Friday, December 26, 2014

The Forgotten Order - The Knights of St. Lazarus

The most famous of the “fighting orders” or militant orders were of course the Knights Templar, and the Knights Hospitaller (Knights of St. John), two orders founded in the Holy Land and, for their age, truly international in character. Although not powerful and largely forgotten, there was a third military order also founded in the Holy Land, the Order of St. Lazarus.

The Order of St. Lazarus evolved from a leper hospital that had existed in Jerusalem prior to the First Crusade. After the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, it became part of the Hospitaller network of hospitals, but by 1142 the Order of St. Lazarus broke away, and by 1147 it was known as the Leper Brothers of Jerusalem. The Leper Pool and the foundations of the leper hospital run by the Knights of St. Lazarus have been located just beyond the norther wall of Jerusalem.

Critical to understanding the Knights of St. Lazarus is the fact that leprosy was far more common in the East than in Western Europe and the influence of Greek Orthodox ideology on the territories of the crusader states. By the end of the 10th century, the Byzantine clergy had come to see leprosy as a "holy disease" -- its victims were not seen as particularly vile sinner but rather as men and women marked by God's favor. A number of Greek Orthodox legends entailed Christ appearing as a leper. Caring for lepers was therefore seen as an act of great charity that would gain a person credit in heaven.

It is probably not surprising, therefore, that the Order of St. Lazarus grew rapidly in the mid-12th century, eventually having houses in Tiberias, Ascalon, Acre, Caesarea, Beirut, and possibly other cities as well. More surprising, however, is the fact that it began to have military brethren.  

It appears that initially, the role of these armed monks was primarily the defense of the leper hospitals. Some of these military men were undoubtedly former Templars and Hospitallers who had contracted leprosy, because we know that both the Templar and Hospitaller Rules required members with leprosy to join the Order of St. Lazarus. However, secular knights of the crusader kingdoms who contracted the desease were also expected to join the Knights of St. Lazarus. 

Knights already afflicted with disease would have been facing a steady deterioration of their fighting capabilities, however, and it appears that just as some healthy monks and nuns devoted themselves to the care of the sick in the habit of the Knights of St. Lazarus, some healthy fighting men likewise chose to join the Knights of St. Lazarus rather than the more powerful (and arrogant) military orders of the Templars and Hospitallers. This supposition is supported by the fact that there are recorded incidents of the Order of St. Lazarus taking part in military operations – possibly at the Battle of Hattin, and certainly at the Battle of Gaza in 1244, at Ramla in 1253, and during the defense of Acre in 1291.


Meanwhile, in 1265 Pope Clement IV issued a papal bull that commanded all the prelates of the church to assist in transferring the care of all lepers -- male and female -- to leprosariums run by the Knights of St. Lazarus. Pope Clement had taken a strong interest in the care of lepers before he became pope, and had written a set of regulations for leprosariums while still Bishop of Le Puy that included such remarkable features as the right of lepers to elect their own superiors from among their members. As pope, however, he seems to have been most concerned with ensuring that lepers remained segretrated from the rest of society by putting them under the control of the Knights of St. Lazarus. 

Thus after the fall of Acre, the Order of St. Lazarus moved its headquarters to Cyprus, abandoned all military activities, and thereafter concentrated on its mission of providing comfort and care for the victims of leprosy until the mid-14th century. Of all the so-called militant orders, arguably this was the "most Christian."


The Knights of St. Lazarus play a minor role in my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:



 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                         Buy now!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Richard the Lionheart in Literature - Two Reviews

A Soldier’s Assessment
Richard the Lionheart: The Mighty Crusader
By David Miller

Product Details 

This book is a military man’s assessment of the military capabilities of Richard I of England. It does not attempt to analyze his capabilities as a politician or monarch, much less a son or husband, as the excellent forward by Major General Julian Thompson warns. As such it delivers very well indeed.

Miller first provides the context of Richard’s campaign in the Holy Land, then a chronological account of it, and finally looks at his achievements by topic (combined operations, logistics, command).  Perhaps because I was familiar with the events, I found the analysis in the last three chapters most useful. 


While not a biography in the sense of providing the life story of its subject nor in-depth insight into what made Richard Plantagenet do what he did, it is a very useful supplement to other biographies. I highly recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in the period, or military history generally.  It is particularly valuable because it highlights just how sophisticated and complex the crusades were and debunks notions that all medieval armies were little more than rabble and egotistical knights errant. After reading this book, my respect for military leadership in the middle ages increased significantly, and I look forward to applying many of the things I learned to my novel on Balian d’Ibelin.


Lionheart
By Sharon Kay Penman

Product Details

Penman is a first-class historical novelist whose novels are always based on meticulous research. She excels at biographical novels, as her debut novel The Sunne in Splendour, a brilliant, nuanced and plausible portrayal of Richard III, demonstrated.

In “Lionheart” she tackles a character less controversial than the last Plantagenet, but one who has become lost behind the legend or the “brand.” Almost everyone, as Penman points out in her “Author’s Note,” has heard of Richard the Lionhearted, but almost no one knows anything about him. We simply think we do.

Penman succeeds in making Richard a complex, multi-dimensional character, with strengths and weaknesses. She convincingly lays to rest some of the more destructive legends – Richards’ homosexuality, his “heartless” brutality at Acre, his overweening pride, and his alleged lack of intelligence or subtlety. By the end of the novel, I sincerely liked Richard, sympathized with him, and understood his behavior better than at the start.

Yet in a way that was the problem: I only started to understand and like Richard towards the end of the novel. It took me so long to see Richard, because Penman clutters the book with seemingly hundreds of superfluous characters that detract from him.  The book is bogged down by plot splinters, too small and inconsequential to be called fragments. All these superfluous characters and sub-plots clog the flow of the narrative.  Richard’s historical accomplishments in the short time-span of the novel were stupendous, and we ought to be sitting on the edge of our seats, unable to put down the book until we’ve finished reading it. Instead, it took me nearly nine months to read, and it was only in the last hundred of the nearly six-hundred pages that I was finally gripped by the novel.

While I understand Penman’s desire to give credit and space to some of Richard’s contemporaries and companions-in-arms (and his enemies!), I found myself irritated by sub-plots with completely fictional characters. For example, why open the story with a dramatic shipwreck seen through the eyes of a frightened girl, if that girl is not going to play any role in the novel? She’s hardly even mentioned in the last nine tenths of the book and is not a historical figure. Yet other characters, like Henry of Champagne, are simply names without personality until the final chapters.  Penman should have given this important characters more prominence early in the book, so we could understand and care about them later on.

Altogether the book read like a rough draft, the first out-pouring of creative energy by an author still strongly influenced by recent research.  Penman appears to have tried to fit in everything single historical fact that she discovered so that in the end she has got her history right at the expense of a clear story-line and momentum. At the same time, Penman apparently wanted to retain characters from earlier novels to provide continuity, while adding some new ones at the beginning that she really didn’t need. “Lionheart” would have benefited from a rigorous re-write, focused on eliminating the superfluous, fleshing out the central characters, and creating a leaner, faster-paced book.  Penman can do better than this, and Richard deserves better.


Richard the Lionheart is a major character in the third book of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:


Book I: Knight of Jerusalem was released in September 2014.


A landless knight,
                     a leper king,
                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem.
'


Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Victor of Montgisard - The Leper King

Last week, I described the dramatic Christian victory at Montgisard. I'd now like to take a closer look at the the life and reign of the man who won the battle: Baldwin IV of Jerusalem.


Baldwin IV as depicted in Ridley Scott's film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Baldwin was born in 1161, the second child of Amalric of Jerusalem and Amalric's first wife, Agnes de Courtney. At the time of his birth, his father was the younger brother and heir apparent to the childless King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. 

Just two years latter, Baldwin III died and Amalric ascended the throne -- but only on the condition that he set aside Agnes de Courtney. Agnes was duly disposed of, but Amalric's children of his marriage, two-year-old Baldwin and his year-older sister Sibylla, were explicitly recognized as legitimate. They remained at court with their father. In 1167, Amalric remarried, this time to the Byzantine Princess Maria Comnena.

At about this same time, Baldwin was diagnosed with leprosy by his tutor William, later Archbishop of Tyre. According to Tyre, the leprosy first manifested itself as a lack of feeling in Baldwin’s right hand. However, initially, Baldwin retained the use of his other limbs and did not suffer from noticable disfigurement. His illness was kept quiet.

In 1174, Baldwin's father died unexpectedly of dysentery on his way back from a campaign against Nur ad-Din, the Sultan of Damascus. Baldwin was elected King by the High Court of Jerusalem despite the fact that other crown vassals afflicted with leprosy were required to join the Knights of St. Lazarus.  Being still a minor (13) at the time of his father's death, the Kingdom was placed in the care of a regent, Raymond of Tripoli, himself a descendent of Baldwin II and one of the most powerful barons in the crusader states. Notably, at this time Baldwin could still move and above all ride without apparent impediment.

In the summer of 1176, Baldwin turned 15 and so attained his majority. He took the reins of government for himself and signalled this by calling his mother back to court and placing his maternal uncle, Joscelyn of Edessa, into the powerful position of Seneschal of Jerusalem. Tripoi appears to have been sidelined, but not in anyway humiliated.


Baldwin IV in "Kingdom of Jerusalem"

Given his illness, however, and the certainty that he would not sire a successor, the most pressing business of the Kingdom was the marriage of Baldwin's heir, his older sister Sibylla.  In fact, Tripoli had already arranged a marriage for her with William de Montferrat, a man from a powerful north Italian family. Unfortunately, William died in the summer of 1177, leaving Sibylla pregnant at 17. 

Meanwhile, the enemies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were getting stronger. The Kurdish general Salah-ad-Din had first murdered the Vizier in Cairo and then, on the death of the Fatimid Caliph, declared Egypt Sunni. The death of the Sultan of Damascus in 1174 opened the way for Salah-ad-Din to seize control of Damascus as well, with Nur-ad-Din's legal heir fleeing to Aleppo. Although Salah-ad-Din would need almost ten more years to consolidate his position and eliminate all his rivals, he had effectively united Shiia Egypt and Sunni Syria under his rule by 1177 -- and to bolster his own legitimacy he declared jihad against the Christian states in the Holy Land. 

Baldwin IV sought to counter the rise of Salah-ad-Din by following his father's policy of alliance with the Byzantine Empire and attacking Cairo. He hoped to capitalize on disaffection among Salah-ad-Din's Shiia, Arab subjects and their resentment of a Kurdish, Sunni usurper. Unfortunately, the Count of Flanders, who had arrived from the West with a large contingent of knights, thought he should be made King of Egypt if he helped conquer it, and the coalition fell apart. The Byzantine fleet withdrew and Flanders went off to campaign against Syria, taking many of the barons and knights of Jerusalem with him. 

Salah-ad-Din had assembled his forces to meet the expected invasion and recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was practically defenseless before him. He invaded, sacking and plundering as he advanced north, leaving well defended positions like the Templar castle at Gaza untouched until he came to Ascalon. Ascalon had been in Egyptian hands until 1153 and was considered a key strategic position for the defense of Egypt -- or the attack on Jerusalem. Saladin prepared to besiege the city.

As described in my previous entry, in a dramatic move Baldwin IV rode to the rescue of Ascalon with just 367 knight, reaching the city shortly before the Sultan's army enveloped it. But now Baldwin was trapped inside and Jerusalem was practically defenseless, so Salah-ad-Din decided to strike for the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. Salah-ad-Din had such overwhelming superiority of force and so little respect for a leper youth of 16 that he allowed his troops to continue plundering along the way rather than concentrating on his goal.

He had miscalculated. Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon, called up the feudal levies and fell on Salah-ad-Din from the rear, winning a stunning and complete victory at Montgisard on November 25, 1177. (See my entry from that date.) 


A modern depiction of the Battle of Montgisard (copyright Talento)

But the consequences for Baldwin personally were also devastating. Based on the historical descriptions of Baldwin’s initial illness, which state he had lost the feeling in his arm but that there were no other symptoms such as discoloration or ulcers, modern experts in the disease believe that Baldwin IV initially had primary polyneuritic tuberculoid leprosy, which deteriorated into lepromatous leprosy during puberty. There was, according to Piers D. Mitchell ("An Evaluation of the Leprosy of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in the Context of the Medieval World," in Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000), nothing inevitable about this deterioration.  However, puberty itself can induce the deterioration as can untended wounds (that go unnoticed due to loss of feeling) which cause ulcers to break out. 

When Baldwin led his daring campaign against Salah-ad-Din that led to the surprise victory at Montgisard he was in puberty, just 16 years old. It is probable that it was in part because of this campaign — which required camping out in the field and going without the usual bathing of his feet and hands — that caused Baldwin's leprosy to take a turn for the worse. According to Mitchell, children who develop lepromatous leprosy are likely to die prematurely, and so once Baldwin’s leprosy had become lepromatous it inevitably took its course through the gruesome stages of increasing incapacitation to a an early death.

But Baldwin wasn't dead yet. In 1180, he allowed his sister Sibylla to marry a young adventurer from the West, Guy de Lusignan. According to one contemporary chronicler, Sibylla was seduced by Guy (and she would not have been the first princess in Outremer to be seduced by a young adventurer!), and Baldwin first threatened to hang Guy for "debauching" an princess, but then gave in to his sister and mother's pleadings to let his sister marry "the man she loved." Other sources suggest that Baldwin feared the Count of Tripoli was planning to depose him by arranging a marriage between Sibylla and Baldwin d'Ibelin, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Whatever the reason, with Sibylla's marriage to Guy the succession appeared secure again.


A Royal Marriage

The succession might have been secure, but the Kingdom was not. Salah-ad-Din had invaded a second time in 1179 and Baldwin had been unhorsed in the engagement, an indication of his deteriorating condition. When Salah-ad-Din invaded a third time in 1182, Baldwin could no longer ride and commanded his army from a litter -- but still fought the Saracens to a stand-still, forcing them to withdraw. The following year, however, he was seized with fever and believing he was on his death-bed made his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan regent. Thus when Salah-ad-Din invaded a fourth time in 1183, it was Guy de Lusignan who led the Christian armies to face him.

The results were not good. While the Saracens eventually withdrew, they had managed to do considerable damage and the barons of Jerusalem returned in a rebellious mood. The news that the key castle of Kerak was under siege (with both Princess of Jerusalem, the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen all trapped inside for a wedding) should have triggered the immediate dispatch of a major relief force. Instead, the High Court (allegedly unanimously) refused to follow Guy de Lusignan anywhere. He was dismissed as regent, and Baldwin IV had to drag is disintegrating body halfway across the kingdom at the head of his army. The mere approach of the Leper King, however, was enough to convince Salah-ad-Din to withdraw. 


The Castle of Kerak, now in Jordan

By now Baldwin IV knew he did not have much time left to him. He had his nephew, Sibylla's son by her first husband William de Montferrat crowned as a co-monarch, and asked his bishops to find a way to dissolve Sibylla's marriage to Guy in the hope that another husband, more congenial to his barons, could be found for her. In the latter he failed, and hence when he died just short of his 24th birthday in the spring of 1185, he was succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, and -- at the latter's death a year latter -- by Guy de Lusignan.

Baldwin IV ruled for less than ten years and throughout his reign he was handicapped by a progressively debilitating and disfiguring disease. Yet he retained the loyalty of his subjects to the very end and on no less than five occasions prevented Salah-ad-Din's vastly superior forces from over-running his fragile kingdom. For that he should be revered and respected.

Baldwin IV plays a major role in the first two volumes of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:


 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                   Buy now (paperback)
                                                                                                                or Kindle!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Crushing Defeat over Saladin - The Battle of Montgisard

In in 1177, Salah-ad-Din (known in the West as Saladin) launched a full-scale invasion of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It was less than ten years since Saladin had assassinated his way to power in the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, and ruthlessly suppressed numerous rebellions to establish Sunni rule over the Shia and Coptic Christian population on the Nile. It was only three years since the coup d’etat in Damascus by which he had established himself in the heart of Syria but failed to take key cities such as Aleppo and Mosul that remained loyal to the son and legal successor of Nur ad Din. Saladin had thus largely united the Caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad for the first time in 200 years, but his hold on power was precarious. In Egypt his faced suspicion and opposition because he was Sunni, and in Syria he was viewed as a usurper and upstart because he was a Kurd and had stolen the Sultanate from the rightful heir.

A Contemporary Depiction of Salah-ad-Din from an Islamic Manuscript

Saladin countered these internal doubts and dissatisfaction with his rule with the age-old device of focusing attention on an external enemy: the Christian states established by the crusaders along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. These states represented not merely a military threat to his lines of communication between Egypt and Syria, but had also five times in the 1160s invaded Egypt. These were not all outright wars of aggression, as the Shia Viziers had requested Christian help against their Sunni enemies in three of the campaigns, but the fact remained that army of Jerusalem, often aided by Byzantine fleets, had conducted campaigns on Egyptian territory and once come close to capturing Cairo.

Saladin did not simply beat the drum of alarm concerning an external enemy in order to rally his subjects around him; he took up the cry of “jihad” — Holy War. This was a clear attempt to increase his stature vis-a-vis his remaining rivals in Syria. Salah-ad-Din means “righteousness of the faith,” and Salah-ad-Din throughout his career used campaigns against the Christian states as a means of rallying support.

Another depiction of Saladin; Source Unknown

Saladin had not invented jihad. The word itself appears multiple times in the Koran, but with varying meanings. It was also used as justification for the Muslim conquests of the 7th Century.  It had, however, been largely forgotten or neglected until Nur ad-Din, the Seljuk ruler of Syria from 1146-1174, resurrected the concept. Most historians agree, however, that Nur ad-Din used jihad when it suited him but remained a fundamentally secular ruler. He had, however, unleased the jinni from the bottle and the concept of “Holy War” soon gained increasing support in the madrassas and mosques across the Seljuk territories of the Near East. By the time Saladin came to power there was a body of already radicalized youth eager to follow the call to jihad.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, King Amalaric, who had been so intent on conquering parts if not all of Egypt, had died.  He had been succeeded by Baldwin IV, a youth suffering from leprosy. Conscious of his own weakness and immanent death, Baldwin IV sent to the West for aid, and in early August 1177, Count Philip of Flanders reached Acre with a large force of Western knights.

On the advice of the High Court, Baldwin IV offered Philip of Flanders the regency of his kingdom, whose armies were preparing yet another invasion of Egypt aided by a large Byzantine fleet. Flanders, however, insisted on being made king of any territories the joint Christian forces conquered. The idea did not sit well with either the King of Jerusalem or the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, both of whom were footing the bill and providing the bulk of the troops for the expedition. The result was that the entire expedition was called off, the Byzantine fleet withdrew while Philip of Flanders took his knights and half the barons of Jerusalem north to attack the Seljuk strongholds of Hama and Harim instead.

A Medieval depiction of a Crusading Host

Saladin had gathered his forces in Egypt to repel the impending attack. He rapidly learned that not only had the invasion of Egypt been called off, the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn and the bulk of the fighting forces of Jerusalem had moved north. It was a splendid opportunity to strike, and Saladin seized the opportunity with a force estimated at 26,000 light horse — which leaves open the question of whether there were infantry with Saladin or not. The force also allegedly included some 1,000 mamluks of the Sultan’s personal body guard.

According to an anonymous Christian chronicler from northern Syria, the news of Saladin’s invasion plunged Jerusalem into despair. The king was just 16 years old, had no battle experience of his own, and his most experienced commanders (or many of them) were besieging Hama. The Constable of the Kingdom, the competent and wise Humphrey de Toron II, was gravely ill. But Baldwin rallied the forces he had — according to Archbishop William of Tyre, Baldwin’s former tutor now his chancellor and our best contemporary source , and with just 376 knights made a dash to Ascalon.

Arriving there only shortly before Saladin himself on November 22, King Baldwin took control of the city, but could not risk open battle because of the imbalance of forces.  His dash to Ascalon may have been heroic, but as a result Saladin could bottle up the King and his knights inside Ascalon. This in turn meant that nothing lay between Saladin and Jerusalem except scattered garrisons. Saladin left a force of undefined size to maintain the siege of Ascalon and moved off with the bulk of his troops.

The Sultan and his emirs were so confident of victory that they took time to plunder the rich cities of the coastal plain, notably Ramla and Lydda, but also as far inland as Hebron. In Jerusalem, the terrified population sought refuge in the Citadel of David.

The Citadel of David as it appears today.

But Baldwin IV was not yet defeated. With the number of Saracen troops surrounding Ascalon dramatically reduced, he risked a sortie, rendezvoused with Templars from Gaza (although to this day no one knows how he got the message to them) and started to pursue Saladin’s now dispersed and no longer disciplined army. Meanwhile, he had already issued the arrière ban, a general call to arms that obligated every Christian to rally to the royal standard in defense of the realm. Infantry started streaming to join him.

On the afternoon of November 25, King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne).  The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon, “the Ibelin brothers” or the Templars smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream.

A modern portrayal of the Battle of Montgisard by Mariusz Kozik

Although the battle was hard fought and there were Christian casualties, the Sultan’s forces were soon routed.  Not only that, Saladin himself came very close to being killed or captured and allegedly escaped on the back of a pack-camel. But for the bulk of his army there was no escape. Those who were not slaughtered immediately on the field, found themselves scattered and virtually defenseless in enemy territory. Although they abandoned the plunder they had accumulated, it was still a long way home — and the rains had set in.  Cold, wet, slowed down by the mud, no longer benefiting from the strength of numbers, they were easy prey for the Christian residents and settlers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The latter, after the sack of Lydda, Ramla and other lesser places, had good reason to crave revenge. Furthermore, even after escaping Christian territory, the Sultan’s troops still found no refuge because once in the desert the Bedouins took advantage of the situation to enslave as many men as they could catch in order to enrich themselves. Very few of the Sultan’s men made it home to safety in Egypt.


Saladin was badly shaken by this defeat. He had good reason to believe it would discredit him and initially feared it would trigger revolts against his rule. Later, he convinced himself that God had spared him for a purpose, and he was to learn from his defeat. He never again allowed himself to be duped by his own over-confidence and his subsequent campaigns against the crusader states were marked by greater caution. However, it was not until the crushing defeat of the Christian armies at Hattin in July 1187 — almost ten years later — that he had his revenge.

The Battle of Montgisard is an important episode in Knight of Jerusalem, the first book in a three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.


A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.





 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem
Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                     Buy now!

Friday, November 21, 2014

"God’s Battalions" by Rodney Stark - A Review



This well-researched book with its profuse bibliography and copious notes is not a history of the crusades. Nor is it, as some reviewers suggest, an apology for the crusades. Rather this is an extended essay which refutes a number of common myths or outdated theories about the crusades and the crusader states. Stark is not a polemicist, but a professor at Baylor University, who has published extensively on religion and sociology.  In short, he is a scholar intent on paring away legend and prejudice to enable academic and popular discourse shaped by fact not fiction. Any serious scholar of the crusades and the crusader states should start with this book — and then get on with their actual research unencumbered with false notions.  Even more important, this ought to be required reading in all classes that touch on the topic of the crusades.

Stark systematically dissects and destroys the following notions about the crusades that still dominate public perceptions and debate.
  • The idea that the crusaders were aggressors, who fell upon peace-loving and tolerant Muslim states without provocation.
  • The equally anachronistic idea that the crusades were an early form of European colonialism.
  • The claim that Jerusalem was particularly “holy” to Muslims in the period before the Crusades.
  • The thesis that crusaders were primarily motivated by greed.
  • The portrayal of crusaders as uncultivated barbarians fighting a “higher” civilization in the Muslim east.
  • The assertion that the Christians conducted warfare in ways that were more brutal and cruel than their enemies.
  • The myth that the Muslim rulers were more tolerant of other religions — and their own heretics — than Christian rulers.
  • The thesis that Western/Latin crusaders fell upon Constantinople without provocation and “destroyed” the city without cause.
  • The notion that bitterness over the crusades persisted (despite the Muslim’s complete and utter victory over the Crusader States in the second half of the 13th century) to the present day.
A Medieval Depiction of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin
Stark starts by cataloguing the long list of Muslim conquests against Christian states and peoples from Syria and North Africa to Armenia, Spain and Southern France, but he also provides a chilling list of mass murders of Christian monks and pilgrims — each with dates and numbers: 70 Christian pilgrims executed in Caesura for refusing to convert to Islam and 60 crucified in Jerusalem in the early eighth century, the sack and slaughter of the monastery near Bethlehem in the later eighth century, the destruction of two nearby churches gradually escalating to multiple attacks on churches, convents and monasteries in and around Jerusalem including mass rapes in 808 and 813, a new wave of atrocities in 923, the destruction of an estimated 30,000 (yes, thirty-thousand) Christian churches including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1009. So much for Muslim “tolerance.”


The Church of the Holy Sepulcher as we see it today is largely a crusader construction because the earlier Byzantine churches were destroyed.
Stark also brings considerable evidence that the alleged “superiority” of Muslim/Arab culture was largely based on accomplishments of Persian, Jewish, Indian and, indeed, Christian scholars living under Muslim rule.  Thus the alleged mathematical superiority of the Arabs came from the Hindus, the great libraries and legacy of learning came from the Greeks, Arab medicine was, Stark argues, “Nestorian Christian” in origin and so on. He then contends that the Christian west was anything but “backward” and the so-called “Dark Ages” is a misnomer that says more about the ignorance of historians than the state of civilization in the period between the fall of Rome and the First Crusade.  Stark points out that the military technology of the crusaders — from stirrups, horseshoes and crossbows to the devastatingly effective “Greek Fire” — was markedly superior to the military technology of their opponents. But it wasn’t just in military matters that the crusaders were ahead of the Saracens. In the fields of agriculture, land-transportation and nautical technology, Western technology also significantly out-stripped that of the Middle East. 

Stark is perhaps at his best in documenting the many times that Muslim victors slaughtered the garrisons and inhabitants of conquered cities — long before the first crusaders even set out from Europe. He points out the hyperbole in popular accounts of the fall of Jerusalem in the First Crusade as well. But he is most effective in countering the myth of Muslim chivalry is his account of the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the second half of the 13th Century, where time and again the Mamluk leaders broke their word and enslaved or massacred those to whom they had promised freedom and life. One quote from a primary, Muslim source about the sack of the great Roman city of Antioch should suffice to make this point. The source is a letter to the Prince of Antioch (who had not be present in his city to defend it) by none other than the Muslim Sultan himself. Sultan Baibars gloated: “You would have seen your Muslim enemy trampling on the place where you celebrate Mass, cutting the throats of monks, priests and deacons upon the altars, bringing sudden death to the Patriarchs and slavery to the royal princes. You would have seen fire running through your palaces, your dead burned in this world before going down to the fires of the next.” Ah, yes, Saracen “chivalry” at its best indeed.




The book does have its weaknesses, of course. Stark is covering far too great a canvas to provide any analysis or detail.  His book is structured as a rebuttal to unfounded allegations and theses, but for the most part he does not provide alternative theses.  Certainly, he does not describe personalities and their impact on events except in some rare instances. His explanations of developments are often facile, and occasionally he falls into outright errors. (For example, he claims plate armor was so heavy a knight needed a crane to mount his horse; in reality it was much lighter than chainmail and a knight in his prime could vault onto his horse without use of a stirrup much less a crane.) But the bottom line is that this book does what it sets out to do: it destroys a whole series of insidious myths that turn the crusades into an excuse for all subsequent barbarity; it clears the way for a more productive debate based on fact rather than falsehood.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th Century.

A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin
Book I: Knight of Jerusalem was released in September 2014.

A landless knight,
                       a leper king,
                                    and the struggle for Jerusalem.

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Destroyer of Jerusalem - Guy de Lusignan

Guy de Lusignan has the distinction of being the man who lost the Kingdom of Jerusalem by leading the Christian army to an unnecessary but utterly devastating defeat at the Battle of Hattin in 1187.  Such noted modern historians such as Malcolm Barber, Bernard Hamilton and W.B. Bartlett argue Lusignan’s disastrous decision to abandon the Springs of Sephoria and march to the relief of the garrison of Tiberius in July 1187 can be explained by the fact that he was criticized for not taking the offense in the campaign of 1183.  Guy they argue was in a difficult psychological position and had every reason to doubt the Count of Tripoli’s loyalty. They generally portray Guy more as a victim of circumstances than the cause of disaster.  Indeed, it has become popular to blame the “disloyalty” of other lords rather than Guy for the loss of his kingdom. Guy’s contemporaries saw it differently. 

So who has the right of it? A brief resume of Guy de Lusignan’s career.

Guy de Lusignan in Ridley Scott's Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Guy de Lusignan enters history with his marriage to Sibylla of Jerusalem, King Amalric’s first-born child and older sister too King Baldwin IV. Or does he?

In the spring of 1168, the Earl of Salisbury was escorting Queen Eleanor of England to Poitiers with a small escort when the party was ambushed by “the Lusignans.” The Lusignans had recently been dispossessed of their lands for rebelling against Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. They hoped by capturing Eleanor to gain a bargaining chip for the restoration of their fortunes. The Earl of Salisbury turned over his own horse, which was stronger and faster, to Eleanor so she could escape, but while he was remounting he was fatally pierced from behind by a lance. Salisbury’s nephew William Marshal (later famous as tutor of the Henry the Young King, Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England) was in Salisbury’s entourage.  According to the 13th century biography of William Marshal, commissioned by his eldest son and based on the accounts of many of Marshal’s contemporaries, this ambush was led by Guy de Lusignan and his brother Geoffrey. Some sources claim that Guy himself wielded the murderous lance.  Allegedly, this act made Guy persona non grata in the courts of the Plantagenets and induced him to seek his fortune in Outremer. 

Maybe, but there was a gap of some 12 years, so maybe not. Nevertheless, when considering Guy de Lusignan’s later reputation, it is important to remember that he was accused of a profoundly unchivalrous murder by contemporaries — before he ever set foot in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A Blow from Behind -- Here with a Sword

Guy appears to have arrived in Jerusalem in late 1179 or early 1180 at the invitation of his elder brother Aimery. Aimery was making a career in Jerusalem, according to some, by sleeping with the Queen Mother Agnes de Courtney. At the time Guy arrived in the Holy Land, Baldwin IV was king — and clearly dying of leprosy. Since it was also clear that Baldwin IV would not sire heirs of his body, his nephew Baldwin was his heir apparent. This boy had been born to his elder sister Sibylla after the death of her first husband, William of Montferrat. Sibylla herself was thus a young (20 year old) widow. There were rumors, however, that she had pledged herself to the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. The rumors were widespread enough for Salah-ad-Din to demand a king’s ransom when Ramla was taken captive on the Litani in 1179 (apparently in anticipation of Ramla becoming King of Jerusalem) — and for the Byzantine Emperor to pay that exorbitant ransom (since Ramla could not possibly pay it from his own resources) in anticipation of the same event.

But suddenly at Easter of 1180, Sibylla married not Ramla (who was on his way back from Constantinople) but the virtually unknown and landless Guy de Lusignan.  The wedding was concluded in a hasty ceremony lacking preparation and pomp. According to the most reliable contemporary source, the Archbishop of Tyre (who was also Chancellor at the time and so an “insider,”) Baldwin rushed his sister into the marriage with the obscure, landless and discredited Guy because the Prince of Antioch, the Count of Tripoli and the Baron of Ramla were planning to depose him and place Ramla on the throne as Sibylla’s consort. 


Allegedly a Depiction of a Royal Wedding in Jerusalem

Perhaps, but there is no other evidence of Tripoli’s disloyalty, and Ramla’s hopes of marrying Sibylla had been known for a long time — and all the way to Damascus and Constantinople. Why did that marriage suddenly seem threatening to Baldwin IV?

Another contemporary source, Ernoul, suggests another reason for the hasty and unsuitable (for there is no way the third son of a Poitevin baron could be considered a suitable match for a Princess of Jerusalem) marriage: that Guy had seduced Sibylla. Aside from the fact that this had happened more than once in history, the greatest evidence for a love match is Sibylla’s steadfast — almost hysterical — attachment to Guy, as we shall see.  Meanwhile, however, the marriage alienated not only the jilted Baron of Ramla, but the Count of Tripoli as well. In short, it was not a very wise political move and thus hard to explain as a political decision.  Last but not least, even the Archbishop of Tyre admits the King soon regretted the decision. All these factors point to Ernoul’s explanation of a seduction, a scandal and an attempt to “put things right” by a King who was devoted to his sister.

Guy was named Count of Jaffa and Ascalon and appears to have been accepted by the Barons of Jerusalem as a fait accompli that could no longer be changed — until, in September 1183, King Baldwin became so ill that he named his brother-in-law Regent.  As such, Guy took command of the Christian forces during Salah-ad-Din’s fourth invasion of the Kingdom. What happened next is obscure. Although Saladin managed to burn some monasteries and there were some bitterly fought skirmishes, ultimately the Saracens were forced to withdraw; an apparent Christian victory (and certainly better than what happened four years later, the next time Guy was in command!)

Yet something more must have happened on this campaign because just two months later, when word reached Jerusalem that the vital castle of Kerak was besieged by Saladin, the barons of Jerusalem “unanimously” refused to follow Guy. They flat out refused to come to the relief of an important border fortress in which both royal princesses (Sibylla and Isabella), the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen were all trapped (because of a wedding) until Guy was stripped of the regency. 

That is an incredibly strong statement.  The fact that the historical record is too patchy to enable us to explain it does not negate the importance of the event. The collective barons of Outremer were not dolts, cowards or fools.  They had accepted Guy’s command two months earlier. Even Tripoli and Ramla, who both detested him, had mustered under Guy’s command to face Salah-ad-Din in September, putting the welfare of the kingdom ahead of their personal feelings. But two months later even men who had previously shown no particular animosity toward Lusignan refused to accept his leadership. King Baldwin had no choice but to take back the reins of government, command of his army and have his nephew crowned as co-king. The latter was to reassure the barons that even if he died in the near term (as he expected), they would not have to pay homage to Guy.


After Kerak had been successfully relieved, Baldwin IV sought desperately to have his sister’s marriage to Guy annulled. This had nothing to do with personal grievances against Guy (although he had those too); it was necessary in order to find a long-term solution to the succession crisis. His nephew was a sickly boy, and the kingdom needed a vigorous and militarily competent leader. Baldwin’s efforts to replace the discredited Guy were thwarted by Sibylla, who refused to consider a divorce — something she is hardly likely to have done, if the marriage had been political in the first place. If Sibylla had married for reasons of state, she would have divorced for reasons of state.  Less than a decade later, her half-sister Isabella put the kingdom ahead of her affections when she divorced the ineffectual Humphrey de Toron to marry the man around whom the barons had rallied, Conrad de Montferrat.

Baldwin IV died in 1185 and was succeed by his nephew with Raymond de Tripoli as regent.  The fact that Tripoli was made regent — with the consent of the High Court — and the Count of Edessa was made the boy's guardian are both indications of the intensity of the animosity and suspicion the bishops and barons of Jerusalem still harbored for Guy de Lusignan. There was, after all, a precedent for a queen reigning for an under-aged son, Melisende a had reigned in their own right for her son Baldwin III.

At the death of Baldwin V roughly one year later, hostility to Guy had not substantially weakened. As was usual following the death of a king, the High Court was convened to elect the next monarch. Some modern historians have made much of the fact that Tripoli summoned the High Court to Nablus rather than convening in Jerusalem itself. This is interpreted as a sign of disloyalty, but there is nothing inherently disloyal about meeting in another city of the kingdom. High Courts also met in Acre and Tyre at various times.  Nablus was part of the royal domain, comparatively close to Jerusalem, and the Templars under their new Master, Gerard de Ridefort (surely the worst Master the Templars ever had), were said to have taken control of the gates and streets of Jerusalem. The Templars did not have a seat in the High Court, but they controlled 300 knights and the decision to hold the High Court in Nablus can better be explained as the legitimate desire to avoid Templar pressure as disloyalty on the part of Tripoli.

In any case, while the bulk of the High Court was meeting in Nablus, Sibylla persuaded the Patriarch to crown her queen in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  In addition to the Patriarch (allegedly another former lover of her mother) and the Templars (whose Grand Master had a personal feud with Tripoli), Sibylla was supported by her uncle Joscelyn Count of Edessa and the colorful and controversial Reynald de Chatillon, Lord of Oultrejourdan by right of his wife.  We know of no other supporters by name, but we know that Reynald de Chatillon sought to increase Sibylla’s support by saying she would be queen in her own right without mentioning Guy.  Even Bernard Hamilton, one of Guy’s modern apologists, admits that: "Benjamin Kedar has rightly drawn attention to sources independent of the Eracles [e.g. Ernoul] and derived from informants on the whole favorable to Guy de Lusignan, which relate that Sibyl's supporters in 1186 required her to divorce Guy before they would agree to recognize her as queen.” (The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000 p. 218). 

According to these sources, Sibylla promised to divorce Guy and choose another man for her husband as her consort. Instead, once she was crowned, she chose Guy as her consort — and crowned him herself, when the Patriarch refused.  Once again, Sibylla had chosen Guy over not only the wishes of her subjects but in violation of an oath/promise she had made to her supporters (not her enemies, note, to her supporters). I repeat: this is not the behavior of a woman who had been forced in to a hasty and demeaning marriage by her brother out of political expediency; it is consistent with a woman who was passionately in love with the man who she had foisted upon her brother and her subjects against their wishes.
 The Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Sibylla was Crowned

With this dual coronation, Sibylla and Guy had usurped the throne of Jerusalem, but without the Consent of the High Court they were just that — usurpers.  The High Court (or rather those members of it meeting at Nablus) was so outraged that, despite the acute risk posed by Salah-ad-Din, they considered electing and crowning Sibylla’s half-sister Isabella. To risk civil war when the country was effectively surrounded by a powerful and united enemy is almost incomprehensible — and highlights just how desperate the opposition to Guy de Lusignan was. In retrospect, it seems like madness that men would even consider fighting their fellow Christians when the forces of Islam were so powerful, threatening and well-led.

Then again, with the benefit of hind-sight, maybe it would have been better to depose of Guy de Lusignan before he could lead the country to utter ruin at Hattin?

In the event, Humphrey de Toron, Isabella’s young husband, didn’t have the backbone to confront Guy de Lusignan. In the dark of night he fled Nablus to go to Jerusalem in secret to pay homage to Guy. With this act, the High Court lost their alternative monarch and capitulated — except for Ramla and Tripoli, the most inveterate opponents of Lusignan.  Ramla preferred to quit the kingdom altogether, turning over his lucrative lordships to his younger brother and seeking his fortune in Antioch. (He disappears from history and we don’t know where or when he died.) Tripoli simply refused to recognize Guy as his king and made a separate peace with Salah-ad-Din — until he was reconciled after a tragic incident in May 1187.

Two months latter, Guy de Lusignan proved that Ramla, Tripoli and the majority of the High Court had rightly assessed his character, capabilities and suitability to rule. Guy led the Christian kingdom to an unnecessary but devastating defeat which resulted in the loss of the holiest city in Christendom, Jerusalem, and indeed the entire kingdom save the city of Tyre. Only a new crusade would restore a fragment of the Kingdom and enable Christendom to hang on to the coastline for another century.


With all due respect to revisionism and the legitimate right of historians to question familiar and popular interpretations of events, it is also wise to remember that chronicles and other historical documents provide us with an imperfect and incomplete picture.  The actions and judgment of contemporaries, on the other hand, were based on much more comprehensive knowledge and information than is available to us today.  Based on the actions of Guy de Lusignan’s contemporaries, I believe the Ernoul’s portrayal of Guy de Lusignan is closer to the mark than the apologist image of modern historians.

Guy de Lusignan plays an important role in my three-part biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin. 




 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                         Buy now!

Learn more about Guy and the Kingdom of Jerusalem at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.