Europe and its cannibals

A spell-binding history of cannibalism in the middle ages: its use as a propaganda tool, and place in Christendom's self-image; the cannibal as a philosophical hypothetical, and a justification for colonialism; and Richard the Lionheart's fondness for "Saracen's head's all hot"
Jen Paton
5 February 2010

In the fourteenth century Romance of Richard the Lionheart, the crusader king falls ill outside of Acre: the food he needs to recover, he claims, is pork. Since rumor has it Saracens taste of pork, his men cook and feed him human flesh without his knowledge. Demanding to see the head of the “pig” he has just eaten, the cooks bring in the human head. Richard reacts with amusement, laughing aloud. Gnawing the bones with relish, he announces now that he knows what good food Saracens are, his men won’t starve:

"We shall never die of hunger
While that we may first
Slay the Saracens downright
Wash the flesh and roast the head..."

Cannibalism, Le Livre des merveilles de Marco Polo. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale

While the flashiest modern headlines about cannibalism are confined to the depraved (Dorangel Vargas and Jeffrey Dahmer) or the desperate (the Uruguyan rugby team who crashed in the Andres in 1972), stories of European cannibalism during the middle ages celebrated its supposed fierceness and utility. The climax of Richard's newfound diet comes when Saladin’s emissaries come to broker an agreement, and Richard serves them some of their unfortunate comrades he has killed earlier. Just like the people of Fuchau who Marco Polo described with horror in his Travels (depicted in the image), who invite their enemy to come and dine with them on human flesh, Richard makes sure to outline each man’s name and family lineage, announcing he will “Eat thereof right fast I shall, as if it were a tender chick, to see how [you] will like," Richard eats with gusto, and when the others refuse to partake he scolds them, explaining that the delectation of Saracen is the custom in his house:

"King Richard bade them all be blythe
And said, 'Friends, be not squeamous,
This is the manner of my house
To be served first, if God [agrees]
With Saracen's head's all hot."

Yet the cannibal in Western imagination has most often been located elsewhere. The very word derives from Columbus' travels, whose name for the allegedly man-eating Caribs gave us the modern English word, Cannibal. (Of course, it was a rival tribe that told Columbus that the Caribs ate men.) Even today, it is popularly accepted that cannibalism on islands in the South Pacific is anthropologically confirmed (rather than fairly hotly debated). But there is a counternarrative to this demonization of the non-Westerner: that Europeans have always been describing themselves as cannibals, and they have had a complicated intellectual and aesthetic relationship with that fact. The Romance is just romance, one might argue, but the chronicles of the first Crusade are full of Europeans using consuming the enemy as the ultimate propaganda weapon.


Sculpture by Leonhard Kern (1588–1662)

In November 1098, Count Raymond and his Provencal forces took the city of M'arra, in a bloody siege which left "no corner of the city clear of Saracen corpses." Raymond left a contingent of troops to hold the city. Not surprisingly in the mountanous region, the supply lines maintaining the Provencal contingent at M’arra broke down. With insufficient food, the men were, by all accounts, driven to extremes to survive: “Now the food shortage became so acute that the Christians ate with gusto many rotten Saracen bodies which they had pitched into the swamps two or three weeks before." Food was not the only thing on the desperate men’s minds – the possibility of hidden bezants also invited the plundering of Saracen bodies: “… they ripped up the bodies of the dead, because they used to find bezants hidden in their entrails, and others cut the dead flesh into slices and cooked it to eat.” Numerous chronicles tell this story of survival cannibalism, with varying attitudes of horror or grudging acceptance. Only one source suggests it might have happened. The rest are certain that it did.

Survival cannibalism with a sprinkling of simple greed is one thing, but the chroniclers cannot help but note the propagandistic utility of the idea of cannibalism because it strikes such fear in enemy hearts: “The Saracens and Turks reacted thus: ‘this stubborn and merciless race, unmoved by hunger, sword, or other perils for one year at Antioch, now feasts on human flesh; therefore, we ask, ‘Who can resist them?’” The infidels spread stories of these and other inhuman acts of the crusaders, but we were unaware that God had made us an object of terror.” Thus the first major encounter between Christians and Muslims was coloured - in fact and folklore - by European cannibalism.

Cannibalism in Muscovy and Lithuania 1571

In An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (now translated from Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth), Catalin Avramescu examines the place of cannibalism in European intellectual discourse. The practice as understood today cannot be divorced from a deep substrata of history and myth extending back to the first Crusades. Avramescu's tracing of the cannibal in European philosophical treatises from antiquity to the Enlightenment (but focusing more heavily on the latter period) shows how the character of the cannibal was used to elucidate disputes about everything from vegetarianism (if we allow ourselves to eat animals, then why not men?) to private property and political organization. The cannibal is a character in philosophical hypotheticals: his actual existence is not a subject of investigation. Avramescu seeks to show how, for centuries, the cannibal patrolled the line between the civilized and the uncivilized, serving as "an image of the subversion of the moral order."

If the cannibal represents a subversion of the moral order, then it is a subversion that crusaders embraced as their own. As we see from Richard the Lionheart and others, 'the idea of cannibalism” emerged alongside Christian Europe's early martial encounters with Islam, where Europeans reveled in their reputation as brutish flesheaters. Avramescu's scope does not extend deeply into the Crusades: after noting briefly the legend of King Tafur, whose rowdy band of primitive savages were Christian allies and preferred the taste of human flesh, and Richard the Lionheart's taste for Saracen meat, Avramescu gives scant attention to the Middle Ages, focusing instead on the discovery of the New World as "the crucial event that generated the...mass of geographic literature treating cannibalism.'' The ''discovery'' sparked, in subsequent centuries, an ongoing evolution of the cannibal-as-philosophical character. In particular, Avramescu investigates the role of the cannibal in justifying the conquest and conversion of the New World. If they are cannibals they can't be religious. If they are heathen they may come under the Spanish (or English or French) crown. If they are bestial, they are "natural slaves," and so may be colonized and civilized by Europeans.

To be sure, cannibalism as an activity of the Other was nothing new. Travel narrators like Marco Polo and John Mandeville populated their tales of far away places with cannibals, bridging a tradition from Herodotus to 20th century anthropologists of the south Pacific. But if cannibalism is seen as just another way Europeans demonized non-Europeans, we ignore a powerful parallel narrative: Europeans rather enjoyed themselves as consumers of other people. These proto-imperialist roots in the Crusades should not be forgotten.

Indeed, ritualistic "cannibalism," Avramescu points out, is an inextricable part of Catholic Christendom. David Hume described a Muslim prisoner who converted to Christianity. When asked after communion, "How many gods are there?" the man replied, "None at all...you have told me all along that there is but one God: And yesterday I ate him." The idea that the mysteries of Christendom, or at least Catholic Christendom, include cannibalism was even more powerfully visceral in the Middle Ages, when women were often overcome by visions of the wafer and the wine made flesh and blood as they consumed them. Cannibalism is not simply something bad that others do: its practice and imagery wend through romance and history into the very fabric of Europe's own sense of itself. The story of the idea of cannibalism in Western thought is the story of European ambivalence about its own capacity for and history of consumption, destruction, and fear.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData