When Alcoholism Saved the Crusades

Alcohol: Unexpected Saviour of the Crusades

Introduction

Europeans during the wars of the Crusades were fond of a refreshing drink. And often far too much so.

But it was not just Europeans who tried to drink each other under the table, often with criminal consequences. The Turkic and Mongol steppe warriors who were the crusaders’ most effective opponents may not have had tables when they arrived in the region, but they certainly knew how to drink.

Skulls and Steppes

Despite a nominal adherence to Islam, the habits of their ancestors took a long time to die out. Taking violence and unsanitary alcohol consumption to a new level, the steppe tribesmen even took pride in decapitating their enemies and using the heads as celebratory drinking vessels to be brought out at parties and family gatherings.

A Dominican brother named Julian told his fellow monks about his encounters with the Mongols in around 1235 and described them as drinking from the skulls of their victims. Shortly afterwards (in 1245-1247), a Franciscan brother named John of Plano de Carpini travelled to the Mongol lands and wrote of their constant and heavy drinking habits.

But, even against such stiff competition for crazy drinking, it was a Turkic warlord, Il-Ghazi, the lord of Mardin, who had a stand-out alcohol addiction issue. Most steppe warriors could drink, but, luckily for the Crusaders, his was a spectacularly serious and debilitating problem. Even one of his Muslim admirers wrote that ‘when Il-Ghazi used to drink wine, he would be drunk for twenty days’.

Il-Ghazi and the Missed Opportunity

Il-Ghazi could have stopped the Crusades when they had barely started. In 1119 he gathered a huge army of like-minded nomadic tribesmen and rampaged across the northern crusader states. The Crusaders’ territories were so overwhelmed that they found it difficult to gather information about what they were facing. They sent out scouts. The scouts never came back.

The army of Antioch, commanded by their prince, Roger of Salerno, rode out to defend their lands – but they never knew what hit them. On 28 June 1119, they were overrun on the march, surrounded and massacred in a matter of minutes. Roger and his picked men died in a last-ditch stand around their mobile chapel, guarding relics containing a fragment of the True Cross. The battlefield was afterwards called, with characteristic medieval bluntness, Ager Sanguinis – the Field of Blood.

The northern crusader states were almost bereft of troops. And with the land route to Byzantium lost, the thin strip of land in Palestine which the southern Franks held would rapidly become indefensible. Il-Ghazi was poised to change the course of history.

Instead, he had a celebratory drink – and once he had started drinking, he just could not stop. As one Muslim chronicle put it, ‘he took to drink after destroying the Franks and killing them, going on a drunken spree.’

Tinctures and Tortures

Everyone knew that the northern crusader states were his for the taking, but instead of exploiting the situation, Il-Ghazi settled down to entertain himself. He sent his men out on low-level raids, opting for the easy money that could be raised by taking prisoners and selling them into slavery. His senior commanders needed little encouragement – they quickly followed his alcoholic example.

The Turkic leadership spent two weeks in a stupor. The only thing which diverted them from drinking was the chance to torture and mutilate the prisoners of war.

Several captives ‘were thrown with every single limb cut off into the squares and districts [of Aleppo], as a spectacle…and the more the…drunkenness raged, the more the perversity of their tortures increased. This was made known to many as the result of drinking in the master’s palace [of Il-Ghazi]; for indeed on that day when Il-Ghazi lay drunk by the madness of wine in his palace after the battle, all of the distinguished Christian prisoners, as many as were in Aleppo, were brought before him together on his orders’.

Government by Alcoholism

At this nerve-wracking meeting, random prisoners were decapitated as a way of focusing the minds of the survivors. Il-Ghazi was described as showing a ghastly ‘exuberance from horrific drinking’, beheading captives ‘while under the influence of drunkenness’. Several days later, a mass execution of prisoners was arranged for public entertainment, during which Il-Ghazi, nothing if not consistent, ‘was [still] intent upon celebratory drinking with leading members of Aleppo’s entire nobility’.

But even Il-Ghazi could not keep operating at this pace indefinitely. Eventually, he was ‘placed in his tent by gangs of his men, overcome by wine as was his custom, and he lay as if dead in the stink of his shit for fifteen days’. He was, wrote a Frankish survivor, with some understatement, ‘very often exhausted by this kind of disgraceful passion’.

By the time Il-Ghazi and his commanders had come to their senses, a Christian army from the south had rushed to shore up the Franks’ military positions – civilians were escorted to safety, and the castles, previously almost emptied to fill the field army that had been lost at Ager Sanguinis, were re-garrisoned. The army of Jerusalem was more cautious now that they knew the size of the enemy forces they were facing – and, ably led by their tough soldier-king, Baldwin II, they were able to beat off the nomads at the second battle of Tell-Danith on 15 August 1119.

With the chance of easy pickings gone, Il-Ghazi’s mercenary tribesmen started to return home – and the opportunity to roll up the nascent Frankish settlements was gone.

Alcohol was not always the friend of the Crusaders. As their moralists never tired of preaching, pubs and drinking brought a lot of problems to their train. But, ironically, there was a time, whether it was recognised or not, when it had its uses. Alcoholism was, on one occasion at least, the saviour of the Holy Land.

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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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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
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SOURCES

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

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