Friday, February 5, 2016

A Self-Made Man: The First Ibelin

The Seal of John d'Ibelin

The Ibelins were one of the most powerful noble families in the crusader states.  Sons of the house held many noble titles over time: Lords of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel, Caymont, Beirut, Arsur, and Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, the last traditionally being a royal domain and title of the heirs to the throne.  The daughters married into the royal families of Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus, and Armenia. Ibelins served as regents of Jerusalem and Cyprus on multiple occasions, and they led revolts against what they viewed as over-reaching royal authority, most notably taking on the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II in 1229-1233.   

Ibelins were also respected as scholars, and one (John of Beirut) wrote a legal treatise that is not only a goldmine of information about the laws of the crusader kingdoms, but is admired for the elegance of its style and the sophistication of its analysis. The Ibelins also built magnificent palaces, whose mosaic courtyards, fountains, gardens and polychrome marble excited admiration (See A Home in the Holy Land). During the 7th crusade led by St. Louis, the Ibelin Count of Jaffa attracted the amazement of the French Seneschal Jean de Joinville who wrote:

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

Ibelin Arms
A splashier display of wealth was hardly imaginable in the midst of battle….

The Ibelins exemplified the Latin East in many ways. They were rich, luxury-loving, patrons of the arts. They were highly-educated and multi-lingual. And they were fighting men, who could not only hold their own in wars against the Saracens and Mamlukes -- or humiliate the most powerful Western monarch on earth, the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II. They also exemplified the crusader states in another way: the origins of the family are completely obscure, and the first Ibelin was almost certainly an adventurer, a man of knightly-rank but without land or title in whatever country he originated.

The Ibelins themselves from the beginning of the 14th century claimed their descent from the Counts of Chartres, but most historians dismiss this claim as concocted. Peter Edbury, one of the most important modern historians of the crusader states, writing in 1991 claims “onomastic evidence points to a presumably less exalted Italian background, perhaps in Pisa or Sardinia.” (Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades 1191 -1374, p. 39) Six years later, however, Edbury had revised his thesis slightly, now suggesting Tuscan or Ligurian origins (Edbury, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, p. 4). Sir Steven Runciman, in contrast, claimed that the house of Ibelin “was founded by the younger brother of a certain Guelin, who was deputy viscount of Chartes, that is to say, the Count of Blois’ representative in Chartes; and such officers in those days did not enjoy hereditary rank but were often drawn from lawyers’ families.” (In light of the fact that two later Ibelins, John and James, were both authors of respected legal treatises, it is tempting to follow this theory....)

Whatever his place of origin and whatever he called himself before coming to the Holy Land, the first man to identify himself as an “Ibelin” was a certain Barisan. Not only are his origins unknown, so are his dates of birth and death. All that we know about him for sure is that in 1115 he was appointed “Constable” of Jaffa. He was not raised to the nobility, however, until 1140, when the new castle of Ibelin, built as a bastion against attacks from Muslim-held Ascalon against the Kingdom of Jerusalem was built. At some point (and this is a hotly debated issue among scholars of the topic) he married the heiress to the already extant barony of Ramla and Mirabel, Helvis. She, however, may not have been an heiress at the time of her wedding, as she had a brother, who clearly also had title to Ramla. Only after her brother died did Helvis obtain clear title to the barony, which she then passed to her husband and sons respectively.

Heiresses were common and powerful in the Latin East

Barisan is known to have had three sons, Hugh, Baldwin and Barisan the Younger, more commonly known as Balian. Hugh succeed to his father’s titles at the time of Barisan-the-Elder’s death ca. 1150, and was active in military campaigns throughout the 1160s.  He was also the first man to style himself “d'Ibelin” (of Ibelin).  However, since Barisan-the-elder would have had to be a mature man (at least 30 years old) before he was entrusted with the constableship of one of the most important ports in the kingdom (Jaffa is not a good harbor but is the port closest to Jerusalem), we can assume that he was born no later than 1085. If he did not marry until 1140, he would have been a fifty-five-year-old bridegroom. While this is not exceptional in itself, it is rare for a first marriage, making it far more likely that Hugh was the son of an earlier, unrecorded marriage to a woman of more obscure origins than Helvis of Ramla. The next sons, Baldwin and Balian, however, are almost certainly the children of Helvis, and Baldwin always used his mother’s more prestigious title of “Ramla” rather than Ibelin. Balian, in contrast, initially used “Ibelin” as a family name because he was not lord of Ibelin (his brothers were) until he married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem.  But that is another story.

Barisan-the-Elder probably died in 1150.  He probably died peacefully in his bed, as a more spectacular death would have been more likely to attract comment. He would have been about 65 years old when he died, which was a ripe old age in the early 12th century, particularly for a man who had spent most of his life fighting in a notoriously brutal environment. He would have been justified in being well-pleased with his rise form landless, younger son of a quasi-bourgeois family to baron in the Holy Land, but at his death he could hardly envisage the power, prestige and fame that his descendants would achieve over the next three centuries. 

My novels Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem tell the story of his son, Balian.

1 comment:

  1. It would be great to know more about this man. It's a tragedy that his origins -- and much of his life -- are lost to history.


I welcome feedback and guest bloggers, but will delete offensive, insulting, racist or hate-inciting comments. Thank you for respecting the rules of this blog.