Tuesday, December 12, 2006

December 12

Peter the HermitOn this date in 1098, European crusaders under the leadership of Raymond de Saint Gilles and Bohemond of Taranto arrived, malnourished and low on supplies, in the Syrian city of Ma'arra (known today as Ma'arrat al-Numan). Participating in the First Crusade, the soldiers had responded to the pleas of Pope Urban II to rescue the Holy Land of Jerusalem from Muslim control. Announcing that "Deus vult!" ("God wills it"), the Pope insisted -- as several previous pontiffs had -- that "Christendom" must unite in a Holy War against the infidels who resided in the realm of the decaying Umayyad Empire. In December 1095, Urban II delivered a fanatical, revanchist speech at the Council of Clermont that urged the creation of a classless army of thieves, nobles, mercenaries, and sectarian malcontents -- all of whom would be united in Christian martyrdom:
All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor. Behold! on this side will be the sorrowful and poor, on that, the rich; on this side, the enemies of the Lord, on that, his friends. Let those who go not put off the journey, but rent their lands and collect money for their expenses; and as soon as winter is over and spring comes, let hem eagerly set out on the way with God as their guide.
By 1097, the fragmentary crusaders had arrived in Syria. The recovery of the Holy Land was not, to date, going well. After nearly a year of laying seige to the city of Antioch, the knights and peasant warriors were literally starving to death. As the seige dragged on, many of the noblemen had preferred to starve rather than eat their horses, while the poorer soldiers -- remnants from Peter the Hermit's "People's Crusade" -- had no such qualms and thus replenished themselves on the stringy, emaciated flesh of their departed steeds. According to legend, some of the Europeans at Antioch also consumed the bodies of the enemy Saracens after they had been killed.

These rumors were only enhanced by the subsequent events at Ma'arra, located to the southeast of Antioch between the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Hama. Staggering from hunger, their ranks thinned by a typhus eidemic that struck during the Antioch seige, the crusaders breached the walls of Ma'arra and slaughtered as many as 20,000 people. According to several chroniclers of the First Crusade, the hungry Christian soldiers soon resorted again to cannibalism. Radulph of Caen, for example, recorded than "In Ma'arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled." Albert of Aix observed that "Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens; they also ate dogs!" In the Historia Hierosolymitana, compiled by Guibert of Nogent, the poorer soldiers -- known as Tafurs -- "roasted the bruised body of a Turk over a fire as if it were meat for eating, in full view of the Turkish forces." Fulcher of Chartres, author of A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, empathized with the cannibals themselves rather than the cannibalized. As he explained, "I shudder to say that many of our men, terribly tormented by the maddness of starvation, cut pieces of flesh from the buttocks of Saracens lying there dead. These pieces they cooked and ate, savagely devouring the flesh while it was insufficiently roasted."

Contemporary historians are uncertain if such acts of cannibalism actually took place. Whether or not the people of Ma'arra were eaten or not, nearly every one of them was most certainly killed. As for the promised vindication of the crusaders' blackened souls, we can only speculate on the fulfillment of the Pope's unconditional promises.