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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Immorality in the Holy Land

From Giovannino de' Grassi, Tacuinum Sanitatis, via Wikimedia Commons

It has been claimed, perhaps without any factual basis, that the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff was encouraged by the appearance of Jewish prostitutes in his city, regarding it as evidence of the normalisation of the Jewish people.

As in all societies, sex was very present and prominent in the Latin East. At the Council of Nablus in 1120, the earliest written laws of the kingdom of Jerusalem were composed. These consisted of twenty-five canons drawn up by a committee instituted by the king and the patriarch of Jerusalem. The overwhelming subject matter of these laws was with regard to sexual conduct, and they laid out punishments for adultery, prostitution, sodomy, sexual relations with Muslims, and bigamy. Rhinotomy, that is, amputation of the nose, and castration, were among the punishments for sexual transgressions, and even burning at the stake in the case of sodomy.

Illuminating, though no doubt often embellished accounts of Frankish sexual attitudes and behaviour, are found in contemporary sources. In regarding these matters, the twelfth century Syrian, Usama Ibn Munqidh, cast light on the difference between the moral values of Franks and Muslims, at least from his personal viewpoint, that of a Muslim aristocrat with little admiration of any aspect of Frankish behaviour. On the subject of adultery he describes a Frank who returned home one day to find his wife in bed with another man. The husband’s reaction is as remarkable in its composure as are the adulterer's casual justifications:

“What are you doing here with my wife?” he [the husband] demanded.

“I was tired”, replied the man, “and so I came in to rest.”

“And how do you come to be in my bed?”

“I found the bed made up and lay down to sleep.”

“And this woman slept with you, I suppose?”

“The bed,” he replied, “is hers. How could I prevent her getting into her own bed?”

“I swear if you do it again I shall take you to court!”*

Usama's understandable astonishment at the nonchalance of the two parties involved suggests that a chasm stretched between the moral values of Muslims and Franks, though perhaps this was not as typical of Frankish behaviour as he would like us to believe.

Among the most common forms of sexual activity recorded in the Latin East is prostitution, particularly, though not only, in secular Frankish society. It was condemned by outsiders, but unless it led to adultery, it was often accepted by the authorities, and even on occasion provided for, particularly in the case of crusading armies. The Arab chronicler, Imad ad-Din described in a highly provocative passage, the arrival by sea of three hundred prostitutes who had come to fulfil the needs of the Frankish soldiers. Referring to them as "lovely Frankish women, full of youth and beauty", he spares no detail and allows his imagination full sway, describing these women who "glowed with ardour for carnal intercourse". He uses the popular style of Eastern medieval descriptive writing, that through constant repetition, variation, grouping of metaphors, and application of virtually every existing adjective, paints a compelling and highly sensuous, but no doubt highly exaggerated image:

"They were all licentious harlots, proud and scornful, who took and gave, foul-fleshed and sinful, singers and coquettes appearing proudly in public, ardent and inflamed, tinted and painted, desirable and appetising, exquisite and graceful, who ripped open and patched up, lacerated and mended, erred and ogled, urged and seduced, consoled and solicited, seductive and languid, desired and desiring, amused and amusing, versatile and cunning, like tipsy adolescents, making love and selling themselves for gold, bold and ardent, loving and passionate, pink-faced and unblushing, black-eyed and bullying, blue-eyed and grey-eyed, broken down little fools. Each one trailed the train of her robe behind her and bewitched the beholder with her effulgence. She swayed like a sapling, revealed herself like a strong castle, quivered like a small branch, walked proudly with a cross on her breast, sold her graces for gratitude, and longed to lose her robe and her honour. They arrived after consecrating their persons as if to works of piety, and offered and prostituted the most chaste and precious among them."**

Imad ad-Din continues in this vein at some length, growing ever more explicit and salacious. But lurid behaviour was not restricted to prostitutes. An English chronicler of the Third Crusade describes the behaviour French soldiers being entertained by dancing girls at Tyre. This account is supposedly based on eye-witness reports, and probably is a genuine criticism of behaviour that was seen as putting the crusading enterprise in jeopardy, but one gets the sense that the author is also giving vent to an Englishman's disdain of his Gallic neighbours from across the channel:

"Their luxurious dress was further evidence of the effeminate life they were leading: the seams of their sleeves were held closed with intricate lacing; their wanton flanks were bound by intricate belts; and to reveal the fitting of their pleated garment more clearly to onlookers, they wore their cloaks back-to-front, twisted round to the front of their body and compressed between their arms. So things which were originally designed to cover the rear parts were forced to serve other parts of the body: their cloaks covered their stomachs, not their backs."***

The chronicler goes on to describe yet more examples of licentious and rowdy behaviour, which no doubt was not restricted to French crusaders alone. It would seem that quite a lot that was not very holy was going on in the Holy Land, both during crusades and on a daily basis.

*Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades, London, 1969, pp. 77-78; **Imad ad-Din in Gabrieli, 1969, p. 204; Abu Shama, RHC IV, p. 433; ***H. Nicholson (trans.), Chronicle of the Third Crusade: A Translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Aldershot, 1997, p. 299.

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