Most of the peasants and laymen who made the long journey were massacred shortly after they crossed the Bosphorus in 1096. Those who did survive – including Peter the Hermit – and traveled with the armies headed by the wealthiest and most powerful Provencal and Norman lords, are known by contemporary scholars as Tafurs.
According to historian Michael Haag, legend has it, these ‘Tafurs’ wore sackcloth and traveled barefoot. They were covered in dirt and sores and they lived on roots and grass. Sometimes they even roasted the corpses of dead Turks and ate them. Too poor to afford swords, these Tafurs fought with any blunt object they were able to get their hands on: knives, hatches, clubs, axes, pointed sticks, shovels and catapults.
These people firmly believed they were the ones Christ had chosen to lead the Crusade. They were allegedly ferocious. The princes were afraid of them. Even the Muslims feared them.
Their assumed character traits begs one to question: Were the Tafurs real, or did the passage of time and of stories throughout the generations place the Tafurs into the category of myth? It is quite hard to believe that every pilgrim who took part in the First Crusade would have been covered in sores and physically able to live off of grass, roots and (horror) human corpses. Realistically, many of the poorest pilgrims died before they reached the walls of Jerusalem. They were either killed in battle, or they died from disease and starvation, a fact that proved that grass and roots were not enough to sustain them. And open sores left untreated became infected which would have caused many people to suffer from gangrene. Another cause of death.
As for clothes, most pilgrims likely wore the same clothes they wore when they left their homes. Only the most passionate of religious zealots wore sackcloth.
One thing is known for certain. All crusaders, regardless of status, were motivated by faith and hatred for Muslims, a race of people they considered as God’s enemies. There were pilgrims who took their faith to the extreme and who were vicious when necessity compelled. Peter the Hermit and Peter Bartholomew were examples of such individuals to name a few. It was those types of pilgrims who found the strength to survive the journey all the way to Jerusalem.
“Though the Tafurs made a virtue of their poverty, in fact they were full of greed,” wrote Haag. (The Templars: The History and The Myth, p. 83) These so-called Tafurs were not the only people who were greedy. Many people who took part in the First Crusade – peasants, knights, lords and mercenaries – were motivated by greed. Bohemond of Taranto, Baldwin of Bouillon and Raymond of Toulouse are the most prominent examples. Furthermore, the pilgrims were not, as some contemporary scholars suggest, the only ones who ravaged Jerusalem and mercilessly slaughtered its inhabitants while the other crusaders hung back and refrained from bloodshed. Pilgrims, without a shadow of a doubt, did take part in the massacre, but no more than the military contingent of the army. The only people who probably did not take part in the mass murder were the princes.
So, given the attitude of a time when poverty was considered a bad thing and poor people were frowned upon, I will assume that the Tafurs were a myth, created by the chroniclers and passed on by the wealthy, literate aristocracy throughout the centuries.
Haag, Michael. The Templars: The History and the Myth. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; HarperCollins, 2009.