“Effeminate Greeks” in the Crusading Era

Editor’s note: The following essay is reprinted from The World of the Crusades: A Daily Life Encyclopedia by Andrew Holt. Copyright © 2019 by ABC-CLIO, LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, CA. (Ordering information provided below).


Effeminate Greeks

Antagonism between Greek- and Latin-speaking peoples can be traced back well before the Middle Ages, but historians have highlighted how the crusading era witnessed a significant deterioration in relations between the two, as best reflected in the often-hostile views between Eastern Byzantine Christians and Latin Christians from western Europe. While each side envisioned the other through stereotypes that were meant to diminish the other side culturally, one of the more curious charges made by Latin Christian authors against the Byzantines was that of the “effeminate Greek.”

Although relations between Eastern and Western Christians had deteriorated by the mid-eleventh century, resulting in a schism in 1054, things began to change in a significant way after the Turkish defeat of the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071. In the years that immediately followed, the Turks pushed into Asia Minor, conquering Christian lands, and the Byzantines actively sought aid from Western Christians. By 1074, Pope Gregory VII even called for up to 50,000 Western knights to go to the aid of Eastern Christians, whom he described quite sympathetically as suffering under Turkish rule. Although Gregory’s efforts never came to pass, due to his dealing with political conflicts at home, the Byzantines continued to lobby both secular and religious Western rulers for military aid, describing their plight in emotionally charged terms that emphasized Christian unity and were meant to win Western sympathy. Such efforts proved successful during the reign of Pope Urban II, who, once he settled into his role in Rome, turned his attention to the East. In calling for the First Crusade in 1095 at Clermont, Urban sympathetically emphasized the suffering of Eastern Christians, apparently to great effect, in his efforts to recruit Western knights. Once the crusaders arrived in the East, high-minded ideals of Christian brotherhood and unity quickly dissipated, as both sides viewed each other as representatives of alien and inferior cultures. Indeed, as soon as the earliest crusaders arrived in Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land, disdain and mistrust on both sides dominated their relations with each other and continued throughout the crusading era, reaching a high point with the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204.

In the case of the crusaders’ view of the Byzantines, scholar Marc Carrier argued that Western views of Byzantine men as being effeminate resulted from the seeming incompatibility of Byzantine norms with the values of knights. Knightly masculinity in the twelfth century was grounded in Germanic traditions that held that men should be brave and loyal and demonstrate feats of martial prowess. Such an understanding of honor was believed to be at odds with Byzantine norms of honor, which were influenced by Roman traditions that alternatively emphasized intellectual feats and hierarchical structures. Thus, the reduced Byzantine emphasis on martial valor was seen by Western knights as not being representative of true masculinity. Additionally, a long tradition, dating back to the Romans and continuing in the medieval Latin West of criticizing Greek customs and cultural norms provided a foundation on which the criticisms of Westerners in the twelfth century rested. This was particularly the case in an age during which Westerners came to view Byzantine diplomacy with suspicion and mistrust.

One of the earliest representative examples in crusade sources of reference to the Byzantines as effeminate comes from the Gesta Francorum at Aliorum Hierosolimitanorum (The Deeds of the Franks and the Other Pilgrims to Jerusalem). The anonymous author of the Gesta, believed to have been a knight who participated in the First Crusade, re-created a conversation between Christian envoys and the Muslim ruler Kerbogha. At one point, Kerbogha boasted to the envoys of having previously conquered the lands they were fighting over from “an effeminate people,” by which he was referring to the Byzantines. It is theoretically possible that the author of the Gesta, who was present in the crusaders’ camps, could have been given this story from a Christian envoy who attended the meeting, but it is more likely, due to the transcript-like level of detail, that much of the conversation was simply imagined in ways that aligned with the pre-existing values and views of the crusaders.

Byzantine court ceremony was a significant target of the crusaders’ attacks on Byzantine masculinity, as it involved the use of eunuchs and flamboyant colors in clothing and decorations, which, when combined with the Western view of Byzantines as excessively lazy and decadent led to significant criticism. Many crusaders witnessed eunuchs for the first time as they entered Constantinople, finding the phenomenon both fascinating and disturbing. The French cleric Fulcher of Chartres claimed that Constantinople had as many as 20,000 eunuchs, and the English chronicler Roger of Hoveden was appalled that the Byzantines deprived so many men of their masculinity. The cleric Guibert of Nogent claimed that the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I even ordered that each family in the empire should have one of their sons castrated, which Guibert condemned as making their bodies “weak and effeminate, no longer fit for military service.”

Most significantly, crusaders believed that the Byzantines lacked courage in war, preferring to hire mercenaries and avoiding hand-to-hand combat, and thus gave them no credit for centuries of (often successful) warfare, conducted on the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire. This was a view a number of authors of crusades sources shared, including Robert the Monk, Albert of Aachen, Peter Tudebode, and the author of the Gesta Francorum, among others. But such a view was not held only by the crusaders, as even the well-known twelfth-century Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, noted that the Byzantines hired mercenaries because they “are not warlike, but are as women who have no strength to fight.”

See also: Family and Gender: Knightly Masculinity; Masculinity and the Crusaders, Fashion and Appearance: Byzantine Uniforms; Climate and Clothing in the Holy Land; Food and Drink: Men as Providers of Food; Housing and Community: Byzantine Views of the Crusaders; Eastern Christian Groups; Latin Christians as Barbarians in Muslim Sources; Massacre of Latin Christians in Constantinople (1182); Politics and Warfare: Byzantine Empire, Impact of Crusading on; Byzantine Empire, Recruitment of Western Warriors; Criticism of Crusading; Latin Empire of Constantinople, Establishment of (1204); Recreation and Social Customs: Chastity; Eastern Christians, Life for in the Crusader States; Etiquette; Going Native; Social Interaction


Bennett, Matthew. “Virile Latins, Effeminate Greeks and Strong Women: Gender Definitions on Crusade.” In Gendering the Crusades, edited by Susan Edgington and Sarah Lambert, 16–30. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Carrier, Marc. “Perfidious and Effeminate Greeks: The Representation of Byzantine Ceremonial in the Western Chronicles of the Crusaders (1096–1204).” Annuario dell ’Instituto Bomeno di Cultura e Picerza Umanistica Venezia 4 (2002): 47–68.


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