Thursday, April 23, 2015

Atrocities in Jerusalem based on Arab Sources

Much has been made of the fact that the Christians took Jerusalem in 1099 by assault resulting in the slaughter of many (though by no means all) of the inhabitants. It is usual to contrast this with Salah ad-Din's more "civilized" agreement to let the inhabitants of Jerusalem buy their freedom.  




To put things in perspective, I'd like to share the following description written by Imad ad-Din, one of Salah ad-Din's intimates (his secretary and chancellor to be precise), of what happened after the surrender of Jerusalem in 1187.

Under the treaty, at the end of forty days whoever was unable to pay what he owed or refused to pay it ws to become our slave by right and come into our possession.  The tax was ten dinars for each man, five for a woman and two for a boy or girl. Ibn Barzan (Balian d'Ibelin, son of Barisan) and the Patriarch and the Grand Masters of the Temple and the Hospital [sic. In fact, both Grand Masters had been slain and/or taken captive at before the surrender of Jerusalem; one presumes Imad ad-din means the senior officials of the respective orders in Jerusalem after the surrender in 1187] stood guarantee, and Ibn Barzan gave 30,000 dinar for the poor, fulfilling his word faithfully and without default.(1)

...There were more than 100,000 persons in the city, men, women and children. The gates were closed upon them all, and representatives appointed to make a census and demand the sum due. ... About 15,000 were unable to pay the tax, and slavery was their lot; there were about 7,000 men who had to accustom themselves to an unaccustomed humiliation, and whom slavery slip up and dispersed as their buyers scattered through the hills and valleys. Women and children together came to 8,000 and were quickly divided up among us, bringing a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations. How many well-guarded women were profaned, how many queens were ruled, and nubile girls married, and noble women given away, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept in private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered, and lovely women's red lips kissed and dark women prostrated, and untamed ones tamed, and happy ones made to weep! How many noblemen took them as concubines, how many ardent men blazed for one of them, and celibates were satisfied by them, and thirsty men sated by them, and turbulent men able to give vent to their passion. How many lovely women were the exclusive property of one man, how many great ladies were sold at low prices, and close ones set at a distance, and lofty ones abase, and savage ones captured, and those accustomed to thrones dragged down!

The length to which Imad ad-Din goes to describe the humiliations of the Christian women, and the stress he puts on their misery and Muslim joy and delight surely says all that needs to be said about Muslim attitudes to women.

These atrocities -- committed not in blood-lust after a successful assault on a city after three years of hard campaigning but in cold-blood after a comparatively easy victory -- are far more outrageous and repulsive in my humble opinion.


The surrender of Jerusalem to Salah ad-Din in 1187 forms the climax of "Defender of Jerusalem," Book II in a three-part biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin. 


Book I, "Knight of Jerusalem" is on sale now. Buy on amazon here!

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(1) No other action by Balian so exemplifies his chivalry and Christianity as this concern for the poor when Heraclius, the Patriarch, left Jerusalem with wagons loaded down with riches allegedly worth 200,000 dinar and so sufficient to buy the freedom of ALL who went into slavery. Balian did not have those resources, but he did want he could.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Rogue Baron? A Closer Look at Reynald de Châtillon

Reynald de Chatillon in the film "Kingdom of Heaven"

Reynald de Châtillon is often portrayed in history and historical fiction as a “rogue baron” — a violent, self-interested man in large part responsible for breaking the truce with Salah-ad-Din and so triggering the campaign that ended in disaster for Christian forces at Hattin in 1187.  In the Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” he is depicted as little more than a madman intent on making war. Yet the noted historian of the period Bernard Hamilton has worked hard to rehabilitate Châtillon, arguing he was an intelligent strategist, who did much to save the Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than the reverse.  What follows is a short summary of Châtillon’s life in the Holy Land.

Châtillon was born in 1125, the younger son of a comparatively obscure French nobleman, the Sire of Donzy. William, Archbishop of Tyre, went so far as to describe his as “almost a common soldier,” but was undoubtedly going too far.  It is fair, however, to call him an adventurer, who came to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade. Apparently, while Louis VII was worrying (probably unnecessarily) about his wife committing adultery with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, Châtillon was busy seducing Raymond’s wife, the heiress of the Principality of Antioch, Constance. No sooner had Raymond been killed in an ambush in 1153, than Constance took the obscure and still young (he was 28) Châtillon for her second husband. It worth noting that according to Tyre the King of Jerusalem had suggested a variety of other “suitable” bachelors — men of stature and proven ability in the crusader states — to Constance, but the lady chose the patently unsuitable Châtillon.  It was clearly a case of a widow exercising her right to choose her second husband, and so a “love” match — at least on Constance’s part.



It is hard for us, however, to imagine what she saw in him. Within a very short period of time his avarice and violence had scandalized even his contemporaries. Tyre claims that out of sheer animosity to the Patriarch of Antioch, who opposed his marriage and didn’t hesitate to say so publicly, Châtillon had him seized, bound and exposed to the blazing summer sun with his head covered with honey. The honey attracted the flies and the old man, the highest church official in Châtillon’s lordship, was thus tormented with heat and flies until — according to Tyre — the King of Jerusalem intervened. Another version suggests (more plausibly I would think) that he was released when he agreed to pay Châtillon a large sum of money. Regardless of how he secured his release, the Patriarch understandably did not feel safe in Châtillon’s territory and fled to Jerusalem.

Châtillon next attacked the Island of Cyprus, a Christian country under the authority of the Byzantine Emperor. As Tyre points out Cyprus “had always been useful and friendly to our realm.” Châtillon’s justification for the raid was that he had not been paid by the Emperor for his service in subduing the rebellious Armenian Lord Thoros of Cilicia. But as Tyre also points out, the Emperor’s tardy payment of mercenary wages hardly justified over-running an unsuspecting and friendly island destroying cities, wrecking fortresses, plundering monasteries and raping “nuns and tender maidens.” The ravaging lasted for days, showing “no mercy to age or sex.” The violence of Châtillon’s raid, by the way, is confirmed by Syrian sources and so not simply a function of some alleged “bias” on the part of Tyre. Furthermore, his actions so outraged his contemporaries that the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, offered to deliver him to the Byzantine Emperor.



Manuel I opted instead to invade Antioch and force Châtillon to submit himself. As the army of the Emperor approached, Châtillon recognized he didn’t stand a chance of defying the Emperor (and probably realized he was in the wrong with no allies) so he threw himself on the Emperor’s mercy in a dramatic gesture. He went barefoot to the Emperor with a noose around his neck and presented his naked sword hilt-first to the Emperor. As if that weren’t enough, he then threw himself face-down at the Emperor’s feet until (according to Tyre) “all were disgusted and the glory of the Latins was turned to shame; for he was a man of violent impulses, both in sinning and in repenting.” Roughly three years had elapsed between the sack of Cyprus and Châtillon’s submission to the Emperor in 1159.

Two years later in 1161 he was captured by the Seljuk leader Nur ad-Din and imprisoned in allegedly brutal conditions because his reputation for brutality was not confined to the treatment of Latin clerics and Orthodox civilians but to his enemies as well.  He was not released for 15 years, by which time his wife, Constance of Antioch had died and her son by her first marriage, Bohemond had come of age.  In short, when Châtillon was released from prison in a political exchange (no ransom was high enough for Châtillon’s captor), he was 52 years old and Prince of nothing. Indeed, he was landless and penniless.

A situation he rapidly remedied by marrying the widow (and heiress) of the vast and important frontier barony of Oultrejourdain, Stephanie de Milly. It is hard to imagine that a man recently released from a Saracen prison after 15 years and well past his prime was particularly seductive to the widow Stephanie de Milly, and he certainly offered her neither wealth nor high connections, but — in retrospect — he offered her something even more important and maybe we should give her credit for having perceived his value at the time: Châtillon was a brilliant tactician, who proved capable of defending her vulnerable inheritance as long as he lived.



Châtillon’s release and remarriage also coincided with the start of the personal reign of Baldwin IV, who came of age in 1176. He appears to have favored Châtillon. He certainly would have had to approve of his marriage to the Stephanie de Milly and Châtillon’s assumption of the title of Baron of Oultrejourdain. In any case, just a year after his release he was entrusted with a mission to Constantinople in which Baldwin IV renewed his father’s “homage” to the Byzantine Emperor (no doubt Reynald’s earlier dramatic submission to the Emperor made him an ideal candidate to do this, combined with the fact that his step-daughter by his deceased wife Constance was now the Byzantine Empress.) In addition, he was to negotiate details of a joint operation against Egypt that Baldwin IV and Manuel I wanted to pursue. While it is hard to see the Châtillon of film and fiction as an ambassador, it must be conceded that he apparently fulfilled his commission in this case well. The Byzantine Emperor sent a fleet of 70 ships to support and land invasion by troops supplied by the crusader states and armed pilgrims.

Unfortunately, the ambitions of Philip Count of Flanders combined with Baldwin IV’s leprosy foiled the joint campaign and while the Counts of Flanders and Tripoli with the young prince of Antioch attacked targets on the border of Antioch, Salah-ad-Din invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Egypt. It was late 1177, and King Baldwin had less than 400 knights left for the defense of the realm. Still he rushed to Ascalon and raised the commons in defense of the realm eventually delivering a crushing defeat of Salah-ad-Din at the field of Montgisard on November 25, 1177. 

Bernard Hamilton claims that Châtillon was the “real” commander at Montgisard, siting Arab sources. However, the Archbishop of Tyre and the Chronicle of Ernoul, the two contemporary Christian sources both of which were in far better position to position to assess who was commanding on the Christian side, singularly fail to mention his role. He is just one of several prominent men in the King’s forces including Baldwin of Ramla “and his brother Balian, Renaud of Sidon and Count Joscelin, the King’s uncle and seneschal.” The fact that the Arabs attribute the command to Châtillon may have more to do with the fact that they knew him (and hated him) so well than any real role; Châtillon is not the kind of man to be easily overlooked and the Arab sources may have confused prominence on the battlefield with command. Tyre, however, was at this time chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and made a meticulous attempt to interview the survivors of the battle. It is hardly likely that he would have omitted Châtillon’s role had Châtillon really been the mastermind of the victory of Montgisard. In the absence of credible testimony to the contrary, therefore, the assumption should be that the most senior official at the battle was the commander — and that was none other than King Baldwin himself!



Châtillon’s next important contribution to history was his raid deep into Sinai in November 1181. This raid definitely contributed to his reputation as a war-monger because it occurred in the middle of a truce with Salah-ad-Din. However, as Hamilton points out, far from being an opportunistic act of an adventurer with no regard for treaties, the raid was a highly effective tactical move in defense of the crusader kingdoms. The raid occurred immediately after the death of Nur-ad-Din’s legitimate heir Prince as-Salih in Aleppo. The prince had designated his cousin, a Seljuk prince and lord of Mosul, as his successor with the explicit intention of preventing the Kurdish usurper Salah-ad-Din from taking any more of his father’s inheritance. Salah-ad-Din immediately recognized that the powerful Lord of Mosul was likely to be a far greater obstacle to his ambitions than the weak as-Salih and so immediately ordered his nephews to prevent any forces from Mosul reaching Aleppo.

From the Christian point of view, it was critical to prevent Salah-ad-Din from expanding his power to Aleppo, and the Lord of Mosul was to be preferred to the jihadist Salah-ad-Din.  Châtillon’s raid into Sinai effectively 1) prevented Salah-ad-Din from taking his forces from Egypt north to Aleppo and 2) prevented his nephews from doing his work for him either. Farrukh-Shah had to divert his forces from interdicting the Lord of Mosul to protecting his uncle’s possesses in Sinai. Aleppo therefore did not fall to Salah-ad-Din at this time — a small price to pay for a truce that was due to expire less than six months later. To be sure, Châtillon also enriched himself by seizing a very lucrative caravan and refusing to ransom the survivors or pay compensation for the dead, but this should be seen as Châtillon’s usual avarice and does not detract from his rapid and effective response to critical threat to the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A year latter, Châtillon expanded on his probably ad-hoc raid into Sinai by launching a fleet of ships in the Red Sea. These raids have generally drawn approbation from historians, who portray them as cruel piracy against innocent pilgrims — largely because the Arabs had no fighting ships in the Red Sea at this time and Châtillon’s ship sacked towns and burned ships initially at will. Against this portrayal is the fact that Arab warships and slavers had preyed upon Christian pilgrims for centuries before the First Crusade, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was by this time in a life-or-death struggle with a man who had promised to drive it into the sea. No, Châtillon’s raids were not pretty. Medieval Warfare rarely was. Yes, his ships attacked “unarmed” pilgrims (though it’s hard to imagine Arab men travelling anywhere unarmed at this time). They certainly caused havoc and spread terror across the Arabian Peninsula. And far from being acts of piracy by a “rogue” baron, they served a clear strategic purpose.



Hamilton makes the argument that the costs and complexities of launching these ships far exceeded he resources of Châtillon alone and argues convincingly that he must have had the support of the King of Jerusalem himself. He certainly needed the skills of Italian shipwrights and sailors — scarce commodities in his land-locked, desert lordship. More important, by threatening the trade and pilgrim routes of the Red Sea, Châtillon was challenging Salah-ad-Din’s claim to be the Defender of Islam. As Hamilton words it: “[Salah-ad-Din’s] credibility would have been severely damaged in the eyes of the entire Islamic community if the Franks had succeeded in preventing pilgrims from reaching the holy cities [of Islam] of which he was protector while he and his arms were fighting Sunnite princes in Iraq.” (Hamilton, The Leper King and His Heirs, p. 181.) Hamilton goes on to point out that the campaign had the added advantage of aiding the Frank’s allies in Syria while restraining Salah-ad-Din’s growing power.

Salah-ad-Din had no choice but to respond to the raids. He had warships dragged across Sinai and launched in the Red Sea. These eventually tracked the Christian raiders down, bottled them up in the harbor of al-Haura, and when the Frankish crews abandoned their ships, to track down the survivors. The Sultan than dealt with the survivors in a notably non-chivalrous fashion: he ordered them distributed about his kingdom and publicly executed (against the laws of Islam that dictate that prisoners who voluntarily surrender should be shown mercy).  Two of the raiders, presumably the men identified as the leaders, were taken to Mecca and slaughtered like sacrificial animals to the wild jubilation of the crowds of pilgrims on the haj.

Châtillon’s role in these raids (and he took full credit/blame for them despite the probability that he was aided by King Baldwin) made him more hated than ever in the Islamic world. Salah-ad-Din clearly felt personally insulted, and in the years that followed he twice laid siege to Châtillon’s main fortress at Kerak.  The first of these sieges occurred while the Queen Mother, the Dowager Queen and both Princess of Jerusalem had gathered in Kerak for the wedding of Princess Isabella (aged 11) to Humphrey de Toron (aged 15 or 16), but while the High Court of Jerusalem was meeting in Jerusalem to discuss Guy de Lusignan’s deplorable performance as Regent during an invasion of the Kingdom by Salah-ad-Din in October 1183. This meant that Châtillon found himself with only his own fighting men but hundreds if not thousands of non-combatants on his hands. Tyre claims he “rashly” tried to defend the town outside the castle, but was nearly overwhelmed by the suddenness of Salah-ad-Din’s attack, and barely managed to pull back into the castle, his villagers losing everything. Although Tyre tries to make this sound like poor leadership on the part of Châtillon, it sounds far more like a successful surprise attack to Salah-ad-Din’s credit. Châtillon was lucky not to lose his castle under the circumstances and despite the overcrowding and lack of combatants he held his castle for more than a month before the royal army came to his relief.

The Castle of Kerak as it appears today. Photo by Herbert Schrader.
A year later the scene repeated itself, but this time there was no wedding and no constitutional crisis going on. Both sides were better prepared, but the outcome remained the same. The royal army came to the relief of Kerak and Salah-ad-Din was forced to break off his siege. He would not succeed until more than a year after the destruction of the Christian army at Hattin and the execution — at Salah-ad-Din’s own hand — of Châtillon himself.

But that is getting ahead of the story. Châtillon still had two other contributions to history to make. During the succession crisis after the death of Baldwin V, Châtillon threw his weight behind Sibylla — but it is unclear if he supported Guy de Lusignan or not. He is said to have urged the people of Jerusalem to accept Sibylla without naming Guy as her consort. He may have been one of her supporters who urged her to set Guy aside and take a new husband (maybe he even imagined himself as his consort given his past successes!). Or he may have known she intended to keep Guy as her consort. In any case, he can be counted in her faction.

There is no evidence that I have seen, however, that he was particularly hostile to Raymond of Tripoli and there is no reason to believe he particularly agitated for war in 1187. On the contrary, Salah-ad-Din needed no particular provocation. He’d been launching invasions almost yearly from more than a decade and he knew as well as anyone that Guy de Lusignan was neither popular nor powerful. He recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was weaker than it had been at any time in his own lifetime and he gathered his forces and struck again. Châtillon followed the royal summons to muster — as did all the other barons and fighting men of the kingdom. And, as an experienced battle commander with a large contingent of troops he inevitably played a role in the Battle — but nothing suggests he was the one whispering idiocy in King Guy’s hear: that distinction belongs to the Grand Master of the Knights Templar Gerard de Rideford.  



At the Battle of Hattin, Châtillon fought bravely beside the King and was taken captive with him along with many other nobles including Aimery de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron. The only thing that made him different from the others is that Salah-ad-Din was not willing to forgive the Red Sea Raids and — again in violation of Islamic practice — did not show mercy, although Châtillon surrendered no less than the other lords did. Salah-ad-Din allegedly killed Châtillon with his own hand — or wounded him and let his men finish him off. It was a violent end for a violent man; he may well have preferred it to the thought of languishing in a Saracen prison again or a life in slavery. He would have been 62 years of age at the time of his execution.


Châtillon  is an important secondary character in the first two books of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:


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

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Templars as they Really Were - An Interview with Andrew Latham

Andrew Latham is the author of the recently released novel “Holy Lance.” Latham has built a great war-story similar in structure to “Saving Private Ryan” about a small band of men on a dangerous mission with a guide of uncertain trustworthiness and unexpected enemies in their own ranks. In “Holy Lance,” we follow a single Templar troop on a fictional but completely plausible mission to try to recover from deep inside enemy-held territory a controversial relic found during the First Crusade, the “Holy Lance,” i.e the lance that pierced Christ’s side before the crucifixion. As I said in my review, Andrew Latham has with this comparatively short, action-packed book done the much-maligned Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem a worthy service by pulling them out of the realm of mystery and romance and putting back into a historical context and perspective.

Below is a brief interview with Andrew about Holy Lance.

Andrew, let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to write this book?

Well to be honest, until about three years ago I never dreamed I’d write a work of historical fiction.  I’d always loved reading historical military adventures, but it simply never occurred to me that I might write one someday.  Scholarly books, yes – that’s what scholars do.  But a novel?  I have to confess that the thought never even crossed my mind.

All that changed, though, as I was nearing completion of my most recent non-fiction book Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics.  In preparation for writing that book, I’d been reading pretty widely about war and political violence in later medieval Europe and had just begun to get handle on the crusades.  Then one day I encountered the Templar knights.  Like most people, I thought I knew what these guys were all about: either odious religious fanatics or cynical secular thugs using religion to camouflage their all-too-worldly motives.  Like most people, though, I was wrong.  Turns out, there was much more to these warrior-monks than I had initially thought or than is commonly supposed.  The more I read, the more I became fascinated by these “new knights”, the Templars in particular – not by the caricature of them that is so prevalent in contemporary popular culture, but by the historical reality of them.

Being a scholar by both training and inclination, my first thought was to make sense of this weird phenomenon by writing a non-fiction book on the topic.  The more I thought about what I wanted to achieve, however, the more it seemed that non-fiction would not be the best tool.  I was interested in the Templars, not because of their supposed secrets or mysteries, or their fabulous wealth and influence, or even their marital exploits, but because of what they were: warrior-monks.  Think about it for a moment.  On the one hand, Templars, like all medieval knights, were warriors, bred to be brutal and merciless killers.  On the other, they were pious monks, committed to a life of prayer and works of charity.  How was that possible?  How did they reconcile these two personas? How, as it were, did they manage to sustain the hyphen between the words “warrior” and “monk”?  Answering these questions, it seemed to me, required reconstructing the imaginative world of these self-styled “knights of Christ”.  And the best medium for that sort of project, it seemed to me, has always been fiction.  Thus was born the idea of The Holy Lance.

That being said, however, this novel is not simply an academic work dressed up as fiction.  I grew up reading the classics in historical military adventure: series like C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, Alexander Kent’s Bolitho, and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe.  And in more recent years I have enjoyed the novels of Ben Kane, Anthony Riches, Steven A. McKay, Angus Donald, Si Turney, and, of course, Helena Schrader.  These novels taught me what good historical fiction looks like.  My goal in writing The Holy Lance was to apply everything I learned from these great writers to provide an insightful yet entertaining account of the Templars and the Third Crusade. 

And where did you get the idea for the plot? I kept feeling like this was a medieval version of a number of books and movies I’ve read or seen that were set in WWII.

Once I’d committed myself to writing a work of fiction about the realities of Templar life, I asked myself what sort of plot-structure would provide the best vehicle for revealing those realities.  I did a bit of research (the scholar instinct kicking in again) and toyed with a number of ideas, but ultimately decided on that most enduring of plot devices – the quest.  Why a quest?  Two basic reasons, I suppose.  First, the quest format allowed me to tell an entertaining story. The typical quest involves travel, heroic exertions on the part of the protagonist, danger, battles, romance, and escapades of all sorts – in short, all the basic ingredients of an enjoyable read.  Second, and in some ways more importantly, the quest format allowed me to really probe the Templar ideal.  The key element of any quest story, of course, is neither the journey, nor the material object of the journey, nor even the exertions of the protagonist while on the journey.  Rather, it is the transformation of the protagonist into a true hero as a result of his or her  journey along a “trail of trials.”  Think The Odyssey and Le Morte d’Arthur, or, more recently, Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan (this is the World War II angle you mentioned in your question).  In all of these stories, the challenges encountered while pursuing some valued object transform the protagonist into a more perfect version of an ideal.  What better way, I thought, to explore and highlight the true Templar ideal than to have my protagonist embark on a quest for a religious relic and along the way have him grow into a more perfect embodiment of the Templar ideal – that is, a more perfect synthesis of the ferocious warrior and pious monk?

There’s a lot of rubbish out there about the Templars — they are portrayed as secret Jews, secret atheists, as heretics of every shape, color and odor. You said in your first answer that you intentionally set out to counter some of that nonsense. Do you want to expand on that a little?  What have others gotten wrong and how do your Templar’s differ?

 A lot of rubbish, indeed!  As I see it, there are three basic types of “misrepresentation” of the Poor Knights of the Temple in film and literature: they are portrayed either as heretics, atheists or (my personal favorite) late modern secular-humanists; or they are depicted as cynical thugs concealing their all-too-worldly motives beneath a thin mantle of religiosity; or they are made out to be murderous religious fanatics, cut from the same cloth as ISIS fighters in the contemporary world, and every bit as evil and loathsome.  While these depictions might provide grist for interesting or entertaining stories, they are not accurate.  Indeed, I would argue that they belong in the realm of what I’ll call “historical fantasy” rather than historical fiction. 

So, yes, I did intentionally set out to counter some of the more “fantastic” portrayals of the Templars.  And the first step in this process was to take seriously the real, historical religious convictions and motivations of the typical Templar knight.  My point of departure was not to assume that these guys were all saints – they weren’t.  Rather, it was to accept that the people of this era understood the world in terms of religious (Christian, to be precise) categories and concepts.  For them, Christian religious belief was neither a form of mental illness nor a cynical ideology concealing their real material motives (the pursuit of power, wealth, glory or sensual pleasure).  Instead, rather like the laws of physics do for us, these beliefs provided the fundamental imaginative matrix through which they made sense of the world around them.  And if this was true of the average medieval person, it was true in spades for consecrated religious like the Templars.  As I see it, only by restoring orthodox medieval Christianity to the heart of the Templar story are we able to leave the realm of historical fantasy and reenter the realm of historical fiction proper.


What made you give Sergeants and Turcopoles such a prominent role? I love it, as I think they are given far too little attention in most fiction, but I’d like to know more about your reasoning?

In addition to wanting to get the spiritual dimension of the Templar story right, I also wanted to get the material dimension correct.  At one level, this involved some pretty obvious things like making sure the uniforms were correct and accurately depicting their weapons and battle tactics.  But it also involved getting their organizational structure right.  And that structure was stratified.  The order was dominated by a relatively small number of high-status knights (drawn from Europe’s warrior nobility), and these have become iconic of the order as a whole.  But below the knights were two other classes of Templar – classes that comprised the vast majority of the Order’s members.  These were the sergeants, whose job was to support the knights, both on the battlefield (as warriors) and off (as craftsmen and labourers) and the turcopoles – lightly armed auxiliaries recruited from among the non-noble Christian inhabitants of the Latin East.   Early on, I decided that if I really was going to accurately portray Templar life, I would have to find a way to build these two under-represented groups into my story.  Thus was born the roles of William Turcault, the commander of the turcopoles, and Brother Enyon, the Welsh sergeant with the extraordinary archery skills.

When doing research for this novel, were you able to visit the Holy Land and some of the places described?

Although I like to think that I have exhaustively researched this novel, I did not visit the region where it is set.  The reason for that is probably obvious: most of the places where my story unfolds are in Syria and Lebanon – not particularly safe places at the moment (the great Hospitaller fort Krak des Chevaliers, for example, has been badly damaged as a result of the conflict in Syria).  I will say, however, that once upon a time in the not-too-distant past I participated in a month-long tour of Canadian Army peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and so had the opportunity to travel to southern Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, and the Sinai.  As a result, I do have a pretty good first-hand feel for the climate, topography, military architecture (I visited Belvoir Fortress, among others), Jerusalem and its approaches, and so on.  Not quite the same as visiting with the purpose of writing historical fiction in mind, but not a bad second-best option, I think.

What were your most important sources for doing research on this novel? You seem particularly well versed in medieval weapons and armor. Do you recommend any particular sources here?

I read widely in preparation for writing this novel, but broadly speaking I’d say my research was organized into three files: the history of the Templars; the politics and geopolitics of the Third Crusade; and the military technology and techniques of the Latin East (and to a lesser extent of Saladin’s host).  Each of these files is filled with notes distilled from a great many academic and popular works, and it would be difficult to say which were most important (other than to say that anything written by Malcolm Barber is invaluable).  When it comes specifically to medieval weapons and armour, however, I would definitely recommend relevant works from Osprey Publishing’s Warrior and Men-at-Arms series.  Particularly helpful to me were Knight Templar, 1120-1312; Knight of Outremer, 1187-1344; and Saladin and the Saracens.  These three books were written by knowledgeable historians and illustrated by talented artists. They had a huge impact on my portrayal of the fighting men of the Third Crusade. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

As a reader, I had a sense that you really enjoyed writing this book, but there must have been challenges too. What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?

I absolutely loved writing this novel.  Not every minute of every day, of course.  The writing process (or rather, my writing process) is just not like that.  But overall, it was a joyful experience –  the research, the   character development, the plotting,  the drafting, right through to the revising and editing (well, maybe not the final line-editing). Very different from academic writing, which can be very fulfilling and professionally satisfying, but seldom induces feelings of joy (for either writer or reader).

I suppose the most obvious challenge was finding the time to actually write.  Like many writers, I have a full-time day job and young kids and between the two of them every hour of every day seems to get chewed up.  On the other hand, the nature of my job as a university professor means that I have big chunks of time in January and over the summer when I can write full time, so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much.

Beyond that, the really big challenge for me was to shift gears from writing like a scholar to writing like a novelist.  I’ve been writing like an academic my whole adult life and it is really hard to resist the temptation to support every claim with a footnote or to explain every move in excruciating detail.  But perhaps even more challenging than switching off my inner scholar was switching on my inner novelist.  Before this novel, the last piece of fiction I can recall writing was a short story I did in elementary school.  So, in addition to all the historical research I did in preparation for the novel, I also had to research the craft of writing fiction.  Thankfully, most (though not all) of that research involved re-reading great works of historical fiction with an eye to reverse engineering them – that is, with an eye to seeing how the master’s worked their literary magic – so it wasn’t as painful or difficult as it might have been.

The only scene in the book that I really didn’t like was when Fitz Alan tortures the Arab slavers to confess to crimes Christian women have already attested to. I seemed completely gratuitous. I would expect Templars to take the word of a Christian Abbess as sufficient proof, and to then just dispatch the offenders. In short: kill them, yes, but why torture them first? Within 120 years the Templars themselves would be tortured mercilessly to confess crimes they did not commit. Were you in some why trying to establish that the torture they would later suffer was justified by crimes like these? If not, why doesn’t Fitz Alan suffer any pangs of conscience about this completely unnecessary torture? You seem to have missed an opportunity to build up to his later decision not to kill the hostages. Here he lets his blood-lust get the better of him, and so fails in his personal mission; later he successfully overcomes his blood-lust.

I think your last sentence quite effectively captures what I was trying to accomplish in this scene.  It is an important element his evolution into something more closely approximating the Templar ideal that Fitz Alan is periodically tested.  Sometimes he fails one of these tests by being too much the brutal knight; other times, by being too much the pious monk.  In the process, though, he learns to synthesize the two, to become the ideal Templar warrior-monk.  What I wanted to achieve in this scene was exactly what you have suggested at the end of your question: to portray an early failure to overcome his bloodlust in order to demonstrate his evolution when later on in the story he is better able to control his more brutal impulses.

In this book, your principal protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan, has a very poor opinion of Richard of England — but then he seems to have a poor opinion of just about everyone. You imply this is because of things he saw Richard do — or things they did together — in the past. Although I don’t mind you not revealing those things in this book, I’d be curious if you ever intend to tell us about them or if they will remain shrouded in secrecy to the very end of the series?

I chose the Third Crusade because I could see great possibilities in contrasting the world’s premier worldly knight, England’s Richard the Lionheart, with my Fitz Alan – a heroic figure who embodies Saint Bernard’s ideal of the “New Knighthood.”  Beyond that, though, there is also a backstory here.  I will reveal more in the next novel, but suffice it to say there is bad blood between Richard and Fitz Alan. Richard has used Fitz Alan before and, given the Templar’s martial prowess, is happy to do so again.  Fitz Alan, on the other hand, knows he has been burned by the king in the past and has vowed never again to get caught up in his schemes.  He only accepts the king’s commission to recover the Holy Lance in this novel because of the high stakes and the fact that the Templar Grand Master pretty much ordered him to do so.


How many books do you envisage in this series?  Do you know what the ending of the series will be? Or are you still searching for it?

Not quite sure.  This past January I was able to sketch out a pretty detailed outline for the next installment of what is currently conceived as a trilogy but which may evolve into a longer series.  And, once it’s officially summer break, I will begin drafting.  The goal is to complete the sequel to The Holy Lance before September and write the final installment in January/summer of 2016.  Whatever happens, I promise Michael Fitz Alan will definitely see the Third Crusade through to its bitter end.

After that, and providing people actually read what I write, I’ll continue writing historical fiction (can’t see myself venturing beyond that genre, but one never knows).  I may keep on with the English Templars – I already have many, many more stories half-developed for this “band of brothers” ready to go – but I may also branch out a bit.  The Hundred Years War appeals a very great deal, as does the First World War (I’ve written or taught about both in recent years).  We’ll just have to wait and see.

You’ll have one reader right here! I look forward to reading more about Fitz-Alan and his companions — particularly the Turcopoles and sergeants, while the Hundred Years War is also a period that fascinates me. In fact, a biographical novel of Edward of Woodstock (more commonly known as the Black Prince) is one of the tasks I have set myself before I depart this life.

For now, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

Friday, April 3, 2015

The “Other Christians”: Orthodox Christianity in the Crusader Kingdoms


In my last entry I argued that, on the whole, Muslims were not worse off under the crusaders, so why should the Christians, that the crusaders had come to deliver from oppression, have fared worse?


Mosaics in the Church of the Nativity commissioned by Baldwin III and clearly showing Byzantine workmanship
Again, let’s go back to basics. The First Crusade was as response to a plea by the Byzantine Emperor — or, if one follows the medieval Chronicler William of Tyre, an appeal made Peter the Hermit from Amiens who had personally visited Jerusalem.  Either way, the appeal to Western Christendom was that Christians (please note: Orthodox Christians) were being oppressed in the very city where Christ had been crucified. Rodney Stark provides an excellent catalogue of various atrocities committed against Christians in the years leading up to the First Crusade (Stark, pp 78-98).  The atrocities included the complete destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher along with some 30,000 other churches that were either pillaged or burned.  Aside from these periodic acts of violence that left Christians in a permanent state of insecurity, the Muslim regimes (even the more tolerant and benign rulers) persistently punished conversion to Christianity with death, prohibited the establishment/construction of new churches, prohibited the saying of Christian service and prayers out-loud — even in one’s home, prohibited Christians from bearing arms and even riding horse and — most important if one is an adherent of Machiavelli — taxed Christians at a significantly higher rate than Muslims.


Ruined Byzantine Church in Ascalon
For Orthodox Christians to be “worse off” under the crusader regimes, they would have had to suffer greater indignities than those listed above. They did not. They were freed of the extra tax, allowed to own horses, bear arms, build their own churches and monasteries — and they did! — and they practiced their religion openly and without fear. Not once during crusader rule were Orthodox Christians subject to massacres or the plundering of their homes by the ruling Franks.  I have yet to see even one concrete example of one way in which the Orthodox Christians in Outremer were “better off” under the Muslims.

Jotischky notes that “Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic and Ehtiopian monasteries all flourished under Frankish rule.” (Jotischky, p. 126.) According to Hamilton “...other eastern-rite Churches were granted virtual autonomy by the Franks under their respective religious leaders…and were not made subject to the Catholic hierarchy.” (Hamilton, p. 50.) The only point of friction between Frank and other Christians resulted from the fact that the crusaders viewed the Greek Orthodox Church as part of the Catholic Church. While this was clearly advantageous for ordinary Greek Orthodox citizens, who then enjoyed all the same privileges as the ruling elite, it was a problem for the Greek Orthodox clergy because it effectively put them under the rule of the Pope -- something they did not accept.  Furthermore, if the two churches were one, there could only be one bishop per see, and naturally the Pope preferred to appoint Latin churchmen to such positions.




There was, therefore, considerable outrage among the Greek Orthodox hierarchy against the “loss” of episcopal sees, income, privilege and power, but as Jotischky points out: “…the replacement of Greeks with Latins probably made little difference to many parochial clergy in the patriarchate of Jerusalem, because the Orthodox bishops had tended to be Greeks appointed from Constantinople, whereas the Orthodox clergy and laity were Arabic-speaking.” Furthermore, the Franks allowed the Orthodox priests to minister to their flocks just as they had done before the First Crusade. Orthodox services continued as before using leavened bread, and Orthodox priests could marry as before.

The fact that a Jacobite (Syrian) Christian on Saladin’s staff (Joseph Batit) sought to convince the Syrian Christians in Jerusalem to surrender the city to Saladin during the siege of September 1187 does not prove that relations between the Franks/Latins and the Jacobites/Syrians were — as some would suggest — consistently bad. All it shows is that by September 30, 1187, after ten days of siege and the collapse of a portion of the wall, nerves in the Christian camp were (understandably) cracking. Yes, some Syrian Christians undoubtedly did, at that point, want to save their lives (and those of their wives and children) making them willing to negotiate with Saladin. The same day the leader of the Latin Christians, Balian d’Ibelin, did the same thing. Across the Kingdom of Jerusalem, citizens made the same decision out of sheer necessity, not because they had for a hundred years been unhappy living under the crusaders or because they had forgotten the oppression they has suffered under the Muslims in the past.



Scene from the film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
in which Balin d'Ibelin negotiates the surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin
On the contrary, not only were Orthodox Christians significantly better off under the crusader states than they had been before, they were active and often ardent supporters of the crusader states.  A significant portion of the Armies of Outremer were composed of native Christians who fought as “Turcopoles” — light cavalry (clearly a great privilege compared to being prohibited from bearing arms or riding horses under Muslim rulers). We also know that senior Orthodox clergy supported the Third Crusade, which they would not have done if they had thought their co-religionists were better off under Saladin.

The crusader states were states with a predominantly Christian population in which practitioners of the various Christian traditions lived harmoniously side-by-side without oppressing their Muslim or Jewish neighbors. In short, the crusader states were an early example — not of intolerance and bigotry as so often portrayed — but of tolerance and “multi-culturalism.”



In my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin I endeavor to portray the relations between the various Christians in the Kingdom of Jerusalem accurately.



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