A Franco-Genoese crusade, sometimes known as the “Barbary Crusade,” that attacked the port of Mahdia (mod. al- Mahdiya, Tunisia) in North Africa, but was abandoned after a siege of some nine weeks. The crusade originated as a Christian response to the piratical activities of the Barbary corsairs of the North African coast. For many years Muslim piracy had constituted a major disruption to Western shipping, particularly the commerce of the Italian maritime republics. In late 1389 Genoa sent an embassy to meet King Charles VI of France at Toulouse, which proposed a joint expedition to capture Mahdia, regarded as the major port of the Hafsid realm of Tunisia. The Genoese were already interested in this region; in 1388 they had sent a fleet under the admiral Raphael Adorno to take part in a joint expedition with the Pisans and Sicilians, which had captured the island of Jerba in 1388. The Sicilians acquired the lordship of the island after paying for Genoa’s expenses. The republic thus had an interest not only in eliminating Mahdia as a pirate base, but also in acquiring a port that would serve as an entrepôt for its own trade goods and give it access to African products, above all gold from the sub-Saharan regions. Genoa was also keen to intensify relations with the French Crown in order to secure an ally against its powerful northern neighbor, the duchy of Milan.
At the Toulouse meeting, the Genoese ambassadors proposed to provide naval transport and provisions for a crusade army, to be led by a French prince of the royal blood. They also offered to contribute and pay for a force of crossbowmen and men-at-arms for the duration of the proposed campaign. The Genoese plans were received enthusiastically by some at the French court, notably by Louis II, duke of Bourbon, the king’s uncle, who asked for command of the crusade. Although initially hesitant about the proposal, King Charles and his advisers eventually agreed to allow a French force to join the expedition, and gave the command to Louis. However, each French participant had to have express royal permission to join it and also had to defray his own expenses. Genoa agreed to provide twenty-eight galleys and eighteen transport ships and their crews. It is possible that other ships were hired by some of the crusaders themselves. The fleet was commanded by the Genoese Giovanni Centurione, who had taken part in the conquest of Jerba, while Louis of Bourbon was to act as overall military commander. The mustering point for the army was originally fixed for late June 1390 at Genoa, but the difficulties of provisioning meant that this was changed to 1 July at Marseilles.
Louis of Bourbon, a veteran of the Hundred Years’ War, had a great reputation as a knight, and the proposed expedition, coming as it did during a period of truce with England, appealed to the chivalric sensibilities of the French nobility and found recruits from all over France. Among those who signed up were Philip of Artois, constable of France, John de Vienne, admiral of France, and notable knights such as Enguerrand VII, lord of Coucy, and Geoffrey de Charny the Younger, whose father had been a famous crusader and author of a treatise on chivalry. Recognition for the expedition as a crusade was secured, not only from the Avignonese pope recognized in France, Clement VII, but also from his rival at Rome, Boniface VIII. This universal recognition helped secure some participation from England, Gascony, and Spain, including John Beaufort, earl of Derby.
The main sources for the course of the crusade are French works: the Chronique du bon duc Loys de Bourbon, written in 1429 by Jean Cabaret d’Orville, the Chroniques of Jean Froissart, and the chronicle by the anonymous writer known as the Religieux de Saint-Denis.
The total number of crusaders is difficult to compute, as the sources give only partial or conflicting figures. The Genoese provided 1,000 crossbowmen and double the number of men-at-arms in addition to the ships’ crews. King Charles VI had tried to limit the number of French crusaders, but the response had been so enthusiastic that we should probably assume that French numbers exceeded the Genoese. Some 200 crusaders, mostly French, are known by name.
The fleet sailed from Marseilles via Genoa and Corsica to Sardinia, where it took on provisions, and then on to an island off the African coast then known as Conigliera (probably Kuriat on the Gulf of Hammamet). During a nine-day layover there caused by bad weather, the plan of campaign was worked out. As Mahdia was too strong to be taken by an immediate assault, it would be necessary to besiege the town. The Muslims of Mahdia were by now aware of the coming of the expedition but were not expecting it to be so strong, and decided not to contest the landing. On 22 July the crusaders disembarked unopposed and started the siege; they cut Mahdia off from the rest of the mainland, with the land forces watching the town’s three land gates while the fleet maintained a blockade of the harbor. On the third day of the siege the defenders made a sortie, which was beaten back by the crusaders, suffering considerable losses. Thereafter the crusaders took greater precautions to guard and defend their camp. Numerous, largely inconclusive skirmishes occurred over the next few weeks, which offered the Christian knights ample opportunities to satisfy their desire for combat and honor. It was only after about seven weeks that the crusaders began to make serious attempts to assault the walls with siege machines assembled on land and mounted on galleys. Yet by this time they were suffering the effects of the North African summer climate, increasing illness, and the shortage of water and food supplies, much of which had gone bad, while relief forces were being gathered by the sultans of Tunis, Bougie (Bejaïa), and Tlemcen. The Genoese began to argue for raising the siege and gradually won over the bulk of opinion in the crusader camp.
Negotiations were opened after contacts were made through Christian merchants within Mahdia. Although Louis of Bourbon was disinclined to abandon the siege, the Genoese had by now clearly given up hope of taking Mahdia and were unwilling to waste further resources on the project. After four days of talks, the crusaders agreed to withdraw; in exchange the Hafsid sultan Ahmad II agreed to pay the Genoese a cash indemnity of 10,000 ducats, plus an annual tribute to the value of the sultan’s revenues from Mahdia for the next fifteen years.
At the end of September 1390, the crusaders withdrew in good order, with military dispositions taken by Louis of Bourbon preventing a Muslim attack as their embarkation was carried out. Some of the crusaders wished only to return home, but others were keen to secure some more tangible success. The Genoese persuaded the French to mount an attack on Sardinia, then a possession of the Crown of Aragon, by convincing them that the port of Cagliari had assisted the North African corsairs. The fleet occupied Cagliari and the island of Ogliastra, installing Genoese garrisons in both places. The fleet then set sail for Naples, but storms forced the ships to assemble off Sicily. They then sailed on to Terracina on the Italian mainland, which also surrendered and was placed under Genoese control. The French crusaders, however, drew the line at an attack on the Pisan port of Piombino, although the mere presence of such a large seaborne army forced the Pisans into an accommodation with Genoa. The fleet then returned via Genoa (where Louis of Bourbon and other leaders refused to leave their ships) to Marseilles.
The French crusaders were welcomed back as heroes. Despite the lack of success of the expedition, they were regarded as having acquitted themselves valiantly and with honor. The expedition revived French enthusiasm for crusading and undoubtedly contributed to the huge response to the Nikopolis Crusade in 1396. Indeed, many of the veterans of Mahdia are known to have fought at Nikopolis. The limited objective of the Mahdia Crusade was by no means unrealistic. The port had been taken by the Christians twice before in 1087 and 1148; Spanish conquests in Morocco and the recent capture of Jerba had demonstrated that it was possible to hold well-chosen bases in North Africa. In comparison with the fiasco of Nikopolis, the French forces seem to have been relatively well-disciplined, and the successful landing and disembarkation of the army are tributes to Louis of Bourbon’s generalship. Yet whether the Franco- Genoese forces would have been sufficient to hold the mainland port of Mahdia if they been successful is debatable; the majority of the French crusaders would have desired to return home, and would have needed to be replaced by a permanent and substantial garrison. In the event, the crusaders of 1390 wasted valuable time and provisions in many weeks of desultory combat while their enemies regrouped; the assaults with siege engines came too late to be effective, and it is questionable whether there was sufficient siege machinery for the task. Genoa was able to make good use of the expedition for its own political and commercial ends, but the gains of the expedition did nothing to advance the aims of the crusade movement.
Atiya, Aziz S., The Crusade in the Later Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1938).
Delaville Le Roulx, Joseph, La France en Orient au XIVe siècle. Expéditions du maréchal Boucicaut, 2 vols. (Paris: Thorin, 1886).
Hazard, Harry W., “Moslem North Africa, 1049–1394,” in A History of the Crusades, ed. Kenneth M. Setton et al., 2d ed., 6 vols. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969–1989), 3:457–485.
Mirot, Léon, “Une expédition française en Tunisie au XIVe siècle: Le siège de Mahdia (1390),” Revue des etudes historiques 97 (1931), 357–406.