Post-classical history

Gesta Francorum

The Gesta Francorum (et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum) is a short and apparently simple eyewitness account of the First Crusade (1096-1099), written in Latin by an anonymous author, that has profoundly shaped views of the First Crusade and of the whole crusading idea.

The work seems to have been written immediately after the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, as the Provençal priest Raymond of Aguilers used it to produce his own account, which was certainly finished by 1105. It was long thought to be an abbreviated version of the very similar account by Peter Tudebode, but since Heinrich Hagenmeyer’s edition (1890) it has generally been accepted that the Gesta was actually Tudebode’s source.

We know nothing of the author except what he tells us in his account. It is evident from his standpoint that he traveled in the army of Bohemund, leader of the South Italian Normans, whom he often refers to in terms such as “my lord Bohemund,” suggesting that he was one of Bohemund’s followers. However, he was clearly not a person of rank; he writes of the doings of the leaders from an outsider’s viewpoint with little understanding of their problems. For example, at Constantinople he objected to the agreement they reached with Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, although it was obviously necessary. He seems to have taken part in military events, notably the assault after the betrayal of Antioch on the night of 2/3 June 1098, and most commentators have surmised that he was a knight who either wrote the account or dictated it to a clerical amanuensis.

The Anonymous has been seen as very devout, because when Bohemund left the crusade to secure control of Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey), he continued with the main army to Jerusalem. The apparently simple Latin and the vividness of the account, enhanced by the constant use of the first-person plural and the lack of overt reflection on events, led Rosalind Hill to portray him as a simple knight telling a straightforward tale. This assessment, however, is at odds with some literary and highly imaginative passages in the work. Colin Morris argued that the Anonymous’s Latin style was far from poor and that he wrote in an epic tradition rooted in vernacular literature, suggesting that there is more religious reflection than we might expect from a simple knight.

The Anonymous’s account was probably circulated in northern France in support of Bohemund’s crusade against Byzantium in 1106-1107, and this seems to have given it a wide currency. It was extensively used by early twelfth-century writers and powerfully influenced subsequent historians’ views of the events of the First Crusade. Moreover, the monastic writers of the generation after the crusade were concerned to give the crusade a coherent ideology and a place in the divine dispensation, and the Anonymous’s work, with its emphasis on pilgrimage, was therefore highly influential on the emergence of the crusading idea.

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