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Friday, December 26, 2014

The Forgotten Order - The Knights of St. Lazarus

The most famous of the “fighting orders” or militant orders were of course the Knights Templar, and the Knights Hospitaller (Knights of St. John), two orders founded in the Holy Land and, for their age, truly international in character. Although not powerful and largely forgotten, there was a third military order also founded in the Holy Land, the Order of St. Lazarus.

The Order of St. Lazarus evolved from a leper hospital that had existed in Jerusalem prior to the First Crusade. After the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, it became part of the Hospitaller network of hospitals, but by 1142 the Order of St. Lazarus broke away, and by 1147 it was known as the Leper Brothers of Jerusalem. The Leper Pool and the foundations of the leper hospital run by the Knights of St. Lazarus have been located just beyond the norther wall of Jerusalem.

Critical to understanding the Knights of St. Lazarus is the fact that leprosy was far more common in the East than in Western Europe and the influence of Greek Orthodox ideology on the territories of the crusader states. By the end of the 10th century, the Byzantine clergy had come to see leprosy as a "holy disease" -- its victims were not seen as particularly vile sinner but rather as men and women marked by God's favor. A number of Greek Orthodox legends entailed Christ appearing as a leper. Caring for lepers was therefore seen as an act of great charity that would gain a person credit in heaven.

It is probably not surprising, therefore, that the Order of St. Lazarus grew rapidly in the mid-12th century, eventually having houses in Tiberias, Ascalon, Acre, Caesarea, Beirut, and possibly other cities as well. More surprising, however, is the fact that it began to have military brethren.  

It appears that initially, the role of these armed monks was primarily the defense of the leper hospitals. Some of these military men were undoubtedly former Templars and Hospitallers who had contracted leprosy, because we know that both the Templar and Hospitaller Rules required members with leprosy to join the Order of St. Lazarus. However, secular knights of the crusader kingdoms who contracted the desease were also expected to join the Knights of St. Lazarus. 

Knights already afflicted with disease would have been facing a steady deterioration of their fighting capabilities, however, and it appears that just as some healthy monks and nuns devoted themselves to the care of the sick in the habit of the Knights of St. Lazarus, some healthy fighting men likewise chose to join the Knights of St. Lazarus rather than the more powerful (and arrogant) military orders of the Templars and Hospitallers. This supposition is supported by the fact that there are recorded incidents of the Order of St. Lazarus taking part in military operations – possibly at the Battle of Hattin, and certainly at the Battle of Gaza in 1244, at Ramla in 1253, and during the defense of Acre in 1291.

Meanwhile, in 1265 Pope Clement IV issued a papal bull that commanded all the prelates of the church to assist in transferring the care of all lepers -- male and female -- to leprosariums run by the Knights of St. Lazarus. Pope Clement had taken a strong interest in the care of lepers before he became pope, and had written a set of regulations for leprosariums while still Bishop of Le Puy that included such remarkable features as the right of lepers to elect their own superiors from among their members. As pope, however, he seems to have been most concerned with ensuring that lepers remained segretrated from the rest of society by putting them under the control of the Knights of St. Lazarus. 

Thus after the fall of Acre, the Order of St. Lazarus moved its headquarters to Cyprus, abandoned all military activities, and thereafter concentrated on its mission of providing comfort and care for the victims of leprosy until the mid-14th century. Of all the so-called militant orders, arguably this was the "most Christian."

The Knights of St. Lazarus play a minor role in my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Richard the Lionheart in Literature - Two Reviews

A Soldier’s Assessment
Richard the Lionheart: The Mighty Crusader
By David Miller

Product Details 

This book is a military man’s assessment of the military capabilities of Richard I of England. It does not attempt to analyze his capabilities as a politician or monarch, much less a son or husband, as the excellent forward by Major General Julian Thompson warns. As such it delivers very well indeed.

Miller first provides the context of Richard’s campaign in the Holy Land, then a chronological account of it, and finally looks at his achievements by topic (combined operations, logistics, command).  Perhaps because I was familiar with the events, I found the analysis in the last three chapters most useful. 

While not a biography in the sense of providing the life story of its subject nor in-depth insight into what made Richard Plantagenet do what he did, it is a very useful supplement to other biographies. I highly recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in the period, or military history generally.  It is particularly valuable because it highlights just how sophisticated and complex the crusades were and debunks notions that all medieval armies were little more than rabble and egotistical knights errant. After reading this book, my respect for military leadership in the middle ages increased significantly, and I look forward to applying many of the things I learned to my novel on Balian d’Ibelin.

By Sharon Kay Penman

Product Details

Penman is a first-class historical novelist whose novels are always based on meticulous research. She excels at biographical novels, as her debut novel The Sunne in Splendour, a brilliant, nuanced and plausible portrayal of Richard III, demonstrated.

In “Lionheart” she tackles a character less controversial than the last Plantagenet, but one who has become lost behind the legend or the “brand.” Almost everyone, as Penman points out in her “Author’s Note,” has heard of Richard the Lionhearted, but almost no one knows anything about him. We simply think we do.

Penman succeeds in making Richard a complex, multi-dimensional character, with strengths and weaknesses. She convincingly lays to rest some of the more destructive legends – Richards’ homosexuality, his “heartless” brutality at Acre, his overweening pride, and his alleged lack of intelligence or subtlety. By the end of the novel, I sincerely liked Richard, sympathized with him, and understood his behavior better than at the start.

Yet in a way that was the problem: I only started to understand and like Richard towards the end of the novel. It took me so long to see Richard, because Penman clutters the book with seemingly hundreds of superfluous characters that detract from him.  The book is bogged down by plot splinters, too small and inconsequential to be called fragments. All these superfluous characters and sub-plots clog the flow of the narrative.  Richard’s historical accomplishments in the short time-span of the novel were stupendous, and we ought to be sitting on the edge of our seats, unable to put down the book until we’ve finished reading it. Instead, it took me nearly nine months to read, and it was only in the last hundred of the nearly six-hundred pages that I was finally gripped by the novel.

While I understand Penman’s desire to give credit and space to some of Richard’s contemporaries and companions-in-arms (and his enemies!), I found myself irritated by sub-plots with completely fictional characters. For example, why open the story with a dramatic shipwreck seen through the eyes of a frightened girl, if that girl is not going to play any role in the novel? She’s hardly even mentioned in the last nine tenths of the book and is not a historical figure. Yet other characters, like Henry of Champagne, are simply names without personality until the final chapters.  Penman should have given this important characters more prominence early in the book, so we could understand and care about them later on.

Altogether the book read like a rough draft, the first out-pouring of creative energy by an author still strongly influenced by recent research.  Penman appears to have tried to fit in everything single historical fact that she discovered so that in the end she has got her history right at the expense of a clear story-line and momentum. At the same time, Penman apparently wanted to retain characters from earlier novels to provide continuity, while adding some new ones at the beginning that she really didn’t need. “Lionheart” would have benefited from a rigorous re-write, focused on eliminating the superfluous, fleshing out the central characters, and creating a leaner, faster-paced book.  Penman can do better than this, and Richard deserves better.

Richard the Lionheart is a major character in the third book of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

Book I: Knight of Jerusalem was released in September 2014.

A landless knight,
                     a leper king,
                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Victor of Montgisard - The Leper King

Last week, I described the dramatic Christian victory at Montgisard. I'd now like to take a closer look at the the life and reign of the man who won the battle: Baldwin IV of Jerusalem.

Baldwin IV as depicted in Ridley Scott's film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Baldwin was born in 1161, the second child of Amalric of Jerusalem and Amalric's first wife, Agnes de Courtney. At the time of his birth, his father was the younger brother and heir apparent to the childless King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. 

Just two years latter, Baldwin III died and Amalric ascended the throne -- but only on the condition that he set aside Agnes de Courtney. Agnes was duly disposed of, but Amalric's children of his marriage, two-year-old Baldwin and his year-older sister Sibylla, were explicitly recognized as legitimate. They remained at court with their father. In 1167, Amalric remarried, this time to the Byzantine Princess Maria Comnena.

At about this same time, Baldwin was diagnosed with leprosy by his tutor William, later Archbishop of Tyre. According to Tyre, the leprosy first manifested itself as a lack of feeling in Baldwin’s right hand. However, initially, Baldwin retained the use of his other limbs and did not suffer from noticable disfigurement. His illness was kept quiet.

In 1174, Baldwin's father died unexpectedly of dysentery on his way back from a campaign against Nur ad-Din, the Sultan of Damascus. Baldwin was elected King by the High Court of Jerusalem despite the fact that other crown vassals afflicted with leprosy were required to join the Knights of St. Lazarus.  Being still a minor (13) at the time of his father's death, the Kingdom was placed in the care of a regent, Raymond of Tripoli, himself a descendent of Baldwin II and one of the most powerful barons in the crusader states. Notably, at this time Baldwin could still move and above all ride without apparent impediment.

In the summer of 1176, Baldwin turned 15 and so attained his majority. He took the reins of government for himself and signalled this by calling his mother back to court and placing his maternal uncle, Joscelyn of Edessa, into the powerful position of Seneschal of Jerusalem. Tripoi appears to have been sidelined, but not in anyway humiliated.

Baldwin IV in "Kingdom of Jerusalem"

Given his illness, however, and the certainty that he would not sire a successor, the most pressing business of the Kingdom was the marriage of Baldwin's heir, his older sister Sibylla.  In fact, Tripoli had already arranged a marriage for her with William de Montferrat, a man from a powerful north Italian family. Unfortunately, William died in the summer of 1177, leaving Sibylla pregnant at 17. 

Meanwhile, the enemies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were getting stronger. The Kurdish general Salah-ad-Din had first murdered the Vizier in Cairo and then, on the death of the Fatimid Caliph, declared Egypt Sunni. The death of the Sultan of Damascus in 1174 opened the way for Salah-ad-Din to seize control of Damascus as well, with Nur-ad-Din's legal heir fleeing to Aleppo. Although Salah-ad-Din would need almost ten more years to consolidate his position and eliminate all his rivals, he had effectively united Shiia Egypt and Sunni Syria under his rule by 1177 -- and to bolster his own legitimacy he declared jihad against the Christian states in the Holy Land. 

Baldwin IV sought to counter the rise of Salah-ad-Din by following his father's policy of alliance with the Byzantine Empire and attacking Cairo. He hoped to capitalize on disaffection among Salah-ad-Din's Shiia, Arab subjects and their resentment of a Kurdish, Sunni usurper. Unfortunately, the Count of Flanders, who had arrived from the West with a large contingent of knights, thought he should be made King of Egypt if he helped conquer it, and the coalition fell apart. The Byzantine fleet withdrew and Flanders went off to campaign against Syria, taking many of the barons and knights of Jerusalem with him. 

Salah-ad-Din had assembled his forces to meet the expected invasion and recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was practically defenseless before him. He invaded, sacking and plundering as he advanced north, leaving well defended positions like the Templar castle at Gaza untouched until he came to Ascalon. Ascalon had been in Egyptian hands until 1153 and was considered a key strategic position for the defense of Egypt -- or the attack on Jerusalem. Saladin prepared to besiege the city.

As described in my previous entry, in a dramatic move Baldwin IV rode to the rescue of Ascalon with just 367 knight, reaching the city shortly before the Sultan's army enveloped it. But now Baldwin was trapped inside and Jerusalem was practically defenseless, so Salah-ad-Din decided to strike for the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. Salah-ad-Din had such overwhelming superiority of force and so little respect for a leper youth of 16 that he allowed his troops to continue plundering along the way rather than concentrating on his goal.

He had miscalculated. Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon, called up the feudal levies and fell on Salah-ad-Din from the rear, winning a stunning and complete victory at Montgisard on November 25, 1177. (See my entry from that date.) 

A modern depiction of the Battle of Montgisard (copyright Talento)

But the consequences for Baldwin personally were also devastating. Based on the historical descriptions of Baldwin’s initial illness, which state he had lost the feeling in his arm but that there were no other symptoms such as discoloration or ulcers, modern experts in the disease believe that Baldwin IV initially had primary polyneuritic tuberculoid leprosy, which deteriorated into lepromatous leprosy during puberty. There was, according to Piers D. Mitchell ("An Evaluation of the Leprosy of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in the Context of the Medieval World," in Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000), nothing inevitable about this deterioration.  However, puberty itself can induce the deterioration as can untended wounds (that go unnoticed due to loss of feeling) which cause ulcers to break out. 

When Baldwin led his daring campaign against Salah-ad-Din that led to the surprise victory at Montgisard he was in puberty, just 16 years old. It is probable that it was in part because of this campaign — which required camping out in the field and going without the usual bathing of his feet and hands — that caused Baldwin's leprosy to take a turn for the worse. According to Mitchell, children who develop lepromatous leprosy are likely to die prematurely, and so once Baldwin’s leprosy had become lepromatous it inevitably took its course through the gruesome stages of increasing incapacitation to a an early death.

But Baldwin wasn't dead yet. In 1180, he allowed his sister Sibylla to marry a young adventurer from the West, Guy de Lusignan. According to one contemporary chronicler, Sibylla was seduced by Guy (and she would not have been the first princess in Outremer to be seduced by a young adventurer!), and Baldwin first threatened to hang Guy for "debauching" an princess, but then gave in to his sister and mother's pleadings to let his sister marry "the man she loved." Other sources suggest that Baldwin feared the Count of Tripoli was planning to depose him by arranging a marriage between Sibylla and Baldwin d'Ibelin, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Whatever the reason, with Sibylla's marriage to Guy the succession appeared secure again.

A Royal Marriage

The succession might have been secure, but the Kingdom was not. Salah-ad-Din had invaded a second time in 1179 and Baldwin had been unhorsed in the engagement, an indication of his deteriorating condition. When Salah-ad-Din invaded a third time in 1182, Baldwin could no longer ride and commanded his army from a litter -- but still fought the Saracens to a stand-still, forcing them to withdraw. The following year, however, he was seized with fever and believing he was on his death-bed made his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan regent. Thus when Salah-ad-Din invaded a fourth time in 1183, it was Guy de Lusignan who led the Christian armies to face him.

The results were not good. While the Saracens eventually withdrew, they had managed to do considerable damage and the barons of Jerusalem returned in a rebellious mood. The news that the key castle of Kerak was under siege (with both Princess of Jerusalem, the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen all trapped inside for a wedding) should have triggered the immediate dispatch of a major relief force. Instead, the High Court (allegedly unanimously) refused to follow Guy de Lusignan anywhere. He was dismissed as regent, and Baldwin IV had to drag is disintegrating body halfway across the kingdom at the head of his army. The mere approach of the Leper King, however, was enough to convince Salah-ad-Din to withdraw. 

The Castle of Kerak, now in Jordan

By now Baldwin IV knew he did not have much time left to him. He had his nephew, Sibylla's son by her first husband William de Montferrat crowned as a co-monarch, and asked his bishops to find a way to dissolve Sibylla's marriage to Guy in the hope that another husband, more congenial to his barons, could be found for her. In the latter he failed, and hence when he died just short of his 24th birthday in the spring of 1185, he was succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, and -- at the latter's death a year latter -- by Guy de Lusignan.

Baldwin IV ruled for less than ten years and throughout his reign he was handicapped by a progressively debilitating and disfiguring disease. Yet he retained the loyalty of his subjects to the very end and on no less than five occasions prevented Salah-ad-Din's vastly superior forces from over-running his fragile kingdom. For that he should be revered and respected.

Baldwin IV plays a major role in the first two volumes of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

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