Post-classical history

Albert of Aachen

Author of the Historia Iherosolimitana, a contemporary and influential account in Latin of the First Crusade (1096-1099) and the first generation of Frankish settlement in Outremer (1099-1119). The writer’s name is not recorded before the fourteenth century, but there is textual evidence that he was based in the German city of Aachen (Fr. Aix-la-Chapelle), where Albert was a common name. Although he did not take part in the expedition or ever visit Outremer, Albert wrote a long, detailed narrative, using mainly the testimony of participants who returned to the Rhineland, with some admixture of legendary material, probably from vernacular poetry. His uncritical use of these partial sources means that his work has the strengths and weaknesses of oral history: at best it is colorful, immediate, and convincing; at worst it has errors and inconsistencies in topography and chronology and in reporting names, plus the distortions of personal reminiscences.

The first six books of the Historia recount the First Crusade, starting with the pilgrimage of Peter the Hermit to Jerusalem, his appeal to the pope, his preaching, and the movement known as the People’s Crusades. This circumstantial and coherent account, which includes the attacks on the Jews of the Rhineland (1096), was responsible for Peter’s acceptance as instigator of the crusade, an idea only challenged in the nineteenth century. After book 1, Albert centers his Historia on Godfrey of Bouillon, his brother Baldwin, and their followers. Thus it complements the eyewitness accounts of Raymond of Aguilers, Fulcher of Chartres, and the anonymous Gesta Francorum, and gives unique detail about a range of greater and lesser characters and events for the period 1096-1099. Since Godfrey became ruler of the new state of Jerusalem (1099-1100) and his brother Baldwin I succeeded him as king (1100-1118), there is much of interest in books 7-12 as well, notably concerning the Crusade of 1101, the disputes between monarchy and patriarchate in Jerusalem, and the conquest by the Franks of the maritime cities of Palestine. Albert’s information for this period was evidently fragmentary, reflecting his reliance on oral testimony, but where it can be checked against, for example, Fulcher of Chartres, Anna Komnene, or Ibn al- Qalānīsī, it is found to be largely reliable. The last two books (11-12) cover more than a decade (1108-1119) in increasingly brief and annalistic style, and the work stops abruptly in the middle of an anecdote.

Albert’s autograph text does not survive. The Historia was much copied in the twelfth century, and the part relating to the First Crusade was a major source for William of Tyre’s chapters about the expedition. Thereafter Albert’s work was eclipsed by William’s, and in the later Middle Ages his reputation remained strongest in the Rhineland. In 1584 Reiner Reineck published the first printed edition, which was reprinted by Jacques Bongars (1611) and in the Patrologia Latina (1854). The Historia was subjected to critical scrutiny by Heinrich von Sybel in the nineteenth century and, in spite of a vigorous defense by Bernhard Kugler, for much of the succeeding century it was widely disparaged. Nonetheless, the Historia remains an indispensable source for the period. Where it disagrees with the participants’ accounts of the First Crusade on matters of fact, then the eyewitnesses must be preferred. Where, however, it offers a different opinion or interpretation, then its status as an independent account written outside the circles of Frankish and papal influence should be respected. Most problematically, where its information is uncorroborated, there is a need for great critical caution.

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