Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Review: "The Leper King and his Heirs" by Bernard Hamilton
At the start of each month bring a review of a book relevant to the crusades. Today I recommend an important work by renowned crusades historian Professor Bernard Hamilton.
Baldwin IV as depicted in "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Particularly impressive is Hamilton's treatment of Reynald de Chatillon. Chatillon is usually depicted as a rogue adventurer, more robber than baron, and often blamed for the war with Saladin. Hamilton, in contrast, effectively defends many of Chatillon's most controversial actions. While not denying his violent and ambitious character, Hamilton convincingly argues that Chatillon followed sound strategic principles when launching his raids into Sinai, putting Christian warships in the Red Sea, and even when breaking the truce with Saladin to attack a heavily armed caravan.
Reynald de Chatillon as depicted in the film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Hamilton's treatment of Raymond of Tripoli is less convincing. He tries to paint Tripoli as a treasonous threat to the throne, and even suggests that Sibylla's marriage to Guy de Lusignan was arranged by King Baldwin in an attempt to prevent a coup by Tripoli. The evidence is very weak for this and contradicted by other accounts, notably the Chronicles of Ernoul, that other historians have followed. Furthermore, Baldwin soon withdrew his favor from Lusignan, while Sibylla remained remarkably loyal to her ineffective husband -- two historical facts that give credence to the more common intepretation of a love-affair between Lusignan and Sibylla forcing the king's hand. But even here, where Hamilton's arguments are weak, he presents them cogently and names his sources, leaving the reader in a good position to judge for himself which interpretation of history he finds more compelling.
Where this book falls short of the mark is in the essential biographical function of making the subject come to life. For all his meticulous reporting on what happend during "the Leper King's" reign, Hamilton singularly fails to get inside the leprous skin of his subject and help us understand him. We are given no inkling of what he was thinking and feeling, why he behaved in certain ways, how he succeeded in winning the undoubted loyalty of his subjects despite his illness or what motivated him at critical junctions. We are not even told until the epilogue that he was chaste but not particularly devout.
Baldwin IV - another image from "The Kingdom of Heaven" -- that brought him more to life than this biography.
Baldwin IV of Jerusalem deserves a better biography precisely because despite his severe handicap he successfully held his kingdom together in a very difficult period, and despite his severe physical handicap he repeatedly defeated Saladin on the battlefield. He also pursued a highly sophisticated foreign policy, which showed profound understanding of the geopolitical position of his kingdom. I would like to read a book that explores the character and psyche of such a man; Hamilton's history unfortunately does not.
Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com