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On the Eve of the Crusades: the Chanson de Roland and Byzantium

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The subject of this series of 4 lectures will in the long run (I say this because these four lectures are to cover more than 2 centuries, and will, I am afraid, mention or allude to a great many events) appeal to an American public more than the titles themselves would at first lead one to suppose.

If, the history of America, to quote a familiar book, the “Epic of America" is tied up with the destiny and influence of its frontier, if some of the virtues of the American people are due to the appeal of its thrilling and flourishing life on the ever-shifting borderland, the same will be found to be true of Byzantium.

In the present case, it is the history of a rejuvenated and reheroized Greece which is to be illustrated and made comprehensible by a glance thrown at those periods of the Middle Ages when the old Eastern Roman Empire, almost crystallized in its tradition, was called back to life and to battle by the manifold perils from East and West. The appearance of both the program of these lectures, and in the headlines of your daily newspapers, of a geographical name like Epirus, is not a mere coincidence.

Byzantium became again in the days of catastrophe a fighting and creative world thanks to its Eastern and Western frontiers, when these frontiers had to defend themselves to a certain extent, by their own means.

This is not a historical discovery, but it is also not a trivial historical truth, for the general idea about Byzantium is that everything, or almost everything in Byzantine history, must be accounted for by that treasure of tradition, hoarded in one city, the new Rome on the Bosphorus, the city of Constantine. Now the history of Byzantium from the XIth to the XIIIth century will show you that the Byzantine Empire was by no means identical with the Imperial City. That key position could even be lost, for two generations, without impairing the real strength of the state and people: in Asia Minor, as in Macedonia, in the Peloponnesus and in Epirus, the great body could live on, even after it had been beheaded by the reckless sword of the Crusaders.

In the East as in the West, the Epic of Byzantium was carried on by the frontier fighters, the Akritai, or by new populations by no means all of them of Greek stock and blood, who felt themseIves Romans at heart, and in fighting new barbarians tried to imitate the deeds of the Akrites proper, those who had from the VIIth to the Xth century protected Asia Minor against the onslaught of the Persians and of the Arabs.

The peasants and mountaineers of Asia Minor, belonging to many races, but hellenized at least in so far as the language was concerned, (50 percent may have been Armenians), became, by the wise policy of great Soldier-Emperors, in the course of 3 or 4 centuries of constant warfare against the Arab raiders from Mesopotamia, Syria proper, and Arab-held Cilicia, a magnificent military element firmly attached to their ground and soil.

Their divisions or themes had been settled each on the territory of a province; in defending the military border they defended also their own property, and their faithfulness to the Empire and to the Christian flag was enhanced by their local patriotism.

The names of these divisions had become identical with the province itself, sometimes it was the original, traditional name of the military unit which had replaced the name of the Asiatic province, for instance the Opsikiam or Optimati, two latin words meaning: imperial body-guard and elite troops which had been transferred to the districts of Bithynian Nicomedia or of Nicea and Abydos.

Some troops originally from Thrace, the Thracesi had brought their name to the old province of Roman Asia, with its great cities of Pergamon, Smyrna and Ephesos.

Armenian soldiers coming from Armenia proper, and left in defence [sic] of part of old Pontus, east of the Halya river, gave to that country for centuries the name of Armeniakon.

But sometimes the warlike native population had assumed local defence [sic] under the local name of this Cappadocia or Khersianon are the best examples.

But in this case one was not content with the administrative terminology of Romm times, for Kharsianon revives one of the oldest names in Asiatic geography, a name which is found in cuneiform inscriptions; this will remind us how the genius of Byzantium was capable of drawing on long-forgotten resources and on the strength of a very tough native stock, whose value occasionally reappeared after the lapse of centuries, through some sudden test to which those obscure dwellers of out of the way mountain tracts were suddenly put when they had to repulse some daring raid, or had to join in some victorious counteroffensive.

In the dull historical literature of Byzantium for the IXth and Xth century, the only living pages are those which have preserved something at least of the cheerful emulation of these provincial troops who sometimes, voicing their battle-cry, were apt to ignore superior orders, and to transform the battle into a mad race for victory, as upon the day when the Paulician Chrysochir was overtaken in 872 when the Armeniak troops refused to yield to their comrades of the Kharsianon division the honor of the day.

You know that fortunately, and through a kind of literary miracle we have preserved for us the Byzantine epic itself, that is to say, the heroic ballads born in Cappadocia and on the banks of the Euphrates from the IXth to the Xth century.

Not only have those folk-songs, sometimes quite near your own borderland epic, the songs of your cowboys, been more or less adroitly patched together in a long poem in honour of the symbolic hero of the Cappadocian army corps, Digenis the Akrite, but amazing as this may sound, the memory of the Greek nation has preserved throughout the 10 and 11 centuries, the text, almost unaltered, of hundreds and hundreds of the original ballads, full of reminiscence of feats of war of the Euphrates and Taurus border.

You know perhaps that those songs have been carried by several waves of more or less compulsory migrations from the interior of Asia Minor, to the Greek islands, especially to Cyprus and the Dodecanese.

And those ballads are pearls of genuine, truly homeric poetry. Never could a Nobel prize for poetry more justly and timely be bestowed than on the Greek population of the still-enslaved Dodecanesian islands, for haring preserved that treasure created by their ancestors. This brings me back to my general subject, for this continuous selective migration is the most wonderful thing in Byzantine history.

Nothing important seems to have been lost of that time of heroic warfare although it has been so sorely neglected by historians proper.

The descendants of the Greek frontier fighters are still alive: we know that very early, an important group of them, the Mardiates, had been withdrawn from the Syrian frontier first to Cilicia and to western Asia Minor, and afterwards to the island of Cephalenia, and to Epirus. They must have contributed to the revival of the warlike virtues of the Epirotes, when they in their turn became frontier fighters.

And this explains like many other facts of the same kind, the great surprise of the first western invaders of the Greek mainland when under the Norman Robert Guiscard they attempted to land on the Byzantine shore of the Adriatic, which they could fancy defenceless on the eve of the Crusades.

It is true that in the year 1081 when our story begins, the West could believe that the old Eastern Roman Empire was about to crumble down.

A new , a fresh wave of oriental warriors had suddenly emerged in the region of the Armenian lakes: the Seldjouk Turks. In the year 1071 their Sultan, had defeated near the town of Mantzikert the last great Byzantine army headed by an Emperor who bore the two epic names of Romanos Diogenes.

Badly supported by the bureaucracy and the defeatist intellectuals of the capital, Emperor Romanos, spared and even released by his victorious enemy, had been betrayed by his court and by his wife. Empress Eudokia, and was replaced by the dynasty of the Dukas. They arrested the unhappy Emperor, vanquished at Mantzikert and left him to die after haring blinded him, displaying Byzantine cruelty of the worst kind.

Gangs of Seldjouk raiders with incredible facility pushed their way across the Eastern provinces and blazed their trail in less than 10 years, to the shores of the Aegean, seizing ultimately the town of Nicaea, just opposite Constantinople.

Usurpers and counter-usurpers appeared and disappeared while in the midst of universal disorder Armenian chieftains, although claiming, it is true, faithfulness to the shadow of the Empire, remained in precarious possession of the Euphrates borderland, their temporary neighbors were Norman mercenaries of Byzantium Iike Robert Crispin and Oursel de Bailleul who had made themselves masters of Cappadocia and of part of the Pontes. Let us not forget this Norman ephemeral principality of Cappadocia.

During that conquest of Asia Minor, what became of the old and glorious regiments of the Byzantine army, of the Cappadocian Ameniaks, Ofsikians, and the rest?

Most of than disappeared and the rulers of Constantinople were obliged to extemporize an altogether new army largely composed of Western mercenaries, of Balkanic recruits, of savages of the Russian steppe like the Petchenegues, Scandinavs, the famous Varangians, of Germans, the Nemitzi, of Anglo-Saxons, who had fled before the Norman invasion of Britain, and naturally of important contingents drawn from the mass of Eastern and Western enemies of the Empire: mercenary Turks and mercenary Normans.

Bet that new army was hardly in the making ten years after Mantzikert, when the best Byzantine general, by putting an end to a period of military rebellions by the very success of his own revolt, entered Constantinople in March 1081. This was the 33-year old Alexios Comnenos who was beginning his reign and founding his dynasty. He had succeeded in winning over the German division.

Anna Comnena, Book ll, chapter 9 tells us the story: “He therefore found out which soldiers were on duty in the various towers. He learned that in one place, the Immortals were on guard (this is the most select regiment of the Roman army), and in another the Varangians from Thule (by this I mean the ax-bearing barbarians), and in yet another the Nemitzi (these too are a barbaric tribe who have been subjects of the Roman Empire from old); and he thereupon advised Alexios not to make an offer to the Varangians or the Immortals: for the latter, being indigenous, naturally cherished a great affection for the Emperor, and would sooner lose their lives than be persuaded to adopt any treachery against him. The Varangians too, who carried their axes on their shoulders regarded their loyalty to their Emperor and their protection of the Imperial persons as a pledge and an ancestral tradition, handed down from father to son, which they keep inviolate and they will certainly not listen to even the slightest suggestion of treachery. Bat if Alexios approached the Nemitzi, and he would perhaps not be far from the mark, but be lucky enough to gain entrance into the city through the tower where they kept watch.”

Alexios then sent one of his men to sound the leader of the Nemitzi, carefully, from the foot of the wall. The leader looked down from above, and after a brisk interchange of questions, he soon agreed to betray the city. Thus the treason of the Germans made the Comnenes master of Constantinople, and from that time on, the Nemitzi remained the most faithful soldiers.

A quaint name, as a matter of fact, the Slavic name “Nemitzi” by which the eastern neighbors of the Teutonic race have always called the Germans. So the Byzantines, to connote the Germans, enjoyed a confusing “embarras de richesses” for they knew Γερμανοί and Φρανκοί. It is hard to say whether the troop called Nemitzi was always composed of the same ethnical elements. We shall come back to that subject later on. But naturally, the remnants of the old Byzantine troops from Asia were still extant. They had served under the direct predecessors of Alexios, and his rivals, Nicephorus Botaniates, and Nicephorus Melissenos. All of them accepted the new rule and served under the new Emperor. They formed the nucleus of the new imperial forces, which were to be used at once against a powerful enemy, which menaced the European part of the Empire at the very moment when the Asiatic one was almost entirely lost. That powerful adversary was Robert Guiscard.

The Nomans had then achieved the conquest of the third block of Byzantine possessions, the Italian one.

At the beginning of the XIth century, the Byzantine Empire of course was not the ruler of all Italy, but they possessed the large and rich provinces of Apulia, of Otranto and the greater part of Calabria. So Byzantium in Italy was still among the many states which shared in the government of that political mosaic, the most powerful and influential. It is the revolution of a Lombard chieftain of Bari, named Meles, in 1009 which began to shake the firm hold of the Byzantines on these regions, and it is this Meles who, during his struggle against the Greeks, for the first time recruited for his militia a troop of Norman adventurers. Nomandy was then overpopulated and its warlike inhabitants, preserving still the Viking spirit of conquest, were eager to avail themselves of their military virtues and prestige to enrich themselves and their families. The long war between Lombard insurgents and the Byzantine Emperor was likely to attract crowds of them, and in fact a great number of Norman chiefs dreamed of achieving what a single family succeeded in attaining. It is well known that about 1046/7 Robert Guiscard came to Italy quite alone. He found his brother Richard already settled there, but he refused to help him.

His beginnings were extremely slow and difficult; because of lack of money. He set his camp at San Marco in Calabria, and from that eagle’s nest began his first real conquests. About the year 1050, he was rich enough to maintain a force of 200 fellow-countrymen. We shall not recount that marvelous story of petty warfare in the midst of the greatest political complications, arising more from the hostility of the Pope Leo IX than from Byzantine resistance.

Rome thus at first tried to nip the Norman expansion in the very bud, but was forced to reverse her policy and to make friends with the Normans. We have the text of the oath taken by Guiscard in 1059, by which he pledged himself to become a faithful servant of the Bishop of Rome and of his Church. The Pope was then Nicholas II. The alliance was concluded in the city of Melfi or Amalfi, and its implications were tremendous.

It immensely facilitated the progress of Guiscard in his conquest of Apulia, which was crowned in the year 1071, that year fatal for the Byzantine Empire both in the East and in the West by reason of the capture of Bari, which was preceded by that of Brindisi. Guiscard did not forget another enemy, the enemy of the Christian faith, the Arabs of Sicily.

He helped his brother Roger, who in 1060, had made his first attack on Messina. The great Norman success in Sicily was the capture of Palermo after an epic siege, also in 1071.

But Robert Guiscard was not yet the undisputed master of Southern Italy. He had to crush a revolt of the Apulian chieftains and in 1072, the Prince of Salerno capitulated. This extraordinary career then well-nigh came to a premature end: exhausted by the heavy strain, Robert Guiscard was carried to Bari, a dying man. But he recovered at the very moment when a new pope, Gregory VII had been elected by the people of Rome, (April 1073). And again the problem of the relation of the Norman state and papal policy arose. At first, there was war between these two strong men. And for several years, nobody could have anticipated the final reconciliation between the two powers.

This struggle which provided Robert Guiscard with new territorial gains (1079–1080), became a mere episode in the great story of the conflict between the Roman Church and the German Empire, between Gregory VII and Henry IV.

Gregory VIl’s aim was a lofty one, he was fighting for the independence of the Church, of the spiritual Realm, against the encroachments of the secular power. This great dream and the very future of his moral reform would have received a mortal blow, if the Teutonic Emperor and the Norman Duke had united their efforts against St. Peter.

It is against Germany that Gregory VII was formed to come to terms with Guiscard. And if on June 29 1080, Guiscard renewed his oath, it was really the Pope who gave way, recognizing the last conquests of the Iron Duke.

Robert Guiscard was 64 years old, and it will be wise to make you acquainted with his portrait, as drawn by the Imperial historian Anna Comnena (Alexiade, I, 12) (Dawes, p. 27): “This Robert was Norman by descent, of insignificant origin, in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attacking the wealth and substance of magnates, most obstinate in achievements, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent his executing his desire. His stature was so lofty that he surpassed even the tallest, his complexion was ruddy, his hair flaxen, his shoulders were broad, his eyes all but emitted sparks of fire, and in frame he was well-built where nature required breadth….”

Having devoured the land of Italy, says Aimé du Mont Cassin the French historian of the Normans, he suddenly decided to conquer the Byzantine Empire.

What was the real reason for that Norman plan of which the compulsory ally of the Norman Duke, the Roman Pope, was forced to approve? We must first note that it had been rife for more than 8 years. One must not forget that the Italian countries conquered by Guiscard, were Greek, having been strongly rehellenised from the VIIth to the XIth century. The institutions were Byzantine and had been left untouched by the feudal system brought from their mother country by the Normans.

Robert Guiscard, in Bari, Brindisi, Salerno, felt himself the successor of the only legitimate Emperor on earth, the Emperor of Byzantium. On his seals one finds Byzantine titles in the Greek language. And a marvelous opportunity had offered itself to the Norman Duke as early as 1071.

In their struggle against the Turks, the Emperor of Constantinople had to rely upon Norman mercenaries. They naturally tried to make an ally of the greatest of Norman princes. After all, Robert could he induced by honors and favours bestowed upon him by the court of Byzantium to lend military assistance and perhaps to restore to the Empire the sovereignty over Southern Italy. Michael VII, Doukas, officially asked for a daughter of Guiscard to be betrothed to his son Constantine. And let us listen again to Anna Comnena: “That braggart, so famed for his tyrannical disposition...Nomandy indeed begot him, but he was nursed and reared by consummate wickedness. The Roman Empire really brought this formidable foe upon herself by affording a pretext for all the wars he waged against us in proposing a marriage with a foreign barbaric race quite unsuitable to us; or rather it was the carelessness of the reigning Emperor, Michael....

p. 31: To resume, this youth Constantine, a clean undefiled boy, had become a suitor for Helen, Robert’s daughter, and written contracts had been drawn up for the marriage though they were not executed, only promised. As the youth was still of immature age, and the contracts were annulled directly when the Emperor Nicephoras Botaniates ascended the throne. Here there are two versions: when Michael Doukas was forced to abdicate, and became a monk all connections with Guiscard were severed and Helen, the fiancé of Constantine, was sent to a nunnery.

Robert Guiscard naturally refused to acknowledge the usurper and his successors, and declared that he was going to avenge him and restore him to the throne. He pretended to recognize the true Michael Doukas in the person of a refugee who suddenly emerged at Salerno in the year 1080.

The question was simply whether Guiscard was deceived by that Pseudo-Michael, or if he imagined the whole set-up in order to make his campaign popular amongst his Greek subjects. In any case, when he finally embarked upon his expedition, he took the man with him, and when he laid siege to Dorazzo he presented him clad in Imperial robes, however, with no success.

That puppet Emperor was never taken seriously by the faithful Byzantines. But the best preparation for the great expedition which was to crown Guiscard’s life work and to transform the Duke of Apulia into the Emperor was supplied by the Pope himself, who, in a letter to the Bishops of Southern Italy, grants the absolution of their sins to all partakers in this expedition, forbidding them ever to leave Guiscard’s service, as long as his aim was not attained.

He also granted the Duke the vexillum Sancti Petri, or flag of St. Peter. In fact it was the first Crusade.

How did it come about that this expedition momentous and ominous as it was, is almost entirely ignored by our text-books and does not really form part of general knowledge? It is simply because the immediate result was, as vs shall see, a complete failure, for the great expedition of Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond, after some spectacular successes, some victorious battles on the shore of Epirus, in the region of Valona, and the capture of Durazzo, was skillfully held in check by the saviour of Byzantium, who succeeded in mobilizing the rest of the old army and large contingents of Balkanic troops like the Bulgarians, combined with Serbian regiments and a mass of Barbarian auxiliaries, the Pechenegues, for example, and a large body of Turks.

The failure was due to new revolts in Italy and to the march upon Rome undertaken by Henry IV, a virtual ally of the Byzantines so that Robert Guiscard was forced to leave Epirus and Albania in order to suppress the Apulian revolt and to rescue from besieged Rome the poor Pope Gregory, whom he brought back to Salerno.

Bohemond, left in charge of the Norman army had no money to pay his knights with, many of whom were persuaded by Alexios to take service in the Byzantine army, and poor Bohemond came back to Salerno where he was severely upbraided by his father for having lost the last foothold of the Normans near Valona.

Alexios had marvelously used all his financial, military and diplomatic resources. But his greatest triumph was his alliance with the Venetian Republic, the Venetian fleet mastered the Adriatic in return for far-reaching commercial privilages. Against all these odds. Robert Guiscard in 1084 resolved to renew the campaign: he started from Otranto with a big fleet of 150 vessels.

Again Αυλώνα was occupied, again, the Venetians interfered. The island of Cephalonia revolted in the rear of Robert Guiscard, then encamped somewhere near the gulf of Arta. He immediately sailed for the rebellious island, where he died, in 1085. In a few days, again, all his conquests were swept away.

But the main reason why that great undertaking is now so forgotten, is that 11 years later, the First Crusade, the real crusade began.

There can be no comparison between local operations, the boldest of which newer reached further East than Larissa in Thessaly, although it was aimed at Thessaloniki, and the crossing of the Balkans, of Asia Minor, of Syria, of Palestine, down to the limits of Egypt.

Geographically, strategically, ethnographically, from a military point of view as from the religions one, one can even draw no parallel between the prowess, the suffering, the endeavours, the enthusiasm of the Normans who had fought near Bouthranton and Castoria, on the islands of Cephalchia and of Corfu, around Durazzo and near the lake of Ochrida, from 1081 to 1085, and hundreds of thousands of Europeans who from 1096 to 1100 saw Constantinople and Antioch, the two biggest cities of the world, and finally took by assault the Holy City of Jerusalem after a greet natty really epic battles.

And if we compare the results of the two expeditions, we shall find apparently nought in the former case, and in the second the foundation of a whole series of flourishing feudal states in the Levant.

And still, Robert Guiscard was probably a greater man than his son Bohemond, than Raymond de St. Gilles, than oar Godefroi de Bouillon. The beginnings of Guiscard were obscure and his final failure pitiable, but if one thinks of the many years devoted by Robert to the conquest of part of Southern Italy and Sicily, one must always quote the words of the great Gibbon. “Such tardy progress in a narrow space may seem unworthy of the abilities of the chief and of the spirit of the nation. But the Normans were few in number; their resources were scanty; their service was voluntary and precarious.... The contemporaries were not mistaken about the magnitude of Robert.”

Anna Comnena, his great enemy is never tired of stressing his indomitable energy. Let us read again: p. 144 – It Is the scene, when the news of the catastrophe in Epirus is brought to Robert by his son:

“Bohemond sought his mother-country, crossed to Lombardy, and found his father at Salerno, and by inveighing bitterly against the Emperor aroused his father’s ire against him. When Robert saw him with disastrous tidings plainly written on his face, and realized that the great hopes he had placed in him had fallen, he stood dazed for some time as if struck by lightning. After Inquiring after everything, and finding that everything had happened contrary to his expectations he was overcome by dejection. But even at this crisis, he did not mediate anything ignoble or unworthy of his personal bravery and daring, but was rather stirred up all the more to fight and anxieties and cares, heavier than the former ones, oppressed him. For the man was a firm upholder of his own designs and conceptions, and would never willingly give up anything he had once planned. In other words, he was undaunted and thought he ought to accomplish everything at the first attempt. So he soon composed himself, and on recovering from his deep despondency, he sent messengers in every direction to announce that he was crossing again to Illyria to fight against the Emperor, and summoned all his friends.”

In fact, the greatest monument to the glory of Guiscard is due to the daughter of his Imperial adversary, for the first 6 books out of 16 of the whole Alexiad are devoted to that war of Epirus. And one must not forget that the end of the same Alexiad recounts an expedition which is in reality the 3rd war in Epirus, the 2nd siege of Durazzo, where, after the Crusades, Guiscard’s son, Bohemond, was taken prisoner by Alexios.

Anna wrote about 1145, half a century almost after the first Crusade, yet one can see from her book how Guiscard’s memory was still imposing among his Greek enemies. His subjects too had not forgotten him. About 1100, both the historian Malaterra and the Latin poet, William of Apulia in his “Gesta Roberti Wiscardi” spoke of him much in the same way as Anna Comnena. Thanks to them, we may study in some detail if we care for it, the Italo-Greek war in Epirus 1081-1086. Of course, there are suspicious repetitions and events misplaced, epic enlargements and exaggerated figures, and confusion in place names. But In brief one may say that the chief events were these: In 1081, landing of Norman and Italian troops near Valona, capture of Corfou by Guiscard himself; capture of the fortresses of Kanina and Jericho, in the bay of Aulona, by Bohemond; junction of both at a place called Butrinto, just opposite the Island of Corfou, march of the expedition by sea and by land on Durazzo, capital of Byzantine Epirus; partial shipwreck of the Norman fleet in sight of Cape Glossa. Then the great siege of Durazzo begins a major operation in which the Normans showed that they had learned the lesson of the sieges of Bari and of Palermo.

That siege lasted at least six months, and attracted and concentrated in its neighborhood all the military and naval events. Then Cape Pali, to the north of Durazzo became famous. It is there that the Venetian fleet beat for the first time the Norman one. Then the Emperor himself, Alexios, arrived, to take personally the general command of the field army of rescue.

Long before, probably in May or June, a vanguard headed by the Byzantine general Basilios Mesopotamites and composed of 2000 Turks had met with the Norman cavalry in the vicinity of Butrento, where before the siege of Durazzo, the Norman forces were still concentrated. Curiously enough, that battle of Butrento is forgotten purposely by Anna Comnena, because of its unhappy result, and it is also omitted, consequently by all the modern historians.

The reason for that oblivion is simple. The only source is that contemporary Latin poem of William of Apulia, and poetical sources being more difficult to understand than prosaic ones, are often overlooked. In this case that oversight has had momentous consequences. I translate a few verves. “He leads countless troops of various people. An immense number of barbarisms along with Greek soldiers followed him. But he (the Emperor Alexios), orders Basilios to take with him 2,000 picked horsemen and to reconnoitre the camp of Duke Robert. His name was Mesopotamites, and his warlike labors had been numerous. That Basile then obeys the order of the Emperor. And when he was already approaching the city of Butrentum, the rumour spreads that a body of riders belonging to the Duke’s force are nearby, carrying important booty. They meet. And our men seeing that already many of them were wounded by the arrows shot by the Turks of Basil, resolve to fall in martial struggle rather than to give way cowardly to the Argives. They made a unanimous vow and tightening their ranks they rushed upon the enemy….

“The Turks are terror-stricken, seeing the foe facing them and striking hard. Basilius or Basil cannot withstand the defeat of his men: he is put to flight, and captured, and the Normans hasten to present him to the Duke.”

Momentous text, did we say. The description of the first great battle, of the first warlike clash between East and West, between Normans and Byzantines. And the vanguard of the Greeks was composed of Turks headed by an Asiatic of Mesopotamia, probably an Armenian. A few days or weeks before, Bohemond had seized two cities or boroughs bearing the quaint names of Kanina and Jericho.

Had the historians of French literature, who since 1837, the date of the publication of the Chanson de Roland, hare boon discussing fruitlessly the date of our French Iliad, and tried to find out whether it had been written before or after the first Crusade, had they known the first Crusade before the first, Robert Guiscard’s expedition in Epirus, and had they read this passage in addition to Anna Comnena, (p. 37) “Bohemond took after his father in all things, in audacity, bodily strength, bravery, and untameable temper; for he was of exactly the same stamp as his father, and a living model of the latter’s character. Immediately on arrival, he fell like a thunderbolt with threats and irresistible dash upon Canina, Hiericho, and Valona, and seized them, and as he fought his way on, he would every devastate and set fire to the surrounding districts.”

They would have solved at once the great problem, for there is only one war in the course of which Butrenton, Canina, and Jericho have played a part and an important one. It is the war of 1081-1085. In 1096, when the Normans appeared again on the same shores, this time as Crusaders, there was no fighting at all with the exception of a dubious naval battle recounted by Anna Comnena. On the contrary, Bohemond, son of Guiscard, having landed at Valona, ordered his soldiers to respect that Christian country: “Tunc Boamundus ordinavit concilium cum gente sua, confortans et monens omnes ut boni et humiles essent, et ne depraedarent terram istam que Christianorum erat et nemo acciperet nisi quod sufficeret ei ad edendum.” Gesta I, 8, 124.

It is true that there was some clash with unnamed heretic villages, probably Manichean, and a skirmish at the crossing of the Vardar with Petchenegue auxiliaries, and that was all. Again, after the Crusade, in 1107, when Bohemond renewed the expedition of his father, and when things took almost exactly the same course as in 1081-1080, there was one striking difference: Corfu and Butrento are not mentioned a single time, whereas the places near Valona, Jericho and Kanina again figure.

Chalandon says about that second expedition: Bohemond, the Prince of Antioch had arrived in Apulia in January 1105. In March 1106, he visited France, where he preached in agreement with Bruno, the papal legate, a true Crusade, but this time against the Byzantine Emperor: Bohemond was enraged against Alexios because Alexios had allied himself with the Turks, in order to destroy his principality of Antioch; Cilicia had been the principal apple of discord between the Byzantine Emperor and the Norman Prince; the King of France, Philip I gave Bohemond his daughter Constance, the mother of Bohemond II. Bohemond devoted a whole year to the preparation of his expedition in Southern Italy and on October 9, 1107 he landed at Valona, on the 13th of the same he besieged Durazzo.

Anna Comnena, speaking of that event, uses words which remind us of the description of the reception of the news about Napoleon’s return from the island of Elba in 1815. (Alexiad, Book XII) “The Duke of Durakium was most vigilent and did not allow himself any sleep, and when he knew for certain that Bohemond had sailed across to the plains of Illyria, disembarked from his ships, and pitched his camp there, he sent a Scythian, a winged messenger, as they are called, to the Emperor to announce his crossing. He found the Emperor returning from the chase, and, running in at full speed, and bowing his head to the ground, he shouted out in a piercing voice that Bohemond had crossed.

“All those present stood frozen stiff, each in his place, for, at the mere name of Bohemond, they lost their wits. But the Emperor, full of courage and resources ever, loosed the strap of his shoe and said: ‘For the present, let us go to lunch, afterwards we will discuss the matter of Bohemond.’”

One knows how Alexios succeeded in blockading the beleaguerers of Durazzo, and finally captured the indomitable Norman. There was, I repeat, some fighting, at Hiericho and Kanina, but Bohemond could newer pierce the iron belt of Byzantine military units in which he was entrapped. One has the impression, on reading Anna Comnena’s XIIIth book, that the Byzantine army had never been so powerful. But I repeat, this time, the battlefields are few, the operations are restricted to the area of Durazzo and Valona, and the islands Cephalonia and Corfu are never mentioned.

Whereas, if you reread the Baligant episode of the Chanson de Roland, we shall be struck by the fact that the battlefields of 1081-1085 are the ones which matter. First of all, Butrentot comes in and its place in the enumeration of the 30 divisions of Baligant’s army is quite significant: it is the first of the first group of ten, (v. 3220 “la première eschèle est de cels de Butrentot.”)

Now we have seen that in 1081, the first battle between the Turkish vanguard of Alexios and the Norman archers took place near Buthrentum.

William of Apulia (v. 204) says that the Norman vanguard: “illa gens quae praesesserat” had occupied “Botruntinam urbem.”

There seems to be some confusion in Anna Comnena’s account of the first and second campaign (1081 and 1085). She possibly mixes up the two series of events. But this does not matter for our present purpose. If Buthrenton, for example, is mentioned more often than it ought to be, owing to some repetition, this would prove simply what we want to prove, that this place had immediately become famous, and was very soon connected with many important and epic events. Hence the place of honor it came to occupy in the Chanson de Roland.

But in Anna, Butrento is still mentioned, (Alexiad I, 15,70.) as the place where Robert Guiscard and his father met, in 1081: “meeting with a favorable wind he struck the opposite shore and came up to Butroton.”

There he joined forces with Bohemond who had crossed earlier. In 1085, on his return to Epirus, according to Anna Comnena, the same operation repeated itself. Robert, on his side, took his entire fleet, and sailed along the coast opposite Bouthroton, and reached Brindisi with the intention of sailing across towards Illyria. Then, with his whole fleet, he coasted along from Valona to Buthroton, and was reunited with his sons. As Corfu, which he had conquered before, had revolted again he left his sons in Buthroton, and sailed for Corfu himself with his whole fleet.

Buthroton always, according to Anna, was not only the theatre of a spectacular meeting of two groups of Norman forces (repeated twice?) and of a great continental battle, but also of an important sea-fight, for she says, after the narration of a naval victory of Robert over the Venetians near Corfu: “after a short lapse of time, the Venetians equipped some dromones and triremes and various other small quick-sailing craft and advanced against Robert with a stronger force, and when they found him stationed at Buthrotum they joined battle with him and gained a great victory over him, killing many and drowning more; and they very nearly captured his legitimate son Giduz and his wife. Then they sent word to the Emperor of the brilliant victory they had gained over Robert. He paid their services by liberal gifts and preferments, and honoured the doge of Venice with the title of “Probosebastos” with the salary attached, and on the patriarch he bestowed the title of “Hypertimius” with Its corresponding salary. Moreover, he decreed that a large sum of gold should be apportioned yearly to all the churches in Venice from the royal treasury, and to the church named after the evangelist and apostle Mark he made all the shopkeepers in Constantinople, who were natives of Amalfi, pay tribute. He also gave the Venetians all the shops running from the old Hebraic anchorage to that called Bigla and all the anchorages between these two, as well as much real property, not only in the capital and in the town of Dyrrechium, but wherever they asked for it…”

This last victory of Buthrenton is quite problematical and Gibbon, in Bury’s edition, t. VI, p. 207, n. 110, “Anna Comnena invents or magnifies a fourth action to give the Venetians revenge and rewards. Their own feelings were far different, since they deposed their Doge, ‘propter excidium stoli.’”

It is here that Anna Comnena speaks at some length of the privileges bestowed on the Venetians by the Emperor, whereas the commercial privileges were granted in May 1081. Cf. Chalandon, p. 82.

But againm if Anna Comnena has placed in sight of Butrenton a great victory of her allies, the Venetians, she is paying a kind of tribute to the epic importance of that city, the strategic significance of which is naturally determined by its vicinity to the great island of Corfu, which, with Cephalonia was the first objective of each Western invader, then, as today.

How poor, if compared with that record, is the evidence which would seem to favour the Cappadocian site hitherto preferred by critics of the Chanson de Roland. There, no feat of war ever occurred during the Crusades; there was a defile of that name and It was peacefully crossed and that is all and if that defile, Podandos is called Butentrot with an “r” quite foreign to the Greek word, it is simply because in 1096/7, the name of Butentrot was so familiar precisely since the campaign of 1081 that the Crusaders applied it to a similar-sounding name in Asia Minor.

The seventh eschièles “est de cels de Jericho.”

One will remark that this is the second geographical name, for between Butrentot and Jericho we have only names of savage tribes which we are going to discuss afterwards. And, naturally, that Jericho had been used as an argument by those who dated the Chanson after the Crusade: a very weak argument indeed, because the place was biblical and so well-known.

But you have already understood that in the enumeration of the Chanson headed by Butentrot, Jericho is not the Jericho of Palestine, or rather, it is a kind of ghost, or shadow of the biblical town encountered by Robert Guiscard and his son as soon as they land in Epirus, so that they might be impressed, as if it were an omen, with the certainty that they were really crusading in the Land of Promise.

Everything and every name was taken that way by naïve people, who had embarked on what seemed a formidable venture. One had told them that they were serving under the banner of the Cross of Saint Peter, that they were at war with infidels for the sake of Christ, and one of the first Byzantine forts they attack on that shore is that of Jericho. Alexiad, p. 37 “Bohemond fell like a thunderbolt upon Jericho and Valona,” and page 102, during the siege of Dyrrakium after they had been beaten by the Venetians: “As he could not proceed to put his plans into action, for strong winds were blowing at the tine, and he feared shipwreck, he waited patiently for two months near the harbour of Jericho and got ready everything that he needed for fighting again on land and sea.”

Jericho was not only a fortress and harbor, it was also a theme, a military district: we have a seal of: Φωμά (πρατο) σπαθαρ(ίω) (καί) στρατηγώ (ζεριχού) (Schlumberger, Sigillographie. P. 733) If Jericho, just as Butrenton, harbored a great Norman fleet, during several months, it is not astonishing that a name so ominous should have been eagerly seized upon and faithfully preserved by the Norman Chanson de Geste par excellence.

Remember those Oriental names tied up with British soldiers’ memories in Rudyard Kipling’s for example: “On the road to Mandalay, where the old flotilla lay….” Why, then, that self-evident identification; had it been overlooked?

Simply because that Byzantine Jericho was unknown. And it was unknown because the name, in part fanciful, appears only in a few texts of the Xlth and of the following centuries, but is ignored by both ancient and modern geography. It is only through a biblical play on words that ή Ιεριχά arose from ή Ωρικός. It is the more famous Orikos of Horace, Ode III, 7,5.

It is really providential that another place nearby this Jericho and constantly mentioned along with it, Kanina, was the first capture of Bohemond; it was much more important than Jericho, being a city and even a bishopric. All the manuscripts of the Chanson de Roland give the inhabitants of Kanina in Baligant, so to say, the second “place of honour.” Of course the Oxford ms gives Chanaleus, but one of the best ms gives Chaneneis. This does not mean that our poet is not making here an illusion to the people of Canaan, he certainly is, and for the same reason as in the case of Jericho. The expedition in Epirus was at any cost to be represented as a holy war in a holy land. Robert Guiscard was a crusader and a second Joshua. Let us return to the thirty eschelles; apart from the three geographical names, so closely linked with Robert Guiscard’s expedition, we find twenty-seven names of nations, the following of which are clear at first sight. The Exclavos are the Slavs, the Sorbres and Sorz the Serbians and Serbs, the Ermines and Omalens are the Armenians, the Turs and Pers are the Turks and Persians, the Pincensis the Petchenegues, the Avers the Avars, the Hums and Hongres the Huns and Hungarians, the Astrimómès, the people from the Strymon in Macedonia, two names of races largely Balkanic or Oriental, but not Islamic, with the exception of Turks and Persians. And all of them, or almost all of them were represented in any Byzantine army, for example: there were strong contingents of Petchenegues already in 1069 in Romanos Diogenes’ expedition against the Turks, and the presence of Petchenegues in Alexios’ troops was resented by the Normans, who a few years later complained to the Pope that their adversary was employing Scythian barbarians.

Armenians had always been numerous in the Byzantine army, and during the siege of Durazzo, a great mass of Serbs came under their King Boden to help the Basileus against the Normans. Therefore, I tried to identify two obscure names in the lists as representing two important Byzantine regiments: in one case the attempt had already been made but before one had determined the real geographical and historical setting, the identification was doomed to remain a conjecture.

Now we are sure that the tenth division of the second croup: “E la disme est d’Occian a’desert” with many variants in the regiment composed of men of the Opsikion theme, almost the only one still in Byzantine hands about 1081. This is a clue to the second name of the first group. Immediately after Butentrot, we find the Milcenes, the thick-headed, having upon their back, bristles as of hogs.

Now, this description is to be found literally in Byzantine historians in connection with “hairy Franks.” The very Franks were supposed to wear their hair floating upon their back in order to conceal some physical defect, just as the English of the time of Joan of Arc were reported to be graced with tails.

The combination of thick heads and of hog-bristles on the back clearly points to a German here, and this is decisive for the interpretation of the mysterious Milcenes: the original name is slightly distorted by the easiest of phonetic shifts, called metathesis, Milcenes standing for Nemices, that is Nemitzi; and one will remember that the first imperial regiment to go over to Alexios Comenos in Constantinople was the famous bodyguard of the Nemitzi.

Of course, Theophaaes speaks of the bristle-bearing Franks, and not Nemitzi, but that Slavic word was not in use at the time, and the Byzantines have always been at a loss to draw a distinction between Eastern and Western Franks, between Germans and French.

They had really, four names: Franki, Nemitzi, Germani, Alamani or rather five, because very often they used also Keltai.

Evidently as soon as they got in touch with the Byzantine population, the Nomans learned the fearful tale of the German pigs, and deservedly those dreaded adversaries get number two in the list of enemy forces.

This will lead us to explain in the simplest manner a few other names, la gent Samuel (7th in the 2nd group) are naturally the Bulgarians of the Ochrida region, whose last great king had been Samuel; he fits in quite well in the neighborhood of a tribe of Slavs: Esclers. As to the Turks, no explanation is necessary, we have already seen that there were big contingents of Turks in Alexios’ army, and that they had fought at Butentrot.

An auxiliary unit of great importance, the Ros, Russians, were also very well represented in the Byzantine army, and, curiously enough, we see in the year 1041 Russians fighting with Opsikians against the Normans in Italy. Well, one of the best mss. of the Chanson de Roland has preserved the genuine reading v. 3225 Roz: de Roz et d’Esclavons, where the Oxford ms has the obvious corruption: Bruns. This again clears up the mysterious Blos of the preceding verse: this is probably the first mention of the Blas or Valachs, in Western literature. It is about the time of the Chanson de Roland that this nomadic element is first mentioned in Byzantine literature.

So the margin of names unexplained becomes extremely narrow; the overwhelming majority of names absolutely clear compels us to stick to the Balkan area especially to the battlefields of 1080 to 1085, and to the national Greek or foreign mercenary elements of Byzantine armies exactly in those times. Not a single of the 30 names purporting, one must not forget, to be a catalogue of the pagan or Islamic forces of the East, under Baligant, the Emir of Alexandria, not a single, I repeat, of those names, with the exception of Turks and Persians, who were to be found alike in Byzantine and Moslem armies, must be looked for in Moslem history or rather in the history of the great struggle between crusaders proper and the Moslem states of the East.

The setting of the Baligant episode is decisively Balkanic and Byzantine, and that would be enough to prove that the episode is relative to Robert Guiscard’s expedition not to the Crusade proper. But, perhaps the most striking feature is the enigmatic Argoile, corresponding to the quaint pseudo-classical name of the Greeks in the Gesta Roberti Wiscardi.

The author of Baligant has always been spoken of as half-learned, he must have used a literary source, on the campaign, quite similar to Wilhelmus Apuliensis, and in this connection, it will be interesting to recall that the principal ms of the Gesta Roberti, preserved today at Avranches comes from the Library of Mont Saint Michel, whereas another ms now lost formed part of the library of the Abbaye of Le Bec in Nomandy.

Everybody knows that our Chanson de Roland, especially in its second part, is a Norman poem, where the worship of St. Michael of Normandy plays a great part. All that fits in marvelously. Of course there has been a Chanson de Roland prior to the year 1085, but about that year, and possibly in order to exhort the Normans of Italy and of France to support the tremendous effort of the old Robert to regain hold of lost Epirus, a trouvère must have added to the Chanson proper that lengthy episode so full of Byzantine material.

The author of that last edition of the Chanson, to which all our copies go back, was also a rewriter who must have also introduced into the first part certain historical and geographical names recommended by their timeliness.

There was pre-crusade fighting at the same time in Catalonia and in Albania. Hence, some cities captured by the Christians about the year 1080 like Balaguer appear in the Chanson. Strangely, enough, the author of the remaniement while he was forced, naturally, to keep the old original background of the traditional chanson, and to make all the fighting go on in Spain, not in Albania, had voluntarily betrayed himself, at least in two ways, the great and powerful enemy of Charlemagne, Baligant bears only the mask of a Moslem Emir; his very name with a very slight change is that of the brother-in-law of the Emperor Alexios, who defended Durazzo against Robert Guiscard, George Paleologue, and in the last verses of the Chanson de Roland, the Archangel Gabriel, visiting Charles in the dead of night, orders the tired Emperor, the old man, to assume again the harness of war,

“Charles somon les oz de ton emperie,

Par force iras en la tere de Bire;”

That terre de Bire is naturally: Epirus. Tavernier had thought of Epirus, not in connection with Guiscard’s expedition which he seems to ignore, but à propos of Bohemond’s campaign in 1106. But that self-evident identification with Epirus had been discarded in the most astonishing manner by critics like Jenkins.

I must quote him because his words will show you how far Romance students are from an intelligent use of medieval poems.

What does it mean: “it should not be forgotten that the poet is writing a poem of the time of Charlemagne.” “Apart from a few proper names, is there any detail of life or customs which could go back to Charlemagne?” “Everything is anachronistic in the ‘Chanson de Roland,’ and it is these anachronisms which at times make its historical interest.”

Our purpose was to present the famous French Iliad as a piece of propaganda, in favour not of the holy war, but of a most unholy expedition of a Norman-Italian dictator against the Greek Empire. With elaborate perfidy, the Greek Christians are here presented as a lot of pagans using savage mercenaries and all of them enemies of our faith.

People of Canaan, pagans, Paianim, the enemies of Robert Guiscard and the Pope were all that: therefore the Pope was justified in giving the Norman chieftains the banner of St. Peter, after all even in the eyes of certain theologians, the Greeks were awful schismatics and deserved to be curbed or destroyed. The Chanson de Roland was simply propaganda in favour of the Norman plan which was transformed into a terrible reality during: the 4th so-called Crusade, 1203/1204. We must not be too proud of that first masterpiece in French literature: it has unfortunately served to disrupt European unity, estrange still further Eastern Christians from Christians in the West and ultimately to dismantle the great Christian bulwark of European civilization on the Bosphorus. However that does not alter the fact that Robert Guiscard was worthy to wear the mask of Charlemagne and even a Dante did not hesitate to give him the eighth rank in Paradise among the soldiers of the Faith.


Note: Bohemond’s indictment of the Greek Church, for the first time in History listed as heretic.

“Before drawing any conclusion, let us examine a document which is most highly interesting for our study. This is the collective letter written from Antioch to the Pope Urban II, on September 11, 1098, by Bohemond, Raymond St. Gilles, Duke Godefroi, Robert, Duke of Normandy, Robert, Count of Flanders, Eustache pf Boulogne. These princes tell the Pope of the crusaders’ successes from the time of the fall of Nicaea and the defeat of Soliman, in the plain of Dorylaea, masters of all Romania, they went into siege before Antioch, or, more correctly, were besieged themselves under the walls of that city. Finally, after fighting hard for the cause of the Christian faith, “I, Bohemond, by the help of a Turk who had promised to deliver the town to me, succeeded, with other knights, in entering there.” It was impossible, however, to storm the citadel: the Franks themselves will endure hardships of blockade till the day when, heartened by visions & the discovery of the Holy Lance, they will have exterminated their foes. “So Jesus Christ Our Lord has given back the whole town of Antioch to Roman faith and creed.”

Unhappily the Pope’s legate and vicar among the Franks, the Bishop of Puy, Adhémar de Monteil, happened to die. “So now we, your sons, orphaned by this death, and deprived of this father to whom you had entrusted us, we turn to you, our Spiritual Father, to you who promoted this expedition. At your call, we left our fatherland and all our possessions, in order to take the cross, follow Christ and strive for the exaltation of the Christian name. All that you ordered us to, we performed. Come now and join us with all the help you can muster.

It is this town of Antioch that for the first time, the name of Christian was preferred…. So you, father and leader of all Christendom, you cannot forbear from coming back to the spot where Christendom was born, nor from conducting this war on your own ground.

We have been able to outdo the Turks & Infidels, but have been unable to vanquish the heretics, Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Jacobites. We do pray and entreat you, our beloved father, as our father and our leader, to come to the seat of your paternity and to be seated on the throne founded by the blessed Peter at Antioch, as is becoming to his Vicar. You shall be there among your obedient sons; your authority and your courage shall outroot and destroy all heresies what so ever…”Certain mss also hold: “But you must separate us, your always obedient children, from the unjust Emperor, who, having made many promises, held none, and caused us all the harm and hardships he could….” Cf. Chalandon, Alexis Comn.

The accusation is clear: the Greeks are heretics; as well as the Armenians, the Syrians, the Jacobites; but although it can be read as a letter brought by a chronicler, witness of the Crusade, Foucher de Chartres, it can be found nowhere else. Up to that time no religious event had given rise to such an indictment. We have to do here with a quite unique accusation for the period we are studying.

This letter was drafted in September 10at a time when the rightful ownership of Antioch was a matter for discussion, but with Bohemond behaving as its just master inside the city walls, even though his companions had not yet officially recognized his sovereignty. During the first fortnight of November, there were violent discussions about this matter among the crusaders, at St. Peter’s, which however settled nothing. In spite of the first lines of the letter, where several princes are mentioned, only one talks and tells about himself in the first person; this is Bohémond. It is likely that a secretary wrote the letter under his inspiration, if not under his dictation.It is certain that Foucher is not the author of this letter.  For he clearly gainsays the spear’s authenticity (an imposter in which no one by the Vount of Toulouse believed), and afterwards he gives this letter where the discovery of the spear is told of, as a godsend.

Bohémond was at the time in a critical situation: on the eve of seeing his dream, that of being at the head of an important realm – come true, he finds in his path a stumbling block, and no mean one, the Emperor of Constantinople, who relied on the oath of fealty sworn to him by the Franks, and was aided by a Latin prince whose popularity was tremendous: the Count of St. Gilles. The way to triumph was simple: the religious quarrel had to be rekindled and the Greeks were to be officially ranked among the Oriental heretics, Syrians, Armenians, Jacobites, whose unknown and multitudinous rites naturally shocked the Latins, and in this way Alexios was to be directly slandered and made a schismatic Emperor, and the Pope, on the contrary, a successor of Saint Peter was to be represented as the only legitimate ruler over that principality, while he, Bohémond, would be the Pope’s representative om Antioch, even as , Guiscard, and, more recently, Roger, had been the Pope’s representatives for the Papal possessions in Sicily and Calabria.