Friday, June 26, 2015

Children of the Crusades — the Militant Orders

The crusades, far from being exclusively destructive as is often suggested today, gave birth to many things. First and foremost, of course, they "sired" the new kingdoms in the Levant, which themselves were the birthplace of new forms of art and architecture. They spawned new trade with "the East," along with many new technological developments in warfare and shipping. They inspired romances and literature, including the very notion of the Grael Quest. But undoubtedly one of their most curious off-spring of the crusades were the "militant orders" -- religious orders for fighting men. 

Initially, true to the Word of Christ, the Church of Rome condemned violence of any kind. By the 5th century, however, the Church conceded that there were circumstances under which the use of force – even homicide – was necessary, excusable, and potentially pious. The concept of the “just war” emerged and was recognized theologically by St. Augustine.

Furthermore, the more Islam threatened the Christian world, the more the Church recognized the need for armed men to defend it against armies determined to spread Islam with the sword. Meanwhile, wherever secular power was weak, the need for men willing to protect clerics, women, and peasants against everything from Vikings to common robbers was equally evident and urgent.

St. George, the Epitome of the Christian Warrior

The fact that the Church drew its leadership from the ruling class – the secular lords with strong military traditions – meant that most clerics in the Middle Ages were themselves imbued with a warrior ethos. This fact in underlined by the number of bishops who donned armor and took active part in warfare — from the Battle of Hastings to the Battle of Crécy. Thus, it is not surprising that by the end of the first Christian millennium, Christianity recognized the need for armed force and men who wielded it, but that did not mean the Church had completely abandoned its principles.

On the contrary, the Church sought repeatedly to restrict, reduce, control, and direct warfare and violence. Violence against churches and clergy was punished with excommunication, for example, and there were frequent clerical diatribes against the vanity, arrogance, and violence of the warrior class. When the Byzantine Emperor appealed to Pope Urban II for aid in fighting the Seljuk Turks and freeing the Holy Land, there is little doubt that Urban II had double motives for calling for a crusade: on the one hand, he wanted to free the Holy Land, but on the other he wanted to free France and Western Europe from excess numbers of violent young men, trained in the profession of arms, who were too quick to fight each other and prey upon the defenseless.

Pope Urban II Calling for the First Crusade

Balderic, one chronicler of Urban II’s speech calling for the First Crusade, quotes the Pope as saying:

Christian warriors, who continually and vainly seek pretexts for war, rejoice, for you have today found a true pretext. You, who have so often been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight for the deliverance of the holy places. You, who sell for vile pay the strength of your arms to the fury of others, armed with the sword of the Maccabees, go and merit eternal reward …. If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels …. Soldiers of Hell, become soldiers of the living God!

What is remarkable in retrospect is the extent to which Pope Urban II struck a chord with his audience. Not only did they take the cross in great numbers (and proceed to bathe in the blood of infidels when they reached Jerusalem), but for the next 200 years fighting men flocked to serve Christ, not just in crusades, but as fighting monks bound by monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. 

This was made possible by the creation of new monastic orders that enabled men to be both monks and knights. While members of these orders were expected to abjure all wealth and property, to attend Mass multiple times a day, to fast, pray, and eat in silence, and to live in controlled communities cut off from the outside world, especially women, members were not required to give up the profession of arms. Rather, these orders were designed to capture the religious zeal of the time and funnel the fervor and energy of fighting men into religious channels.

Before this spirit if militant Christianity had burned itself out, no less than 17 military orders, 8 on the Iberian Peninsula, 2 in what is now Italy, and 2 in German speaking Europe had been founded. The most famous and most powerful militant orders, however, were the Templars and the Hospitallers, both founded in the Holy Land and international in their structures and membership. 

The Hospitaller and Templar Churches -- side-by-side -- in Famagusta, Cyprus

The Militant Orders play an important role in my three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                   Buy now (paperback)
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Friday, June 19, 2015

Two Reviews, Two Views of Saladin

Saladin in the Ridley Scott film "The Kingdom of  Heaven" Conforms to Stanley-Pool's Portrayal

Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem
By Stanley Lane-Poole

This late 19th Century biography of Saladin, purporting to be the first serious, full-length biography of the famous 12th century Kurdish leader in the English language, has had a disproportionate impact on our imagine of Saladin ever since. To this day, popular images of Saladin, in fiction and film, conform to the contours laid down by Lane-Poole. Unfortunately, Lane-Pool’s biography is based almost exclusively on the eulogies of Saladin’s court biographers rather than on a sober analysis of the historical record.

Lane-Poole slavishly follows his pro-Saladin sources without standing back to question or balance these sources with information drawn from other chronicles and historians or – indeed – simple common sense.  It gets very tedious to have every tactical defeat of a Christian force portrayed as a “humiliating retreat” with the Christians departing “with their tails between their legs” – in one case this was after just one week in the field! -- while every set back Saladin suffered (and he had many!) is explained away as a wise decision not to pursue a time-consuming campaign or the need to let his troops go home to see their families.  Indeed, Lane-Poole mentions several times how attached Muslims are to their wives and children, but does not credit Christians with the same feelings.  As for Saladin’s defeat at Montgisard, where Saladin’s army of 20,000 was put to flight by roughly 500 knights led by a 16 year old king suffering from leprosy, it is glossed over as “inexplicable” and takes up less than two pages of the narrative. A real biographer would have been intent on explaining both how it happened and what Saladin learned from it. As a historian, the latter point is particularly important as such a bitter defeat (Saladin had to escape on a pack camel and lost almost his entire body guard) surely left its scars on his psyche.

It is likewise the mark of a dilettante rather than a historian to claim that Richard I “was honeymooning” on Cyprus, when in fact he was conquering the island from a tyrant and by so doing secured the lines-of-communication and a breadbasket for the crusader states for the next hundred years. Indeed, the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus outlived the Kingdom of Jerusalem by more than 200 years.

The book is also littered with gratuitous and unfounded insults as well. For example, Lane-Poole calls the sailors of the age “timid” because they did not venture into the Mediterranean in winter.  Apparently, Lane-Poole has never seen the fury of Mediterranean winter storms much less considered what it would be like to face them in a fragile wooden vessel without weather reports, radar, navigational equipment, radio communications etc. etc.  Lane-Poole’s bias is so extreme it is even applied to little things such as the way the “wooden [sic] bells of the Christians harshly clashed [wood?] instead of the sweet and solemn chant of the muezzin.” (As someone who hears the call to prayers five times a day, I beg to differ with that utterly subjective statement!)

About four fifths of the way through the book, Lane-Poole casts aside all pretense of being a historian and biographer and declares his partisanship in the statement: “But the students of the Crusades do not need to be told that in the struggle of civilization, magnanimity, toleration, real chivalry, and gentle culture were all on the side of the Saracens.” (Chapter XIX) Now, students of the crusade know just the opposite: that there were atrocities, betrayals, cruelties, excesses and also magnanimity, generosity, courage and gentle culture on both sides.

By Andrew S. Ehrenkreutz

Writing almost a century later, Andrew Ehrenkreutz has produced a meticulous biography worthy of the name and by far the best description and analysis of Saladin’s career that I have found to date. Ehrenkreutz has drawn on a wider array of sources than Lane-Pool, although he naturally depends most heavily on the Arab-language sources of those closest to Saladin and other contemporaries. This biography makes a serious attempt to explain Saladin’s actions and does not shy away from exposing his duplicity, hypocrisy, and ruthlessness.

The book consciously sets out to rectify what Ehrenkreutz calls “the still prevalent vulgarization of Saladin’s career.” His meticulous research and systematic analysis of Saladin’s career reveals step-by-step a pattern that Ehrenkreutz summarizes in his final chapter as follows: “Most of Saladin’s significant historical accomplishments should be attributed to his military and governmental experience, to his ruthless persecution and execution of political opponents and dissenters, to his vindictive belligerence and calculated opportunism, and to his readiness to compromise religious ideals to political expediency.”

Ehrenkreutz shreds to tatters the notion that Saladin was particularly “chivalrous.” He notes his role in the murder of the vizier of Egypt Shawar, his brutal massacre of the defenseless women and children of the Sudanese palace guard, his “cynical violation of his safe-conduct pledge” to the defeated soldiers, and his systematic intriguing against the man who crowned him with the office of vizier, the Fatimid Caliph al-Adid, as well as his purge of the entire Fatimid elite after his coup d’etat. And all these bloody and dishonorable deeds are only in the first eight years of Saladin’s political life!

Nor does Saladin’s record improve. Ehrenkreutz shows that Saladin intrigued against his liege-lord, Nur ad-Din, that he “avenged” his own strategic failings at Montgisard by ordering his entourage to murder helpless Christian prisoners caught a few months later, he slaughtered another Christian prisoner just because his 18 year old son got a scratch on his face at the Battle of Arsuf, and, of course, he ordered the slaughter of bound the Templars and Hospitallers after Hattin. 

Ehrenkreutz’s principal thesis is that Saladin was primarily interested in establishing an empire ruled from Damascus. Ehrenkreutz argues that “jihad” against the Kingdom of Jerusalem was hardly more than a propaganda device designed to justify the “unification” of the Muslims — meaning the relentless expansion of Saladin’s own power at the expense of all other Muslim rulers and regimes.  He notes further that, despite the brilliant victory at Hattin (handed Saladin on a silver platter by the incompetence of Lusignan’s leadership) and subsequent inevitable capture of Jerusalem, Saladin singularly failed to exploit his overwhelming military superiority to really wipe out the crusader states. Instead, he left Tripoli and Antioch in place and ultimately lost the coast of the Levant to Richard the Lionheart. As for Egypt, Ehrenkreutz laments that “Saladin’s policy towards Egypt is a depressing record of callous exploitation for the furthering of his own selfish political ambitions.”

Throughout the book, Ehrenkreutz’s sympathies clearly lie with Egypt — not the Kurdish adventurer Saladin or the Crusaders. He describes Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 as a “liberation,” without a ghost of an explanation on just who was liberated. Certainly not the population which was 100% Christian at the time nor the Holy Places that belonged predominantly to Christianity and Judaism! Indeed, his knowledge of the crusader kingdoms is so superficial that he consistently refers to the Principality of Antioch as the County of Antioch. He casually claims that “court intrigues gave rise to factionalist tensions and disputes, virtually bringing the kingdom to the brink of civil war” at a time when Baldwin IV was firmly in command and held the unwavering loyalty of all his subjects. He describes the crusader states as weak at a period when they were consistently thwarting Saladin’s invasions.  

In short, this book has its weaknesses, but on the whole they are less offensive than the pro-Saladin bias of most biographies. The detail provided here is very useful to anyone interested in the period, although the plethora of Arab names and the details of Saladin’s many intrigues will make it hard for many not well-versed in Arab history to follow.

Saladin plays a major role in the second book of my biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

Book II: Defender of Jerusalem coming soon!

A divided kingdom,

                     a united enemy,
                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem.

Read more about the age and opponents of Saladin at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Battle on the Litani, June 10, 1179

The Battle on the Litani has not received much attention in the history of the crusader states. It is often completely ignored or acknowledged with no more than a passing mention. While it is true that this battle was only one in a series of indecisive engagements between Salah ad-Din and the forces of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the decade before the disaster at Hattin in July 1187, it was a sad precursor of things to come and is not entirely uninteresting.

The battle was allegedly provoked by Saracen “raiding,” of cattle and crops in the lordships of Beirut and Sidon. However, it seems highly unlikely that the King of Jerusalem would personally respond to mere raiding, particularly if it was conducted by Bedouins as some accounts suggest. Certainly, accounts of the engagement make clear that both Farukh Shah, a nephew of Salah ad-Din, and the Sultan himself were on hand with large cavalry, but notably no infantry, forces. This smells far more like a “reconnaissance in force” similar to the raid of 1187 that led to the disaster at the Springs of Cresson.

In any case, King Baldwin IV, now aged 18, responded by mustering a powerful cavalry force of his own. This included not only his most important baron, Raymond, Count of Tripoli, as well as Baldwin, Lord of Ramla and Mirabel, but also the Templars under their Grand Master, Odo de St. Amand. As W. B. Bartlett astutely points out in his Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom, this composition of forces underlines the fact that the Kingdom was not divided at this time; the Templars and Tripoli fought together without suspicion or recriminations.  

While the exact sequence of events is not clear, it appears that the King and his forces succeeded in surprising and routing the forces of Farukh Shah. They drove the bulk of his cavalry back across the Litani and may have temporarily taken Farukh Shah himself captive.  Meanwhile, however, the Templars had separately encountered the larger, main force under Sultan Salah ad-Din. William of Tyre, who was not in the Kingdom at the time and based his account on reports of others, blamed the Templars for attacking this larger force injudiciously.  While that is possible, it should also be remembered that Tyre was a consistent critic of the Templars and inclined to think poorly of them regardless, while other participants may have been only too ready to pin the blame on someone other than themselves.

What is clear is that the Templars broke and fled back toward the main feudal army around the King. At this point in time, however, the feudal army was already scattered across the valley floor “mopping up” after their successful action against Farukh Shah. They were in no position to form a cohesive force. Salah ad-Din’s cavalry, hot on the heels of the Templars, fell upon the dispersed Christian forces, killing and capturing large numbers of Christian knights and nobles, including Baldwin, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel, Hugh of Tiberius, and, according to Arab sources, some 270 knights and nobles altogether.

The King’s household, however, rallied around him and extricated him from the field with help and reinforcements from Reginald of Sidon. This was, of course, vital, as his capture would have had even more serious consequences than the other losses incurred. But his escape is notable for another reason as well: Baldwin was unhorsed during the — evidently heated — engagement, but his leprosy had by this stage advanced so far that he no longer had the use of his hand and arms and was unable to remount. The King had to be carried off the field on the back of a Frankish knight.

Just two months earlier, in another skirmish with Saracen cavalry, King Baldwin’s horse had bolted and, without the use of his hands, he had been unable to regain control. Now, because he was unable to remount when thrown, he had come within a hair’s breadth of capture. The eighteen-year-old king, who just two years earlier had led his chivalry to a stunning victory over Salah ad-Din at Montgisard, was now forced to face the fact that he could no longer command his armies from horseback. In a society in which the mounted warrior, the knight, was the incarnation of manly virtue and prowess, it must have broken Baldwin’s heart.  Not that he surrendered to his disability entirely: in the future he would lead his armies from a litter.

Meanwhile, the sorry outcome of this obscure engagement had two additional detrimental consequences for the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  First, among the captives was the Templar Grand Master, Odo St. Amand. Whether he was to blame for an unnecessary defeat, as William of Tyre suggests, or not, he had the courage and honor (as his successor Gerard de Rideford did not ) to  refuse ransom in accordance with the Templar Rule. He died miserably in a Saracen dungeon — thereby paving the way, indirectly, for the election of the disastrous and unscrupulous Gerard de Rideford.

Equally wide-reaching in its effect was the capture of Baldwin, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Baldwin (often referred to as Baldwin of Ibelin because he was the son of the First Baron of Ibelin and older brother of Balian d’Ibelin, the founder of the Ibelin dynasty) was considered such a valuable prisoner that Salah ad-Din set his ransom higher than the ransom once asked for King Baldwin II of Jerusalem; in short, the Saracen Sultan demanded “a king’s ransom” for a baron whose feudal holding were only two thirds of that of the upper tier of barons (Tripoli, Caesarea, Sidon, Galilee, Jaffa-Ascalon).  This is not logical — unless the Sultan had some reason to believe that Ramla was destined to become a king. According to the chronicler Ernoul, who had close ties to the Ibelin family and so can be considered an “insider” — albeit a biased insider, Princess Sibylla of Jerusalem had at this time promised to marry Ramla. Such a marriage would have made Ramla the effective heir to the throne, and Salah ad-Din would have had every reason to both demand the high ransom and hope that the cost of paying it would discredit Ramla to his future subjects. Curiously, the ransom was paid not by the treasury of Jerusalem but by the Byzantine Emperor instead, suggesting that the latter too had reason to expect Ramla would become King of Jerusalem. Both Salah ad-Din and Emperor Manuel I appear to have been misinformed. That, or — as Ernoul suggests — Princess Sibylla changed her mind after Ramla was captured.

In the latter case, Ramla’s capture can be seen as a contributing factor in Sibylla transferring her affections to the young, recently arrived French adventurer Guy de Lusignan. The consequences of her infatuation and life-long love for Lusignan are the subject of another entry.

The Battle on the Litani is described in detail in Book II of my three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin:

A divided kingdom,

                             a united enemy,

                                                       and the struggle for Jerusalem.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Medieval Housewife -- A Review

The Medieval Housewife & Other Women in the Middle Ages
By Toni Mount

This is a gold-mine of anecdotal evidence demonstrating conclusively that medieval women were far more “empowered,” active and effective than conventional stereotypes allow. As Ms. Mount states in her introduction, “historians have tended to look at what women could not do.” Such a perspective is not only inherently negative (the glass is half empty rather than half full), it effectively denigrates women to objects of male power. As Mount so eloquently argues, women are — and have always been — independent personalities capable of coping with “tricky circumstances.” To focus exclusively on legal norms and male literature describing female “ideals,” denies women their own voice. This book is a refreshing change from polemical tirades against male domination that lets medieval women speak for themselves — through the books they wrote (yes, even middle class women in the Middle Ages were literate!), their wills, and their actions. 

The book is organized by theme, looking at women in their homes (housewives), in trade, in rural communities (peasants), in the church and in the upper class. Mount uses exclusively primary sources and archaeological evidence to build her case, and provides many photos from medieval sources and re-enactments. The book is short and easy to read, yet meticulously documented with a good bibliography of recommended further reading. 

As a historian, I already knew a great deal about the wealth, power, influence and substantial legal rights of royal and aristocratic women (you can’t read history without running into these women — Empress Mathilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Melisende of Jerusalem, Isabella of France, Joan of Kent, Marguerite d’Anjou etc.).  I also knew about the legal rights of widows even in the middle and peasant class, their ability to inherit, run their husband’s businesses and hold their husband’s vacant seats in guilds etc. What completely surprised me was learning that girls were also frequently apprenticed at young ages to learn trades, many of which they continued to practice after marriage. The ability of women to run their own business while still wives, not just as widows, was news to me as well. Mount’s evidence — and it is hard, solid evidence — completely transforms my view of women’s role in the lower tiers of medieval society and is so doing rounds out the picture I already had. It makes much more sense that women, regardless of class, had a comparable relationship with the men of their respective class. After all, women at the lower end of the social scale looked to the women of the elites not only for fashion but also as role models. A powerful queen would embolden the ladies of her court, who in turn inspired the women serving them etc. etc. 

My only disappointment with this book is that it remains a collection of anecdotes rather than a more systematic analysis of women in the Middle Ages. Rather than just dismissing previous historians for their “half-empty” approach, Mount could have tackled some of the more destructive theses about women in the Middle Ages head on. She almost does this in her chapter on women in the church in which she quotes some extraordinarily positive views of women recorded by leading churchmen that refute the oft-stated notion that “the Church” was hostile to women. It wasn’t that simple. But ultimately Mount shies away from taking a firm position and putting forward her own comprehensive thesis on women’s place in Medieval Society. A pity — unless that will be the subject of a later book. 

Women play anything but a passive role in my novel, "Knight of Jerusalem."

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!

Read more about women in the crusader kingdoms at Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

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