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.