Norwegian Crusaders and the Balearic Islands

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IN 1108 OR 1109, A NORWEGIAN FLEET on its way to the Holy Land attacked the Balearic islands, which had then been in Muslim hands for roughly two centuries. This island chain, today a part of Spain, is situated near the center of the western basin of the Mediterranean Sea. It includes the islands of Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza, and Formentera. These islands are now, of course, a popular tourist destination. In the Middle Ages, the Balearics had a different allure. They held the key to strategic control of the sea lanes in the western Mediterranean, the age-old route des iles, which allowed safe and swift passage for medieval ships--provided the islands were in friendly hands.(1) During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Balearic islands achieved enormous prestige and wealth as an emporium and staging post.(2) Much less is known about the significance of the Balearic islands prior to the definitive Catalan conquest in 1229, although the islands had already become an international entrepot under Muslim rule by the 1180s. At the time of the Norwegian raids, however, the more common Christian perception of the Balearic islands was that of a pirate haven and slaving center.

The seemingly obscure Norwegian raids on the Balearics have a twofold significance. First, they comprise a significant part of one of the most celebrated chapters in the history of Scandinavian crusading: the expedition of King Sigudor Jorsalafari. (Whether this expedition was a crusade or a pilgrimage is a topic of some debate to which I will return below.) The history of Scandinavian crusading, though, is greatly in need of updating. Paul Riant wrote the only comprehensive treatment in 1865, long before the gigantic leaps forward crusade scholars have achieved in the last decades.(3) Another nineteenth-century scholar, the eminent Arabist Reinhart Dozy, described the Norse raids on the Balearic islands as part of a larger history of Islamic Spain.(4) Dozy had a fairly limited knowledge of the sources, and he did not deal with any further consequences of the attacks. Yet subsequent historians of Spain and the Balearic islands trace their knowledge of the raids almost exclusively to him.(5) One of my purposes is, therefore, to present an updated, more critical description of the raids in their broader context.

Second, the raids are related to the rise to preeminence of Christian maritime powers in the western Mediterranean--a field of inquiry ultimately linked to later European expansion via the Atlantic.(6) The Norse raids have the distinction of predating all other recorded attacks on the Muslim Balearic islands by a Christian force.(7) Unrecorded attacks by Christians had surely occurred previously, but most were probably small operations and were well outside the pail of "Holy War," piracy being the main form of conflict in the region. In contrast, the Norse were participating under royal leadership in a large acpedition that appears to have been religiously motivated, at least in part. Consequently, my second purpose is to investigate what connection, if any, the Norse attacks may have had to later Christian attempts to conquer the islands. The evidence indicates that later crusaders knew about the Norwegian expedition and may have found inspiration for their own assaults in its dazzling success.


The history of Sigudor's expedition depends heavily on the Konungasogur, or Kings' Sagas. Agrip af Noregskonunga sogum, which could have been composed as early as 1190, iS the earliest surviving account in Old Norse of the expedition to the Holy Land. Although it supplies a few important details, its treatment is brief and says nothing about the Balearics.(8) A Latin text written in Norway, probably in the 1180s, the Historia de antiquitate regum Norvagiensium by Theodoricus Monachus, also reports Siguror's journey to the east. The author of Agrip obviously made use of Theodoricus' Historia for parts of his work; but with regard to Siguror's exploits, the two sources show true independence. …