Cannibalism in the crusades – fact or fiction?
A special investigation into the question: is it true that crusaders ate human meat during the Crusades and were they even encouraged to do so? Your views and knowledge on this subject would be very welcome in the comments section. Now, read on…
The first years of the crusades were marked by butchery.
Even before recruits to this holy war had left their homeland, they would kick things off with a pogrom directed at the local Jewish population. In the so-called Rhineland Massacres, crusaders on their way to Jerusalem attacked Jews in towns throughout southern Germany. Many took their own lives rather than be subjected to the sacrilegious humiliation of enforced baptism.
This grim episode has been viewed as a medieval precursor of the 20th century holocaust of European Jews.
Accusation of cannibalism in Syria
When these rough and ready crusaders got to the east, things hardly got much better. For a monk who was rooting for the warriors of Christ, Fulcher of Chartres didn’t flinch from recording what would be termed war crimes in the modern age. In one alleged incident, earlier on in the First Crusade, he claimed that some Christian soldiers had cooked and eaten flesh from the bodies of dead Saracens at the Syrian town of Ma’arra.
This practice was also reported by Ralph of Caen, who claimed to have seen this grisly meal being prepared. Albert of Aix, another chronicler, added that along with Saracens, the crusaders were eating dogs too. But it was Guibert of Nogent who pointed an accusing finger at poor, bedraggled but extremely zealous crusaders he referred to as Tafurs.
These were the foot soldiers notionally under the control of nobles and princes who were leading the armies of God into the Middle East. But they appear to have been a law unto themselves, “barefoot, wearing sackcloth, being covered in sores and filth, and living on roots and grass”.
Wherever they went, they left a trail of devastation. Too poor to afford swords, they fought with clubs, knives, shovels, hatchets, catapults and pointed sticks. Their ferocity was legendary; the leaders of the crusade were unable to control them and never went among them without being armed, while the Muslims were terrified of the Tafurs.
Were the Tafurs practising cannibalism?
The word ‘Tafur’ is said to have come from a nobleman of that name who saw the vast army of beggars that arrived to join the First Crusade under the leadership of the charismatic French priest Peter the Hermit. Tafur was so moved by this sight that he forsook his fine clothes for rags and embraced a life of poverty.
It was also, apparently, Peter the Hermit who introduced Tafur and the unruly band he soon gathered around himself to the option of cannibalism as a way of enduring a long siege, such as the one at Antioch. The term ‘Paynim’ is Middle English slang for a pagan, specifically a Muslim:
Peter the holy Hermit, he sat before his tent
Then came to him the King Tafur, and with him fifty score
Of men-at-arms, not one of them but hunger gnawed him sore
“Thou holy Hermit, counsel us, and help us at our need;
Help, for God’s grace these starving men with wherewithal to feed”
But Peter answered, “Out, ye drones, a helpless pack that cry,
While all unburied round about the slaughtered Paynim lie.
A dainty dish is Paynim flesh, wth salt and roasting due.”
“Now, by my fay,” quoth King Tafur, “the Hermit sayeth true.”
The cartoonishly ghastly nature of these sadistic peasants has led some to wonder whether the Tafurs were a propaganda invention of the crusader nobility. By creating a devilish lower class stereotype motivated solely by greed and malice, this would divert attention from the equally appalling avarice and cruelty of the Christian aristocracy in the Holy Land.
Both Christian and Muslim writers painted a picture of the crusaders that hardly accorded with the idea of a war fought for a higher and noble purpose. Instead, this was brutish thuggery coated with a thin veneer of Catholic religiosity. A sad excuse for base and bestial behaviour.
Please share any more information you have about cannibalism during the Crusades.