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Chansons de geste and the Chronicles of the First Crusade: Chronicles and Source Analysis

Updated on May 7, 2019

Part 1:

Bibliographical Essay

Part 2:
Historiography of the Middle Ages
Religious and Ecclesiastical Goals of the First Crusade

Part 3:
Referenced Texts
Source Analysis

Part 4:
The Central Crusade Trilogy and the Chanson d'Antioche
Textual Analysis

Part 5:
Full Bibliography


The Chanson d'Antioche is a 9000 line Old French narrative poem divided into approximately 375 laisses, or stanzas. The first fourteen of these laisses make up the general prologue. The authorship of the chanson will not be argued in this paper.29 Although the author, or compiler, of the Antioche explains that the song is of the purest truth and holiness, there is neither proof nor assertion that they were an eyewitness. In a sense, the Antioche is doing exactly as Conor Kostick describes of the French chroniclers, such as Robert the Monk, who "read the Gesta Francorum and rewrote it to suit their purpose. In doing so they provide us with good evidence of how the contemporary northern French clergy judged the actions of the crusaders."30 One instance does offer a sort of apology for this lack of veritable authorship, in the third laisse of the text: "You have heard this recounted in another song, but not in rhyme like the version we have...the author who turned it into rhyme did not dare put his name to it."31 Despite these claims, our nameless poet wastes no opportunity to interject his own voice. He addresses the audience continuously, beginning laisses with words indicative of a narrator, not a writer or chronicler.

The Chanson d'Antioche is the only song of its kind seeking to establish itself firmly in a known past but making no efforts to prove its historicity. Because the poem reached its complete and popular form during the mid-13th century, roughly the time of Louis IX's Seventh Crusade, there would have been no eyewitnesses to the First Crusade still alive. The King's Crusade of Philippe II Augustus was likely still fresh in French memory as well, and it was the following Fourth Crusade which provided motivation for the chanson's popularity.32 Further, the popularity of the chanson de geste poetic form suggests a culture still utilizing oral tradition but also one which was transitioning into a written tradition.33 Although the Antioche may well have been in the works for years, any possibility of first-hand knowledge would have come from a crusade much later than the First, which is the subject of the chanson.

This poem comes from a long-standing tradition of chanson de geste and epic literature and melds together history and literature, and in this way becomes fundamentally a medieval text. As Geert Claassens writes, there is something of a struggle with the 'truth' experienced by many writers and poets: "the modern distinction we make between fiction and non-fiction is irrelevant for medieval literature, and secondly that vernacular texts should not be judged differently in their relationship to historical truth than Latin ones." The historical factuality is not necessarily the primary concern when reading vernacular texts.34

Aachen Cathedral or Achener Dom, also known as the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. Its construction began in the 8th century under Emperor Charlemagne and was consecrated in 805 CE.
Aachen Cathedral or Achener Dom, also known as the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. Its construction began in the 8th century under Emperor Charlemagne and was consecrated in 805 CE.

The Historia Ierosolimitana was written by a writer of the church named Albert of Aachen. What is known of Albert is that he was born no later than 1080 CE and that the earliest possible date for the completion of his Historia is 1119 CE.35 Albert was fascinated by the Crusade, and often was "fired with longing for that same expedition," but was unable to go.36 Albert notes that though he was not a participant of the First Crusade, his work was based on other first-hand accounts. He was also not present at the Council of Clermont- something to be noted with interest. Even still, his account is useful, as he "spoke to returned crusaders and because his history was not based on a reading of the Gesta Francorum."37 This is supported by Edgington, who states that while we cannot know Albert's native language, either French or German, he must have held some fluency in a range of vernacular languages in order to gather his information.38

Albert is as unbiased as a medieval writer could possibly be, and his text is unique from many other Latin chronicles in that there is a lack of 'Frenchness' in his narrative. However, he does minimize the importance of the pope in favor of highlighting Godfrey of Bouillon, who had been a supporter of the German emperor Henry IV against the papacy.39 Albert frequently makes use of the phrases 'army' or 'people' "of the living God" throughout his chronicle.40

One of Albert's main concerns when writing the Historia was the unfortunate practice of pitting Christians against Christians. This concern is linked to an interesting theme of unity and disunity during the Crusades. He spends a good amount of time writing about a relatively obscure incident regarding the Hungarians,

Our lords and princes wonder why, since you are of the Christian faith, you have destroyed the army of the living God with such a cruel martyrdom...Because of this they are now shaken by fear and doubt, and they have decided to delay at Tulln until they learn from the mouth of the king why so cruel a deed was perpetrated by Christians persecuting Christians.41

Albert's high expectations of Christian unity would prove then, as well as in later Crusades, as nothing more than an unrealistic dream, a fact which will be looked at more closely later in this paper.

The Abbey of Saint-Remi located in Reims, France. It was originally founded as a chapel in the 6th century dedicated to St Christopher. Reconstruction began in 1005 CE. It is identified with Robert the Monk, or Robert of Reims.
The Abbey of Saint-Remi located in Reims, France. It was originally founded as a chapel in the 6th century dedicated to St Christopher. Reconstruction began in 1005 CE. It is identified with Robert the Monk, or Robert of Reims.

Robert the Monk, who wrote the Historia Iherosolimitana, was not an eyewitness to the First Crusade, but rather was asked by his bishop to write an ecclesiastical history. The existing chronicles were, at the time, considered to be lacking. The accepted date for completion of this work is 1106-07 CE. For chroniclers such as Robert, who may have been present at the Council of Clermont, the sermon of Pope Urban II is most important, indeed one of the most important aspects of the Crusade. Robert wrote his Historia specifically in response to the need for more theological material. Robert interjects lines often directly from scripture to support his own accusations or opinions, or when it serves his narrative.42 Robert's account is colorful and exaggerated, to the point of being overly grandiose.

Robert the Monk was one of the first to appeal to a particular local audience, mainly northern France, and far removed from the author of the Gesta Francorum who stated that "the Franks were intolerably proud."43 Robert's depictions of personas in his Historia are reflections of his personal views of morality and might. The monk's account may well have been written in order to generate propaganda for a new crusade. This chronicler, who was most likely a monk at Saint-Remi in Reims, France, would have been in the perfect position to write such propaganda: "there is a certain logic in commissioning a work about the husband of a French princess in the city intimately linked with the French court,"44 writes Carol Sweetenham in her introduction to his work. Philip I of France's daughter, Constance, was the wife of Bohemond, one of the leaders of the First Crusade and considered a hero of the Siege of Antioch. Robert's work also highlights the achievements and roles the Franks, and specifically the French, have in the crusade. "The First Crusade is thus justified, glorified, and presented as a platform for future action."45

Literary Chronicles

Literature is often overlooked in the field of history due to its fictitious nature and the often fantastical elements which permeate it. Additionally, literature can be written for many diverse reasons, encompassing anything from satire to critique, from propaganda to simple entertainment. Despite this, literature can provide a valuable insight to the thoughts and actions of a society or culture in a different manner than historical documents can. It acts as a reflection of those thoughts and actions.

The goal of this essay is to use the Chanson d'Antioche to evaluate how perceptions of the First Crusade had changed between 1095-1099 CE, and the events of later crusades during which time the poem reached its completed written form. In order to achieve this goal, I will be comparing three specific features of the poem to the chronicles which helped shape it. The beginning of the crusade is crucial, yet the Antioche muddles the events. To support this statement, an analysis of Peter the Hermit and the Battle of Civitot will be provided in detail. Secondly, the Byzantine Empire played a significant role during the First and subsequent Crusades. In the poem, the Emperor Alexius and the Byzantine general Taticius are shown differently than in the chronicles. Finally, the bulk of the poem centers around events at the Siege of Antioch. As already discussed, the city of Antioch was a focal point to the Crusaders and the crusade itself, so the last analysis will be focused in particular on the beginning of the siege.

I will also address possible reasons for these shifts within the text by using contemporary events of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to support this analysis. Certain literary aspects will be taken into consideration in order to understand the differences between chanson and chronicle. No attempts will be made at establishing the authorship nor historicity of events within the chanson.

SOURCE ANALYSIS: Robert the Monk

Robert the Monk stated quite plainly it is fitting for the end goal of the Crusade, if a specific place must be named, to be Jerusalem. He, like many, was enamored by the Holy City, so much so that he devoted a rather long chapter in the beginning of his Historia solely to its praise, and the speech of Pope Urban.46 A few versions of the pope's sermon at Clermont have survived, including the account given in the Historia. He used the anonymous eye-witness account Gesta Francorum for his own ecclesiastical chronicles. While Robert's chronicle may be brief, it is a colorful (or exaggerated) account.47 Despite this, he rarely if ever referred to himself in this account in the attempt to at least appear objective throughout the narrative.

Robert was often trapped within the borders of literary design as we see first in Book III, Chapter III, where he begins to insert hexameter lines borrowed from the poet Gilo of Paris, who wrote a Latin verse poem of the First Crusade. Robert writes:

Wooden towers faced stone towers. Now the enemy is attacked at close quarters with lances and swords:

And now stakes, torches and stones are hurled into the city:
The enemy is terrified, now fearing death
The noise of battle and shouting rang through the city.48

In addition to this, Robert's text includes several lines of hexameter not found in Gilo of Paris' poem, concluding that he was borrowing elsewhere at this point.49 Either way, the text he borrowed from was also poetic in nature, unless Robert himself chose to write the hexameter. Another aspect of Robert's Historia which draws on a literary aspect is that he changes the order of events from the Gesta Francorum, particularly to "improve narrative flow."50

Robert often crosses that literary line in regards to the heroes and villains of the crusade and he is not very subtle in his use of religious metaphors. He slips lines and phrases directly from scripture, even when he is denoting speech. Such is the case in Bohemond's speech to the Franks in Book II: " 'Let us not glory in our arms or our strength but in God who is more powerful than all, because the battle is the Lord's and he is the governor among the nations.' "51 In this instance, the likelihood of Bohemond himself quoting directly from scripture is minimal, and Robert follows this example continuously, interjecting lines where he deems necessary and appearing to support either his personal opinion or simply where it seems important. Robert's account ends abruptly after the fall of Antioch. He spends most of his writing on events prior to and at the city of Antioch, but from Antioch to Jerusalem he spends little time and offers little detail.

Peter the Hermit held an important role in the First Crusade. Robert the Monk stated simply that Peter was a "famous hermit" who undertook the journey by way of Hungary before joining with Duke Godfrey of Bouillon,52 but otherwise almost avoids mentioning Peter at every possible moment. Robert's vague mention of Peter at the castle at Civitot53 is the likely source used by the Antioche poet in order to embellish Peter's role in the massacre there, despite Robert mentioning the Council and events at Constantinople prior to Civitot. After this, Peter is mentioned at the Siege of Antioch: "In fact Peter the Hermit and William the Carpenter fled, escaping by night, and left the sacred company of God's faithful."54 Desertion was a problem during the crusades and obviously frowned upon, and Peter is not mentioned again until he is listed as an ambassador alongside Herluin, sent to the Parthians to tell them to prepare for battle.55

In regards to the Byzantine Empire, and by extent all who are not 'Latins,' Robert is not so much concerned with Christian unity as he is with French unity. He frequently lumps most of the Crusaders within the same group of 'French princes' and 'French nobles.'56 His notion of 'us and them' is almost entirely ethnic or geographic. The Greeks (described as treacherous and effeminate) were not the Latins (nor among the other original crusaders), and so they are not shed in the same glorified light as the crusaders are, and the Turks receive even less appealing epithets. In particular, Robert favors the word 'infidel' though he also compares them frequently to dogs,57 a common occurrence in many other chronicles and texts. In regards to the idea of Christian unity, although Robert writes almost as much glorifying the city of Constantinople as he does int he beginning with Jerusalem, his parting words are, "thus it should be equal to Rome in the dignity of what it protects...except that Rome is elevated by the presence of the Pope and is thus head and chief of all Christendom."58

Concerning Alexius and Taticius in particular, there is little to say. In fact, Robert mentions Alexius' name seemingly as an afterthought,59 and Taticius is mentioned only once: "There was a certain soldier in the army called Taticius, rich and well known amongst his own people and a figure of note in Byzantium."60 He seems to be mentioned only to support Robert's accusations of cowardice and trickery which stem from the Greek empire, as Taticius tricks the crusaders into believing he will go and seek supplies. He also promised reinforcements, and neither of which, according to Robert, ever arrived.

As he does with Jerusalem and Constantinople, both important and powerful cities, Robert writes about the city of Antioch itself. He is concise but powerful in evoking a sense of triumph and wonder at the Battle of Iron Bridge:

Now, so that God might show mortal eyes that no strength or power comes except through him, he wanted to regain it...Our men rushed on them [the Turks] as one without delay and spared none, putting a large number of them to the sword; others fled in confusion, preserving their earthly lives.61

Then, on Wednesday 21 October, the Siege of Antioch began. What is described by Robert is a series of unfortunate events, including bad weather, lack of food, and desertion. After a brief exchange with the Prince of Babylon, a temporary truce was set up until it was broken by the death of a soldier.

The next several chapters of the Historia are devoted to the betrayal of Antioch and the one who betrayed it, named Pirrus. Robert describes him as a "prince of Antioch" and "Turkish emir."62 Robert fully endorses such an act and even goes so far as to honor the Turk, relatively speaking, with indirect praises of his character. Robert spends a great deal of time speaking about Pirrus in his Historia, in particular writing a conversation between himself and the crusaders' chaplain. Perhaps this was Robert's own way of rectifying this strange and impossible occurrence, that Pirrus, so enamored was he by the Christian faith and Creator that he would betray his own people to prove himself worthy of the army of God.

Even through the death of his brothers, Pirrus' promise to Bohemond was absolute, and Robert reminds his readers of this fact: "Take note, all you faithful, of how Pirrus kept faith; bear it in mind so that if ever you promise on oat for your faith you keep your promise with no excuses."63 It is one of the few times Robert addresses his readers directly.

SOURCE ANALYSIS: Albert of Aachen

Albert's account provides a more detailed description of the events of the First Crusade, and it is the longest chronicle of the crusade. As Edgington writes, it is three times as long as Fulcher of Chartres, six times as long as Raymond of Aguilers, and ten times as long as the Gesta Francorum, roughly.64 Albert uses very clear language in describing these events, and provides his readers with a fairly unbiased viewpoint of the various people within the narrative. For example, where Robert the Monk may have exaggerated Godfrey of Bouillon's abilities and courageousness, Albert simply commends it. His general fairness when addressing all the players in the Historia is vastly different from Robert. "Albert distinguishes between Turks and Saracens throughout his narrative, in contrast with other and later Western writers, who use 'Saraceni' indiscriminately to refer to Muslims."65

Like Robert, however, Albert is often trapped within the borders of classical literature. He uses a lot of ideas from Aeneid to help with his construction. One such example is pointed out in the notes of his Historia: "et ceteros Turcos bello lacescentes."66 Robert's and Albert's uses of scripture are also different. Albert is much more subtle in his use of religious metaphors, rarely interjecting lines directly from scripture. Instead he chooses to liken certain aspects and episodes to Biblical references, as when he describes the fighting between Tancred and Baldwin: "When he heard this Tancred groaned in spirit..."67 Albert uses these sorts of small references in order to invoke a particular feeling from his reader without explicitly reminding them of scripture.

Albert tells us that Peter was "the first to urge steadfastness in this journey,"68 and is described as "insignificant in stature but great in speech and heart."69 Peter's journey through Hungary towards Constantinople is mentioned extensively by Albert, and we also see part of Albert's concern of Christian unity as opposed to Robert: "Hearing this, because the Hungarians and Bulgars were fellow Christians, Peter refused altogether to believe them capable of so great a crime."70 Peter is also described as humble when meeting the Emperor Alexius, and listened to the advice of the emperor who told him not to journey to Nicaea until the crusaders' numbers were greater. Peter's men, however, grew restless and began plundering the lands around Nicaea:

Seeing that the affair succeeded well for the French and the Romans and that they returned so many times with their booty without any hindrance, the Germans were themselves fired with greed for pillage...they followed a footpath through those same mountains and arrived at a certain castle belonging to Suleyman [Soliman]...They attacked this castle with all strength of arms and a warlike noise.71

Albert states Peter had returned to Constantinople before these skirmishes at Soliman's fortress would have taken place. In addition, Civitot was named by Albert as a port city linked to Constantinople through trade, but not the site of the skirmishes themselves. When the news reached the rest of the men who were not at the battle, Walter Sansavoir "forbade them utterly to go in vengeance of their brothers until...Peter was present in person, whose advice they would take about all things."72

Two others that make an important appearance are the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus and the Byzantine general Taticius. In regards to the Emperor Alexius in Albert's Historia, Edgington writes, "not only does he [Albert] refrain from negative qualifications, he frequently values him very positively...contrasted with that in the anonymous Gesta Francorum."73 Alexius and his empire were a Christian empire and Albert's notion of 'us and them' comes entirely from religious roots, rather than racial and ethnic separations. As one of Albert's driving motives, unity among Christians offers a good explanation as to why he alone was so lenient in his depictions of the emperor. Later, when Albert discusses the Siege of Antioch, the "Christian emperor of the Greeks had arrived at the city of Philomelium with a great company of he had promised faithfully."74 Even among the impartiality of Albert's descriptions, however, he still rarely mentions Alexius by name.

Taticius is first mentioned early in Albert's narrative as a man "with a cut-off nose who was a servant of the emperor of Constantinople and privy to his secrets."75 On Taticius, Albert terms him "terror-stricken" and unfaithful.76 He had promised to help the crusaders, and in leaving to seek this promised help, never returned to Antioch during the siege.

Albert's descriptions of the city of Antioch are highly detailed. He is enamored by such things as the colors of standards, an aspect of narrative attuned with chansons, such as in this passage:

When everyone had been positioned by the bishop and other shrewd men, they set out of one accord on the royal road to the very walls of dreadful Antioch, splendid with their shields of gold colour, green, red, and every shade, and with their banners...picked out in gold and visibly royal purple.77

It is interesting that these aspects of the Crusade were so fascinating to Albert, but he describes them with such clarity that it almost seems as if he were tehre. Albert focuses less on the glories of battle between good an evil and more on the actual mechanics and military aspects of siege warfare. Narration and dialogue are missing entirely from this portion of Albert's account.

Lastly, in regards to Pirrus and the betrayal of Antioch, there is only one mention of what otherwise is an important character during this important event. Pirrus is described by Albert simply as "the traitor" or "the Turk"78 with no great detail or time wasted upon such an indecent person.


29 For more extensive research on the author or compiler of the Chanson d'Antioche, as well as its literary/textual history and creation, see Susan B. Edgington and Carol Sweetenham, The Chanson d'Antioche: An Old French Account of the First Crusade, ch. 1-3; Robert F. Cook, "Chanson d'Antioche," Chanson de geste: Le cycle de la croisade est-il epique? (Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., 1980).

30 Conor Kostick, "Courage and Cowardice," 35.

31 Edgington and Sweetenham, Antioche, 103.

32 Edgington and Sweetenham, Antioche, 22-23.

33 Emanuel Mickel, "Writing the Record: The Old French Crusade Cycle" (paper presented at the Proceedings of the Colloquium of the Société Rencesvals British Branch held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, March 27-28, 2004), 40.

34 Claassens, "On Dealing with Fact and Fiction," 31.

35 Susan Edgington, introduction to Historia Ierosolimitana, by Albert of Aachen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), xxiv-xxv.

36 Albert of Aachen, Historia Ierosolimitana, trans. Susan Edgington (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 3.

37 Conor Kostick, "Courage and Cowardice," 35.

38 Edgington, introduction, xxiv.

39 Edgington, introduction, xxviii.

40 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 115.

41 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 63.

42 Robert the Monk, Historia, 80, 97.

43Gesta Francorum et Aliorum Hierosolimitanorum, edited by Rosalind Hill, (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962), 3.

44 Carol Sweetenham, introduction to Robert the Monk's Historia Iherosolimitana (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005), 6.

45 Sweetenham, introduction, 6.

46 Robert the Monk, Historia, 81-82.

47 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 85. Chapter XVI of Albert relates Godfrey's physical appearance; compare to Book I, Chapter V of Robert the Monk's Historia which vividly describes his character.

48 Sweetenham, Historia, 104.

49 Robert the Monk, Historia, 205.

50 Sweetenham, Historia, 163.

51 Sweetenham, Historia, 98.

52 Robert the Monk, Historia, 83-84.

53 Robert the Monk, Historia, 86.

54 Robert the Monk, Historia, 127.

55 Robert the Monk, Historia, 165.

56 Robert the Monk, Historia, 103.

57 Robert the Monk, Historia, 130.

58 Robert the Monk, Historia, 102.

59 Robert the Monk, Historia, 85.

60 Robert the Monk, Historia, 128.

61 Robert the Monk, Historia, 120.

62 Robert the Monk, Historia, 141. Compare Albert of Aachen, Historia, 273-281.

63 Robert the Monk, Historia, 147.

64 Edgington, introduction, xxi.

65 Edgington, Historia, 178-79.

66 Albert, Historia, 38. Edgington compares this line to Aeneid XI: "supplicium Teucros conata lacessere bello!"

67 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 163. Compare John 11:33.

68 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 3.

69 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 29.

70 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 15.

71 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 33.

72 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 37.

73 Edgington, introduction, xxxiii.

74 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 311.

75 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 95.

76 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 311-13.

77 Albert of Aachen, Historia, 199.

78 Robert the Monk, Historia, 141. Compare Albert of Aachen, Historia, 273-281.

Albert of Aachen, Historia,


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