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.
In December 1170, the archbishop of Canterbury – Thomas Becket (often referred to as Thomas a Becket) – was assassinated at the altar of his cathedral. Four knights stormed in and cut him to pieces with their swords. One account even has the poor man’s brains spilling out on the ground.
Thomas had been a friend of the English king, Henry II. It’s fair to say that both men had strong tempers. But earlier on they had been the firmest of allies. When Henry ascended to the throne, Thomas became his Chancellor – the highest office in the land. And they were both bold reformers.
Thomas Becket disappoints his friend the king
So, Henry rather imagined that if he put his old mate Thomas into Canterbury as archbishop – the top cleric in England – then the church would be pretty much under his control. But the moment Thomas felt the mitre firmly on his head, he transformed into a staunch defender of church interests. Henry was horrified.
As things degenerated, Thomas was exiled then allowed to come back – which he repaid by ramping up his conflict with the king. Henry was beside himself and is supposed to have cried out: “Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?” Well, four knights overheard Henry and took him at this word.
Off they went to Canterbury were they murdered Thomas while he was officiating at the high altar of the cathedral. Now, even by medieval standards, that was a brutal and sacrilegious act. And the pope in Rome was going to make sure that the English king did a whole heap of penance for this appalling act.
King Henry does penance for the murder of Thomas Becket
Having been scourged at the tomb of Thomas – soon to be declared a saint – the humiliated king was absolved by the pope. But there were conditions. He was ordered to fund the upkeep of some 200 Templar knights in the Holy Land. This would have been an eye watering sum for any European monarch. It does appear that a significant amount of money was deposited with the Templars in London at that time.
The four knights who had killed the archbishop were meanwhile packed off on crusade to the Holy Land on what was in effect a 14 year prison sentence imposed by the pope. Some accounts say they were forced to live as hermits on the Black Mountain outside Antioch while one online source claims they became Knights Templar. None of the four assassins seems to have survived much more than three years in the Middle East.
It was also impressed on king Henry that he might want to pack his bags and go on crusade either to Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela (modern Spain). These were two parts of the world where Christians and Muslims were engaged in bitter warfare. Other princes had ventured out there, so why not Henry?
But he was less than enthusiastic. There was always the worry that his rebellious sons Richard (the future Lionheart) and John (of Magna Carta fame) would try to overthrow him the moment he left English shores. So Henry declined to go on crusade.
The king may also have tried to renege on that pledge to fund 200 Templar knights. Instead, I’ve read that he offered the Templars land in newly acquired Ireland. Another Irish connection to this story is that one of the four murderers, Reginald FitzUrse, left the Holy Land at some point and ended up in Ireland.
There, he founded the McMahon clan (by ways I know not). Obviously being a McMahon myself – I find this most intriguing!
The force – the Templar force – will truly be with him!
The quest for the Holy Grail that began in season one will see Mark Hamill play a character called Talus, a crusader who has endured a decade in captivity. Actors Tom Forbes and Genevieve Gaunt will also be joining the cast in what seems to be a beefing up of the drama and commitment by the History channel to stick with the medieval knights!
You may also be aware that I appear in the accompanying documentary series Buried – in episode four to be precise. That’s when presenters Mikey Kay and Garth Baldwin arrive in Portugal on a Templar treasure hunt. We investigated caves in the Templar stronghold of Tomar to see if we could locate the Ark of the Covenant and any other booty – you’ll have to watch to see if we discovered anything!
And here’s a Star Wars/Templar related fact: it’s believed that George Lucas was originally going to call his sacred warriors Jedi Templars but then opted for knights.
You’ll have to wait until at least late 2019 to see Mark Hamill dressed as a Templar, by the way.
Season Five of Forbidden History is now broadcasting on Yesterday TV (Sky 155) with presenter Jamie Theakston and I’m in every episode talking about some amazing topics!
I’ll also be helping Jamie Theakston to investigate secret societies and the truth behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. I worked with the Forbidden History team previously in season four looking at the secret initiation rites of the Knights Templar and the accusations levelled against them at their trial.
So – tune in to Forbidden History – it’s great fun and if you’re trying to get your family engaged with historical topics, it’s accessible and engaging. Tell me what you think after watching the intrepid Jamie Theakston and his sidekick Tony McMahon!
Mogadouro is a town in northern Portugal that was once a centre of Templar activity. Now an impressive pile of stones balancing on a volcanic rock is the only clue to Mogadouro’s past.
Early in July this year, I returned to this part of Portugal from where my mother’s family originated – a rugged landscape in the north east that was once a battle ground between Islam and Christianity as well as between rival crusader armies.
The region is called Tras-os-Montes – behind the mountains – and I’ve always joked to cousins there that it’s a land of “Templars and Jews”. What I mean by that is that is the presence of the Knights Templar can be seen everywhere as can the cultural footprint left behind by Jews fleeing the Inquisition in neighbouring Spain.
In the town of Mogadouro, you can still see an impressive Templar fortress built in the first decades after the foundation of the order. What you have to remember is that a crusade was being fought on the Iberian peninsula at this time as half the land mass was under the control of a Muslim caliphate.
Mogadouro was also in the front line against neighbouring Spanish Christian kingdoms like Leon and Castile. They didn’t much welcome the emergence of a new kingdom called Portugal and its impetuous ruler Dom Afonso Henriques. He was connected by ties of blood to the Templar’s founders in Burgundy, France. It’s often speculated whether the creation of Portugal was indeed a Templar project to hit the Islamic world in its western flank.
The fort still looks impressive, as I hope my photos suggest. And it was lit up for a local festival to Saint Anne – the mother of Mary. Nearby is an ancient stone pillory with four strange protrusions at the top. I once asked a local farmer what they were for and he remarked blandly: “Oh, we used to hang the Jews from there”.
It is true that the Inquisition eventually caught up with the Jewish population after the Templars themselves had been crushed. They then faced forced conversion or the flames of execution. But there is still a dialect in that region, Mirandense, which some claim contains Hebrew references.
Here are some photos from my recent visit to the Templar fortress at Mogadouro. You can get there by taking the Douro train from Porto to Pocinho and then a coach from there.
On 17 July, UK viewers finally got to watch Knightfall – the History channel’s multi-million dollar drama series about the Knights Templar and their quest for the Holy Grail. A thrilling adventure set in medieval France partly based on fact but lots of fun story telling thrown in as well.
But even more exciting – on the 24 July, History starts to air an accompanying documentary series called Buried where two intrepid history experts will follow the trail of Templar treasure from the Holy Land to Portugal and possibly the New World – for which read, the United States.
In the third episode of Buried, I appear in Portugal investigating some mysterious caves in the Templar citadel of Tomar. This was great fun to film last summer and swelling with pride to finally see it hit the TV screens in the UK. Make sure you tune in because it’s well worth the watch!
You may heard of something called the Chinon parchment and claims that it proves the pope exonerated the Templars back in the 14th century. But that may not be true.
Astonishingly, the Vatican sat on key documents relating to the trial of the Knights Templar for seven hundred years until author and Vatican archivist Barbara Frale uncovered the so-called Chinon Parchment and made her discovery public in 2001. This was followed in 2007 by the Vatican’s belated release of the original trial documents.
However, contrary to what many people think, the Chinon parchment and trial account are not an exoneration of the order by the pope of that time – far from it!
Back in 1307, the Knights Templar had reached a bit of a low ebb. The crusades were failing. The Holy Land was lost. Cyprus was their main eastern stronghold.
So, the last Grand Master – Jacques De Molay – headed west to drum up interest in a new crusade. But by this time, the medieval public had gone down with a severe case of crusade fatigue. Regaining Jerusalem – surrendered to Islam over a century before – looked like a total lost cause.
Add to that a mercurial king of France, Philip the Fair, who was continuously short of money. He’d shaken down the Jews, Lombards and monasteries and now cast a greedy eye over the Templars. Weren’t they loaded? Only one way to find out.
Templars arrested and tortured
So, in 1307 he rounded the Templars up, locked the knights in dungeons where they were tortured to sign false confessions and headed for the Paris Temple, a massive fortress, to fill his boots with Templar loot. Needless to say, he found nothing. The money had gone.
In order to assault the Templars, the king had to sell this drastic action to his people with a tsunami of fake news about the order. The knights were sorcerers, heretics, sodomites, rebels, robbers and so on. These accusations needed a holy seal of approval and luckily for Philip there was a compliant French pope at hand, Clement V, to give the thumbs up.
For seven years, the pope and his cardinals questioned Jacques De Molay and other senior Templars to squeeze confessions out of them. De Molay had returned to France in good faith to raise money and recruits for a new crusade but now found himself in court fighting for his life. At times, he broke down and admitted to the king’s trumped up charges but then recovered his nerve and tore up his previous statements.
Burnt at the stake
There was only one way this appalling farce was going to end and in 1314, De Molay was burnt at the stake with two other Templars as heretics who had refused to recant. And so it might have rested. But clearly the church felt more than a pang of guilt at destroying a military order that had shown nothing but unswerving loyalty to its Catholic mission and the pope. The Chinon Parchment shows how the pope wrestled with his conscience.
Frale’s discovery of this stunning document might look like a complete exoneration of the Templars by the papacy. But it’s not. In a rather mealy-mouthed way, it lets the knights off the heresy hook but damns them on other charges. It certainly casts doubt on the way in which their dissolution was conducted and reveals a pope who was bitterly unhappy at being strong armed into this course of action.
So, is the Chinon parchment an exoneration?
Interestingly, it airs the Templar justification for one of its more curious practices – that of spitting on the crucifix. The order claimed that this prepared knights for being captured by the Muslim enemy. Attempts by the Saracens to break their will in captivity through acts of sacrilege could be resisted by the imprisoned Templars because they had already role played this kind of scenario.
Frale has also claimed that the Vatican archive contains evidence that the worship of a head may not have been a profane and pagan activity but a veneration of the body of Jesus. It’s often assumed that the head referred to was variously that of John the Baptist or the prophet Mohammed (if you think the Templars were secretly in league with the Saracens!) or even a cat. But Frale thinks it might have been a representation of the Messiah.
However, the Templars are not given a seal of approval anywhere in the Chinon Parchment. The pope seems to have absolved the Templars without exonerating them. Maybe this gave them a papal passport to heaven but it still meant they were going to be burnt to death first.
It’s hard to imagine this gave them much comfort as their bones were broken in torture chambers and their bodies consumed by fire.
In 1314, on an island in the middle of the river Seine in Paris, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar – Jacques de Molay – was burnt at the stake. His agonising death ended an incredible two centuries old order of warrior monks – brought down by a money grabbing French king and a craven, gutless Pope. The Templars were no more.
Or is that really the truth?
De Molay: Not the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar
Not according to an awful lot of people out there. Ever since De Molay breathed his last, rumours and stories have abounded to suggest the Templars continued in some or other guise. One of the most curious is that De Molay verbally appointed another Grand Master before he was executed. This was a man called Johannes Marcus Larmenius.
In February, 1324 – ten years after the death of De Molay – Larmenius, a Templar born in Outremer, issued a charter claiming that he was the rightful Grand Master. But now in his seventies, the old man wanted to transfer this onerous responsibility to younger shoulders. He proposed that the next Grand Master should be Franciscus Theobaldus – who was still in charge of a Templar institution of some sort in Alexandria, Egypt.
This began a phase of underground activity in the history of the Templars. Grand Masters continued to be appointed but very much out of the public eye. That was until a chap called Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat revealed the existence of the Larmenius Charter, in the year 1804, that included his name as the latest of 22 successive Grand Masters.
Needless to say there was some scepticism about Palaprat’s extraordinary boast that he owned a ‘charter of transmission’ – as he termed it – written by Larmenius and naming him as the current Grand Master. But Palaprat was not to be dismissed so easily. He produced the sword of Jacques De Molay and some of his charred bones. Everything he said was true – how dare anybody question him!
At a time when France has experienced a revolution; a century of Enlightenment thought; the undermining of traditional church and royal authority and the emergence of the Freemasons – it’s perhaps not surprising that somebody like Palaprat emerged. He was feverishly mixing bits of the Templars with gnosticism, Freemasonry and an unswerving loyalty to Napoleon. It was an eclectic hodge-podge that suited the times.
The French revolution of 1789 had briefly replaced Catholicism with a cult of the Supreme Being. Now, Palaprat used his status as Grand Master to launch a new Templar order and later what was termed a Johannite church. His religion had its own version of the bible, loosely based on the gospel of John, and a belief that Jesus had been initiated into ancient Egyptian rites.
Few believe the Larmenius Charter was authentic or that he even existed. Today, the document can be viewed in London as a curiosity. As things stand, it seems that Jacques De Molay really was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar wrote nothing about themselves. They did have supporters in the shame of Bernard of Clairvaux who penned very flattering words about them. But most of the accounts from medieval chroniclers are pretty terrible. They really didn’t like the knights at all.
Templars – heroes or villains?
We’re used to the idea of the Knights Templar being either vilified or heroised since their destruction in 1307 – but what’s more intriguing is the way that people wrote about the Templars while they were still up and running….and crusading.
Because the views of the Templars from contemporary sources are often pretty damning. William of Tyre, for example, seems to have dipped his pen in bile and poison before scribbling anything down about the Templars.
His account has often been taken as gospel and quoted by Muslim authors writing about the wicked knights. But these days, historians realise that some of these chroniclers had wider and deeper agendas. They were serving those who had an interest in undermining the Templars for a variety of reasons.
Medieval chroniclers – their main accusations!
So what accusations and insults were hurled by the Templars’ critics? It tended to go along these lines:
These chroniclers undoubtedly made it much easier for King Philip of France and Pope Clement to destroy the Templars in 1307. A long legacy of brickbats being thrown at the warrior knights fostered the impression that there had always been something rotten about the order from the outset.
As early as 1170, the aforementioned William of Tyre, after describing how the Templars came into being, asserted that they had abandoned their early humility and gorged themselves with riches. Why, they had even ditched their commitment to obey the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had helped them in the early days, swearing loyalty to the Pope in Rome alone. Such ingratitude!
They have also taken away tithes and first fruits from God’s churches, have disturbed their possessions, and have made themselves exceedingly troublesome.
Another chronicler, Matthew Paris, expressed a common gripe among the mainstream clergy: as the Templars were getting so many donations, where was it all going? He wrote that the order “swallow down such great revenues as if they sink them into the gulf of the abyss”.