James L. Kelley, “The Zombie Mass: The First Crusade and the Origins of Zombie Hysteria”

The Zombie Mass: The First Crusade and the Origins of Zombie Hysteria

–James L. Kelley

“They are no Franks, but living demons!” –Chanson d’Antioche

Note: For clarity, quotations from ancient and modern sources will be rendered in bold script

The scene is Clermont in the South of France, 1095. Pope Urban II has called together a horde of knights, bishops, and lords from the region for a special announcement: Poor Frankish footmen and chevaliers, step right up! God wants us Franks to go on an expedition to the East, to Constantinople!

The First Crusade began to be preached all over Europe…

However, the message of Holy War, meant only for Frankish ears, ended up reaching the peasants, the common folk, the vulgus. A group of demagogic prophetae began their own tree stump campaign. Chief amongst this group of scruffy orators were Peter the Hermit—fresh from a Benedictine monastery—and Walter the Penniless—a bankrupt Frankish warrior turned preacher. Their message to the masses was simple: Since we Europeans constitute a single unit, a single Frankish Kingdom, we all form a unified Crusader army. We will oust the infidel from here to Jerusalem!

Tens of thousands of the poorest of Europe’s poor next did the unthinkable–they left their manorial plots, they left the reeking alleys of the cities. It was to be the world’s last and greatest pilgrimage, the one intended to usher in the Last Judgment.

Frankish overlords and prelates: “You poor are the salt of the earth. You purchase Heaven with the sweat of your brows. Until the Last Times you must content yourselves with the hateful things of the world; later you will sit at the head of the table, near the saints and the Lord of Hosts Himself!”

The poor: “The End Times are now upon us! Now, we, the poor people of God, will march to the East, without food and without weapons, armed only with the knowledge that we are the stars of history’s final act, the final triumphant battle in which the Devil will be defeated!”

However, once this People’s Crusade–several tens of thousand strong–made it past Constantinople, they found the desert trek arduous. Brackish water and contaminated food spelt disease. As unbearable day followed unbearable day, the roiling mass of plebs began to appear more and more savage. A veritable cloud of stench announced their propinquity. They lurched along, their mouths foaming from hunger and delirium; their skin was now discolored from grime and illness. As one writer describes it: “They marched barefoot, sometimes naked, or clad in rags, covered with sores and filth, too poor to afford swords and lances, armed only with knives, clubs, pointed sticks, axes, and scythes…they were the Plebs Pauperum, the Poor People of Christ…they were never paid, they expected no reward, except the blessing of Christ and a place in the heavenly Jerusalem, and they fought like scrawny lions…at a word from their king they became shock troops…absolute indifference to danger…in battle they formed a human wave; They were mowed down but they continued to march against the enemy. When they entered a conquered town, they raped and murdered in a wild frenzy” (Payne 84).

At this point, the horde of paupers having undergone their ghastly metamorphosis into a state somewhere between life and death, a disgraced Frankish knight presented himself, hoping to be proclaimed “King of the Tafurs.” “Tafurs”–a word meaning “the miserable”–is the name history has given this unfortunate band.

However, the battles for the cities of Antioch and Ma’arra revealed that behind the frisson-provoking bark of the Tafurs lay an even more terrifying bite. I think it best to leave it to an eyewitness rather than search for words that hope to match the horror of the scene. Fulcher of Chartres was shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tafurs, and he had the following to say: “I tremble to say it, but many of our men, seized by the madness of hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens, who were dead at the time, which they cooked and ate, and even if they were barely warmed over, they savagely filled their mouths and devoured them” (Hist. Hiero., 1.25, S. 2; cit. Rubenstein 534).

According to Gilo of Paris, the Tafurs “wore their teeth out on [Turkish] cadavers” (Historia vie Hierosolimitane, 8, ll. 278-80; cit. Rubenstein, “Cannibals,” 537). Many other observers–all Franks (non-peasants) of course, for they and they only had the leisure and materials to write chronicles!–were at pains to stress that the Crusading armies “ate only Muslims” (Rubenstein 529).

So, it was the Tafurs, these peasant-zombies, who made it their work to eat Muslims, right? Well, if we consider the testimony of Guibert of Nogent and Ademar of Chabannes, the whole idea of Crusader cannibalism seems to have originated with the Franks. A passage from Rubenstein’s article “Cannibals and Crusaders” is illuminating: “Contrary to the usual [interpretation], Guibert does not even accuse the Tafurs [of zombism]. He only says that these helpful volunteers–servants more than soldiers–cleverly faked an act of cannibalism to frighten the enemy. At a stroke he has simultaneously cast doubt on the event and blamed it on the poor. He has also connected it to a recognized, if rare, military strategy: staged cannibalism. Around 1020 in Spain, according to Ademar of Chabannes, the Norman Roger de Tosny used a similar tactic to frighten Muslims. Roger cut up a Saracen prisoner, ‘as if a pig,’ in front of his fellow captives, boiled the body parts, and then pretended to feast on them with his comrades. Feigning carelessness, he allowed the / other captives to escape and to spread the word among their terrified coreligionists. It is possible that one of the Normans or the Provençals in the crusader army could have heard Ademar’s story and advised employing a version of it during their own campaign” (540-541).

So, the Norman Frank Roger de Tosny staged a cannibalistic ritual mass. If a Frank in Spain used a cannibalistic mass as a means of crowd control, why not the aforementioned “Tafur king”? Perhaps this self-appointed leader of the peasant crusaders was merely another Frankish agent sent to teach the plebs the same kind of grisly ritual. As Guibert plainly states, the Tafurs were “volunteers” or helpers. They were not the ringleaders, but were merely following orders from the leading Crusaders, all of whom were Franks, not “the people” of the People’s Crusade!

Just in case we are inclined to dismiss both Ademar’s Spanish rite and the ritual cannibalism at Ma’arra as a pair of hellish flukes, let us not forget that William of Tyre’s account of the battle at Antioch notes that the Tafur king was a Frank named “Bohemond.” This Bohemond instructed the peasants to murder their Muslim prisoners, and to prepare and season their bodies for a feast. The Chanson d’Antioche proffers us a window into the demonic spectacle, which for Crusader scholar Jay Rubenstein is nothing short of a kind of inverted Mass: “The pilgrims [at the battle of Antioch] ate with pleasure, without bread and without salt, saying as they did, ‘This is most tasty, better than any pork or even cured ham. Cursed be anyone who would die now where there is such abundance!’ When Duke Godfrey, the central figure of the Crusade song cycle, learns of this cannibalism, he responds not with anger or shame, but with a joke, offering the King of the Tafurs wine with which to wash down his Saracen meat” (Rubenstein, 549, interior citations Chanson d’Antioche, 219, ll. 4073-75, and 220, ll. 4102-6). This zombie “black mass” even includes the obligatory anathema: Cursed be those who die (who are served up as Communion). Those who consume the abundant meat are by definition “blessed.”

The development of Western Christian theology since the 11th century may have set the stage for this “zombie mass” with its bizarre recurring debate about whether or not the “meat” in the Holy Eucharist–the bread that literally becomes flesh–is identical with the human flesh of the crucified Christ, or if it is just a kind of generic “human meat.” The era of the Crusades did witness the innovation known as “heart burial” in Frankish Europe. Heart burial was the idea that a noble Frank’s heart should be separated from his or her freshly-dead corpse and buried separately (Bradford; Duparc; Schäfer). Certainly heart burial was a Western misunderstanding of the original Christian tradition of relic veneration, whereby the preserved, desiccate body of a holy man or woman, which was decidedly not bloody and fresh!, rather came apart as a baked loaf flakes apart, without violence and without gore.

I am proposing that, just as the Franks distorted (perhaps unwittingly) the meaning of relics and thus of holiness in general along with doctrines of the goodness of matter in general, so did they pervert the dogma of the Holy Eucharist. They used a new kind of Mass which seems to have been conceived as a dialectical “anti-Moslem agape meal” (my term). For, as the Chanson d’Antioche shows, the commoners, the “people,” saw the eating of the Muslims as the eating of human pork. The Muslims were consumed, their Islamic faith being thereby physically and literally repudiated. According to such liturgical logic, (1) this human pork is the holy food par excellence, and thus (2) eating non-Christians is the clear answer to the Western Christian problem of where all of the genetic material (junk DNA?) comes from that fills up, Spam-like, the millions of Masses that have taken place since 33 A.D.

Another possibility is that the consumption of Moslem flesh was a ritual affirmation that the Jewish ban on pork had then been overturned since the “saving pork” of Christ’s incarnate body had appeared. Also note, in the Chanson d’Antioche, how the Frankish Duke Godfrey offered the wine—the Holy Chalice—to the vulgar mass of pilgrims. By the time of the First Crusade, the Western Church had already withdrawn the Chalice from the laity, the now-familiar practice of the people being offered the wafer—the Body—and not the wine—the Blood—being already the norm. This newfangled liturgical custom caused great consternation in the West amongst those commoners who were suddenly denied the saving blood of Christ (Bynum, Wonderful Blood).

I think it is highly possible that the Frankish leaders of the First Crusade, who were at times outnumbered 9 to 1 by the vulgar European non-Franks on the battlefield (Riley-Smith 63), were forced to improvise a socio-theological strategy for redirecting the apocalyptic ferocity of the masses away from their Frankish persons and toward the heathen. After all, the peasants were appropriating the powers of the second and first estates–the former being the martial prerogative of the Frankish knight; the latter being the spiritual authority of the Frankish bishop. The Franks who witnessed this peasants-into-Franks transformation must have experienced the most profound of mental traumas: the social world of the Franks was turned upside down; now the real Franks were surrounded by non-Franks who had turned into Franks! The solution they improvised, perhaps quite sincerely, was to turn this mob of stinking zombies into a New Model Army for the Frankish lords and the Frankish pope. Suddenly the functions of food producer, warrior and bishop were all manifest in the peasants. For the Frankish Crusaders, this revealed that the purpose of the Crusade was the production, preparation, and consumption (See Table below) of eschatological food. Only a Eucharist of some kind would fit the bill. Ultimately, the Franks must have realized that they need not fear any actual threat to their power base back in Europe, for the Tafurs did not plan to return. From the peasants’ perspective, Jerusalem was the terminus, for there the Last Judgment would be staged. It was doubtless the Franks’ expectation that the peasants would either die in battle against the heathen, or would succeed in “processing” millions of tons of heathen flesh needed for the innumerable Communion meals celebrated in the Regnum Francorum.

Table: The Three Estates of Medieval Francia
and Their Functional Relation to the Zombie Mass

Third Estate
peasants (non-Franks); FUNCTION: produce food
Second Estate
Frankish warriors; FUNCTION: carve up food (meat) in armed conflicts
First Estate
clergy (higher clergy Franks, lower clergy a mix); FUNCTION: serve the Holy Meal


Charles A. Bradford. Heart Burial. London: Allen and Unwin, 1933.

Caroline Walker Bynum. Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Pierre Duparc. “Dilceratio Corporis.” Bulletin de la société nationale des antiquaries de France (1981): 360-372.

Fulcher of Chartres. Historia Hierosolymitana. Edited by Heinrich Haganmeyer. Heidelberg, 1913.

Robert Payne. The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades. New York: Dorset Press, 1984.

Jonathan Riley-Smith. The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Jay Rubenstein. “Cannibals and Crusaders.” French Historical Studies 31 (Fall, 2008): 525–552.

Dietrich Schäfer. “Mittelalterlicher Brauch bei der Überführung von Leichen.” Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin) (1920): 478-498.

This entry was posted in Annales, Cannibalism, Crusades, Demonism, Eastern Religions; Orthodoxy; Eastern Orthodox Theology, Feudalism, Franks, George Duby, Historiography, Middle Ages, Papacy, Romeic Thesis, Three Orders and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to James L. Kelley, “The Zombie Mass: The First Crusade and the Origins of Zombie Hysteria”

  1. jay008 says:


  2. Pingback: Perfect Control Without Further Fear: A Psychobiography of L. Ron Hubbard | Jay's Analysis

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