Friday, July 25, 2014

The Second Crusade

The crusader kingdoms were a remarkable achievement that astonished the contemporary world. But less than a half century after the re-capture of Jerusalem by Christian forces, the new crusader states suffered their first set back. In 1144, the Principality of Edessa was captured by Saracen forces. By 1146 the Principality of Antioch was also threatened, and an appeal went out – not to the Byzantine Emperor, who was deemed untrustworthy, but to the West, which had provided the forces that had taken Jerusalem in 1099 and with which the ruling elite retained cultural, linguistic and family ties.

This call for help elicited an enthusiastic response. This time even kings were persuaded to take the cross (i.e., the crusader vow): namely, the King of France, King Louis VII, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Konrad III. Furthermore, Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most respected clerics of the age and a gifted orator, preached passionately in favor of the new crusade.




The Holy Roman Emperor Konrad raised about 80,000 troops and set out first, but his army was so decimated by cavalry attacks, heat, and hunger after crossing into territory held by the Seljuks that he returned to Nicaea while what remained of his army (approximately 7,000 men) joined forces with the French. Louis’ army (including his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine) advanced slowly, and despite several serious set-backs and one significant defeat (which will be described in more detail in my next post), eventually reached Jerusalem in the spring of 1148 with an estimated 50,000 men.

There the fateful decision was made to try to seize Damascus, to relieve the pressure on the narrowest part of the crusader foothold at Tyre and Tripoli. Ironically, the Muslim ruler of Damascus was one of the Saracen leaders, who had been willing to compromise and negotiate with the crusader kingdoms in the East. The seige made an enemy of a former ally and pushed him into the arms of the jihadists -- which wouldn't have been disasterous if the campaign had been successful.  However, although a siege was established, squables among the leaders and then news that a strong Saracen relief army was on the way spread so much panic among the crusaders that the crusading army disintegrated. They had made a new enemy for nothing and squandered the reinforcements from the West. 

Worst of all, however, this humiliating failure profoundly damaged the entire concept of crusades and crusading in the West.  It demonstrated that “God” was not inherently on the side of the crusaders and that victory was not assured. It also helped restore both unity and confidence among the Saracen leaders.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Road from the West" -- A Review

Rosanne Lortz’s “Road from the West” is a well-researched and, on the whole, realistic portrayal of the First Crusade seen through Norman eyes. While it does not white-wash the crusaders or their actions, it does not turn them into monsters either. Indeed, this book makes no attempt at political correctness, and so it is not laden with anachronistic values and perspectives. Instead, the absence of moralizing lends the book a refreshing authenticity.

Like all “road” books, the plot is determined mostly by the progress made, the milestones of the First Crusade itself, but Lortz has done an excellent job of enlivening and rounding out her story by adding characters with slightly different perspectives, such as the camp-follower Alexandra and the priest Bernard.  I particularly liked the inclusion of Alexandra because, as Lortz points out in her Author’s Note, there were in fact thousands of women in Alexandra’s shoes, following along behind the crusaders and suffering with them.

Nevertheless, I thought Lortz was at her strongest in her portrayal of Bohemond and Ademar, two historical figures that she brings effectively to life. I especially liked the relationship she developed between Bohemond and Tancred, while Tancred himself is a strong protagonist throughout most of the novel. I certainly disagree with other reviewers, who object to Lortz inventing Tancred’s motives. The evidence that he was “sadistic” or homosexual is dubious at best, and Lortz is completely within her rights as an author to portray him in a more positive light as long as she sticks to the known facts — which she does.

Yet for all its strengths, this novel is flawed by the introduction of not one but two Muslim women in fantastical (not historical) circumstances. The second encounter is so absurd as to be nothing short of operatic.  Suddenly the sense of reading serious historical fiction was shattered. Within one chapter, the reader was catapulted into a cheap romance with (of course! stunningly beautiful yet exceptionally courageous) female characters behaving in ways unthinkable for their culture and period. A very disappointing end for an initially promising historical biography.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Women in the Kingdom of Jerusalem


The crusader states, established at the beginning of the 12 century, rapidly developed unique political institutions and their own legal traditions. One of the most interesting ways in which they set themselves apart from contemporary societies was the prominent role played by women.  In the surrounding Muslim world, of course, women had neither names nor faces, much less a voice, in public. In the Byzantine Empire, on the other hand, while women enjoyed considerable freedom, wealth, education and influence, they did not directly hold power.  Western Europe the 12th century saw several very powerful female rulers, notably the Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine, yet the crusader kingdoms stand out because the high status of women in the Holy Land was more comprehensive and institutionalized than in either the Eastern Empire or the Western Europe.

This high status probably evolved out of the repeated failure of the ruling dynasties to produce male heirs.  A look at the succession in the Kingdom of Jerusalem illustrates this well. When Baldwin II died in 1131, he was succeeded by his daughter, Melisende, who ruled jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou (grandfather by his first marriage of Henry II of England). When Fulk died in 1143, Melisende remained Queen of Jerusalem, and ruled jointly with her eldest son, Baldwin III.  Although her son eventually side-lined her, it was only after a struggle in which several powerful barons and most of the clergy sided with the Queen. 



At Baldwin III’s death in 1163, his heir was his brother Amalric I, but Amalric’s heir was the ill-fated Baldwin IV, the Leper King, who had no children, making his sisters (and through them, their children and/or husbands) his heirs. As fate would have it, in the century between the death of Baldwin II and the ascension of Friedrich II as consort of a Queen of Jerusalem in 1225, the crown of Jerusalem passed through the female line no less than ten times! Furthermore, the situation in the crusader states and baronies was similar, if not quite so dramatic; that is, the title to baronies repeatedly passed through heiress rather than heirs. This fact alone would have raised the importance of women, but it is significant that these queens (and countesses and ladies) were not passive vessels.

Melisende was Queen in her own right, commanded loyalty and support among her vassals and forced both her husband and later her son to take her political wishes into account.  Sibylla forced upon the kingdom a man patently unsuitable for the kingship and soon detested by her brother, the reigning King, and the majority of the barons.  When her son Baldwin V died, Sibylla – not Guy – was crowned by the patriarch, but she placed the crown on Guy’s head as her consort.  Furthermore, Guy’s vassals viewed their oaths to him absolved the moment Sibylla died – despite Richard of England’s determined support for Guy.  



In the end, even the Lionheart gave up and recognized that without Sibylla, Guy could not be King of Jerusalem. The crown passed to Sibylla’s sister, Isabella. Isabella conferred the crown on three men in succession, Conrad de Montferrat, Henri de Champagne and finally Aimery de Lusignan. Notably, Henri de Champagne, a nephew of both Philip II of France and Richard I of England (his mother was a daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Louis VII), never even called himself King of Jerusalem; he remained Count of Champagne, while Isabella was Queen of Jerusalem. Her daughter’s husband, John of Brienne, also lost his title of King of Jerusalem at his wife’s death, although he acted as regent for his infant daughter until she wed Friedrich II.

The dynastic importance of women was both cause and effect of a uniquely high status for women in the crusader kingdoms that took many other forms. Not only did women act as regents and receive homage from vassals, they enjoyed a freedom of movement and opinion that scandalized the Muslim – and sometimes the Christian – world.  Amalric I’s wife Agnes de Courtney is sometimes accused of being set aside because of her immorality, certainly she was accused of having affairs with a prelate of the church (later the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Heraclius) and with Aimery de Lusignan. Her daughter Sibylla is alleged to have had an affair with Baldwin d’Ibelin before taking Guy de Lusignan to her bed. Certainly a contemporary claimed that Baldwin IV wanted to hang Guy for “debauching” a princess of Jerusalem, but was then persuaded to let his sister marry her lover.  It was behavior such as this that led many in the West to believe Jerusalem had been lost in 1187 because of God’s wrath with the immorality of the Christian rulers.



Yet while the antics of the royal women may indeed have deserved censure, the higher status of women generally meant that widows in the crusader kingdoms exercised far more control over their property and their lives. SIbylla is the most prominent example, but she was not alone in choosing her second husband. Constance of Antioch chose Reynald de Chatillon, and Maria Comnena chose Balian d’Ibelin, just to name two other prominent examples. In short, young girls were married often at very tender ages to boys or men of their parents’ choosing, but widows had the power, property and right to choose their own husbands – and did.

The higher status of women also impacted their daily lives. Upper class women were literate as they could not have otherwise conducted their affairs, and they owned books. Some accounts stress that they rode astride for greater safety in an always precarious environment, something that gave them greater mobility. They did not have to go veiled in public, although women almost certainly covered their faces from the ravaging effects of the summer sun when out of doors.  But perhaps most important, they were entitled to their opinions, free to voice them and often heeded by their male contemporaries.



Compared to their faceless and voiceless sisters in the Muslim world, this was undoubtedly the greatest privilege of all.

Read more about powerful women in the crusader states at: http://defenderofjerusalem.com

Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Walking Corpses" - A Review

Walking Corpses: Leprosy in Byzantium and the Medieval West by Timothy S. Miller and John W. Nesbitt

This is an important scholarly work on the treatment of lepers in the Middle Ages. It covers everything from theories on the causes of leprosy to the administration of leper colonies. The book is well researched and the theses are well presented, argued and documented. 

Given the subject matter, this is not an “easy” read and is intended more for academics than for the general public. Yet it provides very valuable insights into medieval society that would benefit more casual students of the Middle Ages.  For one thing, Miller and Nesbitt effectively debunk the notion that leper colonies were places of punishment or that lepers were consistently and cruelly expelled from society out of moral revulsion.  On the contrary, they convincingly argue “ spiritual leaders [shaped] a new ethical imperative to accept lepers as suffering brothers in Christ, not to reject them as ritually impure or as objects of divine punishment.” In Byzantium, leprosy even came to be called “the Holy Disease” and a number of legends associated lepers with Christ, while service to lepers was viewed as particularly holy.

Nevertheless, the fear of contagion was — understandably — enormous and so civil and responsible ecclesiastical leaders sought to separate lepers from society at large.  Leper colonies were thus generally located outside city walls — but close enough for lepers to engage in trade and receive alms and visits from relatives, friends and patrons.

Because the organization of several important leper colonies is documented, we have insight into how the lepers managed their affairs, and Miller and Nesbitt highlight the fact that most leper colonies were run by the lepers themselves, who appear to have most often elected their own leaders! Furthermore, women lepers took part in the administration of leper colonies on equal footing with men and in some cases even obtained positions of authority. 

This later fact begs the question if only leprous women were deemed the equals of men, or if medieval society wasn’t considerably more respectful of women’s intellect and capabilities than is generally assumed? Or was, as Miller and Nesbitt ask at the very end of their work, the role played by women and the “democratic” nature of leper colonies a reason for increasing suspicion and hostility to lepers at the end of the Middle Ages?