Looking for Interpreter Zero: (15 )The First Crusade & the Latin Story

Crusaders learned what sorts of linguists they needed as they set about establishing their Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Detail of a medieval miniature of the Siege of Antioch from Sébastien Mamerot's Les Passages d'Outremer

“Ma te Christo caco Sarrazzin” (“By Christ this is a dastardly Saracen”)

Fulcher of Chartres, one the chroniclers of the First Crusade, gives a clear sense of the languages spoken by the Crusaders who headed east in 1096:

There were Franks, Flemings, Frisians, Gauls, Allogroges, Lotharingians, Alemanni, Bavarians, Normans, English, Scots, Aquitanians, Italians, Dacians, Apulians, Iberians, Bretons, Greeks and Armenians. If any Breton or Teuton wished to question me, I would neither reply nor understand [1]

Fulcher was an insider who travelled with Duke Robert of Normandy and Count Stephen of Blois. He had every reason to know when communication within a given contingent might present problems. Outside observers had little time for the nuances of regional participation: Anna Komnene referred to the Crusaders as Kelts, Latins, Franks or Normans. They came to be referred to generally as Franks, Franci in Latin or al-franj in Arabic. It is useful to recall both the complex and straightforward descriptions in considering the western Europeans – the Latin Christians - in Asia Minor from 1096 because they were a concerted force some of the time and showed divided loyalties at others.

There are no accounts of any need for interpreters as they headed east. There were ways around possible misunderstandings or incomprehension.

In polyglot landscapes regional language and dialects overlapped and coexisted with elite vernaculars - such as Anglo-Norman French in England – and Latin, the language of learning, the liturgy and the Bible, the language of God. [2]

Educated Crusaders had Latin as a lingua franca – it was the language used in all of the accounts of the response to Alexios I Komnenos’s call for help, and indeed the language used by Pope Urban II in his Clermont appeal to the faithful. Then there is the fact that people from different regions travelled together. The estimated 80 000 people who took the Cross were divided into regional contingents with shared languages. “For most of the campaign each of these contingents marched, foraged and fought as separate units, coming together only for major battles and sieges."[3] In addition to the contingent from north-western France with which Fulcher of Chartres travelled, Hugh of Vermandois led the troops from Northern France; Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin, those from Flanders, the Low Countries and western Germany; and another from southern France, Provence and Languedoc was under Count Raymond IV of Toulouse. One of the best known Crusaders, Bohemond of Taranto headed the men from southern Italy. He was the son of Robert Guiscard, the Duke of Apulia and Calabria as well as Sicily, a Norman mercenary who had come to rule former Byzantine and Arab lands.

“Communication may not have been a major difficulty as far as most military and administrative issues were concerned.”[4] Members of the political classes were used to dealing with multilingual situations. However, that would not have been the case of rank and file Crusaders, peasants or townspeople who had never before had to deal with anyone other than an immediate neighbour. The other issue to bear in mind is that language could be a rallying point in the event of tensions between leaders. Fulcher of Chartres himself felt that, despite the range of languages, the masses who had responded to Urban II were “brothers in the love of God and very close to being of one mind”.[5] That would have felt true when things went well and once Jerusalem had been conquered, but there were times when regional affiliation and individual ambition overrode common purpose.

These leaders began arriving in Constantinople in October 1096. Alexios I provided intermediaries for them while they were on his territory. He closely monitored their activities once they moved on in the summer of 1097 and was involved behind the scenes in the first battle, the siege of Nicaea, the historic seat of the first Ecumenical Council convened by Emperor Constantine in 435 which had fallen to the Turks in 1087. In this initial attack, the Franks used siege warfare technology developed in the eleventh century to try to breach the walled city’s defences. They worried the Turks enough for Alexios I to negotiate their surrender. The Byzantines dealt with the fall of Nicaea; “true interaction between the Levantines and Franks did not occur until the siege of Antioch …”[6]

The siege of Antioch lasted from October 1097 to June 1098 and saw the Franks reduced to hunger and despair. The thousands of men and women camped in regional groups outside the fortified city walls ran short of food and supplies as winter set in. Those leaving to forage risked having their heads catapulted into the camp, the fate that befell Abelard of Luxembourg.[7] Accounts of the period dwell on grim conditions, desertions, illness and humiliations endured while stressing the near-miraculous way in which the Franks and their disciplined cavalry resisted three Turkish assaults as they sought to reclaim St Peter’s seat for Christendom. The fall of the city on June 3rd 1098 owed something to the fact that this too was a polyglot region. Bohemond made contact with one of the Antioch tower commanders, one Firouz, and ‘by flagrant cajolery and a series of attractive guarantees, persuaded him to hand over the city.”[8] Accounts vary but the fact that Firouz is quoted in Greek exclaiming on how few men had climbed a ladder up to his tower “Micró Francos echomé” (translated into Latin as “Poco Francos habemos’) before the city was successfully – and brutally – stormed, has led scholars to conclude that Bohemond was able to take advantage of the fact that this Greek-speaking resident of Byzantium shared a lingua franca with a Norman from southern Italy, which had also been under Byzantine rule. This proved to be a coincidence of great importance as it put Bohemond in a strong position and effectively gave him control of the siege and the city.

Bohemond sent an intermediary called Herluin to inform the Turkish rulers of Antioch that they could seek refuge in a palace he would make available to them. K A Tuley has done meticulous research into the use of interpreters by the Crusaders and later settlers in Asia Minor. Tuley suggests that Herluin might well have been one of Bohemond’s followers and known to that contingent’s chronicler, the anonymous author of The Gesta Francorum et Aliorum Hierosolimatanorum (The Deeds of the Franks and Other Pilgrims to Jerusalem) who is the only one to refer to him.  

The fact that he is named, rather than simply referred to as an interpreter, could suggest noble rank or some other kind of importance, or could reflect the Gesta author’s comfort with multilingual situations and the strategic relevance of interpreters. [9]

Herluin was also part of the group that attempted to negotiate with Kerbogha, the leader of the third Turkish attack on the Crusaders - which occurred after the fall of Antioch - as did Bohemond’s cousins, Tancred and Richard of the Principate. It is not clear what the working languages were but there is reason to believe that a member of the Norman contingent from southern Italy could have spoken Arabic, another lingua franca in his region as Sicily had been held by Arabs for 250 years before the Normans conquered it. Kerbogha himself would have used Arabic in negotiations in the Levant.[10]

Bohemond stayed in Antioch when the Crusaders moved on towards Jerusalem, making the most of his advantageous position. The Latins often resorted to Christian intermediaries to negotiate safe passage for themselves with local Muslim rulers as they headed for their ultimate target, Jerusalem. They reached the city on June 7 1099. There were such middlemen available to them during the siege of Jerusalem as well. One account shows them protecting the Christian army:

On a certain day the enemy sent a Saracen for the purpose of spying on the building of war machines of the Christians. But Syrians and Greeks, seeing the Saracen, pointed him out to the crusaders, saying: “ Ma te Christo caco Sarrazzin” which in our language means “By Christ this is a dastardly Saracen.” After grabbing him the Christians interrogated him through an interpreter asking him why he had come. [11]

After he confessed to spying on their preparations for the siege they decided to teach him a lesson. He was tied to a stone-throwing device – a petrary – and executed him by trying to catapult him over the city walls. There was every reason to be wary of the Christians’ war machine: the siege tower (used to conceal and protect fighters and ladders in an assault) against the northern city wall enabled them to breach the city’s defences and it fell on July 15th. The Holy City, which had been under Muslim rule since 638, was reclaimed for Christendom. As part of their settlement in the region, the eastern Latins developed their own network of intermediaries to serve as spies, messengers or interpreters. One of the early recruits was a converted Turk named Bohemond, who had probably joined the Franks at Antioch as his namesake was present at his baptism. He was described as “multilingual, clever and shrewd as well as loyal to us”[12] – a description that shows that the Crusaders had learned what sorts of linguists they needed as they set about establishing their Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

You can find all chapters of Looking for Interpreter Zero here.


[1] The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres in Peters, E. 1998. The First Crusade, The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.  p68.<

[2] Tyerman, C. 2016. How to Plan a Crusade.  Penguin, London. p104.

[3] Murray, A.V.  National Identity, Language and Conflict in the Crusades to the Holy Land, 1096-1192 pp. 107-130  in Kostick, C. ed. 2011. The Crusades and the Near East. Routledge, Abingdon. p. 114.

[4] ibid p. 116.

[5] Peters, p. 68.

[6] Tuley, K. A. 2013. A Century of Communication and Acclimatization: Interpreters and Intermediaries in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in Classen, A. ed. East Meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: Transcultural Experiences in the Premodern World, pp312-339. p.313.

[7] Francopan, P. 2013. The First Crusade: The Call of the East. Vintage, London. p. 154.

[8] Tyerman, C. 2004. Chronicles of the Crusades. Penguin, London. p162.

[9]Tuley, p316.

[10] ibid, p317.           

[11] Tudebode, P The Fall of Jerusalem in Peters.  pp.245-249, p245.<

[12] Tuley. p 319.

Recommended citation format:
Christine ADAMS. "Looking for Interpreter Zero: (15 )The First Crusade & the Latin Story". aiic.net September 16, 2017. Accessed June 3, 2020. <http://aiic.net/p/8273>.

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