Narratology for Historical Research: Medieval Texts and Crusader Cannibals

By Katy Mortimer

Historians use various methodologies to investigate the past. A particularly prominent feature of recent historiography, for example, is the exploration of social and cultural history, such as questions of gender, religion, power, and material culture. From the mid-twentieth century, moreover, the ‘linguistic turn’ and the development of narrative theory (narratology) led to researchers examining sources as ‘cultural artefacts’ rather than ‘repositories of data’. These methodologies continue to be popular and to yield new and exciting understandings of the past.

This post is dedicated to discussing how narratology can be applied to medieval texts in particular, shedding further light on its potential as a tool for historical research through the example of cannibalism on the First Crusade.

Figure 1. Medieval monks working in a scriptorium. Public Domain through Wiki Commons.

Communicating through narrative is a near-universal human experience, with many forms of storytelling transcending both time and place. This makes narratology a remarkably fruitful toolbox for historians. While a great deal of crossover exists between medieval and modern narrative, including themes and tropes such as story arcs, character ‘types’, heroes, and villains, medieval texts were also created to communicate with contemporary readers and audiences who shared the cultural customs and traditions of the author, meaning that some elements of medieval narrative are trickier for modern readers to untangle.

Crusader Cannibals: A Puzzling Episode

One such example that has garnered a great deal of scholarly attention is the inclusion of crusader cannibals in many medieval accounts of the First Crusade to the Holy Land (c.1095–c.1099). From the earliest histories of the expedition, through to those written years later, numerous texts record that some crusaders, in periods of extreme famine engaged in survival cannibalism on at least one occasion.

Like all medieval histories, these texts are complex windows onto the past, covering multiple themes. These range from the glorification of individual heroes, to recording episodes of great violence and suffering. While these histories commonly represent holy war as an acceptable form of violence carried out in God’s name, many modern scholars have interpreted crusader cannibalism as crossing the line of acceptability for both medieval authors and audiences alike.   

Certainly, cannibalism is represented as an extreme behaviour in many of these sources, and for modern readers – including myself at first – it can read as jarring within a narrative arc framing the expedition as God’s will enacted through the crusading army. Because of this apparent clash of ideas, I wanted to better understand why such abhorrent behaviours, which would have been easy to gloss over, were included in so many accounts.

Narratology as a Toolbox for Research

As a modern theory, researchers will find that some aspects of narratology are more useful than others when applied to pre-modern texts. To better understand my source base, I thus decided to apply two narratological methodologies I knew would be relevant. Firstly, I explored ‘types’ or ‘exemplars’ that medieval authors would most likely have drawn upon, before moving on to examining the story arc within individual texts.

The first place I looked to for literary exemplars was classical and epic literature, but if cannibalism was included it was often represented as monstrous and ‘other’. While to some extent this could be applied to the First Crusade histories, for example the participant account of Fulcher of Chartres, in which it was stated that he ‘shuddered’ to relate these ‘savage’ events, the crusader cannibal as a ‘monstrous other’ character-type did not entirely fit with the broader narrative arc.

The Bible as Exemplar

Figure 2. ‘Israel Triumphant’: King David defeats the Philistines. From the Crusader Bible,
The Morgan Library and Museum, MS. M.368, fol. 39r. Image Credit: ‘The Crusader Bible’ website.

As the Bible was one of the main literary frames of reference for medieval authors, especially those writing the history of the First Crusade, the next logical step was to check for biblical references to cannibalism. While I was familiar with discourse surrounding Holy Communion, this was not a good narrative match either. Beyond this, however, I was surprised to learn that the Old Testament includes several examples of cannibalism which were nearly exclusively represented as divine punishment for sinful behaviour.

Next, I considered the narrative arcs of the relevant biblical books, and found that across many are what can be loosely regarded as a sin-to-redemption framework whereby God’s chosen people commit sin, are punished and suffer accordingly, and then repent and receive redemption. Importantly, this  narrative arc is also found extensively across First Crusade texts, which scholars have shown drew upon the Bible as the exemplar for understanding Christian suffering and salvation.

Primary Source Analysis: Following the Narrative Arc

One example that applies this framework is one of the earliest written accounts of the First Crusade, the so-called Laodicea Letter sent by some of the crusade leaders in 1099 to Pope Paschal II. The letter provides a relatively brief account of the First Crusade and begins by situating the crusaders’ military successes as a part of divine history, recording how at first the Christians lived in abundance, easily defeating their enemies.

As time went on however, and certain crusaders became ‘puffed up’ with pride, God chastised them, before eventually forgiving them. This arc is repeated across the letter, before the crusaders were depicted  capturing the Holy City of Jerusalem and defeating an Egyptian relief army soon after, all of which was framed the ‘desirable retribution of the omnipotent God’. Within this short account, the Laodicea Letter includes two examples of crusader cannibalism, during the sieges of Antioch and Ma‘arrat al-Nu‘mān.

On both occasions, the crusaders suffered greatly through famine, which led to cannibalism. At Antioch, the text records how God ‘looked down upon his people whom he had long chastised and mercifully consoled them’; while after Ma‘arrat al-Nu‘mān the arc develops to record how ‘…finally by divine admonition’ the crusaders were able to move towards Jerusalem, guided by ‘the most bountiful, merciful, and victorious hand of the omnipotent Father’. The clear explanation, therefore, is that crusader cannibalism formed part of the well-established sin-to-redemption framework.

Figure 3. Christ leading crusaders into battle. From British Library Royal MS. 19 B XV, f. 37r.
Image Credit: Susanna Throop, ‘How Was Crusading Justified?’.

Concluding Thoughts

Beyond this discussion, there are many ways crusader cannibalism can be explored and understood, and it should be noted that these vary both within and across texts. Further to this, I am not arguing that contemporary writers and audiences were not horrified by crusader cannibalism – this was certainly likely, as we have seen in the example of Fulcher of Chartres’ history.

Rather, I am suggesting that by utilising narrative theory historians can move the conversation forward in interesting new ways. In the example presented here, this means shifting away from themes focusing on violence to consider the narrative function of crusader cannibalism. This in turn sheds new light on how an event which, on the surface, might seem out of synch with the rest of a text, can in fact underpin its main narrative arc. Approaches such as this are thus fruitful avenues of research, and work well alongside other methodologies to further our understanding of the past.

Further Reading


Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History (London, 2004).

Open Access Articles

Geraldine Heng, ‘Cannibalism, the First Crusade, and the Genesis of Medieval Romance’ Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 10/1 (1998), pp. 98–174.

Jay Rubenstein, ‘Cannibals and Crusaders’, French Historical Studies, 31/4 (2008), pp. 525–522.

Katy Mortimer is a doctoral candidate in the department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London researching representations of crusader-Muslim diplomacy in western medieval texts. Her current research interests include intercultural contact, narratology, and memory.

Twitter Handle: @katydotcom

This blogpost is based on her forthcoming chapter on crusading cannibalism for an edited collection of essays: ‘Digesting Cannibalism: Revisiting Representations of Man-Eating Crusaders in Narrative Sources for the First Crusade’, in Chronicle, Crusade and the Latin East: Essays in Honour of Susan B. Edgington, (eds) T. Smith & A.D. Buck (Brepols, June 2022).

Cover Image and Figure 1. Medieval monks working in a scriptorium. Public Domain through Wiki Commons.

Figure 2. ‘Israel Triumphant’: King David defeats the Philistines. From the Crusader Bible, The Morgan Library and Museum, MS. M.368, fol. 39r. Image Credit: ‘The Crusader Bible’ website.

Figure 3. Christ leading crusaders into battle. From British Library Royal MS. 19 B XV, f. 37r. Image Credit: Susanna Throop, ‘How Was Crusading Justified?’.

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One Comment on “Narratology for Historical Research: Medieval Texts and Crusader Cannibals

  1. Pingback: The Crusades, Cannibals and Storytelling in the Middle Ages – Katy Mortimer

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