The Tafur: the Man-Eaters and their Famous Shield

Little is known about a shield that appeared in the 11th century and disappeared in the 14th century. The shield was called “talevaces” (English), “taneva s, talevart, tolfaces” (French), or “talebart” (Spanish). There are very few sources mentioning the shield but they are geographically largely distributed for such a an item. The first mentioning of shields of this term is found along the chronicles of the crusades, and the research does not really start, when a gruesome group pops up: the Tafurs.

John France knows in Victory in the East: a Military History of the First Crusade (Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 286) that the Tafur had been “a hard-core of poor men organised under their own leaders, whose name may be derived from the big light wooden shield which many of them carried, the talevart or talevas“. Sadly this often quoted line (or a similar one) and the embedding chapter is nothing that should be quoted at all. The Tafur had been poor men of their own choice, their name was not derived from their shield, and finally they are known for having nearly no weapons or shield (and for sure not a special one).

This is a report of how we researchers are drowned in false information, and how neccesary it is needed, not to quote, what others tell you, but to research as deep as you can into the sources and artefacts yourself. But it is a nice information about the crusades and the how their story had been altered, and it includes cannibalism for the drama, and because it really had happened.

Image showing “Tartari” eating humans, to illustrate their cruelty

Summary for the Lazy Readers

This article will show that the group called the Tafurs had not been more gruesome than any other Christian group of crusaders during the First Crusade. The atrocitites linked with the group through the literature are grossly exaggerated to show their gruesomeness.

The Tafurs had been a strict organized group with strong regulations. The regulations included vows of poverty. Money had been firstly to be invested in arms and armour. They had been responsible for logistics, carrying food and goods. They fought as infantry if they had armour and/or weapons, and as operators of balistas and man powered trebuchets (pull-thrower). They participated in multiple battles. During times of desperate famines in the crusader army, some of them participated in cannibalism like other crusaders as well. Because they were blamed (rightly) for doing so, they applied a charade of terror to frighten the enemy by burning corpses as if they would prepare them for food. The action of cannibalism of the Tafur is said to have created a strong impression in the ranks of the enemy, which to my surprise never was mentioned in a non-French chronicle.

The Tafur, being of lower class, had been used as a vehicle to transport the horrors of the crusade in the later epic chronicles and poems. They were the scapegoat for many of the atrocities Christans had committed in the crusades. Due the copy & paste effect, the chain of quoting in history books, this image had rarely been questioned.

The Origin of the Word Tafur

Dizionario armeno-italioano, Ciakciak, Venice 1837, p. 566

The orign of the name “Tafur” is unknown. There are theories on the term, The first mentioning is from the 11th century and tells us that the term is a barbaric word coming from the “gentiles“. R. Dozy said that the Arabic transcription “takfûr” was used since at least the beginning of the fourteenth century to refer to the Greek emperors of Constantinople and Trebizond” (in Traveling in Pursuit of Nobility, Lisa Merschel, 2011, p. 51). A. Hatem believes as well, the name to come from the Armenian “tahavor,” meaning “king.” C. Cahen says it derives from the Arabic “tâfoûr,” meaning “miserable,” while J. Sauvaget believes it to come from the Arabic “tafrân” (Sumberg 226). Others believe the name derived from the wooden shield that many of the crusading Tafurs carried, the “talevart” or “talevas” (France 287; Sumberg 227-28). Michael Schmitz wrote in 1912 an article in the journal on old Romance Languages “Herkunft des altfranzösischen Wortes tafur” and dismisses most of the common thesis, finding an Armenian word in a lost Armenian-Italian dictionary “Dizionario armeno-italioano” (Ciakciak, Venice 1837, p. 566) “Taphur” meaning something like “vagabondo, vaga, errante” (vagabonds).

That word made it into Old French, for some unfriendly meanings. According to a quote in the Roman de Renart, t. II, p 310, “Aincois querroit un grant tafur”, “tafur” is an old French word for the haggle merchants do when fighting for the best price.

From the Chronicles

The story of the Tafur is a typical case of how a historical fact becomes wilder and wilder as often as it is retold. It is nearly unbelievable what happened to the poor men, when history writers started to interprete.

The Early Historians

Guibert de Nogent, not an eye witness but someone who consulted reports of eye witnesses, is the only one of the early historians to mention the Tafurs. According to the Gesta Dei per Francos they marched barefoot, carried no arms, and were not permitted to have any riches. Naked, needy and altogether filthy, they went ahead of the main body of the army, living from what they found on the ground (mainly roots of herbs and plants). Their leader was a high born man from France (Normandy), who had been a “Eques” and became a “Pedes”, by giving his tools of his trade away. He grouped the poor people around him, told them that he wants to be their king and soon he was called King Tafur.

It was King Tafur’s costum, whenever his army arrived a bridge or a narrow pass, to rush forward and scan his soldiers. Whenever he spotted someone owning more than two denars, we would separate him, and order him to buy arms, and assign him to the section of his army possessing weapons. The ones in his army, who like him favour a simple life without riches, he made part of his inner circle.

Guibert de Nogent, high born himself, has a strong opinion on the lower classes lurking through in his texts. He respects the dedication of the landowners, selling their land and vineyards to join the crusade, but he thinks very low on the poor people just following the track by foot, with nothing more than their life and some kind of weapons and armour. The man, who he called King Tafur, most likely took the advantage to have a huge body of infantry, that just needed some kind of structure. To this structure he crated some regulations, of which one tells us, that no greater amount of money ownership was allowed. This is not out of common habit. Baldric of Dol (Baudri de Bourgueil) reported in his Historia Jerosolimitana about the idea of a community: “in that expedition the duces themselves fought, the duces themselves took watches, so that you would not know a dux from a miles, or how a miles differed from a dux. In addition ther was such a community of all things, that hardly anyone designated anything individually to himself, but , just as in the primitive church, nearly all those things had been communal” (BD 28 In situ expeditione…).

Man powered Trebuchet, BNE MSS Graecus Vitr. 26-2 Codex Græcus Matritensis Ioannis Skyllitzes, 12th century

The performance of the Tafurs commanded even Guibert’s respect. He writes that they were even better in carrying the load than asses and mules, they were really good in hurling projectile weapons, and they know how to handle the man powered trebuchets. But he reports the atrocities connected to the Tafurs as well, of which I will write in the following chapter.


Guibert writes that, when pieces of flesh were found at the siege of Marra near enemy bodies, a hideous rumor circulated, that there were some men in the Frankish army who eagerly fed upon the corpses of Saracens. He records that the Tafurs deliberately perpetuated the rumours by roasting a Saracen corpse in full view of the other Turks, though he emphasises that this was simply a charade to frighten the Turks (according to other sources these dead bodies had been spies). But cannibalism was existing. Guibert writes: The Franks stayed in that city for a month and four days, during which time the bishop of Orange died. the bishop of Orange. While we were there, some of our own were unable to satisfy their needs, either on account of the long stay, or because, as there was no booty to be got or because, since there was no booty to be had outside the walls, they were so hungry. Therefore they cut up the bodies of the the bodies of the dead, because they used to find Byzanti hidden in the entrails, and others cut the dead flesh into pieces and boiled it to eat it (“alii uero Caedebant carnes eorum per frusta, et coquebant ad manducandum“).


The act of cannibalism was formed into a epic story and found entry in the 2nd Generation of poetic chronicles and was exaggerated grossly, mostly blaming the Tafur. Probably, because the poor people are easy to blame, while the high borns are not. Fact seems to be, that none of the crusaders preferred to eat the corpse of the enemy if not starving to death was close. But if this was the case, there had been a participation through the ranks by some of them.

The Second Generation

From the later sources like the Chansons d’Antioche we can read some more information on the Tafur. But they are of little value because they are enriched with poetic stories. But they give us a good impression, how the stories about the Tafurs grew and grew, everytime it was retold.

There was the king of Tafur and his rabble.
And they swear by God, who created the whole world,
that if they should meet with heathen, they would eat them with naked teeth.
The Tafur scream and howl and make a great noise.
Principles looks at them and trembles with anger in his innermost being.
He curses them at Mahomed and all who are down there.
“Apollo, tell me, where will this people go?
They are not worth a bean and consume only flesh.
They are all naked and have no weapons.
They have great courage when they come near the bridge.
I believe they are devils who will take our city from us.”

On the battle of Civetot, Chanson de Antioche, verses 3637-3647

The Chansons tell us that the Tafurs are armed with battle axes, knives, clubs, halberds, but often enough they only have wooden spears, the tip of which is hardened in the fire. Their king “Rei Tafur” wields a crooked sabre. This is quite close to the original description, but the following paragraphs are scenes which are at least “enriched”.

According to the poems, the spirit of the whole troop can be seen from the fact that, after their king fell before Damascus, they chose one who, being a native of Lille, had acquired special fame in the inn. From King Balduin he receives a crown and a silver mace, the insignia of his dignity.

When rebuked by the ruler of Antioch for the behaviour of the Tafurs, Bohemond told him, that none of this can be blamed on the crusaders, that the responsibility lies with the king of the Tafurs, their leader. He tells that the king of the Tafurs fears no one. He uses the Tafurs to threaten the Turks, that the excesses of the Tafurs cannot be contained and may turn against them at any time.

The Storytellers

Much later chronicles and their “researchers” started to create a horrible, but mainly invented image, enhancing the story further and further: Apparently their reputation was so fierce that even the crusader nobles required an armed escort to pass by their tents. The Estoire d’Antioche (MS Bodley Hatton 77) of the 13th century enriches the description of the Tafurs as the wildest people ruled by God with blacker skins than any swamp; they wore human skins and carried clubs to chastise the heathen and wonderful knives to skin animals. This utter medieval racism brings black skinned barbars together with sharp knives, ready to skin humans and eat them. It continues to tell us that they hanged and martyred the Saracens, opened their bellies as if they were pigs at the butcher, bowels and intestines were fed to dogs. We are doomed to imagine, were the good flesh of the Saracens is going to. This gross and horrible nonsense was (stripped of racism) often enough quoted indirectly in modern books on the crusades. In fact had the Tafurs been mostly Franks, but more likely a multi-ethnical army consisting poor people taken with them on the long track.

Another story in the Estoire d’Antioche concerns the betrayal of Antioch. By the bribed Antioche resident Pirrus (named in more than one source), the crusaders can enter the city. Pirrus is an Armenian (or Turkish emir according to other sources), who be a Christian. In the Estoire d’Antioche, when Pirrus goes to the crusaders’ camp to consolidate his plans with Bohemond, the poet writes that “an angry Tafur met him and wanted to skin him.”. Of cause, what else? Skinning heathens seemed to be the favourite pasttime of the Tafurs according to this poem, useful to add some more drama to a story, but another sign how useles this source is for understanding the historical facts.

According to the storytellers, the Tafurs were also motivated by greed, with Le Roi Tafur leading the first assault on Jerusalem exclaiming, “Where are the poor folk who want property? Let them come with me!….for today with God’s help I shall win enough to load many a mule!” (copy pasted in multiple books like “The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages” by Norman Cohn, Oxford University Press).

It makes us wonder why, by all the horrible things the Tafur did, it was the King Tafur according to the Chanson de Jerusalem who crowned Godfrey of Buillon as king of Jerusalem by a crown made from leaves. It is a story to tell us, that the king of Jerusalem does it not for the riches, but for the task. Furthermore the Chanson reports, that the King Tafur and his men do several brave deeds in fighting whatever came in the way of the crusaders. Thus showing that even the most lousy Christians are brave fighters for the higher cause.

Many storytellers see the Tafurs as the followers of Peter the Hermit and add scenes to support this claim. More and more a picture of vagabonds and barbaric people, fearing nothing because they had nothing to lose, being utterly brutal and without any moral was created. Most of it not true, but nevertheless, copied and put into the movies.

No Shields – No Fun

When we look at the sources of the early historians or at the second generation poems, we do not find a hint that the Tafurs are known for having big, round, wooden shields with them. Those sources tell us that they had barely weapons. So why do we have the link between the poor crusaders. Shield of all kindes are constantly named in the older circle of the crusades, even Talevas are named in the chansons. But a Tafur fighter or the Tafur king using them is not found. This is probably made up by a chain of interpretations. It was thought that the name “Tafur” was most likely made up from the “Talevas” so they said, that the Tafur had the shield with them. But none of it is true. The often quoted “fact” that led me into researching the Tafur was a red herring, It did not help me at all to resolve the shield called Talevas.

Early and 2nd Generation Sources on the Tafur

If not noted fully near the quote the sources are:
Chans. d’Antioche = Chanson d’Antioche, quoted by transcribers and publishers. It is mostly not clear which edition of which manuscript was used and how it was composed.
Conquete de Jerusalem = La chanson de Jerusalem; La conqueste de Jerusalem; La conquête de Jérusalem, by Richard le Pèlerin et Graindor de Douai, 12th century

  • Guibert de Nogent, Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolymitanorum, VII, chap XXIII
    Erat præterea et aliud quoddam in exercitu illo hominum genus, quod nudipes quidem incederet, arma nulla portaret, nullam ipsis prorsus pecuniæ quantitatem habere liceret; sed nuditate ac indigentia omnino squalidum, universos præcederet, radicibus herbarum, et vilibus quibusque nascentiis victitaret.
    A Hos, quum quidam ex Northmannia oriundus, baud obscuro, ut ferunt, loco natus, ex equite tamen pedes factus, sine domino oberrare videret, depositis armis et quibus utebatur induviis, eorum se regem profiteri voluit. Inde rex Tafursa barbarica lingua cæpit vocari. Tafur autem apud Gentiles dicuntur, quos nos, ut minus litteraliter loquar, Trudennes vocamus: qui ex eo sic appellantur quia trudunt, id est leviter transigunt, quaquaversum peragrantes, annos.
    Erat autem isti consuetudo, ut si quando populus sub se agens ad pontis alicujus deveniret transitum auto aliquas angustias loci cujuspiam attigisset, iste eumdem præoccupare festinaret ingressum; et præscrutato ad unguem singillatim quoque suorum, si cui duorum pretium solidorum habere contingeret, hunc confestim a sua ditione secluderet, et eum emere arma jubendo, ad armati contubernium exercitus segregaret; si quos, consuetæ tenuitatis amantes, nihil prorsus pecuniæ aut reservasse aut affectasse conspiceret, hos suo collegio peculiares ascisceret.
    Putaret hos forsitan quilibet generali utilitati prorsus incommodos, et unde aliis poterat suppetere sumptus absque proficuo tales consumere cibos. At vero hi in convehendis victualibus, in stipendiis contrahendis, in obsessione etiam urbium lapidibus intorquendis, dici non potest quam necessarii forent: quum in portandis oneribus asinos ac jumenta præcederent, quum balistas et machinas crebris jactibus exæquarent.
    Præterea, quum de Paganorum corporibus frusta carnium apud Marram, et sicubi alias quum nimia fames urgeret, repperientur adempta, quod ab his et furtim, et quam rarissime factum constat, atrox apud Gentiles fama percrebuit, quod quidam in Francorum exercitu haberentur qui Sarracenorum carnibus avidissime vescerentur.
    Unde idem homines, ut potissimum apud illos hæc intonuisset opinio, Turci cujusdam vecti corpus intusum, ad eorum terrorem, palam omnibus, ut dicitur, ac si carnem mandibilem, igni apposito torruerunt.
    Quo illi agnito, et verum penitus quod fingitur autumantes, jam magis insolentiam Tafurum quam nostrorum, quodam modo, principu hementiam formidabant.
    Turci, plane antiquorum more Gentilium, de cadaveribus tantopere cruciantur insepultis quanto nemo Christianorum studio de animabus videtur cogitare vel dolere damnatis.
    Unde ad eorum rancores dirissime concitandos, in obsidione Antiochena, Podiensis, facto edicto, celebrari per exercitum præcepit episcopus, ut quicumque Turci alicujus caput sibi deferret abscisum, duodecim denarios referret sine dubio o statim in præmium.
    Capita enim eorum quum idem suscepisset antistes, super palos ante ipsorum ora pro mænibus civitatis figi ea jubebat ingentes: quod eos solebat acerbissime torquere, et exanimare cernentes.
    Egit etiam ibi pontifex non reticendum quiddam, cum procerum nostrorum consilio, ut quum victualium inopia urbani nostros laborare sentiscerent, nostri e contrario protinus proponerent quatinus boves aratro jungerent, in conspectu urbis ararent et sererent : ut ex hoc idem urbici subintelligerent quod cæptam obsidionem nulla ratione desererent, qui de futuri anni procuranda fruge tractarent.
    Hæc et alia mira miranda in hac ipsa expeditione sunt gesta, quæ posse ab aliquo comprehendi nullo modo putamus universa.
  • Chans. de Antioche, verses 3637-3647
    La fu li rois Tafurs, li Ribaut o lui sont
    Et jurent Dameldeu, ki forma tout le mont,
    Que s’il truevent paiens as dens le mangeront.
    Tafur crient et huent et mout grant noise font.
    Principles les esgarde, d’ire fremist et font;
    De Mahon les maudist et tous ceus ki la sunt:
    Apolin, car me di, ceste gent u iront?
    Il ne valent .I. pois, viand, gasteront.
    Ja sont il trestout nu ne nule arme n’ont!
    Mout ont grant hardement quant vienent prés del pont.
    Je cuic ce sont maufé qu no cit nos torront.
  • Chans. d’Antioche VIII, 21:
    Portent haces danoises et couteaus aceres,
    Ghi- sarmes et niacues et pels en son arses;
  • VIII, 21: Li rois porte une faus dont l’acier est tempres.
  • Chans. d’Antioche VIII (Addition V):
    Li gens le roi Tafur ne fu mie effreee,
    Il ne portent o eis ni lance ni espee
    Mais gisarme esrnoulue et machue ploinee;
    Li rois porte une faus qui moult bien est teinpree.
  • Conquete de Jerusalem 1591 :
    S’i vient li rois Taphurs, il et si cornpaignon.
    Bien furent • v • millier, tex com nos vos diron.
    Onques n’en i ot -j- de si riche fachon,
    Qui ait cote vestue, mantel, ne pelichon;
    N’en ont sollier en pie, cape, ne chaperon,
    Ne chemises en dos,ne cauche, ne cauchon,
    Mais chinses et drapiax: ce sont lor siglaton;
    Lor chies ont herupes, de chevox ont foison;
    Lor mustel sont rosti de fu et de charbon,
    Lor jambes sont crevees, lor pie et lor talon.
    Chascuns porte en sa main ou machue ou baston,
    Plomees ou martiax, ou picois, ou bordon,
    Ou gisarme acheree ou grand hache ä piain poing.
    Li rois porte une faus, qui est de cel fachon, etc.;
  • Conquete de Jerusalem 1608:
    Li rois n’avoit vestu paile ne siglaton,
    Mais -j- sac ot vestu, onques n’i ot giron.
    Bien fu taillies par cors, mais onc n’i ot manchon.
    En milieu fu perchies. de trox i ot foison;
    A cordeles noees l’atacha environ;
    Son col ot affichie del chef d’un esperon;
    Li chapel ot de fueilles, oü il ot maint boton;
  • Conquete de Jerusalem 1757:
    Chascuns tint hoe ou pal,
    Ou gisarme ou picois d’achier poitevinal, Portent
    max et flaiaus, tandeffle et maint gal;
  • Conquete de Jerusalem 2605:
    Les gens le roi Taphur as tancleffles lignant;
  • Conquete de Jerusalem 2765:
    Es vos le roi Tafur tres parmi -j- larris
    A -x- mile ribaus armes et fervestis;
    Portent heues et maches et grans fausars et pis,
    Gisarmes et machues et max de fer traitis,
    Tren- chans misericordes et cotiax coleis,
    Et plomees de courroie ä chaaines assis.
    Li autre portent fondes et ont les caillox bis.

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