A tale that grew more gruesome with time

 “At some point during the First Crusade, members of the crusading army ate the flesh of their fallen enemies,” says Curtis Doyle, an honours history student at UPEI. “We know this to be true. But exactly who these people were, and why they did what they did, is unclear, especially since the story of this cannibalistic act changed so dramatically in the coming centuries.”

Doyle first wrote of his research on this subject for his HIS405 “Crusades and Crusading” course taught by Dr. Richard Raiswell. His paper, “Tartars and Tafurs,” appears in the spring edition of the undergraduate journal The Mirror.

“The first written account of this cannibalism is in about 1108, roughly a decade after the First Crusade,” says Doyle. “The author suggests the cannibals were not part of the crusading army proper, but were a tag-along group of paupers called the Tafurs.”

The 1108 account describes the Tafurs as poor, naked, and unarmed pilgrims. It calls them a desperate people, subsisting on roots and herbs, who were shamefully forced to devour the dead.

“A century-and-a-half later, we have a much different account of the Tafurs,” says Doyle. “We have a manuscript from about 1250 that tells a poetic account of the First Crusade. By this time, the Tafurs have become a barbaric marauding force who not only eat their enemies, they actually enjoy it. They’re motivated by a lust for flesh.”

Doyle’s paper attempts to explain how the story of the Tafurs changed so dramatically over the decades. He suggests the change is the result of 13th century values reflected in an 11th-century story.

“By the 13th century,” says Doyle, “people in Europe were just becoming aware of the Mongols to the east. What they knew of them was limited, and was enough to scare them. Stories were coming west about a ‘dog-headed’ army that feeds on the flesh of its enemies.”

Despite these rumours, Christians in the west held out hope that they might convert the Mongols, known as Tartars, to Christianity. Once converted, they could be unleashed upon a common enemy: the Muslims.

“And so you see some of those values reflected in this 1250 account of the Tafurs,” says Doyle. “The Tafurs were no longer poor and desperate. They were brutal and fearless. You could almost call them heroes. I think the story of the Tafurs changed to reflect the hopes of Europeans who wanted to exploit a secret weapon against the Muslim world.”

No one knows who the Tafurs were. Doyle believes they were a construct: an invented group of people to deflect the shame of crusaders who took part in a desperate act of cannibalism.

Doyle’s paper appears in Issue 31 of The Mirror.

The mysterious song-bird killer

 “In 2005, a disease was discovered in finches in the United Kingdom. In the years since, it has killed about half a million birds.” says Whitney Kelly-Clark, a master’s student in the Department of Pathology and Microbiology in UPEI’s Atlantic Veterinary College. “It appeared two years later in the Maritimes, and now we’re trying to find out how it spreads from bird to bird.”

The disease is called trichomonosis, and is caused by a microscopic parasite called Trichomonas gallinae.
“The disease causes cankers in the bird’s throat, similar to a canker sore we would get in our mouth,” says Kelly-Clark. “These sores become so painful, the bird can’t eat or drink. It ends up dying of dehydration or starvation.”
While scientists understand the disease is caused by the parasite, they’re still not sure how the parasite is spread from bird to bird.
“There is speculation it is spread at bird feeders, but that has not been confirmed,” says Kelly-Clark. “We’re recreating bird-feeder conditions in a lab, and seeing whether the parasite can live long enough in that environment to spread.”
Pigeons and doves are known carriers of the parasite, but in our region, it only causes sporadic mortality in those species, not like the significant widespread mortality we observe in our Maritime finch populations..
“And we’ve known that about pigeons and doves for nearly two hundred years,” says Kelly-Clark. “Falconers noticed their birds were becoming infected with a deadly disease after eating pigeons or doves. We’re still trying to understand what has changed in the disease so that it now infects songbirds.”
The disease was first discovered in the European green finch, but has gone on to infect 10 different species in the UK. In the Maritimes, it’s infecting purple finches and the American goldfinch.
“We’re asking people across the Maritimes to keep an eye out for infected finches at their feeders,” says Kelly-Clark. “It’s only through the public’s assistance that we can track this disease as it progresses.”
For more information of what to do if you find a sick or dead bird, see this poster published by the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre.
Kelly-Clark's supervisors are Dr. Spencer Greenwood, assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences; and Dr. Scott McBurney, Clinical Veterinary Professional-Wildlife Pathologist at the Atlantic Veterinary College and the CCWHC.