Friday, November 10, 2017

Chronicles of the First Crusade, ed. Christopher Tyerman

My most recent Crusader-research read was a Penguin Classics collection of excerpts from various chronicles of the First Crusade. I've been reading it slowly over the last few months, especially while working on A Wind from the Wilderness, which focuses on the First Crusade.

Christopher Tyerman, the editor, is a well-regarded crusader historian, and he's produced an excellent book. It includes a wide variety of sources, some of which (like the excerpts from Anna Comnena's Alexiad and the letters home from prominent crusader princes) I'd already read. It also includes a number of excerpts from Arab and Jewish chronicles and letters--though nothing from Armenian or Syriac sources, which seems to be an oversight.

The major chroniclers used are Fulcher of Chartes, Raymond of Aguilers, the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum, and Anna Comnena, and the excerpts are arranged more or less chronologically, so that you get several different perspectives on any single event. This was extremely useful, for example, when I was trying to piece together exactly what happened during the battle of Dorylaeum.

One of the things I like most about medieval chronicles is how the personality of the author is communicated, and this book was a veritable checkerboard or people. I've mentioned Anna Comnena's schoolmarmish self-consciousness before, for instance, but when her chronicle is put side by side with the accounts of the Franks, something else emerges: the adroit way in which she manipulated and spun some of the less praiseworthy facts of her father's behaviour in order to head off criticism. The author of the Gesta Francorum is less a diplomat or a scholar than a soldier; the journey interests him little except as a catalogue of marches to reach an objective, but when describing battle, he revels in knightly good conduct and gallant speeches.

But it was Raymond of Aguilers who provided me with the most to chew on. Aguilers was a chaplain in the service of Raymond of Toulouse. More expressive than the author of the Gesta Francorum, Aguilers is not above hinting that the crusader council ought to have taken his advice on military matters:
On the day following our arrival, we were so angered by the natives that we openly stormed the walls and would, no doubt, have seized Ma'arrat al-Numan if we had possessed four more ladders. However, our two ladders, short and fragile, were mounted fearfully; and it was the council's decision to build machines, hurdles and mounds by which the wall could be reached, sapped and tumbled to the ground.
But reading carefully, it becomes clear that Aguilers's criticism of the council is a little more than simple smartalecry. One of the crusade's resident holy men prophesied that the city of Ma'arrat would fall to an assault with ladders within a few days, and Aguilers, if his chronicle is any indication, was deeply invested in supporting these "prophets".

Peter Bartholomew, Stephen of Valence, and other prophets emerged during the crusade's most desperate days, when they were starving and facing what seemed like certain death in Antioch at the hands of a more numerous, better-fed and better-equipped army of Turks. It was at this darkest moment, when even some of the highest-ranking knights and counts had already panicked and fled, that both Peter Bartholomew and Stephen of Valence came forward, claiming to have been visited by Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint Andrew, and other saints. Both offered to verify their visions by undergoing trial by ordeal. Bartholomew gained priority at first by discovering (or "discovering") the purported relic of the Holy Lance. Aguilers, present on the scene, says he kneeled to kiss the point while it was still projecting from the ground.

Overnight, Bartholomew became one of the crusade's most influential figures, and he now received a steady flow of increasingly unhinged visions. He claimed to have been visited multiple times by Adhemar of le Puy, the papal legate who died shortly after the siege. Adhemar had refused to accept the legitimacy of the "Holy Lance", and Bartholomew claimed that after his death Adhemar came to visit him sporting horrible burns from Purgatory where he was being tormented for his lack of faith. Finally, Bartholomew's reign came to an end when he insisted that two-fifths of the crusaders should be massacred to cleanse them of their sins and unlock the blessings of God. This was too much for many of the other clergy to stomach, and Bartholomew reacted by insisting on a trial by ordeal, which he did not survive.

Obviously these visions were not actually from God. But I think it's unlikely that they were fabrications, either. Bartholomew and Valence both had faith in what they were saying, and Bartholomew died believing it. But whether starvation-and-trauma-induced hallucinations were at work here, or something more sinister, from my perspective it's undeniable that all this happened, in Charles Williams's words, "under the Mercy". And that's something I'll definitely be chewing over as I work on A Wind from the Wilderness and the other Outremer books.

Find Chronicles of the First Crusade on Amazon or the Book Depository.

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