Historiography of Antioch and the First Crusade, Part 1 Essay


Few other events in history evoke such a powerful reaction as the crusades. The history of these ‘holy wars’ has a different meaning to the various people whose history and culture was shaped by them. Jean Flori, one of the most well-known French historians of the crusades, stated that the “first crusade is without doubt one of the most memorable events of the history of the Middle Ages.”[1] During this long history, what event could be considered important enough to warrant its own cloud of study? Within the First Crusade, this paper will focus on the Siege of Antioch which took place between October 1097 and June 1098, for that is the event which inspired the Chanson d’Antioche. The Antioche is an Old French narrative poem, later reworked to fit within a long cycle of chansons de geste. Emily Albu makes note of the poem’s importance in understanding the Siege of Antioch’s role by mentioning the “heroic focus of epic cycles,”[2] in the body of written works surrounding the First Crusade. Her reasoning, and one which this paper is inclined to agree with, is Antioch was crucial to the history and memory of the crusades and future generations. Dana C. Munro, a professor of medieval studies at Princeton University 1915-1933, stated in his address to the American Historical Association that the influence of the crusades popularized history, providing a wealth of people, places, and events, on which to compose great works of literature.[3]

If, then, the crusades popularized history, the Siege of Antioch helped popularize poetic narrative. Albu writes of the city, “Antioch itself lingered long in the western imagination…In some respects, Antioch even more than Jerusalem came to define the crusading experience.”[4] There is more than one Siege of Antioch in history, and not solely a result of crusading armies. The city itself has a long and tumultuous past. If one looks at the events which shaped Antioch over time, there can be seen a constant back and forth between major powers taking hold. It is for this reason, as well, which makes the study of Antioch an intriguing one. Prior to the crusades, Antioch was considered a great prize. Once the crusades began, it was even more so. There is no doubt the city of Antioch was of the utmost importance by contemporaries of the early crusades, but how did later writers treat this event? What importance did Antioch have by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

[1] Jean Flori, Chroniquers et propagandistes : introduction critique aux sources de la première croisade (Paris : Erudist, 2010), 7.

[2] Emily Albu, “Antioch and the Normans,” in Crusading and Pilgrimage in the Norman World, ed. Kathryn Hurlock and Paul Oldfield (Rochester: The Boydell Press, 2015), 174.

[3] Dana C. Munro, “War and History,” American Historical Review 32, no. 2 (January 1927): 219-31.

[4] Albu, “Antioch and the Normans,” 174.

Historiographical Overview

Other than the Chanson d’Antioche, the First Crusade inspired a considerable amount of historiography at the time of its happening. Prior to the extensive Latin accounts, Europe experienced a thin development of historical chronicles. In England’s Anglo-Saxon culture there are some excellent early examples, but it was not until the First Crusade when history writing in Europe began to flourish. Marcus Bull notes how the “burst of historical writing stimulated by the First Crusade is especially noteworthy because western Europe in the decades before 1099 was not characterized by a notably active or innovative historiographical culture.”[1] He differentiates between the attempt at true historical narrative construction influenced by these events and the long and well-established hagiography genre. It is important to understand that, according to Bull, the First Crusade did not construct a new genre of history, as that had already begun. “The spate of texts produced in the 1060s and 70s that narrate or climax in the Norman Conquest of England serves notice that Latin historiographical culture had the potential to respond to exceptional events.”[2] So while the First Crusade inspired perhaps the greatest and largest body of historical writing, it was not the instigating factor for it.

Extending this problematic “historiographical flowering,” Bull notes how the “availability of this rich body of source material is all too easily taken for granted by historians, grateful as they understandably are for the opportunity…But an unintended consequence of this complaisance can be that the importance attached to the crusade by modern historians and the self-justificatory discourses of the narrative sources themselves become locked in a mutually affirming embrace.”[3] The problems with both the medieval historians and the modern ones are often the same. There is simply too much for historians to know what to do with in the first place. Every historian faces the problem of having too much information, and so ‘complete’ histories are rarely ever complete. Like Bull, Dana Munro also writes how the crusades had an influence on history, and how much of that influence was that the “scope of history was broadened…New ideas seem to have been the most important factor. Great wars seem to have accelerated the change in ideas by the horror which they aroused…”[4] The crusades not only gave chroniclers and historians more to write about, they changed the way historical methods were approached.

[1] Marcus Bull, “The Historiographical Construction of a Northern French First Crusade,” Studies in Medieval History, ed. Laura L. Gathagan and William North (Rochester: Boydell & Brewer Inc, 2014), 37.

[2] Bull, “Historiographical Construction,” 38.

[3] Bull, “Historiographical Construction,” 39.

[4] Munro, “War and History.”

Historiography of the Crusades

Discourse on the Siege of Antioch is unfortunately slim until the twentieth century. As pointed out by Thomas Asbridge in 2000, “there has never been a detailed study of the principality…The last major historical work on northern Syria in the crusading period, La Syrie du Nord à l’époque des croisades, was written by Claude Cahen in the 1930s.”[1] This is now slightly outdated, because in the nearly two decades since his own work was published there has been more scholarship on the city as well as the siege of 1097/98. Various histories of the crusades do mention the event in passing, but little depth is given to the city and the siege in early modern writing. It is useful, then, to make note of this absence, and to engage with a general understanding of the First Crusade itself. So much has been written on this subject that there is seemingly no end and no beginning to the wealth of information available. A handful of eighteenth and nineteenth century writers added their voice and interpretation to the subject. Dana Munro stated that the influence of the crusades on history and historiography was considerable. He noted how the crusades “broadened the subject-matter,”[2] and it is largely due to the crusades that historical writing changed. Indeed, the crusades have inspired several writers, historians, and philosophers to provide their own viewpoints on this time period.

In the eighteenth century, two prominent writers, one in England and the other in France, each wrote their own ‘complete’ history of the crusades. These historians, as noted by Munro, mostly condemned the crusades for being barbaric.[3] In the English language, Edward Gibbon and Charles Mills were some early writers of the crusades. In French, Joseph François Michaud is perhaps most well-known, though the philosopher Voltaire had published his own Histoire des Croisades more than fifty years prior to Michaud’s. The study of these writers provides a different point of view of the crusades than what is seen in more current historians, and as mentioned earlier, ‘complete’ histories are rarely complete. Moving then into the twentieth century, a renewed interest in the city of Antioch comes about, perhaps due to the earlier ‘rediscovery’ of the Chanson d’Antioche in 1848. Since then, the twentieth century has had more scholarship on not just the poem, but on the city and siege. Finally, in the twenty-first century, a profound surge in the study of the crusades seemed to happen. Specifically, the scholars involved in the Crusade Texts in Translation series published by Ashgate are leaders in the field of medieval and crusading history for the English language.

Beginning with one of the earlier modern writers, Voltaire occupies an interesting juxtaposition in discussion on the crusades. He was a product of the Enlightenment, and he was French. In general, the French point of view of the crusades has always appeared overwhelmingly positive. There is an inherent ‘Frenchness’ in the histories of the crusades, particularly the First, and the historian Marcus Bull even uses this aspect as a focal point in his own research. Bull writes it was a “simple but important fact that a substantial number of the authors of Latin accounts of the First Crusade…were based in or came from northern France,” and “the insistent Francocentricity that characterizes these texts: this is variously registered through the choice of language, narratorial commentary…”[4] etc. Yet Voltaire is known for his excessive criticism even of his own government, so despite his ‘inherent Frenchness’ he does not take to heart the glorification of the crusades. In his Essai sur l’histoire générale, Voltaire challenges the repercussions of the crusades in France. “We will see,” he argues, “if the crusades which signaled the reign of Philippe I at the end of the eleventh century, rendered France more thriving. But in the span of time of which I speak, it was confusion, tyranny, barbarism, and poverty.”[5] However, he writes little more of the crusades here, but rather devotes the entirety of his previous work, Histoire des croisades, to the subject.

Published in 1750/51, Histoire des croisades was criticized by later historians. Voltaire argued the crusades “produced such grand and infamous actions, new kingdoms, new establishments, new miseries, and finally much more unhappiness than glory.”[6] In this work, Voltaire seeks to establish the state of the world when the crusades began, and gives a relatively even treatment to Europe, the Middle East (specifically l’empire des Turcomans), and Constantinople. He examines the history of conquest in the Middle East to when the Turks “subdued the Arabs…between the hands of these new [captors].”[7] Voltaire treats the peoples of the Middle East with a similar disdain and harshness with which he treats his own nation, but does so more as a critique of their religion rather than with any notion of French patriotism. Regarding Constantinople prior to the crusades, however, Voltaire is kinder in his description. He writes how the city was at peace but had been menaced by the Turks when the crusades began. To the eyes of the Byzantines, according to the philosopher, the Latins of the Occident were nothing but outraged barbarians.[8] Voltaire’s Histoire des croisades is a work comparable to his Essai sur l’histoire générale, but unlike the latter, or anything else he had written during his lifetime, his history of the crusades remained in the shadows, hardly spoken of or mentioned by later historians.

The exception to this remains with Maxine de Choiseul-Daillecourt. In 1808, the National Institute of France called for the submission of essays on the topic of the crusades and how they influenced the people of Europe.[9] There was a tie, and two essays won the offered prize. The French writer was Choiseul-Daillecourt. In this essay, he writes, “We have dared compete, less by the hope of success…than by the fear of seeing wither, without contradiction, the heroic dedication of so many French, and the exploits born by the religious fervor and knightly honor.”[10] This phrase represents the prevailing attitude towards the crusades which grew in the nineteenth century and which held a more romanticized view of this history. Choiseul-Daillecourt believed ignorance had condemned the crusades, how people failed to see the greatness of crusading leaders such as Saint Louis IX of France, and how “they have adopted Voltaire’s assertion…that these expeditions drained Europe of men and of money, and did not civilize it.”[11] Choiseul-Daillecourt openly and vehemently criticized Voltaire, calling him a “deceptive oracle.”[12]

As with many French writers of any age, Choiseul-Daillecourt exudes a pride of being French, as well as a pride of being Christian, neither of which are expressed by Voltaire. Choiseul-Daillecourt rallies around the stories of Louis IX, a much later leader of the crusades, but mentions little of Philippe II Auguste, one of those involved in the most famous Third Crusade. This is undoubtedly due to the renewed religious fervor of the crusade led by Louis IX, which many French Christian historians praised. Choiseul-Daillecourt argues, “the history of the Crusades has been treated with such lightness or ill faith by [my] contemporaries,”[13] and later states that he hopes to “repair the indifference or oversight of the writers who have preceded us.”[14] He seems to share this way of thinking with many early and early modern historians- those who seek to establish themselves as an important or groundbreaking writer in the history of the crusades.

Joseph François Michaud was born nearly twenty years after Voltaire published Histoire des croisades and died the year before his own book, also titled Histoire des croisades, was published in 1840. Yet, unlike Voltaire, his work was much more highly regarded and accepted. Several versions of Michaud’s tome have been published and translated through later years, whereas Voltaire’s has been left to gather dust. Also unlike Voltaire, Michaud shares a religious and patriotic fervor of the crusades with Choiseul-Daillecourt. In his writing, Michaud seems to have the impression of doing a great service to history and to his fellow Christians as a historian of the crusades. His writing is filled with false modesty, particularly when mentioning the medieval historians who he claims do not provide him with a clear model or guide as writer. Michaud writes, “if they have afforded me no lessons in the art of writing, they transmit to me at least events whose interest will make up for the deficiency of their talent or mine.”[15] He claims to only be writing in order to convey the events as they happened, not to understand or interpret them for his audience. Based on his writing, Michaud sought approval not from students of history or other historians, but rather from Christians, Western Christians to be precise. Whether or not his writing is a genuine reflection of his own thinking, or rather an attempt to write in the same manner as those historians of the middle ages is not certain. On the medieval chroniclers, Michaud writes, “Without yielding faith to all they say, I have not disdained the fables they relate to us, and which were believed by their contemporaries…”[16] Most modern historians agree on the veracity of some accounts, taking into consideration why the chroniclers were writing, or for whom, and he continues to convey some very modern methods of reading history: “for that which was thought worthy of credit then serves to picture to us the manners of our ancestors, and forms an essential part of the history of past ages. We do not now require much sagacity to discover in our ancient chronicles what is fabulous and what is not.”[17]

In the 1880s, a new edition of Michaud’s History, complete with illustrations by the French engraver Gustave Doré, was published with a preface by the American essayist Hamilton W. Mabie. It is clear from his writing that Mabie was not a historian, at least not of the crusades. Rather, he was a commenter, providing readers with a summary of the writing to come, and praising it highly. He sets Michaud’s History as a standard for others to follow, that the crusades are “nowhere told so entertainingly and comprehensively as in the pages of Michaud.”[18] Mabie also expresses amazement at the “remarkable development of popular interest in historical literature,” and how the history of the world is incomplete without a record of the Crusades.[19] Mabie’s own treatment of the crusades does not match the solemnity of modern historians, and like other writers of the nineteenth century, remains rooted in the religious righteousness of the crusades. He presents the argument that Jerusalem is the focal point of these holy wars: “what series of events could be more impressive than that which chronicles the successive campaigns to capture and hold Jerusalem?”[20] Mabie’s understanding of the crusades appears almost fanciful compared to modern scholarship; it is as if he takes Michaud’s work to heart and believes it to be nothing but the most perfect truth. He did, however, make one statement which stands apart and seems more profound than the rest of his observations. He writes, “[The Crusades] brought two civilizations into conflict, and no events are more important than those which secure the contact of different civilizations…” though he later shows his writing is proof of a very Western point of view as well, writing “nothing is so suggestive of change as the wonderful return of Western upon Eastern civilization.”[21]

As time moves forward into the twentieth century, there is another change in the way historians wrote about and perceived the crusades. One recent historian in 2013, Jacques Paviot, observes how “in the historiography of the crusades, concerning its definition, the last decades have been occupied by the debate led by Anglo-Saxons…between, on one hand, ‘traditionalists’…and, on the other hand, ‘pluralists’.”[22] By this, he distinguishes between the historians who believe the unique goal of the crusade was the recovery and liberation of the Holy Land, and those who believe the crusade is defined more by the pope and institutions against “pagans, heretics, and political enemies.”[23] Paviot, in his writing, seeks to create a new definition of the crusades, less ‘will of God’ and more one which is clearly connected to the actual history and reality of war and politics. This point of view, this treatment of history, is the prevailing one from the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Marcus Bull, who also writes about the historiography of the crusades, notes there were three dynamics of the First Crusade. These aspects are the crusade as a “lived event,” as a site of memory, and as a “formally narrativized property that was animated but also shaped and constrained by the medium of written discourse.”[24] While Bull does not dismiss the early modern research and historiography, he laments how modern writers “have tended to collapse the distinctions…to a large extent thanks to the availability of so-called ‘eyewitness’ accounts that seem to compress the spaces between immediate experience, perception, memory formation, and the written articulation of what was believed to have happened.”[25] Bull clearly understands and expresses how many early modern historians seemed to interpret the primary sources and chronicles of the First Crusade. Historians, particularly those in the nineteenth century such as Choiseul-Daillecourt and Michaud, fall into the trap of expressing the same sentiments as the ecclesiastic chroniclers, even if they pretend otherwise.


[1] T.S. Asbridge, The Creation of the Principality of Antioch, 1098-1130 (Rochester: The Boydell Press, 2000), 2.

[2] Munro, “War and History.”

[3] Munro, “War and History.”

[4] Bull, “Historiographical Construction,” 35.

[5] Voltaire, Essai sur l’histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours (Paris : 1757), 293-94.

[6] Voltaire, Histoire des croisades avec de la critique (Berlin : 1751), 4. [The Crusades] ont produit de si grandes et de si infames actions, de nouveaux Royaumes, de nouveaux établissements, de nouvelles misères, enfin beaucoup plus de malheurs que de gloire.

[7] Voltaire, Histoire des croisades, 6. “Les Turcomans vinrent enfin, qui soumirent les Arabs…tomba vers 1055 entre les mains de ces nouveaux ravisseurs.” Voltaire uses the word ravisseurs here, but the translation of the modern term does not flow right in the context of his text. While not an exact translation, I selected the word “captor” to better fit within the context; the word is more literally “kidnapper” or “abductor.”

[8] Voltaire, Histoire des croisades, 10.

[9] Munro, “War and History.”

[10] Maxime Choiseul-Daillecourt, “De l’influence des croisades sur l’état des peuples de l’Europe,” (Paris : Chez Tilliard freres, 1809), https://archive.org/details/delinfluencedesc00choi/page/n3. “Nous avons osé concourir, moins par l’espoir d’un succès…que par la crainte de voir flétrir, sans contradiction, le dévouement héroïque de tant de Français, et les exploits enfantés par l’enthousiasme religieux et par l’honneur chevaleresque.”

[11] Choiseul-Daillecourt, “De l’influence.” “Ils ont adopté l’assertion de Voltaire…que ces expéditions épuisèrent l’Europe d’hommes et d’argent, et ne la civilisèrent pas.”

[12] Choiseul-Daillecourt, “De l’influence.”

[13] Choiseul-Daillecourt, “De l’influence.” “L’histoire des Croisades a été traitée avec tant de légèreté ou de mauvaise foi par les modernes…”

[14] Choiseul-Daillecourt, “De l’influence.” “Nous essayerons de réparer l’indifférence ou l’oubli des écrivains qui nous ont précédés.”

[15] Joseph François Michaud, History of the Crusades : Complete in three volumes, trans. William Robson (Lex De Leon Publishing, 2015), Introduction, Kindle.

[16] Michaud, History of the Crusades, Introduction.

[17] Michaud, History of the Crusades, Introduction.

[18] Hamilton W. Mabie, preface to the 1882 edition of History of the Crusades: Complete in three volumes, by Joseph François Michaud (Lex De Leon Publishing, 2015), Kindle.

[19] Mabie, preface.

[20] Mabie, preface.

[21] Mabie, preface.

[22] Jacques Paviot, “La croisade guerre juste, guerre sainte?” in Guerre juste, Juste guerre : Les justifications de la guerre religieuses et profanes de l’Antiquité au XXIe siècle, ed. Marie-Françoise Baslez, André Encreve, Remi Fabre, and Corinne Peneau (Pompignace : Bière, 2013), 81. “Dans l’historiographie des croisades, à propos de sa définition, les dernières décennies ont été occupées par le débat mené par les Anglo-Saxons…entre, d’une part, « traditionalistes » … et, d’autre part, « pluralistes ».”

[23] Paviot, La croisade, 81.

[24] Bull, “Historiographical Construction,” 36.

[25] Bull, “Historiographical Construction,” 36.