Weird History
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What Was Life Like For A Medieval Crusader?

Updated December 23, 2020 25.5k views15 items

Like any great conflict, the Crusades have been the subject of myths and misinformation for years. While few still believe the propaganda that justified the fighting, various false facts have proliferated over the years, concerning everything from the motivations of the Crusaders to their reception in Arab lands. 

It's easy to understand how both storytellers and audiences get swept up in the romance of the Crusades. The epic sweep, the clash of cultures, and the stunning aggression still thrill us today. But what was life actually like for a medieval crusader? Of course, the answer varies. The wars were radically different experiences for a noble knight than they would be for a common farmer. 

A day in the life of a Crusader, like soldiers throughout history, alternated between boring and terrifying, exhilarating and tragic. But in the midst of the conflicts, the Crusaders also met a new culture, forged new trade routes, and shifted the social and political landscape.

  • You And Tens Of Thousands Of Others Needed To Congregate And Cross Entire Continents And Seas To Get To The Holy Land

    Gathering and moving tens of thousands of men, their mounts, and the machinery from Europe to the Middle East was an obvious logistical issue for the Crusading states. The Crusaders took various routes to arrive in Jerusalem, the journey was arduous, and sometimes entire armies simply gave up halfway there.

    The leaders of the Crusades knew that time was of the essence, as the religious fervor that drove many to commit could only last so long. Once the Middle Eastern port of Antioch was captured, many Crusaders took the journey from Genoa to Antioch, a stretch of almost 1500 miles. This necessitated the hiring or construction of vast fleets, and so a budget for the expedition had to be estimated and then transported along with the army.

    Getting to Genoa, however, was itself a perilous journey. During the Third Crusade, a large crowd of pilgrims gathered and traveled to Genoa, but to do so, they had to cross the Rhône River over a narrow bridge. The bridge collapsed under the weight of the crowd, and over a hundred men fell into the river and were swept away by the current.

    Once at the Holy Land, the journey was equally difficult. Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor and the leader of the German crusaders, lost his life attempting to cross the Tigris River. When he and his army were stopped in Seleucia due to the river's current, he decided to ignore the advice of his council. With his armor still on, Barbarossa walked into the river and was immediately swept away. Demoralized and stricken with grief by the loss of their leader, the majority of his followers either perished with him or went home.

  • Photo: Denghiu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    While Traveling Through The Hotter Climates Of The Holy Land, You Would Have Picked Up New Bathing Standards

    Despite modern misconceptions, Medieval Europeans were concerned about hygiene. They developed hygienic practices suitable to their environment; the vast, dark forests of Europe, however, were a far cry from the arid deserts of the Middle East.

    The sanitary practices of the Muslims were better suited to the environment, and the tenets of their faith required more hygienic rituals and practice, but the Latin Christian Crusaders wasted no time in adopting them. The Christian Crusaders began attending bathhouses, they began using hard soaps, which is believed to be a Muslim invention introduced to the Europeans in the twelfth century, and began using scented oils to cover up the smells of their sweat and body odor.

    Though the Muslim locals saw Christian uncleanliness as a form of pollution on the Holy Land, their adoption of local practices also became a point of derision. The Muslim locals told and wrote stories of Europeans who failed to follow the proper customs behind their hygiene practices, one of which was an account by Usama Ibn Mundiqh about a Frankish knight. Though it is uncertain how fictionalized his account may be, it does provide a generalized understanding of how Muslims perceived the Crusaders. According to Ibn Mundiqh, the Frankish knight was shameless; while in the male-only bathhouse, he ripped off the towel of a bath attendant and demanded the attendant shave the knight's pubic hair as he did his own, then brought his wife in and demanded the attendant do the same for her. Whether this account was true or merely for humor, local Muslims saw the Christians as crude and unwilling to follow the regular customs, despite their desire to be cleaner.

  • Photo: August Migette / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    You Might See Bloodshed Long Before You Reached The Middle East

    The Crusades did not magically heal all the divisions of Medieval Europe. Indeed, the license given to the Crusaders made them bolder in their hatred of a group far older than the Muslims: the Jews.

    Despite no official call to action against medieval Jews by the Pope, many Crusader sermons sparked general fervor and antisemitic aggression. Violence was committed in a multitude of contexts, some well-organized, like Count Emicho of Leiningen's army of crusaders who traveled through cities along the Rhine and Danube, massacring Jews.

    Other cases, however, were spontaneous. Medieval contemporary Albert of Aix wrote, there "rose in a spirit of cruelty against the Jewish people scattered throughout" and then continued to describe the slaughter of Jewish citizens in the Kingdom of Lorraine. The Crusaders:

    ...suddenly fell upon a small band of Jews and severely wounded and killed many; they destroyed the houses and synagogues of the Jews and divided among themselves a very large amount of money. When the Jews saw this cruelty, about two hundred in the silence of the night began flight by boat to Neuss. The pilgrims and crusaders discovered them, and after taking away all their possessions, inflicted on them similar slaughter, leaving not even one alive.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Despite Attempts To Ban Women From The Crusade, They Made Up A Large Part Of The Crusading Pilgrims

    Though women generally did not take active military roles during the Crusades, there are many accounts of women being present in military bases; many were there to serve or accompany the men, but there were some there intending to fight. During the First Crusade, women from all walks of life traveled to the Holy Land. The First Crusade - compared to later Crusades - was spontaneous and migratory; many men took their wives and children with them. During the Crusades, however, there were women who took fought and took leading military roles. 

    Historians have claimed that during the Second Crusade, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Louis VII, took up arms and led the Christian forces in place of her husband. She was said to have been a political and diplomatic lead, encouraging her husband to aid her uncle, Raymond, during the Siege of Antioch. Furthermore, in a now-debunked account, she was said to have personally led a group of three hundred women into combat.

    The role of women became increasingly complex and obscured as the Crusades progressed. Accounts from the Third Crusade are conflicting. In the Itinerarium Peregrinorum, one of the most well-known European sources for the Third Crusade, the writers claim there were no women fighters during the crusade, they were delegated to being washerwomen or servants. Both Muslim sources and other Christian sources, however, provided a different understanding: noblewomen followed their husbands towards Jerusalem, women executed captured prisoners, they did manual labor to prepare siege machines for combat, and they may have taken up arms. According to Muslim historians 'Imad al-Din and Baha' al-Din, women fought on the fields, and one unnamed woman led 500 knights and squires in raids against Muslim camps.