Anna Comnena: The Alexiad (c. 1148 CE)

When in 1095 Emperor Alexius Comnenus appealed to Pope Urban II for help in fighting the Turks, what caught the pontiff's attention was not the plight of his fellow Christians in Byzantium, but the fact that the places where Christ had lived and died were in Muslim hands (as they had been for centuries). Although Urban was responsible for initiating the drive to "liberate" the Holy Land, it was a common monk, Peter the Hermit, who got the credit in the popular imagination. The crusaders who arrived from Northern Europe were filled with religious passion and the desire to acquire kingdoms for themselves; but they had scant understanding of the people they were supposed to be assisting. The emperor's daughter Anna, in her history of Alexius' reign, disdainfully depicts the crusaders as violent, ignorant boors.

According to Anna, what were the main faults of the crusaders?

A Celt (1) named Peter, called "Peter the Hermit," left to worship at the Holy Sepulcher. (2) After having suffered much bad treatment at the hands of the Turks and the Saracens who were ravaging all of Asia he returned to his home only with great difficulty. Since he could not bear to have failed in his aim, he decided to begin the same voyage over again. But he understood that he should not retravel the route to the Holy Sepulcher alone for fear that a worse mishap might occur to him; and he thought up a clever scheme, which was to preach throughout all the countries of the Latins (3) as follows: "A divine voice has ordered me to proclaim before all the nobles of France that they should all leave their homes to go worship at the Holy Sepulcher and try with all their ability and with all their passion to free Jerusalem from the domination of the Agarenes." (4)

In fact he succeeded. As if he had made a divine voice heard in the heart of each person, Celts from all over assembled, arriving one after the others with their arms, horses, and the rest of their military equipment. These men were so passionately enthusiastic they filled all the roads. These Celtic soldiers were accompanied by a multitude of unarmed people, more numerous than grains of sand or stars, carrying palm branches (5) and crosses over their shoulders: women and children who had left their countries. To see them one would have thought they were streams which flowed together from everywhere--from Dacia mostly, they headed toward us with their entire army.

The arrival of so many people was preceded by locusts which spared the wheat but despoiled and devoured the vines. It was truly the sign such as the prophets of that time had predicted, that this formidable Celtic army, when it arrived, would not intervene in Christian affairs, but would crush in a terrible manner the barbaric Ishmaelites (6) who are slaves of drunkenness, of wine and of Dionysus. (7) For this race, which is ruled by Dionysus and Eros, is so degenerate in regard to sexual relations of every kind that, if it is circumcised in the flesh, is not in its passions: it is enslaved--entirely enslaved--by the vices of Aphrodite. This is also the reason that the Ishmaelites adore in their worship Astarte and Ashtaroth, and that they make so much of an image of a star and the golden statue of Chobar. (8) Besides, wheat was considered as the symbol of Christianity because it is not a stimulant and is very nourishing. This is how the prophets interpreted the symbolism of the wheat and the vines.

But enough about prophets; these signs also accompanied the approach of the barbarians, and intelligent people could expect something novel. In fact the arrival of such a multitude did not take place at the same moment, nor by the same road. (In fact, how could such masses setting out from different countries have all assembled to cross from Italy?) (9) One group crossed, then another, then another after that: thus one after another they all crossed over, then continued across the continent. Each army was preceded by a cloud of locusts, as I said above; so everyone having experienced this several times, knew that this phenomenon portended the arrival of French troops.

When these groups began crossing the Straits of Lombardy, the emperor summoned some of the leaders of the Roman troops and sent them to the region around Dyrrachium and Avlona, with orders that the travelers who had crossed over should be received kindly and provided all along their route with abundant provisions from all regions; and instructions to observe them discretely, constantly observing them, so that if they were observed making raids or pillaging neighboring regions, they should be repelled by light skirmishes. These officers were aided by interpreters who knew the Latin language and could settle the conflicts which might arise.

I would like to give a clearer and more detailed account of this matter. Inspired by word of the preaching which circulated everywhere, Godefroi (10) was the first to sell his lands and set out on the road. He was a very rich man, extremely proud of his noble birth, his courage, and the glory of his ancestry, for every Celt wanted to surpass all others. There arose a movement including both men and women such as no one could remember having ever seen before: the simplest people were truly motivated by their desire to worship at the sepulcher of the Lord and to visit the holy places; but villainous men like Bohemond and his like had an ulterior motive, and the hope that perhaps they might seize the imperial city itself (11) on the way since they had stumbled on this opportunity for profit. Bohemond confused the minds of many noble warriors because he cherished an old grudge against the emperor.

Meanwhile, Peter, after having preached as I have described above, crossed the Strait of Lombardy before any of them with 80,000 infantrymen and 100,000 horsemen, and arrived at the imperial palace after having crossed through Hungary. The Celtic people, as can be guessed, are in any case very hotheaded and passionate: once they've caught fire they are unstoppable. Informed of all that Peter had had to endure previously at the hands of the Turks, the emperor advised him to wait for the arrival of the other counts; but he, refusing to listen to him, feeling his company strong in numbers, crossed the strait and set up camp near a small village called Helenopolis. Normans followed him: about 10,000 of them. They broke off from the rest of the army and began pillaging the region around Nicaea, conducting themselves with extreme cruelty toward all. Suckling infants, for example, were either mutilated or speared on spits and roasted over the fire. As for older people, they inflicted all manner of tortures on them. When the inhabitants of the city heard these things, they opened the gates and made a sortie against the Normans. A violent combat followed; but in the face of the belligerent ferocity of the Normans the native troops retreated into the citadel. The attackers returned to Helenopolis with all their booty. But a dispute arose between them and those who had not gone with them on the raid, as often happens in such cases; envy inflamed those who had remained behind and there followed between the two groups a quarrel which ended by the audacious Normans making a new separate sortie and taking Xerigordon in a single assault.

The sultan reacted to these events by sending Elkhanes against them with a substantial force. As soon as he arrived, he recaptured Xerigordon. As for the Normans, he put many to the sword and took the rest prisoner while planning a surprise assault on the others who had remained behind with Peter. He set up ambushes in appropriate spots where those who were traveling toward Nicaea would be fallen upon and massacred. Knowing the Celts were greedy, he summoned two courageous men and ordered them to go to Peter's camp and say that the Normans, having conquered Nicaea, were in the process of dividing up the riches of the city. This news spread among those with Peter and threw them into a terrible confusion; for as soon as they heard of dividing riches, they rushed off in disorder along the road to Nicaea, almost entirely forgetting the military experience and discipline proper to fighting men. Since they did march in ranks or troops, they fell into a Turkish ambush near Drakon and were wretchedly massacred. So many Celts and Normans were victims of the Ishmaelite sword that when the bodies of the slaughtered warriors which were scattered about were collected, they were piled--not in a huge pile, nor even a mound, or a hill--but into a high mountain of considerable dimensions, so great was the mass of bones. Later men belonging to the same race as the massacred men built walls like those of the city, filling the holes between the stones with bones instead of mortar, and thus made this city into their tomb. The fortified place exists still today, surrounded by a wall made of stones and bones mixed together.

When all these had been slain by the sword, Peter alone with a few others returned to Helenopolis and entered it. The Turks, who wanted to seize the city, raised new ambushes. But when the emperor learned all of this and had verified the facts of this appalling massacre, he realized how tragic it would have been if Peter had also been taken prisoner. So he sent for Constantine Euphorbenos Katakalon, whom I have mentioned often above, and had him assemble a large body of warships and sent them to rescue those on the other side of the strait. As soon as the Turks saw these troops arrive, they fled. Constantine, without losing a moment, gathered Peter and his few companions and led them safe and sound to the emperor. When the latter reminded him of his imprudence from the beginning and told them that he had undergone such a disaster because he had disregarded the emperor's advice, the proud Latin, far from admitting that he was responsible for this disaster, accused the others of not having obeyed him, following their own whims, and spoke of them as thieves and brigands, which is why the Lord had not allowed them to reach the Holy Sepulcher.

Those Latins who, like Bohemond and his kind, had for a long time coveted the Roman (12) Empire and wished to seize it, took advantage of the pretext of Peter's preaching which had provoked this enormous movement by deceiving the more honest among them. Selling their lands, they pretended to go off to war against the Turks to free the Holy Sepulcher.

Translated by Paul Brians

(1) Anna calls the crusaders "Celts," "Latins," and "Normans" interchangeably.

(2) The tomb of Christ is in Jerusalem.

(3) Countries dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, whose official language was Latin.

(4) The Turks.

(5) It was traditional for pilgrims to the Holy Land to carry palm branches over their shoulders.

(6) Muslims.

(7) The Greek god of wine. It is difficult to know what caused Anna to judge the Muslims as drunkards, for Islam strictly forbids its followers to drink wine.

(8) Both Western and Eastern Medieval Christians insisted that Muslims were polytheistic idol-worshipers, although in fact they were strict monotheists and forbad images.

(9) Anna wrongly assumes that all of the crusaders crossed over from Italy, probably because the first to arrive came from that direction.

(10) Godefroi of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine.

(11) Constantinople, which was indeed invaded, pillaged and conquered by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

(12) Byzantine.

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. If, after examining the table of contents of the complete volume, you are interested in considering it for use at your own campus, please contact Paul Brians.

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