Today in Middle Eastern history: the Crusaders capture Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman (1098)

Our “Today in History” posts are always free, but if you want to support the newsletter and get the full Foreign Exchanges experience you know what you have to do:

The First Crusade's conquest of the city of Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman was noteworthy for at least two reasons, one fairly blasé and the other definitely not. On the blasé side, Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman was an important waypoint along the march from Antioch to Jerusalem, and the Crusaders couldn't get from the former to the latter without capturing it. The more interesting—or more disgusting, depending on your perspective—factor had to do with food. Or more to the point, a lack of food. Because when it turned out that Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman didn't have very much food to offer, the siege turned from an important victory to the First Crusade's lowest point, when a considerable number of its participants turned to cannibalism to stay alive.

The Crusaders, by this point in their expedition, were starving. They'd run out of food while besieging Antioch, when things began to look desperate. A Crusader foraging party actually tried, and of course failed, to take Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman while the main army was still besieging Antioch. The fact that those foragers, who lacked the numbers and the siege equipment to really threaten the city, were prepared to die in a futile effort probably tells us something about just how desperate they were. Then, incredibly, the starving Crusader army had managed to capture Antioch. Unfortunately, Antioch was running out of food as well, and between having to wait to defend the city against a Muslim counterattack and then having to wait while two of the Crusade's leaders—Bohemond of Taranto and Raymond of Toulouse—bickered over what was to become of the city (Bohemond wanted it for himself while Raymond allegedly wanted to give it to the Byzantine Empire), by the time they struck out toward Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman the Crusaders' food supplies were once again dwindling.

Map - Crusades, Early

The Early Crusades; you'll see Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman there on the right if you look closely enough

The siege of Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman, which began in late November, appears to have been uneventful. The city was defended by its local militia and the townspeople, which wasn't really enough against the Crusader army. The defenders did hold out for two weeks, sometimes using unorthodox tactics (chroniclers wrote that they threw beehives down at the attackers trying to scale the walls, for example), while the Crusaders built a siege tower to get over the city walls. Once they'd built their tower, the siege was over pretty quickly. The garrison surrendered on December 12 to Bohemond (who was, by this point, Bohemond of Antioch), much to the chagrin of Raymond, although Raymond made sure to seize control of the interior of the city. He wasn't about to let Bohemond take another town away from him. Er, I mean, the Byzantines. But also him.

It was shortly after the siege ended when things began to get ugly. First came the massacres. Although the city's defenders surrendered quickly once the Crusaders managed to get over the walls, the attackers were apparently not inclined to show any mercy. As Bohemond (who stationed his men so that they could control the walls) and Raymond squabbled over control of the city, the Christian forces inside killed as many as 20,000 people, combatants and civilians alike.

Then came the cannibalism. Sometimes in historical accounts an invading army will be accused of cannibalism scurrilously. Apart from isolated cultures here and there, most people believe that eating other human beings is problematic, so if you want to accuse an enemy of committing a war crime that's one that will resonate with a wide audience. But there's little doubt about what happened at Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman. Delayed once again by yet another squabble between Bohemond and Raymond, the Crusaders went through the city's meager stores and once again began to starve—and this time, unlike at Antioch, they didn't even have many horses left to eat. So they ate the flesh of the dead Muslims. In a letter written the following year to Pope Urban II, the leaders of the Crusade said that their army had been forced by "cruel necessity" into "feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens."

Two contemporary or near-contemporary chroniclers: Fulcher of Chartres, who was chaplain to Baldwin of Boulogne (the future Baldwin I of Jerusalem) and was on the Crusade, and Radulph of Caen, who was not on the Crusade but later served as Bohemond's chaplain, described the situation in a little more detail. Fulcher says that Christians roasted the flesh of the "Saracen" dead and ate it, while Radulph, a little more graphically, describes "pagan" bodies being cooked in cauldrons and children's bodies being roasted on spits. It's not a pleasant account. Since both of these writers can be considered more or less as "official" Crusades chroniclers, it's pretty certain that some cannibalism went on. That said, Radulph's imagery may have used a little artistic license (his chronicle relied on eyewitness testimony, but he wrote it after his two patrons and main witnesses—Bohemond and his nephew Tancred—had died).

From the Muslim perspective, the Siege of Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman and the cannibalism provided one of the lasting impressions of the entire Crusades. It's been the consistent view of Muslim scholars ever since that the Crusaders (the Franj or "Franks") went cannibal in some kind of post-battle frenzy rather than out of a starvation-induced frenzy, which frankly is unfair to the cannibals. And no, I can't believe I just typed that. Accounts of Crusaders loudly proclaiming their intentions to devour the flesh of their enemies before the siege inform this Muslim view, but those accounts were written after the fact and are probably not terribly reliable. Most people are not normally drawn to eating other people, and the fact that Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman is the only well-attested time that the Crusaders practiced cannibalism (there may have been some isolated instances at Antioch, but recall that the Crusaders were starving there as well), suggests that it was hunger, not a berzerker rage, that drove the Crusaders to cannibalism.

Perhaps based on reports of what happened at Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman, Muslim resistance to the Crusader advance on Jerusalem pretty much evaporated. Muslim towns and garrisons actually began sending supplies out to the marching Crusaders in order to forestall attack, ensuring that they had enough food to proceed. Of course, first the Crusaders had to actually get back on the march, and they couldn't do that with Bohemond and Raymond feuding again. Raymond in particular had no interest in continuing until questions of who would control newly conquered territory were answered definitively, now that they'd decided not to just give it all to the Byzantines. Ultimately the army seems to have taken matters into its own hands. Soldiers tore Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman's walls down and torched much of the city in January 1099, in order to "motivate" Raymond to stop screwing around and get moving.