Crusaders at War: With Each Other

Crusaders at War

Introduction

The Crusades were a time of war.

But the boundaries between war and peace, between criminality and soldiering, and between civilians and warriors were easily blurred.

Lawlessness in the area was already rife. But for many crusaders and members of other out-of-region armies entering the Holy Land, criminality started long before they had even arrived.

Discipline and the Second Crusade

Taking the Second Crusade as an example, one can see that the problem of trying to maintain order grew day by day. King Louis VII of France did his best. He had, quite rightly, made early efforts to impose discipline and a workable code of conduct on his men as they marched across Europe on their way to the Holy Land. When the crusading contingents had started to congregate, and ‘after camp had been pitched outside the city, he waited a few days for the army to arrive, and he enacted laws necessary for securing peace and other requirements on the journey, which the leaders confirmed by a solemn oath.’

This was fine in theory. In practice, however, these laws were so thoroughly ignored that we do not even know what they were. As one frustrated royal chronicler bitterly remarked, ‘Because they did not observe them well, I have not preserved them either.’

Discipline proved increasingly difficult to maintain within an extended army largely made up of scattered and squabbling feudal contingents. At some point along the Crusaders’ march from Philipoppolis (modern-day Plovdiv in Bulgaria) to Constantinople, tensions between the French and German armies boiled over. A French commentator later wrote that trouble broke out when ‘some of our men, who wished to escape the press of the crowd around the king and therefore went ahead, lodged near [the Germans]’.

Criminality as a Competitive Environment

Competition for scarce food supplies was the ostensible cause of the fighting that started soon afterward, but any number of reasons could have triggered it. ‘Both groups went to market’, wrote a French crusader, ‘but the Germans did not allow the Franks to buy anything until after they themselves had had all they wanted. From this situation arose a dispute, or rather a brawl, for when one person accuses another in a very loud voice without understanding him, there is a brawl. Thereupon the Franks, after this exchange of blows, returned from the market with their supplies.

That was just the beginning of the disorder, however: the Germans, ‘scorning the pride of the few Franks, because they themselves were many, took arms against them and fell upon them furiously, and the Franks, likewise armed, resisted spiritedly.’ Fighting only petered out as night fell, and after ‘wise men among them, falling at the knees of the fools, calmed this rage by humility and reason’.

Even by their accounts, the French could not pretend to be blameless; discipline was obviously on the verge of breaking down completely. When their army arrived in Constantinople, the trouble only got worse. The Byzantines ‘closed the city gates to the throng, since it had burned many of their houses and olive trees, either for lack of wood or because of arrogance and the drunkenness of fools. The king frequently punished offenders by cutting off their ears, hands, and feet, yet he could not thus check the folly of the whole group. Indeed, one of two things was necessary, either to kill many thousands at one time or to put up with their numerous evil deeds’.

A Poor Exchange

One particular incident almost caused a minor war to break out between the French and their long-suffering Byzantine hosts. As the armies crossed over into Asia Minor, one Frenchman who was on the expedition reported that ‘food ships, with money changers aboard, followed us. The money changers displayed their treasures along the shore; their tables gleamed with gold, and they were groaning with the silver vessels that they had bought from us. From the army came people who were bartering for necessities, and they were joined by men who coveted the supplies of others’.

The chronicler tried to distance the army as far as possible from what ensued, but it was clear that robbery by members of the Frankish army was the cause. ‘One day, therefore, a certain Fleming’, he wrote, ‘fit to be scourged and burned in Hell, seeing a great wealth and blinded by immoderate greed, cried, “Havo! havo!”, seizing what he wished. And by his boldness, as well as by the value of the loot, he incited men like himself to crime’.

They needed little incitement. Once the opportunity for theft presented itself, everyone piled in to fill their boots, and ‘those who had money on hand rushed away in all directions’. The market dissolved in a matter of seconds, and as ‘the stalls came falling down, the gold was trampled on and seized. In fear of death, the despoiled money changers fled, and, as they fled, the ships took them on board. When the ships left, they brought back to the city many of our people who were aboard, purchasing food’.

The Byzantine authorities were naturally disgruntled. The Franks, stranded on board their ships, were arrested. Although they were not the guilty parties, they were nonetheless ‘beaten and plundered. Also, the city plundered her guests as if they were enemies’.

Allies into Enemies

This was a self-inflicted disaster that the crusade did not need. Once more, it was left to King Louis of France to patch things up. ‘These circumstances were made known to the king’, wrote the chronicler Odo of Deuil, ‘and, hugely angry, he demanded possession of the criminal, who, when surrendered by the count of Flanders, was hanged right on the spot, within full view of the city. Then the King hurried to search for the lost goods, to pardon those who returned them, to threaten those concealing them with punishment like the Flemings, and, so that they might not be frightened or shamed by his presence, he ordered them to return everything to the bishop of Langres. In the morning, the money changers who had fled the day before were recalled, and they got back in full what they could swear they had lost’.

This violent incident was brought about as a result of ill-discipline within the French army. Even then, however, the French chroniclers were quick to blame anyone else—the actions of a Flemish soldier or the ‘overreaction’ of the Byzantine authorities to the attack on their merchants.

In the aftermath of the incident, the money changers, who had been robbed and beaten by the crusaders, were accused of fraud by the French. When it came to dispensing compensation, it was said that ‘most of them asked [for] more than they ought, but the king preferred to restore the missing articles from his own property rather than disturb the peace of his army’.

The violence of soldiers and the violence of criminality blended effortlessly, even in the midst of God’s Wars. The Crusaders took unnecessary casualties and lost the goodwill of much-needed allies long before they arrived in the Holy Land.

Crusading was always difficult. But ill-discipline and criminality made a difficult job almost impossible.

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Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble
Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2023). Crusader criminals: How knights went rogue. Yale University Press.

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