Eating People is Wrong? Cannibals and Heroes on the First Crusade (1096–1099)

This week on the Secret Library Heritage Blog we have guest author Hannah Mackenzie. Hannah is a PhD candidate at The University of Leeds and has recently delivered an incredible talk with us at the Leeds Central Library on this fascinating subject. You can learn more about Hannah and her exciting research on her university profile. Hannah MacKenzie | School of History | University of Leeds

The First Crusade

The First Crusade (1096–1099) was a spiritual and military campaign undertaken by Christians from Western Europe that aimed to capture the city of Jerusalem from Islamic control. The term ‘crusade’ is used in many contexts today and has become increasingly politicised, but when Pope Urban II instigated what historians now call the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in France on 27 November 1095, he framed the expedition as a pilgrimage. Urban created incentive for individuals to embark on the crusade by stating that the campaign, like a pilgrimage, was a penitential enterprise, meaning anyone who took part would have all their previous sins erased.

The First Crusade left Europe in two waves. The first wave of crusaders – known as the People’s Crusade – gathered in France under the leadership of a preacher named Peter the Hermit. These men set off from Cologne in spring 1096 but ultimately failed to reach Jerusalem: Peter’s army was unruly and disorganised and was decimated by the Turks of the sultanate of Rūm in a battle outside of Civetot, a town in modern day north-western Turkey, in October 1096.

The Map of the First Crusade (Wave 1)

The People’s Crusade was followed by a second wave known as the Princes’ Crusade which was made up of several contingents led by nobles from different regions in Europe. These armies left Europe separately in late summer 1096 but met in Constantinople from November 1096 to April 1097. From Constantinople, these contingents, along with the remnants of Peter the Hermit’s army, travelled through Asia Minor, securing several hard-won victories at Nicaea (June 1097), Dorylaeum (July 1097), Antioch (June 1098), and Ma’arra (December 1098), before achieving their goal of capturing Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.

The road to Jerusalem was fraught with danger, however, and at some point between the crusaders’ time in Antioch (a town in modern-day south-central Turkey) and the capture of Ma’arra (a city in north-western Syria), provisions were so scarce that, in order to survive, Christian crusaders are said to have cut flesh from the bodies of dead Turkish Muslims and cooked it to eat.

Accounts of the First Crusade

The story of the First Crusade survives in numerous texts. The first of these accounts were written by those who claimed to have taken part in the campaign. The oldest and most-studied of these first-hand accounts of the campaign is the Gesta Francorum, or Deeds of the Franks, which was likely completed in around 1101, two years after the conclusion of the First Crusade, by an anonymous author. The Deeds of the Franks appears to have had the greatest impact in its own time as it formed the basis of most of what some historians call ‘second generation’ accounts of the campaign. The authors of second-generation accounts of the First Crusade did not participate in the expedition, but they used the Deeds of the Franks text and other first-hand oral testimoniesto compose their accounts of the campaign in the early-twelfth century.

Peter the Hermit miniature in Abreviamen de las Estorias, London, Egerton MS 1500

Robert the Monk, Baldric of Bourgueil, and Guibert of Nogent were three French monks who used the Deeds of the Franks text to craft what they considered to be a more ‘theologically refined’ account of the First Crusade. Robert, Baldric, and Guibert all wrote within two decades of the crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem in 1099 and all position the events of the First Crusade in an ideological framework; to them, the Christian crusaders were courageously carrying out God’s will, and the campaign itself was part of sacred history, as important as other miraculous moments in time when God directly intervened in human affairs.

The depiction of the crusaders as courageously undertaking a divinely sanctioned enterprise created an uncomfortable problem, however, when Robert, Baldric, and Guibert came to address the allegations of cannibalism levelled at the crusading force.

Cannibalism in Chronicles of the First Crusade

Robert, Baldric, and Guibert present hunger as one of the most detrimental hardships suffered by the crusaders on their journey to Jerusalem and famine appears at several junctions in their chronicles of the campaign. According to these monks, the crusaders were struck by crippling famine when they lay siege to Antioch from October 1097 to June 1098 and then when they lay siege to Ma’arra from late-November through to December 1098. The emphasis placed on these circumstances of famine not only highlighted some of the dangers associated with siege warfare, but also allowed Robert, Baldric, and Guibert to set their accounts of cannibalism against the backdrop of extreme hunger. These monks claim that the experience of famine at Ma’arra in particular was so devastating that crusaders were forced to consume human flesh to survive.

 Robert the Monk, writing in around 1107, describes man-eating at Ma‘arra simply, saying: ‘[The crusaders] were so desperate with hunger they ended up – a horrible thing to have to describe – cutting up the bodies of the Turks, cooking them and eating them’.[1] This simple three-stage process – cutting up the bodies of Turks, cooking the flesh, and then eating the flesh – is taken directly from the Deeds of the Franks, but Robert adds as a personal aside to his audience that this act of cannibalism was a ‘horrible thing to have to describe’. This is particularly interesting because Robert frequently describes in great and gory detail the injuries and violent deaths sustained by both Christians and Muslims in his account of the campaign. These instances rarely receive explicit commentary on their ‘horrible’ nature which suggests Robert found cannibalism more horrifying to discuss than any other form of bodily mutilation.

Despite its horrible nature, however, Robert attempts to justify man-eating in Ma‘arra in this short sentence by drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that it was ‘desperate hunger’ that drove the crusaders to butcher, cook, and eat the bodies of their enemy. In so doing, Robert essentially legitimises the crusaders’ cannibalism by presenting it as an act of survival.

Baldric of Bourgueil, writing in around 1105, also notes that the crusaders were driven to eat human flesh in Ma‘arra. In his account, Baldric claims Christian crusaders roasted the flesh of dead Turkish soldiers on spits, but, unlike Robert, suggests that this was done in secret:

For [the crusaders] would leave the town stealthily, light fires and cook [the Turkish flesh], and when they had consumed their unspeakable banquets […] they would return as if they had done nothing of the sort.[2]

The secretive nature of the crusaders’ cannibalism confirms that the act of man-eating was not usually condoned. Indeed, Baldric uses similar tones of horror and disgust as seen in Robert’s text when he describes the act of cannibalism as an ‘unspeakable banquet’. Like Robert, Baldric defends the act of cannibalism by reminding the audience that the crusaders’ consumption of human flesh came as a natural result of the famine. This famine, Baldric notes, was willingly suffered by the crusaders in the name of God. By presenting extreme hunger and cannibalism as a hardship heroically endured by the crusading force on their journey to carry out God’s will, Baldric legitimises man-eating as a necessary act of survival that enabled the crusaders to continue their divinely sanctioned task.

Chanson d’Antioche, Paris, 12558, f. 103r; f. 113v; f. 122v; f. 128v.

Guibert of Nogent, writing in around 1108, takes a slightly different approach to his description of crusader cannibalism. Guibert notes:

Some of our men, entirely without resources […] cut pieces of flesh from [Turkish] corpses, cooked them and ate them, but this was done rarely and in secret, so that no one could be sure whether they actually did this.[3]

Again, Guibert prefaces his account of cannibalism by highlighting the fact that the crusaders were starving in Ma’arra, justifying crusader cannibalism by presenting it as an act of survival. Interestingly, only Guibert of the three second-generation authors suggest that no one could be sure that cannibalism in Ma’arra actually occurred. From Guibert’s perspective, the fact that cannibalism at Ma’arra was allegedly committed in secret allows these allegations to be presented as a rumour. In this short description, Guibert avoids the difficult task of legitimising cannibalism by brushing it off as a hearsay.

Later in his account, Guibert continues to distance the Christian crusaders from the allegations of cannibalism by suggesting that not only was man-eating in Ma’arra a rumour, but it was a rumour spread by an impoverished and barbaric sub-group of the Christian army called the Tafurs. According to Guibert, the Tafurs would occasionally take the dead bodies of Turkish soldiers and roast them in full view of the enemy as ifthey were going to eat them. Guibert qualifies that this process of cooking human flesh was performative only, a staged cannibalism intended to fuel rumours of man-eating and frighten and demoralise the Christians’ enemy. By doing this, Guibert distances the main body of the Christian army from allegations of man-eating while also acknowledging that the threat of cannibalism could be an effective, albeit savage, military strategy.

In Robert’s, Baldric’s, and Guibert’s accounts of the First Crusade, crusader cannibalism at Ma’arra is presented at best as an unconfirmed rumour levelled against the crusading force, and at worst as an act of survival endured by some crusaders in specific circumstances of famine. Crucially, in all three accounts, cannibalism is set against the backdrop of extreme hunger, which highlights the crusaders’ suffering on their divinely sanctioned journey to Jerusalem.

Cannibalism in the Chanson d’Antioche

The memory of the First Crusade gained new significance in the hundred years that followed its conclusion when Jerusalem was lost to Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, in 1187. The loss of Jerusalem gave new impetus to crusade preaching at the end of the twelfth century and the First Crusade became the precedent for recovering the city. As a result, the rhetoric surrounding the events of the campaign and its heroes began to shift from the realm history into the realm of legend. It is within this context that new narratives of the First Crusade – which highlighted different themes and gave pre-eminence to different characters – began to be composed.

Godfrey and his brothers in Chanson d’Antioche, Paris, 12558, f. 113v.

One such account written down in the early-thirteenth century is the Chanson d’Antioche. The Chanson d’Antioche is a French chanson de geste, atype of epic poetry that recounts the deeds of knights. In line with the conventions of the chanson de geste genre, the Antioche-poet distorts the chronology of the campaign for dramatic effect, changes details to fit the rhyme scheme, and exaggerates both heroism and villainy.

This poem is generally attributed to the poet Graindor of Douai and describes the events of the First Crusade from Peter the Hermit’s failed People’s Crusade in 1096 to the capture of Antioch in 1098. The rest of the crusade narrative is recounted in twocompanion poems, the Chansons des Chétifs, and the Chanson de Jérusalem. Together, this trilogy sits at the heart of the thirteenth-century cycle of twelve chansons de geste known as the Old French Crusade Cycle which expands the story of the Crusades to include the ancestors of one of the campaign’s heroes, Godfrey of Bouillon, as well as the deeds of Saladin during the Third Crusade (1189–1192).

The Antioche is written in Old French and is organised into 374 rhyming laisses (a type of verse) and, like Robert, Baldric, and Guibert, the Antioche firmly positions the crusaders’ campaign as a divinely sanctioned war that aimed to capture Jerusalem from Islamic occupation. Unlike Robert’s, Baldric’s and Guibert’s accounts of man-eating in Ma‘arra, however, cannibalism in the Antioche predominantly occurs during the first siege of Antioch (October 1097 to June 1098). The cannibals in the Antioche are – like Guibert suggests – the poor and ruthless subgroup of the Christian army called the Tafurs. The Antioche attributes most of the crusaders’ despicable behaviour – including rape, pillaging and cannibalism – to the Tafurs, and pays considerable attention to describing their physical appearance, behaviour, and actions in the poem.

In the Antioche, the Tafurs are depicted as having frightening, ugly features: they have unruly hair, they roll their eyes in a menacing manner, and they grind their long and incredibly sharp teeth. This stands in direct comparison to depictions of the crusade leaders in the poem who are consistently described as having bright and beautiful faces. By attaching notions of ugliness, animality and monstrosity to the identity of the Tafurs in the narrative, the Antioche-poet sets them apart from the crusaders and highlights their ‘otherness’. This reflects a medieval idea that beautiful things were good and ugly things were bad, which meant descriptions of physical appearance were often tied to concepts of morality in medieval narratives.

Nevertheless, the poet also compares the Tafurs to fearsome yet courageous lions and uses qualifiers in his depictions of the Tafurs that celebrate their strength. This somewhat mitigates the Tafurs’ otherness in the poem as strength was a revered attribute in portraits of crusaders, not only as a marker of masculine and chivalric ideals but as an attribute that facilitated doing good deeds. When combined with a focus on the Tafurs’ mouth, teeth and throat, the Tafurs’ strength renders them morally and socially ambiguous: they are presented as a fearsome group with the ability to literally devour their enemies.

It is the leader of these ambiguous characters, the Tafur King, who initiates a conversation with Peter the Hermit while the crusaders are laying siege to the city of Antioch. In this scene, the Tafur King goes into Peter’s tent and tells him that the Tafurs are starving. After hearing this report, Peter suggests that the Tafurs should cook flesh from Turkish corpses, claiming ‘they would taste perfectly alright if you cooked and seasoned them properly.’[4] Despite its subject-matter, this is a civilised exchange and Peter’s suggestion that cannibalism might alleviate the Tafurs’ hunger is not depicted as an abhorrent idea; it is offered as a rational and almost comic solution to the Tafurs’ problem and the poet does not provide any moral judgement on Peter’s suggestion whatsoever.

Depiction of cannibal Mongols in Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 016II,  f. 167r.

Ten thousand Tafurs take Peter’s advice, and the poet provides a brief description of the cannibalism that ensues: the flesh is butchered from the corpses, cooked, and then consumed. This description is not dissimilar to the three-stage process of cannibalism presented by Robert the Monk. The poet also claims that the Tafurs ‘ate their fill’ of human flesh although it is noted that there was no bread to go with it. This reference to a lack of bread recalls the situation of shortage that acts as the backdrop to this episode, effectively legitimising cannibalism as an act of survival.

The next verse describes in detail the Tafurs’ cannibalism and, critically, presents the preparation of human flesh for consumption not only as an act of survival but as both a culinary practice and a performance. The language used in this passage draws attention to the gastronomic process involved in preparing human flesh for consumption. For instance, it is noted that the flesh is bien quisine (cooked well), and like the previous verse we are told that the Tafurs consumed human flesh without seasoning or bread. In this description, however, the suggestion that the flesh was eaten by itself appears to be less a reflection of the circumstances of starvation that necessitated cannibalism and more an ironic commentary on the incivility of eating any sort of meat without a proper accompaniment.

Unlike the Turks, who are watching this cannibalistic performance unfold from the walls of Antioch, the Christian leaders of the crusade are not horrified by the Tafurs behaviour. The leaders interact with the Tafurs, asking the Tafur King with a laugh: ‘How’s it going?’.[5] The suggestion of laughter in direct association with the Tafurs’ behaviour is particularly significant. The leaders laugh with the Tafurs, not at them. This is a positive social gesture, a type of inclusionary laughter that suggests approval of the Tafurs’ actions and demonstrates an uncomfortable assimilation between the heroes of the Antioche and these savage cannibals. Indeed, Godfrey of Bouillon – the crusade leader who is crowned the first King of Jerusalem in the Antioche – goes as far as to offer the Tafur King wine from his own collection to wash down the human flesh after the Tafur King jokingly requests a drink. This adds to the jocular nature of the scene but also supports the transition of cannibalism from an act of survival to a cannibalistic feast prestigious enough to warrant good wine to accompany it.


In the hundred years after the conclusion of the First Crusade there is a shift in how crusader cannibalism is described, justified, and legitimised in narratives of the campaign. Robert the Monk and Baldric of Bourgueil, writing only twenty years after the campaign ended, describe crusader cannibalism at Ma’arra as a horrible and gruesome act of survival temporarily endured by the crusaders on their mission to implement God’s will in the Holy Land. Guibert of Nogent similarly justifies man-eating in Ma’arra by presenting it as an act of survival, but also suggests that because the consumption of human flesh was done in secret, no one could be sure whether cannibalism actually occurred. Guibert negotiates the uncomfortable problem of legitimising cannibalism by presenting the allegations of man-eating as a strategic performance enacted by a subgroup of the Christian army that aimed to fuel rumours of Christian ferocity.

In the Antioche’s narrative of the First Crusade, written one hundred years after the accounts of Robert, Baldric and Guibert, the poet attributes crusader cannibalism to a savage sub-group of the Christian army – the Tafurs – whose cannibalism at Antioch instils such fear in the Turks that it continues to be anxiously referred to by Muslim characters throughout the rest of the poem. With Peter the Hermit’s encouragement of man-eating, the princely leaders’ light-hearted dialogue with the Tafur King, and Godfrey’s supplying of fine wine to accompany the feast, cannibalism in the Antioche appears to be sanctioned by the crusade leaders: they legitimise and participate in the cannibalism, albeit indirectly, not by consuming human flesh but by allowing it to happen.

Tracing these depictions of crusader cannibalism from an act of survival to a strategic performance sheds light on the changing function of man-eating in narratives of the First Crusade and allows for a better understanding of how, why, and for whom these accounts were constructed.

Primary Sources

  • Baldric of Bourgueil, Baldric of Bourgueil: “History of the Jerusalemites”: A translation of the Historia Ierosolimitana, trans. by Susan Edgington (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2020)
  • The Chanson d’Antioche: An Old French Account of the First Crusade, trans. by Susan B. Edgington and Carol Sweetenham (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011)
  • Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum, ed by Rosalind Hill (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962
  • Guibert of Nogent, The Deeds of God through the Franks: A Translation of Guibert de Nogent’s Gesta Dei per Francos, ed and trans. by Robert Levine (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997)
  • Robert the Monk, Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade: Historia Iherosolimitana, ed and trans. by Carol Sweetenham (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005)

Further Reading

  • Asbridge, Thomas, The First Crusade: A New History (London: Free Press, 2004)
  • Blurton, Heather, Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007)
  • Edgington, Susan, ‘The First Crusade: Reviewing the Evidence’, in The First Crusade: Origins and Impact, ed Jonathan Phillips (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), pp. 55–77
  • Kilgour, Maggie, From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990)
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (London: Continuum, 2003)
  • Sweetenham, Carol, ‘The Count and the Cannibals: The Old French Crusade Cycle as a Drama of Salvation’, in Jerusalem the Golden: The Origins and Impact of the First Crusade, ed by Susan Edgington and Luis Garcia-Guijarro (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), pp. 307–328

[1] Robert the Monk, Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade: Historia Iherosolimitana, ed and trans. by Carol Sweetenham (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), p. 186.

[2] Baldric of Bourgueil, Baldric of Bourgueil: “History of the Jerusalemites”: A translation of the Historia Ierosolimitana, trans. by Susan Edgington (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2020), p. 131.

[3] Guibert of Nogent, The Deeds of God through the Franks: A Translation of Guibert de Nogent’s Gesta Dei per Francos, ed and trans. by Robert Levine (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997), p. 117.

[4]The Chanson d’Antioche: An Old French Account of the First Crusade, trans. by Susan B. Edgington and Carol Sweetenham (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), p. 200.

[5]Chanson d’Antioche, p. 201.

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