Mapping the First Crusaders

Jay Pasricha | 28 June 2023

Medieval History | European History | Social History  | Religious History

Data from Map drawn by Jay Pasricha and Charles West CC BY-SA, 2023

We all know about the First Crusade of 1096, the first in a series of religious wars that caused immeasurable upheavals and costs to human life: but what do we know about the crusaders themselves? Building on a dataset initiated by Jonathan Riley-Smith and housed at the University of Sheffield [1], Charles West and I have created for the first time a GIS map showing the origins of nearly 600 participants in the First Crusade. The dataset was created to ‘enhance understanding of the motives and dynamics of the crusading movement’ [2], and we hope our visualisation helps bring out some of these ‘motives and dynamics’. Our map is a resource that is free for anyone to use.

What can we learn from this map? One immediate takeaway is that people were extremely mobile in this period, despite the technological limitations of the time. We decided to ensure Jerusalem was visible on the map (bottom right), to demonstrate visually the sheer distance travelled by those taking part in the First Crusade. Whether travelling across land from northern Germany, or crossing seas from the Isle of Man or Sardinia, some people in the late 11th-century Latin West felt strongly enough about going on crusade to venture over vast distances. 

Our map reveals that there were more participants on the First Crusade from northern Iberia, southern Italy and Germany than is sometimes acknowledged. Nevertheless, the map also shows that the crusaders overwhelmingly came from France. In fact, it is possible to analyse the data we have collected to calculate the statistical ‘average location’ of those taking part in the First Crusade: a tiny village in France named Châteauneuf-Val-de-Bargis, located between Paris and Lyon. No specific crusader is associated with this place, but geographically speaking, it is the epicentre of the First Crusade.

Of course, the French concentration in the map simply reflects the available sources. We should remember that we only have specific information about less than 1% of the estimated 100,000 participants who made their way to Jerusalem. The dataset relies heavily on French chroniclers, such as Guibert of Nogent and Robert of Rheims, as well as the Gesta Francorum. The dataset also uses documents detailing land transfers, recorded in books known as cartularies that were, again, mostly made in France. Do these sources over-represent the actual French contribution to the Crusade? 

Or does our map merely confirm that the crusading movement had a greater appeal in this region, for social, political and religious reasons? After all, at the time that the pope put his support behind the Crusade, the lands that are now Germany and northern Italy, but were at the time part of the Empire, were embroiled in a major civil war, and its inhabitants may have had other priorities. French dominance on the expedition would explain why many of the Muslim writers of the time perceived the Crusaders as ‘the Franks’, regardless of their actual point of origin. 

As with any mapping project, what we show is necessarily a simplification of complex data. Detailed negotiations through which people raised funds for the expedition, for instance, are reduced here to a single point on a map. What’s more, it wasn’t possible to geolocate a point of origin for everyone in the dataset. And even for those we could geolocate, it was often necessary to make an informed choice. We decided to give only a single point for each individual, but people in the late eleventh century, as today, didn’t always live in just one place all their lives. Women might move long distances for marriage, wealthy families often had several residences, and individuals travelled for greater opportunities. Sometimes the geographical information about participants is only approximate, which means that for lots of locations, we can only provide a ‘best guess’ of where someone came from.

Visualising the crusader dataset through a GIS map helps bring it to life at a glance, but it is, of course, only one way of using it. What other potential applications do these data have? Suggestions have been made that this dataset could be used in future to learn more about the specifics of recruitment methods for Crusaders, or different routes taken by the various military leaders. [3] This type of research has endless possibilities, and I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to contribute to the beginnings of it. 

Jay Pasricha. Thanks to the Department of History at the University of Sheffield for providing funding for this experimental project, to the editors of this blog for their comments, and to Alan Murray, Nic Morton and Jonathan Phillips for granting access to the dataset A Database of Crusaders to the Holy Land | 1095 - 1149.

[1] .S.C. Riley-Smith, Jonathan Phillips, Alan V. Murray, Guy Perry, Nicholas Morton, ‘A Database of Crusaders to the Holy Land | 1095-1149’, DHI,  

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thanks to Simon John, Mateusz Fafinski and @ODanaos for suggestions.