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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Richard the Lionheart by Jean Flori — A Review

Flori is a French historian, who first published this biography of Richard the Lionheart in Paris in 1999.  It was this fact that attracted me to the book, as I felt a French historian would bring a different perspective (as well as a consummate grasp of French sources) to the work.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is a description of Richard’s life in chronological order, in short, a traditional biography. The second part examines the degree to which Richard reflected and/or shaped contemporary ideals of chivalry, a concept, as Flori stresses, that was still inchoate during Richard’s lifetime. The book also provides maps of the Plantagenet territories in the West and of the Holy Land, as well as two genealogy tables that are very useful.

On the whole, the first part is concise, straight-forward and balanced. As expected, Flori is more critical of Richard than John Gillingham in his biography, but does not paint Richard in a uniformly negative light.  As hoped, Flori is intimately familiar with the chronicles of the age, and subsequent historiography about Richard of England and his arch-rival, Philip II of France. Indeed, Flori errs on the side of citing too many sources to make the same point, highlighting nuanced differences in contemporary perspectives in a manner more suited to demonstrating academic credentials than helping the reader understand Richard.  Moreover, Flori too often lets the sources speak for him, rather than drawing his own conclusions confidently. Since most Medieval chroniclers were clerics, it is not surprising that the result is a rather bland picture overlaid by moralizing and preaching. As a result, Richard himself never seems to come entirely to life. I felt I learned a great deal about what churchman (both English and French) thought of Richard, but gained no insight into Richard Plantagenet himself.

This part of the book is further marred by an obvious unfamiliarity with history beyond Flori’s central area of expertise, i.e. the Plantagenet-Capet conflict and France in the late 12th century. Flori makes silly errors with respect to the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem such as claiming Isabella of Jerusalem married Humphrey de Toron “for love” (a princess at the age of 8?) or confusing Bohemond (son of the Prince of Antioch) with Raymond of Tripoli. Flori is also evidently woefully ignorant about the unconstitutional nature of Guy de Lusignan’s coronation, among other things.

The second half of the book in contrast is a useful, if somewhat academic, analysis of what chivalry was in Richard’s era. Flori explores 12th century perceptions of social order, the division of the world into those who pray, those who fight and those who work, and describes Richard’s relations with these three “orders.” Flori next looks at what and why prowess, largess and courtesy were the defining characteristics of chivalry, and analyzes the degree to which Richard fulfilled chivalric ideals. I found this part of the book intellectually entertaining and useful as a novelist writing about this period.  It remains flawed, however, by the dependence on essentially clerical sources. Knights and lords — much less ladies — do not have much of a voice here. In consequence I was left feeling I had only half the story.

Richard the Lionheart, and Balian fought together against Saladin in the Third Crusade. Their -- initially hostile -- relationship and joint efforts are described in the third book of my Balian series, Envoy of Jerusalem, which is scheduled for release later this year. The first and second books in the series are already available for purchase.

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

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

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Friday, February 19, 2016

The Missing Link: Hugh d'Ibelin

The hero of "The Kingdom of Heaven," Balian d'Ibelin, founded a dynasty that has been called "semi-royal" by historians. Ibelin women were twice Queens of Cyprus. Sons of the House of Ibelin were regents of both Jerusalem and Cyprus. They were Counts of Jaffa and Ascalon, Lords of Beirut and Arsuf, they were seneschals and constables on Cyprus. They were, in short, very powerful. 

Yet as described in an earlier post, the origins of the family are obscure, and the first baron of Ibelin was only one of very many men who (after decades of loyal service to the crown of Jerusalem) was granted a small and relatively insignificant fief. (Ibelin owed only 10 knights to the feudal levee.) 

The Ibelins made their fortunes by marriage. Three marriages to be precise--although only two are usually mentioned. The first baron of Ibelin married a local heiress, Helvis of Ramla and Mirabel, but very likely at the time of the marriage she was not yet an heiress. In short, the Ibelin's good fortune in inheriting the far more lucrative baronies of Ramla and Mirabel was merely the fortuitous result of Helvis' brother dying young and without heirs (See "A Self-Made Man: The First Ibelin"). The more famous -- and scandalously good -- marriage was that of Barisan's youngest son Balian to the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, great-niece of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I. (See Maria Comnena: Lady of Ibelin.) But between these marriages was another one that may help explain the seemingly impossible marriage of Balian to Maria. It was the marriage of his elder brother Hugh to Agnes de Courteney.

Now Agnes de Courteney came from one of the best families in Outremer. (See Agnes de Courteney: Wife and Mother of Kings), but by the time she married Hugh d'Ibelin in or about 1157 she was nothing but a penniless and landless orphan, the County of Edessa having been hopelessly and completely lost to the Saracens by 1150. She was also already a widow. Her first husband, Reynald of Marash, had been killed in battle in 1149, but there is no way of knowing for sure how old Agnes had been at the time. Although she should have been as old as 12 (as that was the canonical age of consent), it was not uncommon at this time for princesses to marry younger. The fact that she felt no compunction about forcing her ward Isabella of Jerusalem to marry at age 11 may suggest she had had a similar experience. By 1157, however, she was in all probability in her late teens. 

Despite her more mature age, it is still unlikely she had much to say about her marriage. At the time it took place, her father was languishing in a Saracen prison (never to return; he died there ca. 1159). Her brother, the ever ineffectual Joscelyn III of Edessa, was in control of her, and both she and he were living on lands held by their mother (since their entire paternal inheritance was in the hands of the enemy) in the Principality of Antioch. Antioch was at the far north of the crusader territories; Ibelin was in the extreme south. It is unlikely that Agnes would have ever met Hugh d'Ibelin, the second Baron of Ibelin, and a man who held a small, unimportant fief not from the crown but from the County of Jaffa. A match between a sub-tenant and a penniless widow was a completely suitable match, even if Agnes' family had previously been powerful. Nothing really remarkable here.

But then things get interesting. Hugh d'Ibelin was taken captive by the Saracens in 1157 -- the year he presumably or allegedly married Agnes. Peter Edbury in his very outstanding book John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Boydell Press, 1997, p. 8) speculates based on a variety of primary sources that Agnes was betrothed to Hugh, but that on her arrival in Ibelin to celebrate the marriage, he was already in a Saracen prison. Under the circumstances, with Hugh's father dead and his brother's still young children, Agnes' care fell to Hugh's feudal lord, the Count of Jaffa. The Count of Jaffa, however, was none other that the younger brother of the ruling King Baldwin III, Prince Amalric of Jerusalem.

What happened next is shrouded in obscurity, but at least one account suggests that Amalric "took her by force on the advice of his men." (See Edbury). On the other hand, there does not appear to have been any animosity between Hugh and Amalric in later years, and the king may even have helped pay Hugh's ransom. Since many captives did not ever return from captivity (such as Agnes own father) or spent years and years in prison (Raymond de Chatillon spent 15 years in a Saracen dungeon, and Raymond de Tripoli, seven), Hugh may well have viewed giving up a girl he'd never seen in exchange for Amalric's contributions to his ransom a perfectly reasonable, indeed good, deal.

In any case, when Hugh was released, Agnes was already married to Amalric and within the next half dozen years gave him two children, Sibylla (ca. 1159) and Baldwin (1161). Hugh, apparently still financially burdened by the after effects of his ransom, did not marry. Then in February 1163, King Baldwin III died abruptly. His young Byzantine wife, the reputedly stunningly beautiful Theodora, had not yet produced an heir. Amalric, as the younger but mature brother of the king, a fighting man who already had two children, was the obvious best candidate to succeed him.

That the High Court of Jerusalem did not do so rapidly lay in the fact that suddenly objections were raised about Agnes. We do not know why the High Court objected to her. Officially, it suddenly discovered that she and Amalric were related within the prohibited degrees, but this hardly seems credible as it could easily have been overcome by a papal dispensation. Historians have therefore speculated that the real reason was that the barons of Jerusalem feared Agnes would use her influence to reward her penniless relatives with offices (thereby denying them these lucrative appointments) -- or that her reputation was so sullied that she was considered unsuitable to wear a crown in the Holy City. Another explanation is that the Church, which viewed a betrothal as sacrosanct, considered her marriage to Amalric bigamous because -- in the eyes of the Church -- she was still married (via the betrothal) to Hugh d'Ibelin.  

The latter explanation has a certain charm and is supported by the fact that after Amalric set Agnes aside in order to secure the crown of Jerusalem, she become the wife of Hugh d'Ibelin. She was his wife at the time of his death in ca. 1171. Since Hugh and Agnes had no children together, the significance of this marriage is often overlooked. Yet, whatever the reasons the High Court's objected to Agnes, Amalric must have been very grateful to Hugh d'Ibelin for taking her off his hands and clearing his way to the throne. From Hugh's perspective, on the other hand, Agnes was "damaged goods" (and possibly discarded on moral grounds, i.e. because of infidelity and licentiousness; she was later said to have had affairs with Aimery de Lusignan and with the future patriarch Heraclius, while married to Hugh's successor, her fourth husband Reginald de Sidon.) Yet, while Agnes herself may have been no great prize, she was the mother of the heir to the throne because the High Court explicitly recognized the legitimacy of Amalric children by Agnes even as it forced him to discard her. Thus Hugh d'Ibelin got a wife of dubious virtue and tarnished reputation, but he earned the gratitude of the king and the status of step-father to the future king. 

Unfortunately for Hugh, he did not live long enough to capitalize on his relationship to the young Baldwin. He was dead in 1171. Yet it may well have been the Ibelins' ties to Agnes de Courtney that brought them within the "royal" circle. Certainly, after Baldwin IV came of age in 1176 and brought his mother back to court, the Ibelins were in a stronger position than ever before as (step) uncles of the king. 

Even Balian d'Ibelin's marriage to the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, the woman who had replaced Agnes in Amalric's bed and been crowned queen in her place, is quite possibly in some way the result of Agnes influence -- though not necessarily her intention. Agnes and Maria reputedly detested one another, and Maria as a wealthy widow could be compelled by no one -- not even the king -- to marry against her wishes. Yet, perversely it may have been because his sister-in-law was such a powerful woman at court that Balian had the opportunity to meet and court the Dowager Queen Maria. We will never know for sure, but the ties between Agnes and the Ibelins have too often been overlooked. We should never forget, however, that family relations were much more important in power sharing in the Middle Ages -- but no less fraught with emotional complexities than today.

Hugh's younger brother, Balian, is the subject of my three-part biography. Agnes is an important figure, particularly in the the second book, Defender of Jerusalem.

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Dungeon, Fire and Sword by John Robinson - A Review

Dungeon, Fire and Sword by John J. Robinson provides a chronological history of the Templars that is based for the most part on historical fact rather than fantasy, mystery, hysteria or conspiracy theories. Compared to most of the books out there which want to see Templars behind every bush and transform devout Christians into Jews, Atheists, secret Muslims, aliens from other planets, warlocks and whatnot, it’s not bad. 
It is what the Germans would call “popular history,” which is a polite way of saying it’s been “dumbed down” a bit to make it an easy read.  In this sense, it as a book that can serve as an introduction to the Templars for people only superficially interested the topic but nevertheless interested in facts rather than fantasy. It also has lists of the Templar Masters, Popes, Kings of Jerusalem, France and England, and the Holy Roman Emperors at the back of the book that is a very handy reference even for a serious scholar
However, the very gossipy style that makes it such an easy read also makes it judgmental and superficial. Rather than exploring possible motives or balancing conflicting theories, it chooses one version and then blithely presents this as “the truth.” 
Here's an example, the following quote from the book describes the aftermath of Conrad de Montferrat’s assassination (p. 191). “Henry of Champagne hurried back to Tyre when he got the news [of Conrad de Montferrat’s assassination]. To the local citizens, the handsome young count appeared to provide the ideal solution to the problem of finding a new husband for Isabella, a man who would then be eligible to reign as king of Jerusalem. Princess Isabella, a beautiful young woman twenty one years of age, had not had much success at marriage. She had been married first to the handsome but homosexual Humphrey of Toron, and then the stern, middle-aged Conrad de Montferrat, by whom she had an infant daughter. Perhaps a third marriage, with this dashing, wealthy, popular man, would be the answer. She agreed to the marriage.”

Now, first of all “the local citizens” did not select the husband and future king of Jerusalem -- the High Court of Jerusalem did that. Second, we have no idea what Henri de Champagne looked like, nor Isabella for that matter. She was not yet 21, either, nor had her daughter by Montferrat been born yet. I’ve never heard Conrad described as “stern” -- he had quite a reputation as a charmer and a seducer in the Byzantine court! Most important, however, as the daughter of a Byzantine Princess, Isabella wasn’t thinking of her own happiness; she was a queen concerned about the future of her kingdom. She agreed to the marriage because Henri of Champagne offered significant political advantages: he was the nephew of both the King of England and the King of France and so stood a chance of uniting the (then bitterly divided) crusaders behind him. All in all, the passage is light, gossipy, and fun, but it neither gives credit to the historical figures for rational action nor does it give the reader much insight into what is going on here.

More egregious, however, is the following passage (p. 154) describing the fall of Jerusalem. Having failed to mention that Ibelin defended Jerusalem with virtually no fighting men and 50 women and children to every man so well that the Sultan had to abandon his assaults after five days, Robinson writes: “By September 29 Saladin’s sappers had effected a breach in the wall. The Christians tried to fill and defend as best they could, although by now both sides knew that it was just a matter of time. The Greek Orthodox Christians in the city got word out to Saladin that they would open the gates to him, in exchange for his mercy.  They had come to bitterly resent the arrogant Roman clergy who had forced them to attend church services alien to their traditions, conducted in a language they did not understand. They would welcome a return to the religious tolerance they had enjoyed under Muslim rule.”

This utter nonsense. The Greek Orthodox had NOT enjoyed “religious tolerance” under the Muslims. They had been taxed, disenfranchised and persecuted to the point where they had appealed to Constantinople for aid -- aid that came in the form of the First Crusade. Furthermore, they were NOT forced to attend Latin church services. They retained their priests and their language and their rites -- only the Bishops had been replaced by Latin Bishops (which offended the displaced bishops but affected the vast majority of Orthodox Christians not at all). Last but not least, people facing slavery and slaughter can be forgiven for searching for any way out of their situation; it implies absolutely nothing about overall attitudes of Orthodox residents toward the Crusader States.There is plenty of evidence that suggests the Greek Orthodox were very loyal to the Christian kingdom.

The description is facile, superficial and just bad history. This is nothing but a thoughtless regurgitation of something someone else said (but without attribution). Robinson has not adequately analyzed it nor provided supporting evidence.  If you want a really good history of the Templars I recommend Malcolm Barber’s The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.

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.