By Steve Tibble
During the Middle Ages, maintaining discipline on campaign was always difficult – and commanders knew that criminality was a ‘gateway behaviour’ which opened up the path to an even greater breakdown of authority.
The severity of punishments inflicted was an indicator of the severity of the problem.
King Richard I of England, the Lionheart, had very firm views about discipline. He set out a clear and draconian list of punishments during the Third Crusade – these were the consequences that his men could expect if they stepped too far out of line. In the case of theft it was decreed that ‘a robber…shall have his head cropped after the manner of a champion, and boiling pitch shall be poured on it, and then the feathers of a cushion shall be shaken out upon him, so that he may be known.’
This classic instance of ‘tarring and feathering’ may seem almost comic, but it was far more painful than it sounds. In fact, and this was largely the point of the exercise, it could cause severe scarring to the head – many who experienced this process would have had huge areas of scar tissue on which no hair would grow. The punishment was a very visible warning to everybody in an age when there were no ‘criminal records’ and no identity cards.
Once crusaders got to the Latin East, the low-level lawlessness just continued. Brawling between soldiers, even of the knightly class, was perhaps inevitable – with so many armed and aggressive young men in the region, keeping a lid on the testosterone was always a challenge. John of Joinville was involved in one such incident.
He later wrote that when he was with the French army at Caesarea in 1250-1251 fighting and jostling broke out between some of the king’s knights and the Hospitaller warrior monks. The details were mundane, as was often the case. But tempers ran high, nonetheless. The French knights were out hunting, ‘chasing a wild animal called a gazelle, which is very similar to a deer’. They got a little out of hand and the local Hospitallers took exception to their over-enthusiastic antics – they ‘drove them off and chased them away’.
There were a lot of Hospitaller properties around Caesarea, so the brothers might have viewed the crusaders (with some justification) as trespassers or poachers. Or, given the military monks’ status as the ‘professionals’ of the crusader armies, they might just have been having a bit of fun with newcomers who they would have characterised as boisterous and irritating ‘amateurs’.
Either way, Joinville ‘complained to the master of the Hospital’ about the brawl. The master doubtless had plenty of far more important things to worry about – but he said ‘that he would make amends to [Joinville] in accordance with the custom of the Holy Land, which was such that he would make the brothers who had committed this offence eat sitting on their cloaks until the victims should allow them to get up’.
It is hard to see ‘sitting on a cloak’ as a harsh punishment, but they were knights after all, near the top of the social ladder, and embarrassment was a difficult thing for such entitled young men to endure.
The punishment worked – the monks looked foolish and, perhaps, everyone began to see the funny side of it all. The incident ended quickly. Joinville and his men joined them for dinner, and the Hospitaller knights were forgiven.
The hunting incident with the Hospitallers passed off amicably enough, but only because it took place between men of the same class and background. Other, more unbalanced situations could become potentially very brutal. At around the same time, an earlier and far less romantic precursor to The Three Musketeers took place. One of King Louis’s sergeants, a big bruiser by the name of ‘Glutton’, got into a scuffle with a knight in Joinville’s service and ‘laid hands’ on him.
The king counselled forbearance. Interestingly, he was less worried about social etiquette than some of his nobles. Louis said that Joinville should overlook the incident as ‘the sergeant had only pushed the knight’. And, from a practical perspective, there were good reasons why such a trivial incident should be forgotten as quickly as possible – there was always a high demand for experienced soldiers in the crusader states, and good sergeants were hard to find.
Joinville refused to see sense. Unlike his king, he was a snob – a stickler for the social hierarchy. So, ‘in accordance with the customs of the country’, wrote the punctilious lord, ‘the sergeant came to my lodgings barefoot, wearing his chemise and breeches and nothing else, and with a naked sword in his hand’. The man was obliged to kneel in front of the offended party and ‘took the sword by its point and offered the pommel to the knight’. Shockingly, he had to allow the knight to cut off his hand if he chose to.
Joinville and the knight both declined the horrifying offer. The matter was closed – the correct hierarchy had been visibly restored and the sergeant had been suitably humiliated. But the possibility of mutilation or even death for a minor altercation was real – or at least it was if you did not have the good luck to have been born into the upper classes.
Tensions were always close to the surface when large groups of armed men, and people of many different cultures and ethnicities were brought together. The English crusaders of the Third Crusade, for instance, were shocked at the treatment they received when they arrived at Messina, in northeast Sicily, in September 1190.
As thousands of dislocated and disinhibited armed men milled around on the outskirts of the city, there were examples of murder and criminality, doubtless on all sides. ‘There were people of all sorts’, wrote one chronicler, ‘with tents and pavilions and banners set up all along the shore, for the city was forbidden to them. They stayed near the shore until the kings arrived, because the burgesses, the [Sicilian] rabble of the town and the louts, descendants of Saracens, insulted our pilgrims, putting their fingers to their eyes and calling them stinking dogs. Each day they ill-treated us, murdering our pilgrims and throwing them into the latrines. Their activities were well attested’. The grievances quickly escalated.
Many of these grievances were about women. Sexual jealousies were a natural source of conflict – and the newcomers, foreign soldiers, were viewed with deep suspicion. The English complained a lot, but it is clear, even from their own accounts, that they were hardly blameless themselves.
‘When the two kings had arrived’, wrote one chronicler, ‘the [Sicilians] then kept the peace, but the Lombards would quarrel and threaten our pilgrims with the destruction of their tents and taking of their goods, for they feared for their wives, to whom the [English] pilgrims spoke’. The English admitted that they had been doing this just to antagonise their German rivals – they had been chatting up their women ‘to annoy those who would not have thought of doing anything’.
Tempers amongst the bored and excitable soldiery ran so high that something as mundane as trying to get a bargain could quickly turn to violence. ‘It happened one day’, according to the Norman poet, Ambroise, ‘that a woman who was called, it is said, Ame, brought her bread for sale among the army. A pilgrim saw the bread, that it was soft and warm and he haggled with her over it. That woman was indignant at the price he offered for it, so that she nearly struck him, so angry and so beside herself was she. Such a commotion arose that the townspeople joined in. They then took the pilgrim, beat him, tore his hair and badly ill-treated him’.
It is interesting to see that even with an everyday incident such as this, just a low-level trade dispute that got out of hand, a woman and her perceived mistreatment by a foreign male was at the epicentre of the problem.
Tensions were very close to the surface. Within a few days Richard I had had enough – he and his men attacked and captured Messina itself, on 4 October 1190. The concerns that the men of Messina had about the safety and chastity of their women were not unfounded. Once the crusaders entered the town it ‘was soon pillaged…[and] they acquired women, fair, noble and wise women’.
Boredom and xenophobia were natural drivers for criminality amongst soldiers. But theft and petty lawlessness in time of war could often be propelled by even more basic situations – poverty and hunger.
One chronicler at the siege of Acre in the summer of 1191 wrote that ‘necessity leads to many actions that are to be blamed and criticised. In the army were many men from many lands ashamed to beg for bread; they would steal bread from the bakers, coming right up and grabbing it. One day a prisoner was taken for such a misdeed. He who had captured him took him away to his lodging place and tied him as best he could, with his hands behind his back, there being no support [to which he could be tied]. Those who were there, busy loading the oven, went up and down paying no attention to the prisoner’.
Eventually the thief ‘broke the bonds tying his hands. He was sitting on a heap of bread, so while the men-at-arms were idly looking elsewhere, he ate the bread and, hidden in the shadow of the seat, put one under his arm…he fled at speed, back to the army, where he related what had happened to his companion men-at-arms, who were dying from lack of bread. They ate and shared the bread that he brought them, which strengthened them for a while but not for long’.
As an interesting aside, this petty incident highlights the problems of administering punishment in an era with precious little infrastructure. Keeping a prisoner restrained was difficult. There were no prisons, and few quick ways to administer justice, other than those involving precipitous violence.
The thief seems to have been tied to a chair, or something similar, as the only remotely ‘secure’ way of restraining him, but the situation was entirely inadequate. Even the chronicler had some sympathy for the starving soldier and his comrades, despite making the customary comments that such behaviour being ‘to be blamed and criticised’.
Expectations were understandably low.
Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.
His Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale) is due out in 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.
He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.
Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades, tr. C. Smith, London, 2008.
Mitchell, P.D., Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon, Cambridge, 2004, p. 134