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Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Hattin" by John France - A Review

Despite its title, this book is not about the Battle of Hattin. Instead, it is a concise history of the historical events that led up to the crushing defeat of the army of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187, and an equally concise discussion of the aftermath and impact of Hattin right up to the present day. For anyone interested in understanding the rhetoric about “crusades” in the context of today’s conflict with ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al Qaida, this book is an incredibly useful starting point.

“Hattin” is only 168 pages long, contains useful maps, a collection of interesting photographs and a useful bibliography. Despite its brevity, on the whole it avoids over simplification and the usual misrepresentations of basic facts. France, for example, makes clear right on page 3 that “many parts of the Middle East, especially those areas seized by the westerners, were not Muslim at all but eastern Christian: their populations often welcomed the new rulers.” He highlights the fact, so often forgotten or ignored today, that Muslim raiders had burned St. Peter’s in Rome in 847 and draws attention to the very real fear of Islamic expansion and conquest that shaped European attitudes right up to the First Crusade. Yet he also notes that once the crusader states had been established “the western settlers were far from fanatical, understanding the importance of exploiting Muslim divisions.” (p.37)

France does a remarkable job of making the complex and (particularly to Western eyes) very confusing divisions and rivalries within the Muslim world comprehensible. He manages to boil down the intrigues that led to Saladin’s seizure of power in Egypt to the essentials, and likewise avoids the usual drivel about the barons of Jerusalem being self-seeking and exceptionally greedy or perversely divided. France notes soberly: “All aristocracies were inevitably divided by factional struggles in which personal likes and dislikes played a major role.” (p.65) In short, there was nothing particularly unique about this in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and nothing inherently fatal about it. France also highlights that “the barons of Jerusalem were not, for the most part, fanatics…but they were fiercely and proudly Catholic and deeply aware of the dangers posed by their Muslim neighbours to their very existence…As a whole they were quite prepared to deal peacefully with the Muslims, but they were also aware that they needed to be strong….”

France does his best to reconstruct the Battle of Hattin itself, but given the absence of first-hand Christian accounts the task is nearly impossible. The contradictions in later accounts written with the benefit of hindsight and designed to serve various contemporary agendas and biases, make a variety of interpretations both plausible and defensible. France’s account is no more than one plausible interpretation, and he only devotes 15 pages to the battle itself. This is completely justifiable as the book far from being about tactical details of no particular relevance in the 21st century but rather about the impact of Hattin both strategically and ideologically.

France’s most valuable contribution to the literature on the crusades and Hattin is his last chapter titled “Hattin Today: A Poisoned Heritage.” In this chapter he not only traces and explains the emergence of the “chivalrous” Saladin myth in the 13th and later centuries, he catalogues the various ways in which Saladin and Hattin have been harnessed to modern ideologies and aspirations from the Ottoman empire to ISIS.  France argues, “the European myth of Saladin arose from the desire among the military aristocracy to show the victor as a worthy, indeed praiseworthy opponent who, underneath it all, is ‘one of us’ in some sense.” (p. 142) In the Muslim world, on the other hand, by the 19th century “the crusader-imperialist linkage catered to the growing sense of victimhood across Islam….” Later, he notes, “the parallel between the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem and Israel, which occupied much the same territory, provided a permanent reminder of the crusading past.” (p. 152) He notes that Saddam Hussein gave one of his divisions the name “Saladin” — and built a statue of himself dressed as Saladin. The PLO had both a “Saladin” and a “Hattin” brigade. The Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS to this day lay claim “to the inheritance of Saladin and aspire to cleave a way to a new Hattin.” (p. 159)

Given the very real fact that Hattin has, as France puts it, “become a rallying cry for radical Islamic groups, and a factor in the politics of hate in the Middle East,” (p. 168) anyone who wants to understand international affairs today owes it to himself to read this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The battle of Hattin is a key event in:

Defender of Jerusalem won the 2015 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction set in the Middle Ages and the Silver for Spiritual/Religious Fiction in the 2015 Feathered Quill Book Awards. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Reluctant Crusader? Henry II and the Holy Land

Henry II's Effigy on his Tomb at Frontevralt.
Henry II of England is not remembered as a crusader. Afterall, although he took crusader vows, he never actually went to the Holy Land. Indeed, most historians credit Henry II with disdaining crusading in preference to building an empire at home. Yet a focus on Henry’s legacy in the West obscures the fact that his ties to -- and arguably his concerns for -- the Holy Land were much closer than is commonly remembered. 

First of all, his grandfather, Fulk d’Anjou, was King of Jerusalem.  He had turned over French his inheritance to his son Geoffrey in order to go to the Holy Land and marry the heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Melisende. Thus Henry's father, Geoffrey d’Anjou, was half-brother to Kings Baldwin III (reigned 1143 – 1162) and Amalaric I (1162-1174) of Jerusalem. Henry II himself was first cousin to the ill-fated Baldwin IV of Jerusalem (King 1174-1185) and both his sisters, Sibylla (Queen of Jerusalem 1186-1190) and Isabella (Queen of Jerusalem 1190 -1204.)
The Arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

As early as 1166, Henry levied a crusading tax. Although we know little about this tax it significantly pre-dates the murder of Thomas of Becket or the crises in the Holy Land brought on by the rise of Saladin and the leprosy of Baldwin IV. Rather, it coincides with a period of crusader strength and aggression as Amalric I led multiple invasions of Egypt. As such, this tax tells us significantly that Henry was not responding to clerical pressure to "rescue" Jerusalem. It is far more likely he was responding to a request from his cousin for financial assistance to expand Angevin interests on the other side of the Mediterranean. Henry II in 1166 was at the peak of his power. Neither his wife nor his sons had yet rebelled against him. Louis VII was still King of France. Henry II had nothing to fear at home. He may have been bored and looking for new fields of endeavor. A crusade may have appealed to his sense of adventure and family pride. We will never know. 
After Thomas of Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, however, Henry II publicly took the cross in 1172, and promised to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This obviously was intended as penance and very different in character from helping his cousin on an aggressive campaign. Yet Henry's willingness to take the cross may have reflected an underlying interest in going to the Holy Land anyway. Before he could depart, however, his wife and eldest three sons rose up in revolt against his authority and he was formally excused by the Pope from fulfilling his crusader vow. 
In 1177, however, Henry II again pledged to go on crusade. The context this time was a treaty with France that was intended in part to distract the Kings of England and France from preying upon each other and turn their aggressive instincts and mercenary armies on the foes of Christendom rather than each other. But the hostility between  Plantagenet and Capet could not be patched over with a pledge to go fight in the Holy Land -- certainly not at a time when all seemed well in Jerusalem. After all, it was in November 1177 that Baldwin IV decisively defeated Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard. So nothing came of this crusading vow.

Yet, Henry's failure to actually go on crusade is not proof of indifference to the Holy Land. On the contrary, Henry's concern for his cousin's kingdom was documented by annual contributions to a crusade fund. The money was entrusted in equal amounts to the Templars and Hospitallers. This means that the money could be deposited in London, and paid out in Jerusalem through the networks of the Templars and Hospitallers. This was hard cash that went to the vaults of the Templars and Hospitaller in Jerusalem year after year to ensure that King Henry would have the funds he needed to recruit, equip, pay and feed an appropriate force of troops when he did reach Jerusalem on crusade

In 1182, Henry Plantagenet fell ill. He thought he was on his deathbed and made a will. The largest money bequests were to the Holy Land. He bequeathed 5,000 marks (a mark was a measure of currency equal to 2/3 of a pound sterling) to each the Templars and the Hospitallers for the defense of the Holy Land. He left an additional 5,000 marks to the militant orders to use jointly in the defense of the Holy Land. In short, he left 15,000 marks, or 10,000 pounds sterling -- an enormous sum in the late 12th century -- to the military orders for the defense of the Holy Land.

Since he did not die in 1182, this money never reached the crusader kingdom, but the very next year, after initial resistance, Henry II was persuaded to finance a crusade by his eldest son, Henry the Young King. It is debatable whether the Young King ever intended to go on crusade or not, so perhaps it was an easy promise for his father to make.  

By 1184, the situation in the Holy Land had deteriorated dramatically. Baldwin IV of Jerusalem was dying, and his co-king Baldwin V, the young child of his sister, was also sickly. The next obvious candidate to succeed Baldwin IV was his sister Sibylla, but she was married to a completely unsuitable man, Guy de Lusignan. The King of Jerusalem therefore took the desperate measure of sending the Masters of the Hospital and Temple along with the Patriarch of Jerusalem to the West with an unusual plea. He did not ask for a new crusade, as so often in the past. Instead his emissaries took with them the keys to the Tower of David and the Holy Sepulcher -- the symbols of secular and sacred power in Jerusalem. Their mission was to convince the Western rulers to send not an army but a prince -- someone to step into the dying king's footsteps.  

Henry's reaction is again used as evidence of his reluctance to crusade, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem bitterly accused Henry of duplicity and procrastination. Certainly, he failed to answer the call and forbade his youngest son John from going on crusade as well. Yet Henry himself had put the question to his barons of whether he was to be King of England or Jerusalem because he could not be both. There is nothing inherently deceitful about putting England (Normandy, Anjou and Maine) ahead of distant Jerusalem. Henry was no longer at the peak of power. He was fighting for his survival and that of his "empire." 
Finally, when the news reached him in 1187 of the fall of Jerusalem and the desperate straits of the Kingdom, Henry II again took a crusader vow. While many historians (and even more novelists) disparage this as a ploy, it is just as possible that he was sincere – so long as those who coveted his kingdom and threatened his crown, Philip II of France and his son Richard – went on crusade with him. We will never know how sincere his intentions were because he died before the Third Crusade got underway.

Meanwhile, however, his treasure had already played a crucial role in the history of Jerusalem. There are no figures for just how large King Henry’s treasure was, but money had deposited annually since 1172 and the figure of 30,000 silver marks is often named. Significantly, the money had been entrusted to the militant orders for safe keeping, and distributed equally between them, rather than favoring one over the other. This, unintentionally, resulted in his treasure having two very different uses.
In 1187, as Saladin prepared to launch an all-out offensive against the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, King Guy had little choice but to call-up a levee en masse to put the largest force possible in the way of the invaders. Against a force of 45,000 including some 12,000 cavalry, King Guy could muster only about 1,000 knights, 4,000 light horse and some 15,000 infantry. In light of this, the Grand Master of the Templars, Gerard de Ridefort, handed over King Henry’s treasure to finance more fighting men. It is unclear from the sources whether these were mercenaries, light troops, or, as some say, the outfitting of 200 additional knights. In any case, Henry II’s money helped contribute to the army that marched out to meet Saladin – and was destroyed on the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187.

Hans Eberhard Mayer makes the point that the Grand Master of the Temple made the decision to break into King Henry's treasure without the permission of the English King.  He further suggests that it was fear of the great Angevin's wrath that forced Guy de Lusignan's hand at Hattin. Having effectively stolen King Henry's treasure, Guy de Lusignan (or at any rate the Templar Master, who had violated the Templar's code of trustworthiness) needed a victory to justify such an unprecedented act. Mayer writes:

"The opening of Henry's treasure gave the Templar master a disproportionate influence on the king. But what counted more was the predictable wrath of Henry II when he learnt about the opening. It could be justified, and Henry's wrath cooled, only by a spectacular success ....[A]lready at the time when the army was assembled, precautions had been taken to pacify Henry when the King of Jerusalem ordered that the soldiers hired with English money should fight under the English flag. The hoped for success was to be presented to Henry as being due largely to his money, but first there had to be success at practically all costs."  (Hans Eberhard Mayer, "Henry II of England," Kings and Lords in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Variorum, 1194, p. 737.)

The Grand Master of the Hospitallers, however, did not release King Henry’s treasure in advance of the Battle of Hattin. The money Henry II had deposited with the Hospitallers for the Holy Land was still in Jerusalem when the city surrendered to Saladin in October 1187. The terms of the surrender allowed the residents 40 days to raise a ransom of 10 dinars per man, 5 dinars per woman and 2 dinars per child. Those who failed to pay the ransom, became slaves by right of conquest at the end of the 40 days. 
At the time these terms were negotiated, the Christian defender of Jerusalem, Balian d’Ibelin, knew that there were 40,000 (some sources say 100,000) refugees in the city.  He knew that many of these were destitute, having lost all they owned to Saladin already. They were in no position to pay their ransom. Ibelin therefore negotiated the release of 18,000 poor for a lump sum of 30,000 dinars. 

Sources differ, however, on where this money was to come from. Some suggest that it came from King Henry’s treasure, but others suggest the initial sum was paid from the treasury of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but that it soon became evident that there were many more poor in the city than Ibelin had estimated – or had the resources to ransom. (He’d lost all his lands to Saladin already too.) It was at this juncture, they say, that the Hospitallers handed over King Henry’s treasure to ransom as many of the poor as they could. In the end, even Henry’s treasure was not enough and some 15,000 Christians were sold into slavery. Nevertheless, King Henry of England played an important role in ransoming thousands of Christians trapped in Jerusalem, minimizing the number sold into slavery. His son, of course, played an even greater role in rescuing the Kingdom from complete obliteration, but that is another story….

The Battle of Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 are described in the second book of my Balian d'Ibelin series, Defender of Jerusalem.

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

How to Plan a Crusade by Christopher Tyerman

This book came highly recommended and provides a wealth of valuable information for anyone interested in understanding the society that produced the crusades. Organized by topic rather than chronologically, it examines topics all too often ignored in more conventional histories from finance to health, safety and supply. Most important, it documents the immense amount of planning, coordination, organization and expense that went into mounting a massive military campaign across vast distances in the age of horse and sailing ships. 

After reading this book, no one can be in any doubt about how sophisticated, literate and well-organized medieval society was during the centuries in which crusading was undertaken. The book systematically and meticulously debunks notions of “spontaneous” movements by wild-eyed religious fanatics. It also highlights that in many ways crusader organization puts modern planning, blessed with all the advantages of digital technology, to shame.

The weakness of the book is that it never fully transcends the academic milieu from which it originated. Tyerman meticulously documents his opinions, citing “chapter and verse” of what feels like each and every single example that supports his argument. The result is that what he is saying often gets lost in the supporting documentation. In short, the book bogs down in details and rapidly became a slog through facts rather than providing stimulating new insight.  The book would have benefited from more rigorous editing that placed much of the supporting evidence in the foot- or end-notes and focused on the gist of the arguments.  

My novels set in the crusader states try to reflect the complexity and sophistication outlined academically by Mr. Tyerman.

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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