Issue S011 of 24 March 2001

Did Alexius ask for Crusaders help? - A Letter

Source: MEDIEV-L Artchives

Subject: Alexius I, the First Crusade, and Gender!
Date: Sat, 9 Oct 1999 18:23:59 -0400
From: "Paul Halsall" 

Given recent discussions of crusades, I though this text might be interesting. It is the English translation published by Einar Joranson of a letter from Alexius I Comnenus to Robert I, Count of Flanders.

Although M Wasiliewsky in 1880 claimed it was genuine, virtually all commentators since [Chalandon, Ganshof, Joranson] agree that the letter as it exists is a forgery.

Chalandon argues that Alexius met Robert in 1087 on his return from a visit to the Holy Sepulcher, and it seems the emperor may also have sent him a letter looking for troops. He shows, however, that while the information in the letter does match the circumstances of 1087-89, the form of the letter does not resemble any other from Alexius. Instead he divided the text we have into three parts - 1: the rhetorical listing of the sufferings of Christians in Asia, 2: the information on the state of the Empire, 3: The appeal for help to Robert and the listing of relics. He considered the first part -- aimed at exciting potential crusaders -- to be too vulgar to have been written in Byzantium, and the third part -- in which Alexius offers his wealth and relics -- to have been similarly impossible. But the second part may indeed have been based on a letter sent by Alexius. Chalandon concludes that "the letter was probably fabricated around 1098-99 in order to serve as a excitorium, with the help of a real letter from Alexius to the Count of Flanders, complaints from Syrian Christians, and a catalog of relics. The author wanted to make it appear that the letter dated to 1091."

A new aspect of the discussion was the claim by Erdmann and Joranson [check?] that the letter was a propagandistic effort on behalf of Bohemond to arouse participation in a crusade against Alexius in 1105 -- in other words a complete forgery. De Waha in 1977 counter claimed that the letter was a written form of an oral exposition of a real letter. He picked flaws in Joranson's argument and invoked new evidence (by Charanis and Ciggar) that Alexius regularly sent emissaries to the West.

The current state of play, as represented by Angold, seems to have reverted, essentially, to Chalandon's position. Angold sees the letter as a forgery with a possible relationship to a real document.

At all events -- forgery or not -- the letter does give some insight into the passions and rationales at the early crusading period. For my interests, it does not really matter if the letter is real or a forgery.

Instead, I want to point to an aspect of the letter not previously highlighted, and that derives from my recent efforts at compiling a bibliography on the crusades -- a bibliography in which it became clear that there has been hardly any analysis of the crusade from the viewpoint of gender studies. I suppose one area in which such an inquiry could be made would be the conceptions of masculinity involved in the military orders. But, if we take the letter below as indicative of some of the themes used to excite interest in the potential crusaders we can see an interesting sexual aspect.

In the first part of the letter, the least of the Muslims' sins is the capture and destruction of Christian property: the real excitement is induced by the invocation of intertwined themes of sexuality and pollution. First the Muslims pollute fonts with the blood (from forced circumcision) and urine of boys; then they defile matrons in adultery, with the added refinement of raping virgins in front of their mothers while forcing them to sing obscene songs. But there is worse -- in fact the worst. The Muslims have sodomized men of all classes -- and have even boasted about buggering a bishop.

The letter then presented the Muslim threat not only as a religious challenged (in fact that is not really stressed), but as a threat to the sexual purity of Christians, and especiall a threat to the masculinity of men of all classes -- and so accordingly men of all classes are called to respond.

Paul Halsall
Department of History
University of North Florida, Jacksonville


Anna Comnena.  The Alexiad  II:11-16

Angold, Michael. The Byzantine Empire 1025-1204: A Political History.
2nd Edition, London; New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

Chalandon, F. "Appendice: La lettre d'Alexis au Comt de Flandre." in
Essai sur la reign de Alexis Iere Comnene, 325-36

Ganshof, F.L. "Robert le Frison et Alexis I Comnene." Byzantion
(1961), 57-74

Haskins, Charles Homer. "A Canterbury Monk in Byzantium." English
Historical Review 25 (1910), 293-95

Joranson, Einar, "The Spurious Letter of Alexius." American Historical
Review 55 (1949-1950), 811-32.

Munro, Dana C. "Did Alexius I Ask for Aid At the Council of Piacenza
1095." American Historical Review 27 (19022), 731-3

Waha, M. de. "La lettre d'Alexis I Comene ā Robert I le Frison: une
revision." Byzantion 47 (1977), 113-25


From Einar Joranson, "The Spurious Letter of Alexius." American Historical Review 55 (1949-1950), 811-32.

Letter of Alexius I Comnenus to Robert of Flanders

[[812]] The two editions of the Epistula done respectively by Count Riant (1879)[4] and Heinrich Hagenmeycr (1901)[5] are still the best we have.[6] Its text has come down to us in no less than thirty-nine manuscript copies, twenty-seven of which were made after 1200, and two as late as the seventeenth century. In thirty-six manuscripts the text is appended to Robert of Rheims's history of the First Crusade (Historia Iherosolimitana), either at the beginning or at the end. There are three manuscripts in which it appears as a separate piece and not as an appendage to another work. Two of the last-named manuscripts (alpha, pi) and one of the others (B) have been ascribed to the early years of the twelfth century; they arc apparently the oldest extant copies, and as such the only ones that need to be considered in an at-tempt to establish the date at which the Epistula came into existence. In fourteen manuscripts the document itself is prefaced with an argumtntum, or explanatory statement, which the editors ascribe to a copyist rather than to the author of the Epistula.[7] It should be noted, however, that while the argumentum is not found in any of the three manuscripts that present the Epistula separate from other works, it does appear in the oldest manuscript (B) of Robert of Rheims's Historia Iherosolimitana, which, as was indicated above, dates from the incipient twelfth century.

Since a complete English version of the Epistula seems to be lacking,8 it may serve a useful purpose to supply one. The rendering that follows" is in. tended to be as literal as our idiom will generously allow.


This transcript of a letter was sent by the Constantinopolitan emperor, in the fourth year before the glorious Jerusalem expedition, to all Occidental churches but especially to the Flemish count Robert. The said count however, had by this time returned in staff and wallet from the Lord's Sepulcher, on which journey they had seen one another and had affable and friendly discourse. The said emperor, indeed, as he himself complains in this letter, had been exceedingly oppressed by an execrable pagan people whose ruler was the elder Soliman, father of the younger Soliman, whom our men afterwards, as that book[10] mentions, defeated in martial [[813]] conflict, forcing him basely to flee. Hence we marvel not a little why the oft-mentioned emperor has been always so venomous in spirit toward our men, and not feared to return evil for good.[11] - The argument ends; the letter begins:

[4] Cited in n. 3, above.
[5] H Ep., pp 10-44 (introd.), 129-38 (text), 185-209 (notes).
[9] Except as otherwise indicated in n. 7, below, the information
contained in the remainder of this paragraph has been culled or
deduced from Riant Ep., pp. lxiv-1xvi, 3-5 and H Ep., pp.
[7] Riant Ep., p. xlii; H Ep., p. 185, n. 1.
[8].Brief extracts have been translated into English by Sir Francis
Palgrave (The History of Normandy and England, IV [London, 1864], 507-
509 and by Vasiliev (II, 26).
[9] My version was prepared on the basis of the Latin text in H Ep.;
but the latter is virtually identical with the text in Riant Ep.,
apart from variations in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and
[10] In both Riant Ep. and H Ep., the accepted reading at this point
is "liber iste," a reading found in all the manuscripts except the
oldest manuscript (B), which has "liber ille." Since the Epistula
existed as a separate piece shortly after the beginning of the twelfth
century when manuscripts alpha and pi were prepared, it seems well to
reckon with the twofold possibility that (i) the argumentum referred
originally to a book to which the Epistula was not appended, and that
(2) this book was not necessarily Robert of Rheims's Historia
Iherosolimitana. For these reasons I have tendered the reading "liber

To Robert, lord and glorious count of the Flemings, and to all the princes in the entire realm," lovers of the Christian faith, laymen as well as clerics, the Constantinopolitan emperor [extends] greeting and peace in our same Lord Jesus Christ and His Father and the Holy Spirit.

O most illustrious count and especial comforter of the Christian faithl I wish to make known to your prudence how the most, sacred empire of the Greek Christians is being sorely distressed by the Patzinaks d the Turks, who daily ravage it and unintermittently seize [its territory]; and trerc is promiscuous slaughter and indescribable killing and derision of the Christians. But since the evil things they do are many and, as we have said, indescribable, we will mention but a few of the many, which nevertheless are horrible to hear and disturb even the air itself. For they circumcise the boys and youths of the Christians over the Christian baptismal fonts, and in contempt of Christ they pour the blood from the circumcision into the said baptismal fonts and compel them to void urine thereon; and thereafter they violently drag them around in the church, compelling them to blaspheme the name of the Holy Trinity and the belief therein. But those who refuse to do these things they punish in diverse ways and ultimately they kill them. Noble matrons and their daughters whom they have robbed [of their possessions] they, one after another like animals, defile in adultery. Some, indeed, in their corrupting shamelessly place virgins before the faces of their mothers and compel them to sing wicked and obscene songs, until they have finished their own wicked acts. Thus, we read, it was done also against God's people in antiquity, to whom the impious Babylonians, after making sport of them in diverse ways, said: "Sing us one of the [[814]] songs of Zion."[13] Likewise, at the dishonoring of their daughters, the mothers are in turn compelled to sing wicked songs, [though] their voices sound forth not a song but rather, we believe, a plaint, as it written concerning the death of the Innocents: "A voice was beard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she would not be comforted, because they are not."[14 However, even if the mothers of the Innocents, who are figured by Rachel, could not be comforted for the death of their children, yet they could derive comfort from the salvation of their souls; but these [mothers] are in worse plight, for they cannot be comforted at all, because they perish in both body and soul. But what further? Let us come to matters of greater depravity. Men of every age and order i.e., boys, adolescents, youths, old men, nobles, serfs, and, what is worse and more shameless, clergymen and monks, and, alas and alack, what from the beginning has never been said or heard, bishops! - they defile with the sin of sodomy and now they arc also trumpeting abroad that one bishop has succumbed to this abominable sin. The holy places they desecrate and destroy in numberless ways, and they threaten them with worse treatment. And who does not lament over these things? Who has not compassion? Who is not horrified? Who does not pray? For almost the entire land from Jerusalem to Greece, and the whole of Greece with its upper regions, which are Cappadocia Minor, Cappadocia Major, Phrygia, Bithynia, Lesser Phrygia (i.e., the Troad), Pontus, Galatia, Lydia, Pamphylia, Isauria, Lycia, and the principal islands Chios and Mytilene, and many other regions and islands which we cannot even enumerate, as far as Thrace, have already been invaded by them, and now almost nothing remains except Constantinople, which they are threatening to snatch away from us very soon, unless the aid of God and the faithful Latin Christians should reach us speedily. For even the Propontis, which is also called the Avidus[15]and which flows out of the Pontus near Constantinople into the Great Sea,[16] they have invaded with two hundred ships, which Greeks robbed by them had built; and they are launching them with their rowers, willy-nilly, and they are threatening, as we have said, speedily to capture Constantinople by land as well as by way of the Propontis. These few among the innumerable evil things which this most impious people is doing we have mentioned and written to you, count of the Flemings, lover of the Christian faith I The rest, indeed, let us omit in order not to disgust the readers. Accordingly, for love of God and out of sympathy for all Christian Greeks, we beg that you lead hither to my aid and that of the Christian Greeks whatever faithful warriors of Christ you may be able to enlist in your land - those of major as well as those of minor and middle condition; and as they in the past year liberated Galicia and other kingdoms of the Westerners somewhat from the yoke of the pagans," so also may they now, for the salvation of their souls, endeavor to liberate the kingdom of the Greeks; since I, albeit I am emperor, can find no remedy or suitable counsel, but am always fleeing from the face of the Turks and the Patzinaks; and I remain in a particular city only until I perceive that their arrival is imminent. And I think it is better to be subjected to your Latins than to [[815]] the abominations of the pagans. Therefore, before Constantinople is captured by them, you most certainly ought to fight with all your strength so that you may joyfully receive in heaven a glorious and ineffable reward. For it is better that you should have Constantinople than the pagans because in that [city] precious relics of the Lord, to wit: the pillar to which he was bound; the lash with which he was scourged; the scarlet robe in which he was arrayed; the crown of thorns with which he was crowned;.the reed he held in his hands, in place of a scepter; the garments of which he was despoiled before the cross; the larger part of the wood of the cross on which he was crucified; the nails with which he was affixed; the linen cloths found in the sepulcher after his resurrection; the twelve baskets of remnants from the five loaves and the two fishes; the entire head of St. John the Baptist with the hair and the beard; the relics or bodies of many of the Innocents, of certain prophets and apostles, of martyrs and, especially, of the protomartyr St. Stephen, and of confessors and virgins, these latter being of such great number that we have omitted writing about each of them individually.[18] Yet I all the aforesaid the Christians rather than the pagans ought to possess; and it will be a great muniment for all Christians if they retain possession of all these, but it will be to their detriment and doom if they should lose them. However, if they should be unwilling to fight for the sake of these relics, and if their love of gold is greater, they will find more of it there than in all the world; for the treasure-vaults of the churches of Constantinople abound in silver, gold, gems and precious stones, and silken garments, i.e., vestments, which could suffice for all the churches in the world; but the inestimable treasure of the mother church, namely St.Sophia, the Wisdom of God, surpasses the treasures of all other churches and without doubt, equals the treasures of the temple of Solomon. Again, what shall I say of the infinite treasures of the nobles, when no one can estimate the treasure of the common merchants? What is contained in the treasures of the former emperors? I say for certain that no tongue can tell it; because not only the treasure of the Constantinopolitan emperors is there contained, but the treasure of all the ancient Roman emperors has been brought thither and hidden in the palaces. What more shall I say? Certainly, what is exposed to men's eyes is as nothing compared with that which lies hidden. Hasten, therefore, with your entire people and fight with all your strength, lest such treasure fall into the hands of the Turks and the Patzinaks; because, while they are infinite, just now sixty thousand are daily expected, and I fear that by means of this treasure they gradually will seduce our covetous soldiers, as did formerly Julius Caesar who by reason of avarice invaded the kingdom of the Franks,"' and as Antichrist will do at the end of the world after he has captured the whole earth. Therefore, lest you should lose the kingdom of the Christians and, what is greater, the Lord's Sepulcher," act while you still have time; and then you will have not doom, but a reward in heaven. Amen.

The letter ends.

[11] The Latin of this sentence runs as follows (H Ep., p. 130). "unde non parum miramur, cur saepedictus imperator tam uenenosum animum contra nostros semper habuerit et reddere mala [see n. 8o, below] pro bonis non formidauerit." According to Hagenmeyer (H Ep., p. 186, n. 13), it must be inferred from the words "semper habuerit" and "non formidaucrit" that the argumentum was not written until after the death of Emperor Alexius in 1118. It seems to me that this view is untenable. The perfect tense of "habuerit" and "formidauerit" indicates that, in the opinion of the writer of the argumentum, Alexius up to the time these words were written had been always venomous in spirit, etc.; but it yields no clue as to whether Alexius was dead or alive at that time, for in either case the tense of the two verbs would be the same. Hagenmeyer believed his opinion in this matter was confirmed by the dates (1112-18) which Georg Marquardt (Die Historia Hierosolymitana des Robertus Monachus; Königsberg, 1892) had assigned to the composition of Robert of Rheims's Historia. Those dates, however, are now held to be several years too late; and, as we have seen, it is by no means certain that the argumentum referred originally to the work by Robert of Rheims (cf. n. 10, above). On the correct date of Robert's work (ca. 1106-1107), see Auguste Molinier, Les sources de l'histoire de France, 11 (Paris, 1902), 282, No. 2118; A. C. Krey, "A Neglected Passage in the Gesta and Its Bcaring on the Literature of the First Crusade," in The Crusades and Other Historical Essays Presented to Dana C. Munro, ed. by Louis J. Paetow (New York, 1928), p. 74 and n. 42.

[12] According to Hagenmeyer (H Ep., p. 190, n. 15), the word "regni" in the phrase "omnibus totius regni principibus" (ibid., p. 130) must refer to Flanders - "welche Deutung sich von selbst ergibt." I am inclined to agree with Riant when he says that the terms in this phrase are "si vagues qu'on se demande quel est ce regnum, la France ou 1'empire germanique?" (Riant Ep., p. xv).

[13] Ps. 137: 3.
[14] Matt. 2: 16-18; cf.  Jer 31: 15.
[15] For comment on this name, see H Ep., p. 197, n. 55.
[16] "Mare Magnum" probably designates the Mediterranean in its
entirety and not merely the Aegean Sea, since the latter could hardly
be called great when compared with t c Black Sea ("Pontus")..But cf. H
Ep., p. 198, n. 57.  ~r
[17] The reference here may be to the expedition which the Burgundian
duke Odo I. Borel, with his brothers Robert and Henry and his cousin
Raymond, led to Spain in 1089. See Verlinden (n. 2, above), pp. 18-20.
[18] For testimony relative to the presence in Constantinople of these
various relics, see H Ep., pp. 200-205, nn. 71a-87.
[19] According to Hagenmeyer (ibid., p. 2o8, n. 103), the reference to
Julius Caesar's avarice is evidence of the author's familiarity with
Suetonius' biography of Julius Caesar. Hagenmeyer failed to explain
how a reader of Suetonius could have erred to the extent of making
Caesar invade the kingdom of the Franks.
[20] Hagenmeyer insisted (ibid., p. 209, n. 106) that the possible
loss here visualized is not that of the Holy Sepulcher itself, but of
the access thereto; and this view, it must be conceded, has logic in
its favor, since the document speaks of Jerusalem as being in the
possession of the  pagans."

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