The successful siege of the city of Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman was the first step along the First Crusade’s coastal march on the way from Antioch to Jerusalem, but that’s not why it’s memorable. Even more important than its strategic position, for the Crusaders, Maʿarra was (or at least they thought it was) a potential source of food, something that had been in short supply during and after the Siege of Antioch. In fact, a Crusader foraging party had tried, and failed, to take the city while they were still besieging Antioch, and the fact that those foragers were prepared to die in a futile effort (a small raiding party didn’t have great odds going against a fortified city) is a sign of how desperate they were for something to eat.
Finally capturing Antioch relieved the problem for a time. However, the subsequent delay in leaving Antioch, thanks to a heated dispute between Crusade leaders Bohemond of Taranto and Raymond of Toulouse over who would get control of the city, meant that the Crusaders were once again on the brink of starvation when they finally did set out. When it turned out that Maʿarra didn’t have much food to offer, instead of being an important military victory, the siege became the Crusade’s lowest point, when a considerable number of its participants turned to cannibalism to stay alive.
The siege of Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman, which began in late November, was itself pretty uneventful. The city was defended by its local militia and the townspeople, which wasn’t really enough against the full force of the Crusader army. The defenders did hold out for two weeks, sometimes using unorthodox tactics (there are reports that they threw beehives down at the attackers trying to scale the walls), while the Crusaders built a siege tower to get over the city walls. Once the tower was built, though, the whole shebang was over pretty quickly, with the Crusaders swarming into the city on or around December 12. The garrison surrendered to Bohemond (who was, by this point, Bohemond of Antioch), much to the chagrin of Raymond, although Raymond made sure to seize control of the interior of the city. He wasn’t about to let Bohemond take another conquest away from him.
So the siege was over in fairly short order. That’s when things got ugly. First came the massacres. Although the city’s defenders surrendered relatively quickly once the Crusaders managed to get over the walls, the attackers were apparently not inclined to show any mercy. As Bohemond (who stationed his men so that they could control the walls) and Raymond squabbled over control of the city, the Christian forces inside killed perhaps as many as 20,000 people, soldiers and civilians alike.
Then came the cannibalism. Sometimes in histories an invading army will be accused of cannibalism as a kind of slander, so you can’t really be sure that these kinds of accusations are true, but there’s little doubt about what happened at Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman. Delayed once again by yet another pissing match between Bohemond and Raymond, the Crusaders ate through Maʿarra’s meager stores and once again began to starve–and this time, unlike at Antioch, they didn’t even have many horses left to eat. So they ate the flesh of the dead Muslims. In a letter written the following year to Pope Urban II, the leaders of the Crusade said that their army had been forced by “cruel necessity” into “feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens.”
Two contemporary chroniclers: Fulcher of Chartres, who was chaplain to Baldwin of Boulogne (the future King Baldwin I of Jerusalem) and was on the Crusade, and Radulph of Caen, who was not on the Crusade but later served as Bohemond’s chaplain, described the scene in a little more detail. Fulcher says that Christians roasted the flesh of the “Saracen” casualties and ate it, while Radulph, a little more graphically, describes “pagan” bodies being cooked in cauldrons and children’s bodies being roasted on spits. Sorry if that offends. These guys being more or less official Crusades chroniclers, it’s pretty clear that some cannibalism went on, though Radulph may have used a little artistic license (his chronicle relied on eyewitness testimony, but he wrote it after his two patrons and main witnesses–Bohemond and his nephew Tancred–had died).
From the Muslim perspective, the Siege of Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman and the cannibalism provided one of the lasting impressions of the entire Crusades. It’s been the consistent view of Muslim scholars ever since that the Crusaders (the Franj or “Franks”) went cannibal in some kind of post-battle frenzy rather than out of a starvation-induced frenzy, which frankly is unfair to the cannibals. And no, I can’t believe I just typed that. Reports of Crusaders loudly proclaiming their intentions to devour the flesh of their enemies before the siege inform this Muslim view. I think Occam’s Razor, and the fact that Maʿarra was the only well-attested time that the Crusaders practiced cannibalism (there may have been some isolated instances of cannibalism at Antioch, but many Crusaders were starving there as well), both argue against this interpretation, but who knows?
What we do know is that, perhaps based on reports of what happened at Maʿarra, Muslim resistance on the road to Jerusalem pretty much evaporated. Muslim towns and garrisons actually sent supplies out to the marching Crusaders in order to forestall attack. Of course, first the Crusaders had to actually get back on the road, and they couldn’t do that with Bohemond and Raymond feuding. Raymond in particular had no interest in continuing until the Crusaders came up with a way to divvy up newly conquered territory (initial plans to give it all to the Byzantine Empire had by now been scrapped). Finally, the army seems to have taken matters into its own hands. It tore Maʿarra’s walls down and torched much of the city in January 1099, in order to “motivate” Raymond and the other princes to stop screwing around and get moving again.