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Title: The First Crusade: The Deeds of the Franks and other Jerusalemites

Author: Anonymous

Publisher: London: The Golden Cockerel Press, 1945

Call Number: D161.1 G42 1945

The story of the Crusades is one of conquest. Although participants saw themselves as pilgrims, the endeavor quickly became an enterprise of establishing a new kingdom (that of Jerusalem). Setting out on the journey of reading the Crusade chronicles is often like starting a bibliographic pilgrimage that will invariably become something else. These accounts can become a collection of narratives needing to be conquered. And that is just what one group of talented book makers did with one account of the First Crusade recorded by an anonymous participant: the Golden Cockerel Press took the chronicle and mastered it — completely.

Operating between 1920 and 1961, the Golden Cockerel Press was initially a privately owned press (and then later a publishing house) that specialized in producing fine press editions of works completely by hand. The press printed on handmade paper using hand-set type, and often illustrated the works using hand-engraved woodblocks. The Golden Cockerel Press was founded by Harold (Hal) Midgley Taylor (1893-1925) in 1920, but was set up as a cooperative with three other partners in addition to Taylor: Bee Blackburn, Pran Pyper, and Ethelwynne (Gay) Stewart McDowall. After Taylor was no longer able to supervise the press due to suffering from tuberculosis it was sold to Robert Gibbings in 1924. Gibbings published 71 titles at the press, with the size of a run normally between 250 and 750 copies. The press enjoyed a brief period of strong success before once again succumbing to faltering markets and in 1931 it was taken over by Christopher Sandford, Owen Rutter, and Francis J. Newbery. It was at this point that the press transitioned from a privately owned press to a publishing house. 120 works were published during the Sandford era. In 1959 Sandford, for whom the financial pressures of keeping the press going had become too much, sold the publishing business to Thomas Yoseloff, an American publisher and at the time director of University of Pennsylvania Press. Yoseloff completed the publication of two titles in 1960 that had been previously commissioned by Sandford, and then the following year published two more titles before continuation of the business proved impractical. By the end of 1961 Yoseloff ceased operations, as the resources and fine bookcraft skills necessary for production of Golden Cockerel titles became too difficult and costly to obtain.

The illustrations in some Golden Cockerel titles, although tame by modern standards, were considered risqué for the time and necessitated the press taking precautionary measures against possible prosecutions for obscenity or provocation, such as disguising the names of translators and illustrators. The woodblock engravings for The First Crusade: The Deeds of the Franks and other Jerusalemites were done by Clifford Webb (14 February 1895 – 29 July 1972), who was an English artist, illustrator, and author. He primarily illustrated books for children, which makes his engravings for The First Crusade that much more interesting by comparison. The scenes captured by Webb in this work are striking, both artistically and from a standpoint of subject matter.

The anonymous chronicle Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum, the translation of which appears in the Golden Cockerel work The First Crusade, was written by a participant of the events for which it is named. Who wrote this account and why would The Golden Cockerel Press want to publish it? Let’s take a little closer look at it, shall we?

Shortly after the conclusion of the First Crusade, in 1101 CE, Ekkehard (d. 1126), later abbot of Aura, went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and saw there what he described as “a little book,” in which an account of the three years preceding the taking of Jerusalem was given. Several other accounts refer to this “little book,” which was often described as rustic and written in an unpolished style. This account is accepted as the earliest chronicle of the First Crusade to be completed following the events of 1099, which included the capture of Jerusalem by the western Christians (i.e. pilgrims). It came to be known as the Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum (in translation, The Deeds of the Franks and the other Pilgrims to Jerusalem), and is now commonly referred to as the Gesta.

This chronicle is comprised of an account which begins with the Council of Clermont in November 1095 and ends with the Battle of Ascalon in August 1099. The account consists of ten books, of which the first nine are believed to have been written before the anonymous author left Antioch in November 1098 and the tenth at Jerusalem shortly after the Battle of Ascalon (certainly before the beginning of 1101). This work became an important source for other chronicles which followed. The Gesta also influenced, either in its original form or through those who used it as a resource in their own work, most of the chronicles written during the twelfth century. Its influence on the historical writings of the time has cemented it as an important source alongside even the more “polished” of its contemporary peers.

The anonymous author of the Gesta had little interest in autobiography and little is known about him beyond what can be discovered indirectly through the context of his account. Contextual evidence suggests that he was a vassal, most likely a mid-level knight, of Bohemond and that he came from southern Italy. This is made clear due to his description of the beginning of the Crusade and the position from which he participated in the battles up to June 1098. He identified a number of undistinguished men in Bohemond’s army while confusing the names and titles of important and powerful northern leaders.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of the author’s identity, however, is that throughout the first nine books he refers to Bohemond as “dominus” (in the feudal sense of “overlord”) and usually attached a laudatory epitaph such as “sapiens,” “prudens,” or “bellipotens” when describing him. This suggests that he either held Bohemond in the highest esteem or expected him to read, or at least hear of, the chronicle. The socio-political restraints of a vassal would have necessitated this treatment to the author’s lord. Additionally, the author fought in the ranks of Bohemond’s knights at the Battle of Dorylaeum and the Lake of Antioch, and he was one of the band of hand-picked men Bohemond took with him to enter Antioch by night in order to obtain control of the city through stealth. In reference to Pope Urban II’s journey to Clermont he described the destination as “across the mountains,” showing that he considered Italy to be his home. This evidence indicates that the author was a member of a Norman family that had followed Tancred de Hauteville into southern Italy in the eleventh century. Bohemond’s father was Robert Guiscard, who was one of Tancred’s sons. It seems likely that Bohemond’s immediate followers were of Norman descent despite many of them having been born in Italy.

It is also likely that the anonymous author of the Gesta was a layman as opposed to clergy, who usually authored chronicles. That he was a knight is obvious from the account. Less obvious is how he became educated enough to write the account, even with it being written in a simple, unadorned style. It was possible, although uncommon, for knights to be educated (milites literati), usually in cases where younger sons who had been trained for service in the church were recalled to a military career upon the death of an older brother so long as they had not progressed beyond minor orders. This may be the case for the anonymous author of the Gesta. While it is primarily a tale of heroic deeds, it does have the feeling of being written by a devout man familiar with passages in the Vulgate. When Bohemond decided to stay at and rule Antioch, the anonymous author chose to abandon his lord, possibly giving up the prospects of enfeoffment in the Principality of Antioch, to continue on to Jerusalem and fulfill his pilgrim’s vow. If true, this would lend credibility to the hypothesis of a devout layman who had become literate through church training.

The Gesta is comprised of a fascinating account of the events of the First Crusade, delightfully presented in this edition – an edition of the highest quality printing – done by the The Golden Cockerel press. Clifford Webb’s masterfully engraved illustrations put the reader right in the middle of the action. One can imagine a Golden Cockerel there, in the middle of it all, as the Crusaders stormed the walls of Jerusalem in July of 1099. If only Ekkehard had been so lucky as to have found such an edition rather than the “little book” he came across in Jerusalem in 1101.

~Contributed by Jon Bingham, Rare Books Curator