Professor Thomas Madden on the First Crusade, Jerusalem, and the “Rivers of Blood”

In his entertaining 2012 essay for Revista Chilena de Estudios Medievales, St. Louis University Professor Thomas Madden, perhaps the leading U.S. historian of the crusades, considers the widely repeated claim that the crusaders waded in blood up to their ankles or knees during their violent conquest of Jerusalem in 1099.


Madden first considers how widespread this claim is, even citing its use in a speech by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, before subjecting it to careful analysis. He describes his reasons for pursuing the issue carefully, noting, to his his surprise, that even other crusade historians have embraced the claim. He writes:

“”In November 2008, Jay Rubenstein of the University of Tennessee gave a lecture for the Crusades Studies Forum at Saint Louis University. The title of the lecture was “The First Crusade and the End of the World”. In the questions that followed Rubenstein spoke of the crusaders in 1099 wading through the blood of their victims. I quickly pointed out that those reports were, of course, not meant to be taken literally. To my surprise, Rubenstein responded that he believed that they should be. He related his own experience witnessing a murder victim on a street in New York City and expressed his astonishment at the amount of blood that just one human body really contains. Since I have not witnessed a murder victim, I yielded the point. But the exchange has led me to take up the question of the massacre of 1099 and look more closely at common assumptions both in the general public and among crusade specialists…

Then Madden made an interesting point.

“Surprisingly, with all of this discussion of rivers, streams, or pools of blood, no one has ever attempted to discern whether such things are within the realm of physical possibility. Although we are dealing with an episode of bloody horror, we are also dealing with basic measurements that can be evaluated…”

Madden begins to do just that…calculate exactly how much blood, and thereby people killed, would need to be spilled to have crusaders wading in human blood on the Temple Mount that reached their ankles, if not their knees. He walks the reader through a number of calculations concerning how much blood each of the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 victims of the massacre could have expended during the massacre as well as the amount of blood needed to cover the Temple Mount in blood four inches high (“up to their ankles”). I invite readers of this blog to consider Madden’s calculation and method for themselves (see a link to the full text of Madden’s article below).

As a result of these efforts, Madden provides the following conclusion.

“Temple Mount is a largely open area measuring 144,000 square meters. It would require the blood of almost three million people to fill it to ankle-depth. And, although Jerusalem’s streets are narrow, it would still likely require at least an additional one million to fill those. These are fantastical numbers, clearly impossible. Modern descriptions of crusaders wading through streets of blood turn a historical massacre into little more than a cartoon. The blood that was spilled in the massacre of Jerusalem was real; the rivers of it that course down the pages of modern newspapers and popular books are not.”

It seems to me that Madden has definitively shown that the claims of the sources, repeated seemingly endlessly by modern commentators, are physically impossible and more likely simply the product of literary imagination. Unfortunately, I doubt his fine efforts will have much of an impact on popular accounts of the massacre, but I encourage readers of this blog to read his essay for themselves, in its entirety.

See “Rivers of Blood: An Analysis of One Aspect of the Crusader Conquest of Jerusalem,” Revista Chilena de Estudios Medievales 1 (2012): 25-37.
[Available online]