The massacre on the forecourt and in the church of Madeleine in Beziers July 22, 1209


The twenty-four-year-old Viscount of Béziers knew by the time the crusader army left Montpellier on 20 July that his city was the first military objective of the crusade. By the morning of 21 July, before the army’s arrival, the viscount had arrived in Béziers to discuss what to do with its inhabitants. At a gathering of citizens he exhorted the people of the city to defend themselves against the crusaders and promised them quick reinforcement. After delivering this pep talk he rode on to Carcassonne to prepare the defenses there. Our two main chroniclers interpret Raimon- Roger’s quick exit from Béziers differently. William of Tudela suggests the viscount’s personal leadership was necessary at Carcassonne, and this certainly sounds plausible. Evidently Raimon-Roger believed, as did everyone on either side, that the citizens of Béziers did not need his actual presence in order to resist the crusade. Peter Vaux-de-Cernay believes Raimon-Roger fled his duties out of fear of the approaching army. Based on Raimon-Roger’s solid conduct later that summer defending Carcassonne the former source is probably more accurate here. The viscount’s advance warning of the army was evidently sufficient to allow those who wished to flee the city to do so, because the Jews of Béziers left with their viscount and traveled to Carcassonne and points west. The Jews apparently believed that they would be especially vulnerable to the depredations of a crusade, based on crusader conduct dating back to the First Crusade.

By the time the crusader army reached Béziers on the evening of 21 July few residents had opted to flee. Renaud of Montpeyroux, Bishop of Béziers, had accompanied the northern army on part of its journey and now entered his episcopal city in a last effort to convince his flock to give up before blood was spilled. At a large public gathering, probably in the cathedral church of Saint Nazaire, the bishop strongly urged the citizens of Béziers to make their peace with the crusade, even if it meant some despoliation of their goods. He urged them to hand over all heretics to the crusade and even had a list of Cathars to help facilitate their removal. Failing that, he encouraged loyal Catholics to flee the city in order to avoid being lumped in with the heretics. His words did not meet with a favorable reception. Well aware of the army’s size, since they could see it before them, and fully warned by their own bishop, why did the citizens of Béziers not comply with the demands of the crusade? First, there was the obvious reluctance to hand neighbors, friends, and relatives over to a crusading army that would certainly not treat them well. Secondly, there was the common though unexpressed belief that the odds were with them because it was hard for an army to take a city quickly, particularly one of Béziers’s size and geographic location atop high hills above the Orb river. The Bitterois had had time to strengthen the city’s defensive works, as related in an anecdote by Peter Vaux-de- Cernay. Indeed the citizens assumed they could still hold out even after a month of sieging. Third, the townspeople were sure that the huge size of the crusading army would actually be its downfall, believing it could last no more than two weeks. Any substantial pre-modern western army would quickly outstrip its food supply, and this, along with the fact that the undisciplined nature of any army of this polyglot composition and large size meant it would dissolve as quickly as it formed, was something the people of Béziers counted on. Finally there were the tactical and geographical difficulties inherent in besieging a city, particularly one like Béziers, a town of between 10,000 and 14,500 people. William of Tudela’s account and the legates’ letter reported how strong and well defended it was.

The army encamped on the left side of the Orb at least 220 meters from the walls. The siting of the crusader camp, down below the heights where the cathedral church stood and deceptively far away across the river, lulled the people of Béziers into a false sense of security. The Orb cannot be forded anywhere close by, so the crusaders had to cross a single bridge which would have been under close surveillance by the citizens. To get into the castrum required climbing a steep hill, on top of which perched the cathedral church. The advantage clearly lay with the people of Béziers even though they were outnumbered by the crusade army.

Even though the storm and sack of Béziers is an infamous incident it is not well served by the sources. The only eyewitness account was left by the papal legates Milo and Arnaud-Amaury, but their exuberance reduces their accuracy. Our main chroniclers all left unsatisfactory accounts, though there is fairly wide agreement among modern scholars as to the sequence of events. The day after the arrival of the crusade army, trouble began almost immediately between the crusaders and the Biterrois. Behind their high walls and strong defenses, the citizens of Béziers badgered the crusader army camped across the river with jeers, sorties, and arrow fire. In a scuffle on the single bridge over the Orb, a crusader was hacked to death and thrown over the bridge. The main brunt of the citizens’ harassment fell on the thousands of pilgrims and camp followers of both sexes who had encamped closest to the bridge and walls. The sources consistently use the same type of words to describe these camp followers: ribaldi, arlotz, vulgi, and gartz. Figuring out what they mean by those terms is not easy. Peter Vaux-de-Cernay says they were ‘‘sergeants (servientes) of the army, who in the popular language were called ‘ribalds.’’’ Clearly this referred to the less affluent crusader infantry, but Peter Vaux-de-Cernay usually uses pelegrini or crucesignati to describe crusader-pilgrims. Several modern historians have taken the sources’ use of the word servientes to imply that these men were the hangers-on or servants of other soldiers, knights, nobles, or prelates. Others such as Michel Roquebert have suggested that these ribalds were routiers or mercenaries, an interesting theory of some merit. It seems unlikely, however, that the thousands of soldiers on this first campaign were routiers, because of their lack of discipline and the absence of obvious financial incentive. Contrary to what Roquebert suggests, our main sources liberally use words like routier when they mean ‘‘mercenary,’’ so the fact that they do not do so here indicates something different. The enthusiasm this campaign created for those from all walks of life who joined for an indulgence suggests the ‘‘ribalds’’ were simply the poor crusader-pilgrims of the army.

A group of ribaldi grew incensed under the goading fire and harassment from the city, crossed the bridge and river, and attacked the walls and gates of Béziers. William of Tudela says they had a ‘‘king’’ or leader who mobilized them, and the existence of a leader of some kind partially explains why Roquebert thinks these may have been routiers. But the troubadour goes on to say that they grabbed clubs because they had nothing else, which suggests they were poor crusader-pilgrims, not organized mercenaries. They moved so quickly that before the militia of Béziers could respond, the ribaldi had crossed the bridge and were well on their way to battering in the gates. The nobility and knights of the crusading army held back or remained unaware of what was going on until the attack was well underway. According to the legates’ letter, at the time of the ribaldi attack, the leaders of the crusade were discussing how to get the loyal Catholics out of the city, presumably before a blockade and proper siege had begun. By the time the better-equipped crusaders realized what had happened and armed themselves, the ribaldi had penetrated the castrum. The citizens of Béziers abandoned their positions and fled to protect their families, assembling in the churches, the most defensible buildings within the city. During the frenetic capture of the city the crusade leadership could not control events, as even many knights now scrambled to get their share of loot. Within two or three hours, according to the legates’ letter, the city was firmly in crusader hands but not under any coherent leadership, and division of the spoils led to further loss of life. In the course of restoring order, the barons of the crusade began to collect the plunder and kick the garz out of the houses they had seized. Incensed, the ribaldi set the castrum on fire in retaliation for the loss of their too-easily won possessions and to ensure that if they did not get to keep what they had seized, no one would.

From this point the story tends to get inflammatory. Most famous of all is the story that supposedly at the height of the fighting, as the crusaders forced their way into the town, someone asked the legate Arnaud-Amaury how they would separate the good Christians from the heretics. His apocryphal words, ‘‘Kill them, God knows who are his,’’ reported by a Cistercian monk with a fanciful imagination, have become a byword for religious intolerance, placing what happened at Be´ziers on the top rung of pre-modern atrocities. Though Arnaud-Amaury was not above executing heretics, in 1210 this inflexible and unyielding man gave Cathars who surrendered a fair chance to abjure their heresy and so avoid execution, which heaps more doubt on the credibility of Caesarius’ report. The speed and spontaneity of the attack indicates that the legate may not have actually known what was going on until it was over.

What has proven equally controversial is the scale of the massacre inside the city. The sources all agree that a mass killing took place, but modern commentators have had trouble analyzing the sources to come up with a realistic number for those who died. One prominent scholar has simply opted for the complete annihilation of the city. The number killed in the sack reported by the legates, ‘‘almost 20,000’’ (‘‘fere viginti millia hominum’’), is by any stretch of the imagination more than the entire population of Béziers, since the city probably had fewer than the 14,500 inhabitants reported in the first reliable population figures for it more than a century after 1209. Peter Vaux-de-Cernay estimated that 7,000 people died in one church alone, La Madeleine. The structure of La Madeleine is still largely extant, and many observers including myself have concluded that the church is simply not large enough to accommodate that many people, even terror-stricken people packed in like cordwood.

Fire may have caused the death of thousands. Both William of Tudela and Peter Vaux-de-Cernay reported that the crusaders, or more specifically the ribaldi, set fire to the city. Based on other pre-modern fires, however, such as those in Constantinople in 1203–4 and in London in 1666, conflagrations rarely caused many deaths relative to the total population. In these fires, which took place in cities with populations of 200,000 or more, no more than a few hundred died. For example, in the second fire of Constantinople on 19 and 20 August 1203, when the inhabitants did not have warning and large sections of the city were destroyed, fewer than 200 people were killed as a direct result of fire.

There is also the unsavory possibility that hundreds or thousands died as the result of deliberate murder while they ran for their lives, but how many died after the city fell cannot be known. As bad as the destruction was in the city, clearly most of Béziers’s population and buildings survived, since the castrum continued to function as a major population center. Less than a month after the sack, the new Viscount of Béziers, Simon of Montfort, gave the Cistercians a house (domus) which had belonged to a Cathar, suggesting that at least some private residences escaped destruction. The swiftness of Béziers’s fall, with virtually no blockade or siege, was extremely unusual in medieval warfare and this makes what happened there seem worse for some reason. In other words, had the crusaders blockaded Béziers for weeks, then stormed the city, one might chalk up what happened after it fell as the result of pent-up frustration. The fact that many innocent Christians died with the papal legates in military command at the time makes the whole crusade seem hypocritical. We must bear in mind however, that the legates did not have much control over what occurred and that the conditions that allowed such success at Béziers would never be repeated during the Occitan War.

Of more immediate relevance is this: Béziers introduced the people of Occitania to the high stakes they faced. These included inevitable punishment, if not execution, for recalcitrant Cathars, changes in religious practices for those afraid to die for their beliefs, and political domination from the outside even for those who had always remained faithful to the church. It raised fear among the inhabitants that the northerners were better fighters than they, and it suggested they could be more brutal. What happened at Béziers greatly fostered the military reputation of northerners and helped sustain much smaller crusading armies through many troubles at least until 1216. Since Béziers gave the northerners false hope that perhaps God was on their side after all, it ensured a steady stream of crusader pilgrims for years after.

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