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Thursday, January 23, 2020

The House of Ibelin

First Hollywood and now Sharon Kay Penmen have both devoted a film and a novel to Balian d'Ibelin respectively. Yet, historically, Balian was only one, and by no means the most important, member of the House of Ibelin. In the weeks ahead, I will be reviewing the history of the Ibelins -- a topic to which I also devote a chapter in my forthcoming book "Beyond the Seas: The Story of the Crusader States."


Sons of the House of Ibelin held many noble titles over time: Lords of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel, Caymont, Beirut, Arsur, and Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, the last traditionally a royal domain and title of the heirs to the throne.  The daughters of Ibelin married into the royal families of Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus, and Armenia. Ibelins served as regents of Jerusalem and Cyprus on multiple occasions and they led revolts against what they viewed as over-reaching royal authority, most notably taking on the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II in 1229-1233.  They were respected as scholars. One translated Arab poetry into French, another (John of Jaffa) wrote a legal treatise that is not only a goldmine of information about the laws of the crusader kingdoms but is admired for the elegance of its style and the sophistication of its analysis.  The Ibelins also built magnificent palaces, whose mosaic courtyards, fountains, gardens, and polychrome marble excited admiration. 

The Ibelins exemplified the Latin East in many ways. They were rich, luxury-loving, patrons of the arts, yet they were also fighting men who could hold their own against Saracens, Mamlukes or their fellow knights. They were highly-educated and multi-lingual. Their whose diplomatic skills won the admiration of Saladin and Richard the Lionheart; their legal reasoning confounded the "Wonder of the World," Emperor Frederick II. 

During the 7th crusade led by St. Louis, the head of the Ibelin family attracted the amazement of the French Seneschal Jean de Joinville who wrote:

[Ibelin’s] galley came to shore painted all over above and below the water with armorial bearings, or a cross paté gules. He had full three hundred oarsmen in the galley, and each man had a shield bearing his arms, and with each shield was a pennon with his arms sewn in gold. (Joinville’s “Life of St. Louis,” Chapter 4: Landing in Egypt.)

A splashier display of wealth was hardly imaginable in the midst of battle and seems a  microcosm of the wealthy, luxury-loving yet militant crusader states. 
Yet the Ibelins also exemplified the crusader states in another way: the origins of the family are completely obscure, and the first Ibelin was almost certainly an adventurer, a man of knightly-rank but without land or title in whatever country he originated.


 Members of the House of Ibelin are the protagonists in six of my published novels and two novels yet to come.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, these books offer nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. The complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.



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Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Spark that Flared into Civil War


Emperor Frederick first vowed to liberate Jerusalem at his coronation as "King of the Romans" (Germans) in December 1212, yet when he finally arrived in the Near East the first thing he did was to alienate one of his most powerful vassals with a trick more worthy of a pirate king combined with a crude attempt at extortion.  His actions were so astonishing that not even his admirers attempt to justify them but prefer to simply ignore them altogether. It all started with a sinister banquet...


In July 1228, when Emperor Frederick finally arrived on his long-awaited crusade, his first port of call was Limassol in the Kingdom of Cyprus.  This King of Cyprus was at this time an eleven-year-old boy, Henry, not yet old enough to rule for himself. In accordance with the laws of Cyprus, the High Court of Jerusalem had recognized Henry's mother Alice as his regent, but because she chose not to exercise that office, the High Court had elected a "baillie" to act in her stead. In 1228 this was John d'Ibelin, the Lord of Beirut.

On his arrival in LImassol, Frederick sent a very pleasant letter to the Lord of Beirut, the text of which was recorded in contemporary accounts. This letter addressed Beirut as "my lord and honored uncle," and explained that "we desire to have the satisfaction of seeing you with the king and your children, all our dear and well-beloved cousins, that we may have the pleasure of embracing you and knowing you personally."(1) The Emperor closed the letter with "Your very affectionate nephew, Frederick Emperor."(2) (Beirut was an uncle of the Emperor's late Empress, Yolanda of Jerusalem.)

Despite the outward tone of the letter, Beirut's friends and council smelled a rat. Whether they had intelligence from other sources or simply mistrusted the Emperor generally, Beirut's council unanimously advised him not to attend upon the emperor. Beirut insisted on going, saying explicitly that he would rather be arrested or killed than have it said that he by his refusal to work with the emperor had ruined a chance of recovering Jerusalem. This underlines the fact that despite the emperor's words, Beirut knew that he was out of favor. He was not taken in by the emperors words of friendship, but rather determined to do all in his power to patch over their differences in order to increase the prospects of a successful crusade. Ibelin pointedly and consciously put the liberation of Jerusalem ahead of his personal security and status.

So Beirut took King Henry to Limassol, accompanied by the entire Cypriot army, both knights and sergeants, and also his three adult sons, Balian, Baldwin and Hugh. On arrival in Limassol, the Emperor welcomed them with the appearance of great joy, and they dutifully submitted to the Emperor's leadership, pledging their bodies and worldly goods in his service in the impending crusade. The Emperor further begged that they set aside the mourning they were wearing for Beirut's brother and predecessor Philip, and instead accept robes of scarlet from him. He also personally invited them to attend a great banquet he would hold for them the next day. Beirut, his sons and vassals readily agreed.

Yet, on the same night as the invitation, "the Emperor caused to enter secretly by night three thousand men-at-arms or more, sergeants, arbelesters, and sailors, so that nearly all the fighting men of his fleet were there; and they were disposed throughout the stables and rooms."(3)

On the next day, the guests came unarmed in the lavish robes the Emperor had given them and insisted that they wear. The Emperor sat at a high table flanked only by the Lord of Beirut and his brother-in-law the Lord of Caesarea. Furthermore, as a mark of "favor," Beirut's eldest sons were designated to serve the Emperor, "one with the cup , the other with the bowl, while the young lord of Caesarea and Sir Anceau de Brie should carve before him."(4)


When the last course was brought in, "armed men came out from those places where they had been posted and they took possession of the palace...some holding the hilts of swords and others daggers."(5) Only after his armed men had surrounded the unarmed Cypriots did the Emperor show his true colors. Now he turned to the Lord of Beirut and demanded that he 1) surrender the revenues he had stolen from Cyprus during his own and his deceased brother's terms as baillie of Cyprus, and 2) that he surrender his title and lordship of Beirut.

Beirut first tried to dismiss the claims as a "poor joke" and suggest the Emperor had been listening to evil gossip, but the Emperor insisted that he would have Beirut's lordship and allegedly ill-gotten gains or he would arrest him. Despite being unarmed and surrounded by the Emperor's troops, Beirut replied that he has received his lordship legally from his half-sister Queen Isabella and had made a full accounting for the revenues of Cyprus. Nevertheless, he asserted he would be happy to put his case before the respective High Courts. He would not surrender either lordship or revenue, however, without a judgement of the appropriate court. The Emperor grew more enraged, declaring: "I shall show you that your wit and subtlety and your words will avail naught against my force." (6)

Apologists for Frederich Hohenstaufen are quick to point out that the Lord of Beirut and his brother before him had been tenacious and used dubious legal tricks to remain in the position of "baillie" of Cyprus after their falling-out with Queen Alice. They suggest that Beirut very probably did have something to hide. Possibly.  Yet no one has ever been able to come up with even a shadow of an explanation of why he should not have been entitled to the Lordship of Beirut, a lordship he ,built up at great expense after it had been devastated by years of Saracen occupation and a violent re-capture by German crusaders.

Yet, even if Beirut was guilty of one of the "crimes" -- which is far from proven simply because historians think it possible -- that hardly justifies the Emperor's action. The Emperor, allegedly the protector of law and justice, baldly stated that he didn't give a damn about the law and courts; he declared bluntly that "might was right." He did not offer counter-arguments, nor agree to put the case before a court of law, but simply threatened the use of force like the most illiterate and rapacious robber baron. 

Undoubtedly, the Hohenstaufen's defenders would argue that as Emperor he could not subject himself to any court. But he didn't have to -- he only had to allow Beirut to defend himself before his peers in accordance with the laws of the kingdoms in which the crimes had allegedly been committed. By refusing to allow Beirut to defend himself in accordance with the laws of the kingdoms, the Emperor -- allegedly the source of all justice --- was denying justice to one of his most important, and up to this point completely loyal, vassals. 

Beirut refused to be intimidated by the Emperor's threats. He said he would accept the fate Christ decreed, but he would surrender nothing without due process and a judgement of the High Court. 


At this point the many lords of the Church present tried to mediate. The best they could negotiate, however, was that Beirut would surrender 20 hostages as surety that he would submit himself to the judgement of the respective High Courts. The Emperor demanded that Beirut's eldest sons be among the hostages. The Emperor noted to Beirut as he made the demand, "I well know that Balian is your very heart and that so long as I have him I shall have you."(7)

It is hardly surprising that an Emperor who felt he had the right to simply take away fiefs and demand bribes (for demanding the "repayment" of revenues that have not been stolen in the first place is extortion) at the point of a sword did not keep his word about "honoring" his hostages either. Although not even Emperor had accused the hostages of wrong-doing, Beirut's sons were "put in pillories, large and exceedingly cruel; there was a cross iron to which they were bound so that they were able to move neither their arms nor their legs, and at night the other men were put in irons with them."(8)

The actions of an "enlightened," "modern" and "tolerant" monarch? Not in my opinion!

1) Novare, Philip De. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Trans. John La Mont, Columbia University Press,1936, p. 74f.
2) Ibid. 
3) Ibid, pp. 76-77.
4) Ibid, p. 77.
5) Ibid. 
6) Ibid, p. 79
7) Ibid, p. 81
8) Ibid. 

The consequences of this fateful banquet are described in my current series starting with:

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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Crusader States or Colonies?


 Many people today believe that the crusader states were like early colonies -- alien foreign enclaves, ruled by segregationist elites for the benefit of Europe rather than the local residents. It's not surprising. That's what historians have been telling them for about 150 years. Yet modern scholarship -- particularly archaeology -- has exposed the fallacies in this image and interpretation. Below is a short summary and analysis of the "colonial" interpretation of the crusader states.

The “Colonialist” interpretation of the Crusader States first emerged in the early 19th century — when Colonialism was at its height. It originated in France, which at that time was expanding its sphere of influence in the Middle East. Specifically, in 1860 riots in Jerusalem highlighted the degree to which local Christians were oppressed under the Ottomans. “To the French it seemed that the age-old circumstances which 750 years earlier had led to the oppression of Oriental Christianity by the ‘Turks’, and were the cause of the Crusades, were now being re-enacted before their very eyes.” [1]


Soon French scholars were seeing other parallels as well. The French historian Emmanuel Guillaume Rey, who made multiple trips to the Holy Land and conducted archaeological studies of crusader sites, is credited with “creating the “French colonialist justification of the crusades.” [2] His successors praised what they viewed as a unique French talent for fair administration of local populations and the acclimatization of Western elites in an Oriental setting.



The French were not alone. The contemporary British historian Claude Condor also interpreted the crusader states as proto-Colonial entities in which the more developed Westerners brought enlightenment to the backward Middle East. Condor used this scheme to explain the decline of Palestine since the fall of the crusader states, and to advocate for new waves of settlement by industrious people capable of developing a modern infrastructure. Although Condor died in 1910, his theories clearly provided an additional justification for Zionist immigration.


Soon Arab nationalists were also conflating the crusader states with colonialism — but now with a new twist. The crusader states, after all, had been eradicated by the Mamluks. Thus the crusader states were failed colonies. For the first time in hundreds of years, Arab and Muslim interest in the crusades and crusader states developed, but only because these represented the perfect model and inspiration for the defeat of 20th Century colonial empires. Arab independence movements made generous use of role models from the crusades, particularly Salah al-Din, in order to stress the vulnerability of the West and inevitability of Muslim/Arab victory.

Statue of Saladin in modern Damascus
By the mid-20th century, Colonialism was out of favor in the West as well. In the post-Colonial era, Colonialism had become THE great evil. It was blamed for poverty, injustice, dictatorships, corruption and all other difficulties confronting former colonials states, particularly in Africa. Yet by now, the habit of viewing the crusader states as early or proto-colonial adventures had become so ingrained that no one bothered to question the model or seriously examine the assumption.


The apogee of this trend was reached in the late 20th century when the Israeli historian Joshua Prawer propagated an extreme position which drew parallels between the Franks in Outremer and white elites in South Africa. He did not shy from alleging that the Franks in Outremer engaged in what he called “apartheid.” Frankish society in the Holy Land was depicted as a decadent urban elite, collecting rents from oppressed native farmers. Allegedly, the Franks were afraid to venture into the hostile environment of the countryside, not only because of an “ever-present” Saracen threat but also because they were hated by their own tenants and subjects.




Prawer’s thesis, however, has been almost completely discredited by more recent research, particularly meticulous studies and archaeological surveys conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This research revealed that Frankish rural settlement was much more widespread than had been previously assumed ― without evidence. The Franks, the survey proved, built large numbers of smaller towns and villages, often without walls or fortifications of any kind ― a clear indication that they did not feel threatened as historians hypothesized.


In contrast to the assumptions of earlier historians, the backbone of the Frankish army was composed of rural knights, who drew their income from agriculture not urban “money fiefs.” The knights of Outremer, far from being the decadent pro-Colonial, city-dwellers of legend, were countrymen and farmers, just as they were in Western Europe. Equally significant, the Frankish settlers did not displace the local inhabitants, expelling them from their land and houses. They did not deprive them of either their land or their status. On the contrary, the documentary evidence proves that the Franks were punctilious in recording and respecting the rights of the Syrian inhabitants. Rather than displacing the locals, they built villages and towns in previously unsettled areas or, more commonly, built beside existing towns. Far from exploiting the natives as in 19th and 20th-century colonialism, the Franks co-existed in harmony with the native population.


And who were these settlers? Based on nearly complete records for a sampling of settlements it is possible to show that these settlers came from widely separated areas in the West. For example, in the town of Mahomeria 150 Frankish households were identified with heads-of-household originating in Burgundy, Poitiers, Lombardy, the Ile de France, Bourges, Provence, Gascony, Catalonia, the Auvergne, Tournai, Venice and eight other towns no longer clearly identifiable but apparently in France or Italy. The largest number of families coming from any one place was four.


This helps explain why, as Fulcher of Chartres claimed in his History, the settlers rapidly lost their ties to their “old country” and identified with their new residence. (“We who were Occidentals have now become Orientals. He who was a Roman or a Frank has in this land been made into a Galilean or Palestinian.” Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, Book II.)


It also explains why the settlement of the crusader states cannot legitimately be conflated with colonialism. Colonies are established by a powerful entity (kingdom, state, city) in a distant, foreign environment for the purpose of enriching the metropolitan center. French colonies were exploited for the benefit of France; British colonies were maintained to make England richer, etc. Settlers and administrators in the colonies came from the “home country,” continued to identify with it, and enforced policies that benefited not the local region/community/population but the distant metropolis.



The crusader states, in contrast, had no “metropolis;” the leaders of the crusades came all across Europe. Nor did settlers come predominantly from a single region. More important, however, the crusader states were independent political entities, represented by independent rulers. Not until the mid-13th century, did absentee Western rulers attempt to impose their will upon the crusader states by sending administrators out to the crumbling kingdom of Jerusalem. Yet even then, they made these claims as Kings of Jerusalem, not as kings of some Western nation.


Significantly, taxes did not flow out of the crusader states into the coffers of distant European kingdoms. No one in the crusader states paid a “stamp tax” or any other duty to a European ruler. The taxes on goods passing through the crusader kingdoms, import and export duties, anchorage, salvage and all the various forms of taxation by which governments gain the revenues necessary to maintain borders, order and justice accrued to NO “Colonial Power” — but to crusader states themselves.



Indeed, for the most part, the fabled wealth of Outremer remained in Outremer, enriching the local population and elites — with the possible exception of the trading fortunes made by the Italian maritime cities. Nor were the crusader states viewed by Europeans as “under-developed” or “backward,” as 19th and 20th century colonies were viewed. On the contrary, for nearly two hundred years, crusaders and pilgrims from the West were awed by and envied the superior standards of living enjoyed by the residents of the crusader states.


In short, while the debate continues and some historians cling to the old notion of the crusader states as “colonies,” the case for this paradigm is weak and largely obsolete. Indeed, using the term “colonies” and attempts to find — or refute — parallels undermines objective research. Rather than looking for artificial similarities, we would do better to focus on fundamental research and original analysis.


[1] Ellenblum, Ronnie, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 44.

[2] Ellenblum, 44.

The war against Emperor Frederick II was very much about local elites resisting the attempt of a European monarch to turn them into a kind of "colony" governed by alien laws (the laws of the Holy Roman Empire or Sicily). Read more in my novels set in this important conflict:


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