, Richard spent about three months in his new kingdom. And it wasn’t for love of the place.  His energies were entirely devoted to raising money by selling as much of the kingdom off as he could.  Richard even boasted that he would sell London if he could find a buyer. The reason for this fire sale of bishoprics and castles was to raise money to go on crusade – which is all he really wanted to do.

3) Richard was a crushing tax gatherer. Poor king John gets roundly blamed for the crisis that led up to Magna Carta but it’s actually Richard who imposed the most eye watering levels of taxation to raise money for his crusading activity.  If he’d lived long enough – he’d have probably faced a baronial revolt and not his hapless brother.

4) Once he got on crusade, was Richard all about chivalry? Certainly not. When it came to the Muslim Saracens, this king was super-bloodthirsty. In one sitting, he watched the execution – beheading to be precise – of an estimated 3,000 Saracen prisoners.

Here is a description of that massacre from the time: “They numbered more than three thousand and were all bound with ropes. The Franks then flung themselves upon them all at once and massacred them with sword and lance in cold blood. Our advanced guard had already told the Sultan of the enemy’s movements and he sent it some reinforcements, but only after the massacre. The Musulmans, seeing what was being done to the prisoners, rushed against the Franks and in the combat, which lasted till nightfall, several were slain and wounded on either side. On the morrow morning our people gathered at the spot and found the Musulmans stretched out upon the ground as martyrs for the faith. They even recognised some of the dead, and the sight was a great affliction to them. The enemy had only spared the prisoners of note and such as were strong enough to work.”

5) On his way back from crusade, Richard got himself captured by a political rival – the Duke of Austria – who demanded the astonishingly enormous sum of 150,000 Marks if anybody wanted to see him free again.  England was squeezed to pay the ransom.

Once free, Richard decided to go and take out his anger against the French – who had tried to keep him imprisoned. He embarked on a murderous five year campaign of town destroying and village burning paid for by…..the English.  So exacting was this new round of taxes that a man called “William the Beard” led the citizens of London in open revolt.  William was caught and hung at Tyburn by a chain.  Clearly William was a popular figure because people in London touched the chain for years after to effect cures for various ailments.

Richard the Lionheart massacres captives

English: Richard versus Saladin Česky: Souboj ...

English: Richard versus Saladin Česky: Souboj Richarda Lví srdce se Saladinem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard the Lionheart, an illustration from a ...

Captives get it in the neck

According to Beha Ed-Din, a muslim chronicler, Richard the Lionheart pretty much broke the medieval equivalent of the Geneva Convention and slaughtered a huge number of captives during his crusade in outremer.

This was the Third Crusade in response to Saladin‘s successful conquest of all the major cities of the kingdom of Jerusalem including the holy city itself.  A determined Richard appeared on the scene and took Acre back.  In the process, he got hold of just under three thousand captives.

The ransom for sparing their lives was 200,000 gold pieces, 1500 crusaders to be released and the return of the Lignum Crucis – the True Cross.  Various wrangles then ensued between the two days and losing his patience, Richard decided to make his intentions very plain to the Saracens.  He gave the order for, essentially, mass murder.

As the chronicler explained:

“The Franks then flung themselves upon them all at once and massacred them with sword and lance in cold blood. Our advanced guard had already told the Sultan of the enemy’s movements and he sent it some reinforcements, but only after the massacre. The Muslims, seeing what was being done to the prisoners, rushed against the Franks and in the combat, which lasted till nightfall, several were slain and wounded on either side. On the morrow morning our people gathered at the spot and found the Muslims stretched out upon the ground as martyrs for the faith. They even recognised some of the dead, and the sight was a great affliction to them. The enemy had only spared the prisoners of note and such as were strong enough to work.”