Wars of religion often seem to lead to the most despicable acts of cruelty and barbarism, with both sides claiming to have divine sanction for the horrors that they choose to visit on their enemies. This was certainly the case on 12th December 1098 when a Crusader army breached the defences of Ma’arat al-Numan, a fortified town that lies in what is now Syria.
In 1095 Pope Urban II had called on the Christians of western Europe to recover the Holy Land for Christianity from the Muslims who now occupied it. Being utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause, and having a firm belief that Muslims were a depraved form of humanity who deserved no mercy or respect, the Christian armies swept towards Jerusalem, slaughtering anyone who opposed them.
The Crusaders did not have everything their own way. The city of Antioch withstood a siege that lasted 21 months, and when it fell the inhabitants were treated extremely badly with many civilians losing their lives.
However, the long siege had meant that there was very little food left in the city, and the Crusaders, whose own supplies were running low, found nothing to replenish their stocks. With winter approaching, the surrounding countryside had little to offer either, so a plan was drawn up to advance the short distance to Ma’arat al-Numan and hope for more luck there.
When the town fell to the Crusaders some 20,000 people were killed and the children captured as slaves, but there was still no food to be found.
The Crusaders then turned to the only solution they could think of. They started to feed on the bodies of the people they had killed. Some reports said that they went as far as killing people for the purpose of eating them, including impaling children on spits so that they could be grilled, but these accounts cannot be relied upon.
Even so, for an army to turn to cannibalism, in the belief that they were fighting against people who were animals rather than humans, was terrible enough. This event placed a huge stain on the reputation of the Crusaders, and Christianity in general. The Muslim world has long held the Christian west in detestation, and this incident was one that caused that view to be created and to prevail down the centuries.