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King of the Tramps June 25, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Beachcombing has neglected both Forgotten Kingdoms recently and an earlier enthusiasm for the Crusades. He thought that he would correct both these errors with a short post on the King of Tafur and his Tafurs – the einsatzgruppen of the Holy Wars. The source is Guibert of Nogent (obit 1124).

There was another kind of man in this army, who was bare-footed, carried no arms, and was not permitted to have any money. Dirty, naked, and poor, he marched in front of everyone, feeding on the roots of herbs, and on the most wretched things that grow. A Norman, well-born, said to have been formerly a knight, but now a foot-soldier, he saw them wandering without a leader, and laid aside his arms and the clothing he wore, wishing to declare himself their king. He had himself called Tafur, a term taken from the barbarian language. Among the pagans they are called Tafur whom we call, to speak less literally, Trudennes, that is, men who kill time, that is, who pass their time wandering aimlessly here and there. It was the Tafur’s custom, whenever the people he was leading arrived at a bridge to be crossed, or at a narrow pass to be traversed, to rush forward to observe very carefully, and if he saw that anyone of his men possessed two deniers, he would quickly separate him from the general group, order him to purchase arms, and assign him to the section of the army that bore weapons. However, those in whom he saw a love of the simple life, who had no impulse or desire to save money, he made members of his inner circle. Perhaps some might think that these men were not useful for the general good, and that he could have fed others what he was uselessly giving to them. But no one can describe how useful they were in carrying food, in collecting tribute, in hurling stones during the sieges of cities. They were better at carrying heavy burdens than the asses and mules, and they were as good at hurling projectiles as the machines and launchers. Moreover, when pieces of flesh were found among the pagan bodies at Marra, and elsewhere, during a terrible famine, a hideous rumour (based on something that had been done furtively and very rarely) circulated widely among the pagans, that there were some men in the Frankish army who eagerly fed upon the corpses of Saracens. To circulate this rumour among them even more vividly, the men carried the battered corpse of a Turk out in full view of the other Turks, set it afire, and roasted it as if the flesh was going to be eaten. When they learned what had happened, thinking that the charade was real, they grew even more afraid of the fearlessness of the Tafurs than of our other leaders. Like the ancient pagans, the Turks were tormented more by unburied bodies than any Christian seems to be concerned with his soul or fears damnation.

There is some predictable muttering among medieval historians to the effect that the Tafur were a ‘construct’ and that their king – King Tafur – did not exist. But this source, if a little verbose, is early and good.

What can certainly be said is that the Tafur rapidly became the thing of legend with all that implies for memory: cobblers warning!

Their cannibal exploits and also, strangely, their holiness is a topos in several later works. It would be interesting to connect them to other fearsome wanderers of the Christian imagination circumcelliones, gyrovagi and the like.

Beachcombing is working up a post on a forgotten ‘tramp’ kingdom in Scotland – other ‘itinerant realms’ are welcome. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com