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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