To what extent do you agree that the Gesta Francorum is a simple soldier's straightforward account of the First Crusade

Essay, 2003

18 Pages, Grade: 54 %


He, who controls the past, commands the future.

He, who commands the future, conquers the past.

George Orwell

In the eleventh century the Christian lands of Western Europe were in trouble. Afflicted by the repeated invasions from North and South and East, by the collapse of internal order, by brutal oppression of the weak, by the laxity and ignorance of the clergy, and by the unrestrained tyranny of feudal war lords, life in the West was – in the words of Thomas Hobbs - “nasty, brutish, and short”[1]. The problems were compounded, when nomadic soldiers – recently converted to Islam – occupied Jerusalem and the Holy Land, thus causing the pilgrimage to them far more hazardous. But all the prayers, the sermons the condemnations and the appeals had amounted too little until in November 1095, Pope Urban II preached in Clermont. For his largely ignorant and unreflective audience, the Pope threw a harsh light of criticism on the fallings of Western society. But he pointed out, that the liberation of Jerusalem[2] and the Holy Land from the “infidels” was a redemptive task worthy of men, who could call themselves milites Christi[3], the liberation of the Eastern Church, alone was “unpopular in the West”[4]. At a stroke, Pope Urban intended to divert the reckless and violent men of the West into the path of righteousness. At the end of the tenth century the Church attempted to set a formal limit of customary violence.[5] They could now practise warfare in a holy course. The crusade would attract all people of faith and hope; some people however would be nothing more than a hindrance to a military expedition[6] or the armed pilgrimage that was “referred to as Just War”[7].

The first act in the service of God, for nobles and knights, was the raising of the money. A knight was ashamed to take the field without the accoutrements of his class. The violent power of western knighthood rested on the charge of heavy cavalry, and a knight needed many expensive things to maintain this grip on the battlefield. The nobles of Europe were all members of an agrarian class and even the greatest had few material belongings beyond his landholdings. The burden of debt laid on the land was heavy for the crusader to bear but often heavier for the family left behind. That is why many nobles left to the Holy Land in companionship with their relatives. Bohemond of Taranto, “a true Norman rather than a true crusader”[8], the leader of the Normans from Southern Italy and Sicily had in his entourage his three nephews Tancred, Robert and William. For men such as these the crusade was intended to lead to a better life and progress in that direction was subject to a daily calculation. The religious foundation of the crusade, real but unsecure, carried a large superstructure of ambition and self-interest. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the fourth crusading armies.

In the summer of 1096 a force of Normans from Southern Italy were besieging Amalfi under two tough soldiers, Roger of Sicily and Bohemund of Taranto. Bohemund, was younger, more energetic than his uncle Roger, and was also the nephew of Robert Guiscard. He had already twice defeated the armies of the Greek emperor. In the days of summer, as the siege dragged on under the sun of the South, it came to his notice that a more glamorous and worthy venture was afoot. This was sufficient for Bohemund. As if on a whim he rallied his Norman knights, enthused them with unexpected Christian spirit and abruptly broke away from Amalfi. His strong Norman instinct for spoils of war scented more than glorious prey and larger rewards in the Holy Land.[9] This sudden bold step was typical for Bohemond. His progress, so full of imagination and swift colourful strokes, was narrated with wonder and appreciation by an anonymous knight or cleric of his army in a book called Gesta Francorum, a soldierly account that follows the crusade in all its tragic, foolish and courageous adventures down to the triumphant liberation of the Holy City three years later. It is strange, that the does not mention[10] the council in Clermont.[11] The Gesta in its original version was probably not finished until 1101[12], but the first six books were aviaable in 1108.[13] The anonymous author appears to have been a young educated, seasoned vassal of Bohemund, having received some ecclestial training and knew many soldiers of Bohemond’s army individually.[14] Thus he had to be not of lower rank but was surely on the personal staff of Bohemond. But there is a broad break from March 1098 to the striking events of the treachery of the city to Bohemund.[15]

Local Christian inhabitants, from whom the Westerner expected help and provisions, feared soldiers who looked like and too often acted like a band of invading brigands. Though Muslims were the enemy it was not easy for crusaders to differentiate between all kinds of religious error. Nor was it clear whether the Greeks resented the crusaders more than they needed them. Conflict was always but a short step away between these two branches of the Christian faith. Bohemond the most politic and astute of the Western leaders, and a man who knew the Greeks well since he had twice defeated them, was careful at this early stage not to antagonize Emperor Alexius. Bohemond’s attitude towards all the Byzantines seemed to be one of the studied contempt, though day-by-day he would play their games. He had already beaten them on the field of honour and could do so again. Something of this insulting confidence also rubbed off on Bohemond’s chronicler. For the anonymous author Alexius was “that wretched man”, or the “abominable emperor”, or “a fool well as a knave” and thus he expected nothing good from the Greeks and was always ready to put the worst interpretation on their actions.

By April 1097, with the strands of the crusading army camped in the suburbs and surrounds of Constantinople Emperor Alexius had cause to worry. He did not like or trust them as he knew they were all men of high ambition and he had no reason to think their idealism would survive the test of time. Alexius wanted to have the crusaders safely across the Bosperus as quickly as possible, but not before he had tried to extract oaths of loyalty from all the high nobles. Alexius succeeded with all crusaders except Raymond of St. Gilles. Robert of Normandy and Stephan of Blois brought the last division of the army up to Nicaea. The crusading army was no one force, united in the field for the first time. The city of Nicaea fell on 19 June 1097. In this test the Turks had made themselves known as warriors who knew their business. Victory had gone to an army vastly superior in numbers. The long attrition of the siege had worn down the garrison and the fall of it was no great triumph for the West.[16] That description was from the anonymous knight of the Gesta, a stout hearted Norman, for whom fighting was the familiar task of manhood. Moreover, he gives little impression of the panic and the fear overwhelming the crusaders, who he sometimes referred to armed escorts only.[17] For an account of the battle it is better to follow the plain words of the Gesta.[18]

Praise from the author of the Gesta, a man who knew war and saluted a worthy enemy was praise indeed. This battle of Dorylaeum, the first contest in open battlefield between the crusaders and the forces of Islam, was a trial for both armies. It showed the likelihood of the westerners to be taken by surprise, and their notorious difficulty in forging a single army out of various bands led by wilful but independent nobles. None of the Chroniclers, neither the author of the Gesta nor Fulcher nor Raymond of Aguilers, really knew why the crusaders had divided after Nicaea. The explanation of the Gesta, that they had blithely marched apart in the darkness before dawn hardly convinces. It was in any case a most unmilitary action. As a result of that separation Bohemond was nearly lost and he was only saved in the nick of time.

On the one hand, the western knights, when they did manage to form line and put their battle plan into action, they were clearly more powerful than the Turks. Yet for all their power, the Christians at Dorylaeum came thanks to their own muddle and lack of cooperation, within moment of disaster. A soldier, such as the author of the Gesta, might attribute the victory to courageous hearts and military virtues, but the priests knew better: This victory was God’s reward to men of faith. Though their supplies and support from the Greeks continued, the crusaders noted the cooling of the imperial enthusiasm and the Gesta again was ready to condemn another piece of malicious double-dealing. When the besieged Turks in Nicaea surrendered to the Emperor and he treated them leniently the Gesta was in a rage: “The emperor who was a fool as well a knave told them to go away unhurt”. After the success at Nicaea, followed almost immediately by the victory at Dorylaeum, the crusaders had reason to be cheerful. But the crusaders were fortunate, too, in the disarray of their opponents. On the way on, heat and weariness, lack of water and thin rations, poor hygiene and the stress of the march day by day caused many crusaders to sicken and die. Even horses, used to the hayfields of Europe, declined and died under the onslaught of flies and ticks in the Cilician Sun. “We lost most of our horses” lamented the Gesta“so that many of our knights had to go on as foot soldiers, or for lack of horses we had to use oxen as mounts”. The truth was that the crusading army without the overwhelming force of its heavy cavalry lost much of its power, and the foot soldiers, unprotected by the armoured knights, were an easy target for the fast riding agile Turkish horse archers. Even more important a Christian knight, a member of the order of chivalry, forced to fight on an ox was a men ashamed.


[1] (24.02.2003)

[2] H. E. Mayer, The Crusades, translation by J Gillingham, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 41-48 and Jonathan and Louise Riley-Smith, The Crusades: Idea and Reality 1095-1274, (London: Edward Arnold, 1981), 43-44.

[3] K. B. Wolf, ‘Crusade and narrative: Bohemond and the Gesta Francorum’, Journal of Medieval History Vol. XVII, David Abulafia et al (eds.) (Amsterdam: 1991), 209.

[4] Erdmann , The Origin of the Idea of Crusade, 330.

[5] Under the terms of Pax Dei the Bishops tried to place certain classes of people and property beyond the reach of warring factions. At the same time, the Truga Dei took a lead from an earlier decree by Carolus Magnus and limited the time available for fighting.

[6] The poor, the untrained and unarmed, women, children all those had no place in the Pope’s plans.

[7] Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades?, 7.

[8] H. E. Mayer, The Crusades, 46.

[9] K. B. Wolf, ‘Crusade and narrative: Bohemond and the Gesta Francorum’, Journal of Medieval History Vol. XVII, David Abulafia et al (eds.) (Amsterdam: 1991), 212.

[10] Kenneth Setton (ed.), A History of the Crusades, Vol.1, The first hundred years (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958), 221.

[11] The author might have not considered this meeting in Clermont very different from any other that Pope Urban II was holding.

[12] Setton , A History of the Crusades, 239.

[13] A. C. Krey, ‘A neglected passage in the Gesta and izs bearing on the literature of the first crusade’, The crusades and other historical essays. Presented to Dana C. Munro by his former students, L. J. Paetow (ed.) (New York: Books for libraries Press, 1968), 73.

[14] K. B. Wolf, ‘Crusade and narrative: Bohemond and the Gesta Francorum’, 208

[15] Murray, From Clermont to Jerusalem: the Crusades and Crusader societies, 1095-1500, 36.

[16] R. M. T. Hill (ed. and transl.), Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolymitanorum, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 14 – 17.

[17] K. B. Wolf, ‘Crusade and narrative: Bohemond and the Gesta Francorum’, 209.

[18] R. M. T. Hill (ed. and transl.), Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolymitanorum, 18 – 21.

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To what extent do you agree that the Gesta Francorum is a simple soldier's straightforward account of the First Crusade
University of Wales, Aberystwyth  (Department of History)
HIH 3124
54 %
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ISBN (eBook)
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Gesta, Francorum, First, Crusade
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Michael Gärtner (Author), 2003, To what extent do you agree that the Gesta Francorum is a simple soldier's straightforward account of the First Crusade, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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