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Friday, November 25, 2016

Montgisard, November 25, 1177

On November 25, 1177 a Frankish army under the command of a 16-year-old leper routed the army of the mighty Sultan of Cairo and Damascus, Salah al-Din. It was a surprise victory to say the least, and won by a mere fragment of the Frankish chivalry (because a large portion of the knights of the kingdom were campaigning in the north) and the hastily summoned, amateur infantry of the arrière ban. 

In 1177, Salah-al-Din (known in the West as Saladin) launched a full-scale invasion of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It was less than ten years since Saladin had assassinated his way to power in the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, and only three years since the coup d’etat in Damascus by which he had established himself in the heart of Syria. Although he had yet to take the key cities of Aleppo and Mosul (both of which remained loyal to the son of Nur ad-Din), Saladin had, for the most part, united the Caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad for the first time in 200 years. However, his hold on power was precarious. In Egypt he faced suspicion and opposition because he was Sunni, and in Syria he was viewed as a usurper and upstart because he was a Kurd and had stolen the Sultanate from the rightful heir.

A Contemporary Depiction of Salah-ad-Din from an Islamic Manuscript

Saladin countered these internal doubts and dissatisfaction with his rule with the age-old device of focusing attention on an external enemy: the Christian states established by the crusaders along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. These states represented not merely a military threat to his lines of communication between Egypt and Syria, but had also five times in the 1160s invaded Egypt. The Frankish campaigns in Egypt were not all been wars of aggression, as in three of them the Shia Viziers had requested Christian help against their Sunni enemies.  Nevertheless, the fact remained that army of Jerusalem, often aided by Byzantine fleets, had conducted repeated campaigns on Egyptian territory and once come close to capturing Cairo.

Saladin did not simply beat the drum of alarm concerning an external enemy in order to rally his subjects around him; he took up the cry of “jihad” — Holy War. This was a clear attempt to increase his stature vis-a-vis his remaining rivals in Syria. Salah al-Din means “righteousness of the faith,” and Salah al-Din throughout his career used campaigns against the Christian states as a means of rallying support.

Another depiction of Saladin; Source Unknown

Saladin had not invented jihad. The word itself appears multiple times in the Koran, but with varying meanings. It was also used as justification for the Muslim conquests of the 7th Century.  It had, however, become less popular in later centuries until Nur ad-Din, the Seljuk ruler of Syria from 1146-1174, reinvigorated the concept. Most historians agree, however, that Nur ad-Din used jihad when it suited him, but remained a fundamentally secular ruler. He had, however, unleashed the jinni from the bottle and the concept of “Holy War” soon gained increasing support in the madrassas and mosques across the Seljuk territories of the Near East. By the time Saladin came to power there was a body of already radicalized youth eager to follow the call to jihad.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, King Amalaric, who had been so intent on conquering parts if not all of Egypt, had died.  He had been succeeded by Baldwin IV, a youth suffering from leprosy. Conscious of his own weakness and imminent death, Baldwin IV sent to the West for aid, and in early August 1177, Count Philip of Flanders reached Acre with a large force of Western knights.

On the advice of the High Court, Baldwin IV offered Philip of Flanders the regency of his kingdom, whose armies were preparing yet another invasion of Egypt aided by a large Byzantine fleet. Flanders, however, insisted on being made king of any territories the joint Christian forces conquered. The idea did not sit well with either the King of Jerusalem or the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, both of whom were footing the bill and providing the bulk of the troops for the expedition. The result was that the entire expedition was called off, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and Philip of Flanders took his knights and half the barons of Jerusalem north to attack the Seljuk strongholds of Hama and Harim instead.

A Medieval depiction of a Crusading Host

Salah ad-Din had gathered his forces in Egypt to repel the impending attack. He rapidly learned that not only had the invasion of Egypt been called off and the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn, but that the bulk of the fighting forces of Jerusalem had moved north. It was a splendid opportunity to strike, and the Sultan seized the opportunity with a force estimated at 26,000 light horse — which leaves open the question of whether infantry was with him or not. The force also allegedly included some 1,000 mamluks of the Sultan’s personal bodyguard.

According to an anonymous Christian chronicler from northern Syria, the news of Saladin’s invasion plunged Jerusalem into despair. The king was just 16 years old, had no battle experience of his own, and his most experienced commanders (or many of them) were besieging Hama. The Constable of the Kingdom, the competent and wise Humphrey de Toron II, was gravely ill. But according to Archbishop William of Tyre, Baldwin’s former tutor now his chancellor and our best contemporary source, Baldwin rallied his forces and with just 376 knights made a dash to Ascalon, the southern-most stronghold of his kingdom.

Arriving there only shortly before Saladin himself on November 22, King Baldwin took control of the city, but then hesitated to risk open battle with the Saracens because of the imbalance of forces.  Thus, while King Baldwin's dash to Ascalon had been heroic, it had been less than wise strategically. Salah ad-Din had effectively trapped the King and his knights inside Ascalon, and nothing lay between Saladin and Jerusalem except scattered garrisons. Rather than wasting time besieging a fortified city with a strong defending force, Saladin left a enough of his army behind to maintain the siege of Ascalon and moved off with the bulk of his troops.

But this was where Salah al-Din miscalculated. The Sultan and his emirs were so confident of victory that they took time to plunder the rich cities of the coastal plain, notably Ramla and Lydda, but also as far inland as Hebron. In Jerusalem, the terrified population sought refuge in the Citadel of David.

The Citadel of David as it appears today.
But Baldwin IV was not yet defeated. With the number of Saracen troops surrounding Ascalon dramatically reduced, he risked a sortie. He also got word to the Templars in the fortress of Gaza, and they sortied out to rendezvous with the King. Together this mounted force started to shadow Saladin’s now dispersed and no longer disciplined army. Frankish tactics, however, required a combination of cavalry and infantry, so King Baldwin could not engage the enemy until he had infantry as well. He therefore issued the arrière ban, a general call to arms that obligated every Christian to rally to the royal standard in defense of the realm. The burgesses started streaming to join him.

What happened next is usually depicted as a "miracle" or just "dumb luck." On the other hand, a number of modern historians, basing their assessment on Arab sources, claim that the real commander at Montgisard was Reynald de Chatillon, the Lord of Transjordan, but this is a red herring. Arab sources had absolutely no insight into the Frankish command structure. The most prominent fighter on the battlefield is not necessarily (indeed rarely) the actual commander. Furthermore, because Chatillon was a familiar figure to the Arabs, so he was recognized. Most important, Arab chroniclers were at pains to justify Saladin's summary execution of Chatillon ten years later after the Battle of Hattin by making Chatillon into a particularly dangerous enemy of Islam. Making him the mastermind of Montgisard fit this agenda, but it proves nothing about who actually devised the strategy and led the Frankish army to victory at Montgisard.

Michael Erhlich in a reassessment of the Battle of Montgisard published in Medieval Military History [Vol. XI, 2013, pp. 95-105] argues convincingly that the Franks lured Saladin into marshy ground, where his superiority of numbers could not come into play. He notes further that the effective use of terrain had to be based on intimate local knowledge of the countryside -- something Chatillon had no more than Saladin. Chatillon was a Frenchman, who had been prince of Antioch, then in Saracen captivity for 15 years, before becoming the Lord of Transjordan; he had no particular familiarity with the coastal plain.

Ehrlich contends compellingly that the kind of familiarity with the terrain necessary for springing the trap on Saladin came from “a local lord.” Not only does this make sense, but it was the custom of Frankish armies to give command of the vanguard of the army to the lord in whose territory an engagement occurred — and that was Baldwin d’Ibelin, Lord of Ramla. Indeed, the battle took place so close to Ramla that it is called the “Battle of Ramla” in the Arab sources.

On the afternoon of November 25, King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers lured Saladin's army into following them off the main road to Jerusalem and then, in territory where Saladin could not bring his numbers to bear, Baldwin's army struck. The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the Frankish army had over-run much of his army.

A modern portrayal of the Battle of Montgisard by Mariusz Kozik

Although the battle was hard-fought and there were Christian casualties, the Sultan’s forces were routed.  Not only that, Salah ad-Din himself came very close to being killed or captured and allegedly escaped on the back of a pack-camel. Yet for the bulk of his army there was no escape. Those who were not slaughtered immediately on the field, found themselves scattered and virtually defenseless in enemy territory. Although they abandoned their plunder, it was still a long way home — and the rains had set in.  Cold, wet, slowed down by the mud, no longer benefiting from the strength of numbers, they were easy prey for the residents and settlers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The latter, after the sack of Lydda, Ramla and other lesser places, had good reason to crave revenge. Furthermore, even after escaping Christian territory, the Sultan’s troops still found no refuge because once in the desert the Bedouins took advantage of the situation to enslave as many men as they could catch in order to enrich themselves. Very few men of the Sultan’s army made it home to safety in Egypt.

Saladin was badly shaken by this defeat. He had good reason to believe it would discredit him and initially feared it would trigger revolts against his rule. Later, he convinced himself that God had spared him for a purpose. Certainly he was to learn from his defeat. He never again allowed himself to be duped by his own over-confidence and his subsequent campaigns against the crusader states were marked by greater caution. It was not until the crushing defeat of the Frankish armies at Hattin in July 1187 — almost ten years later — that he had his revenge.

The Battle of Montgisard is an important episode in "Knight of Jerusalem," the first book in a three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Isabella, Princess of Jerusalem

Although she reigned as queen in her own right for twelve years, Isabella of Jerusalem is most often portrayed in history books and literature as a pawn. She was married four times, divorced once, and widowed thrice. She was the mother of six daughters and a single son, who died just weeks before Isabella herself. She had been besieged by Saladin on her first wedding night, was the object of a coup attempt, and endured the hardships of a siege camp during the Frankish siege of Acre 1189-1191. One husband spent more than year in Saracen captivity, another died in her arms after being struck down by assassins, and her third husband died at the age of 33 in a bizarre accident. Isabella died, possibly from the complications of her son’s birth, at the age of 32. 

Isabella’s life was short, eventful and tragic, but writing Isabella off as a pawn of the men around her does no justice to a woman who played a crucial role in the history of the Holy Land. In two entries, I will be examining her life and role in history. Today, her life as princess, and later her life as queen.

Isabella was the daughter of King Amalric (also Aimery) of Jerusalem by his second wife, Maria Comnena, who was a great niece of the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I. Isabella was born in early or mid-1172, or 11 and 12 years respectively after her father’s son and daughter by his first wife. At the time of Isabella’s birth, her half-brother Baldwin had already been diagnosed with leprosy, so there can be little doubt that her sex was a disappointment to her father; King Amalric had undoubtedly hoped for a son that might replace the stricken Baldwin as his heir. (It was the custom in the Kingdom of Jerusalem for noblemen who contracted leprosy to renounce their secular titles and join the religious Order of St. Lazarus.) Amalric was still young (in his thirties), and his wife Maria not yet twenty, however, so he undoubtedly hoped the vital male heir would yet be forthcoming.

Just two years later, however, Amalric fell victim to dysentery and died suddenly. Isabella’s half-brother Baldwin was recognized as King of Jerusalem, and placed under the regency of the Count of Tripoli. Isabella’s mother was now a widow at just 21 years, and retired from court to the wealthy barony of Nablus, her dower portion. Nablus was known for its scents and soaps, and for its large, cosmopolitan population of Jews, Orthodox, Latin Christians, and Muslims. (The latter were specifically granted the right to engage in the haj to Mecca.) One imagines it must have been an exciting place to grown up.

Three years later, when Isabella was just five years old, her mother chose a new husband. Maria Comnena’s choice fell on the younger (landless) brother of the wealthy Baron of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel (see Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin). The King, who explicitly sanctioned the marriage, was probably responsible for persuading the Baron if Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel to transfer the comparatively insignificant barony of Ibelin to his younger brother to ensure he was a more “suitable” match for the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem. Thus, Maria became the Lady of Ibelin, and her second husband, Balian, became Isabella’s step-father ― and, indeed, the first and only father whom Isabella and consciously known.

Initially Isabella remained with her mother and step-father, spending time (one presumes) at both Nablus and Ibelin. She soon had two new half-siblings, a sister Helvis and a brother John, born to her mother and step-father. Her idyllic childhood, however, came to an abrupt end at the age of eight. The King’s mother, Agnes de Courtenay, had long been a bitter rival of Maria Comnena because the latter had replaced her in her husband’s bed and been crowned queen in her place (See Agnes de Courtenay). By 1180, Agnes enjoyed the King’s confidence sufficiently to be able to influence him. She convinced him that his half-sister was a threat, who needed to be completely “controlled” by people loyal to the Courtenays. The means to achieve purely political objective was to betrothe the eight-year-old Isabella to another pawn, the underage nobleman Humphrey de Toron. 

Humphrey was himself firmly under the control of  his widowed mother and her new and already notorious husband: Reynald de Châtillon (See Rogue Baron).  Thus, Isabella was taken from the only family she had ever known -- over the furious objections of her mother and step-father -- to live as a virtual prisoner in one of the most exposed and bleak castles of the kingdom on the very edge of Sinai: Kerak. She was, furthermore, in the hands of the brutal and godless Reynald de Châtillon. To add insult to injury, his lady prohibited the child from visiting her parents for the next three years. In this phase of her life, Isabella was indeed nothing but a pawn.

Interior of Kerak

In late 1183, for reasons lost to history, someone (Châtillon? The King? Agnes de Courtenay?) decided it was time for Isabella and Humphrey to marry. Isabella was only eleven and below the canonical age of consent; she had nothing to say in the matter. Her mother and step-father were not present and presumably not consulted. Humphrey was by now at least fifteen and possibly a couple years older, which may have prompted the marriage as there was the risk that, now that he did have a say over his affairs, he might haven chosen to break the betrothal. A marriage on the other hand could not be so easily reversed. Whatever the reasons, the marriage was planned and the nobility of Outremer invited to attend.

Instead, the castle of Kerak found itself under siege by the forces of Saladin, while the bulk of the barons of Jerusalem were attending a session of the High Court in Jerusalem. Trapped inside were largely their ladies, notably Isabella’s mother, who was seeing her daughter for the first time in three years, Isabella’s half-sister Sibylla (now 23 and married for a second time), and the Queen Mother Agnes de Courtenay. The siege lasted roughly two months before the Army of Jerusalem under Baldwin IV came to the castle’s relief. Although no harm came to any of the high-born guests, Isabella spent her wedding night in a castle under siege and bombardment. (Allegedly, Saladin agreed to spare the tower in which the nuptials were taking place, but continued bombarding the rest of the castle with his siege engines.) Furthermore, we can assume there was considerable uncertainty about when the relief army would arrive and whether food and water would last until help came --  not to mention that the sanitary conditions in a castle crowded with townspeople and extra guests must have been quite unpleasant. It was not an auspicious start to married life, even for an eleven-year-old. 

The next phase of Isabella’s life is poorly recorded. Humphrey de Toron, selected as Isabella’s husband by a woman bitterly hostile to her, lived-up to her expectations of spinelessness. He surrendered (voluntarily?) his important barony of Toron to Agnes de Courtenay’s brother, Jocelyn of Edessa, taking a “money fief” (read: pension) instead. Isabella and he appear to have lived in town houses in either Acre or Jerusalem. For Isabella the implications of her husband’s abdication of effective baronial power may not have been evident (she was only eleven after all), and she probably enjoyed at last being able to visit with her mother, step-father and Ibelin half-siblings (of which there were now four).

Then in 1186, the boy King Baldwin V, who had succeeded the “Leper” King Baldwin IV, died without a direct heir. The barons of Jerusalem had sworn to seek the advice of the Kings of England and France, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, but they were far away. Furthermore, Isabella’s half-sister, the mother of Baldwin V and sister of Baldwin IV, felt that she ought to succeed to the throne. While no one doubted her claim, the majority of barons and bishops abhorred her husband and so resisted crowning her. Without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem but with the help of the Templars and Reynald de Châtillon, Sibylla contrived to have herself crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; she then crowned her husband Guy de Lusignan as her consort. 

Sibylla and Guy from the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
The majority of the barons and bishops were not in Jerusalem to witness Sibylla’s usurpation of the throne; they were meeting in Nablus to discuss options. The news that Sibylla had seized the throne and crowned her detested husband, pushed them to take action. It was agreed that Isabella, as the other surviving child of King Amalric, should be crowned in Bethlehem as a rival (but in this case legitimate because chosen by the High Court) queen to Sibylla. Automatically, her husband would by law become her consort and so king. But the barons had not reckoned with Humphrey de Toron’s cowardice and/or duplicity. Either from fear or simply because he remained abjectly loyal to his step-father, Humphrey foiled the baronial plot by sneaking away during the night to do homage to Sibylla and Guy. Without an alternative rallying point, the baronial resistance to Sibylla/Guy’s coup d’etat collapsed. 

That is all recorded history, but what is left out of it is how Isabella felt. Did Isabella side with her husband ― and the man who had kept her imprisoned for three years? Or did she side with her mother and step-father, who both vehemently opposed Sibylla’s usurpation of the throne? Did fourteen-year-old Isabella want to be queen? Or not? We have no way of knowing. 

But just because the historical record is silent, we should not assume that she simply didn’t care. The historical record that we have is scanty and written almost exclusively by male clerics, who rarely considered the opinions or actions of women important. The fact that they took no interest in Isabella’s feelings should not induce us to do the same. We know that Isabella, like most of the barons except Tripoli and her step-uncle of Ramla and Mirabel, accepted the fait accompli, but most of the barons (and presumably bishops) nevertheless deeply resented what Sibylla and Guy (on one hand) and Humphrey (on the other) had done. Isabella may have been in an identical situation: she had to accept what Humphrey had done and make her peace with Sibylla and Guy, but she may also have resented it, possibly intensely. It might even have created marital tensions.

Whatever her feelings, however, history was about to swamp her with new problems. Less than a year after usurping the crown, Guy de Lusignan led the Army of Jerusalem to an unnecessary and devastating defeat (See Hattin.) Not only was the battle lost, thousands of fighting men were slaughtered, the remainder enslaved, and the bulk of the barons of Jerusalem were taken captive; among them was Isabella’s ever ineffective husband Humphrey.

There are various versions of what happened next. Saladin evidently offered to release Humphrey in exchange for the surrender of the critically important Frankish border fortresses of Oultrejourdain (which Humphrey had just inherited because Saladin had personally decapitated Reynald de Châtillon). According to some (probably romanticized) versions, Humphrey arrived home, only to have the garrisons refuse to obey his orders, at which point he voluntarily (or at his mother’s “loving” urging) returned to Saracen captivity. It is more probable that Humphrey’s release was contingent on the surrender of Kerak and Montreal, and the surrender never occurred (no chivalrous return from freedom to captivity.) Either version of events, however, underlines the fact that Humphrey was 1) prepared to surrender vitally important fortresses just for the sake of his freedom and 2) that the men of the garrisons had so little respect for him they did not follow his instructions.  Both castles, however, were eventually reduced by siege, and at that point Saladin agreed to release Humphrey as he served no useful purpose in prison. 

Humphrey and Isabella were reunited in early 1189 after roughly 18 months of separation. Where Isabella had been between the catastrophe of Hattin and her reunion with Humphrey is unrecorded. Most likely, she was with her mother and step-father, because her stepfather had managed to escape the trap at Hattin. With King Guy and most of the High Court in captivity, Ibelin was unquestionably one of the most important men in the entire kingdom (Arab chronicles from the period refer to him as “like a king.”) Furthermore, he commanded the respect of those fighting men who had, with him, escaped capture. It would, therefore, have been logical for Isabella to seek his protection in this period. 

Ibelin was in Tyre, the only city in the entire kingdom that did not fall or surrender to Saladin in the wake of Hattin. Also in Tyre at this time was Conrad de Montferrat. Montferrat was the brother of Sibylla’s first husband, uncle of Baldwin V, and related to both the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France, in short a man of very high birth and good connections. More important, he had taken command of the defense of Tyre in a critical moment and enjoyed the support of the people, residents and refugees, crowded into it. If she was in Tyre, Isabella and Conrad would have met and probably known each other well.
When Humphrey returned from captivity, however, he joined not the men who had successfully defended what was left of the kingdom but the architect of the disaster: Guy de Lusignan. Thus when Guy de Lusignan (for no logical reason) decided to besiege Saracen held Acre, Humphrey went with him. Significantly, Isabella accompanied him

A siege camp is not a pleasant place for anyone, much less a high-born lady, which begs the question: why would Isabella choose to expose herself to the sordid life-style and the mortal hazards of a siege? Was it love of her husband? The passionate desire not to be separated from him again after the eighteen months of forced separation caused by his captivity? Did she go to at the insistence of her half-sister Sibylla, who was also at the siege with her two infant daughters and could have commanded the attendance of her little sister? Did Humphrey insist on Isabella coming with him because he was jealous of a budding friendship between Isabella and Montferrat? Did King Guy command her to come (and Humphrey dutifully comply) because he (Guy) feared she might be used by the barons (who had always opposed him and now detested him more than ever) to challenge his (much tarnished) right to the throne? 

We will never know. The only thing that is certain is that she was still there in November of 1190, when her half-sister Sibylla and both her nieces died of fever. In the eyes of the High Court, which had favored her since the constitutional crisis of 1186, Isabella was no longer a princess but the rightful queen of Jerusalem.

Isabella is an important character in both:

Defender of Jerusalem 


Envoy of Jerusalem 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Crusader Medical Care: Licensed Practitioners and Malpractice Legislation

Medical care in the crusader states benefited from close contact with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and the Muslim world, not only with respect to the development of hospitals but also with respect to innovative treatment, licensing and malpractice legislation. Furthermore, contrary to conventional wisdom, the standard of treatment was remarkably sophisticated and included highly complex procedures from hernia and cataract operations to (limited) brain surgery.  Perhaps most surprising of all, innovation was not a one-way-street, but in some instances Western medical practitioners were ahead of their Arab and Greek contemporaries. Below is a short summary of highlights I gleaned from Piers D. Mitchell’s seminal work Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon. Piers D. Mitchell is an osteoarchaeologist.

Treating Trauma

The crusades to the Holy Land were “armed pilgrimages” or military campaigns to regain control of the land in which Christ had lived and died; as such they resulted in very large numbers of battlefield casualties.  Indeed, based on available records Mitchell calculates that between 15 and 20 % of knights on crusade died in battle or as a result of wounds obtained there; the proportion of foot soldiers lost due to military engagement was probably higher.  Nevertheless and surprisingly for modern readers, very many more survived their wounds due to competent medical treatment.

In the 12 and 13th centuries, the weapons employed produced first and foremost puncture wounds (from arrows, lances and swords), followed by cuts/amputations caused by swords and axes, fractures/crushed bones caused by maces and stones thrown from siege engines, and, last but not least burns from Greek fire, boiling pitch and water. The fundamental treatment for each of these kinds of wounds does not differ significantly from what is recommended today.

Medieval medical practitioners and soldiers, for example, understood the essential fact that a man can bleed to death. When treating puncture wounds, stopping hemorrhaging was, then as now, the primary concern. The difference between arteries and veins was likewise understood, and the need to stop arterial bleeding as rapidly as possible recognized. The use of tourniquet and precise cauterizing were both known, and surgeons were expected to be able to close off arterial bleeding with their fingers long enough to apply a cautery.  Not only is the procedure for this carefully described in medical texts of the period, there are numerous recorded instances of men surviving this treatment and recovering so completely that they could fight again without impediment.

While amputations were likewise cauterized and cuts bound, or if necessary, sewn back together, arrows presented additional problems. Although it would have been rare for an arrow to hit an artery, the arrow itself often remained in the wound and the need to remove it was paramount. But many arrows were designed to do more damage if pulled backwards (out the way they went in) by the addition of barbs or the shape of the arrow head itself.  Medieval surgeons therefore had the option of pushing it through the injured man and out the other side, or waiting for the wound to putrefy and the surrounding tissue to become soft enough to make it easier to remove.  Horrible as this sounds, the fact that many knights are described fighting with multiple arrows stuck into their armor suggests that it may have been comparatively rare for an arrow to become so deeply embedded that it was life-threatening ― without killing outright as in the case of arrows to the throat, eyes, armpits etc.

In the case of broken bones, the need to set bones to ensure they mended straight and functional was likewise recognized. Bones were held in place by splints, bandaging or plaster ― or a combination thereof. In the case of burns, the primary concern was to prevent blisters from forming and the wound from completely drying. Moist cooling of the wound was thus the recommended treatment, whether by means of placing the affected limb in a bowl of liquid, applying wet compresses soaked in herbs or the application of ointments. 


Surprisingly (at least for me), the use of anesthetics during operations or the treatment of wounds was common.  An anesthetic was given to the patient either in a drink (usually wine) or placed on a sponge that was then held to his/her nose. Mitchell notes that the various plants recommended for preparing anesthetics (e.g. henbane, hemlock, poppy, deadly nightshade, mandragora root and lettuce seed to name a few) have been demonstrated to have pain-killing and or sedative effects. He hypothesizes that “cocktails” combining several of the recommended ingredients could have been very potent ― and dangerous if the dose was miscalculated or the extracts improperly prepared. Patients in the crusader states were lucky to have ready access to one of the most effective narcotics known to man: opium. Mitchell writes that there is evidence of its use for medicinal (rather than recreational) purposes by the Franks in the crusader states.


While the fatal danger of infection was widely recognized and feared, the cause was not understood. As a result, some medieval medical practices contributed to infection. Once infection occurred, however, medieval doctors attempted to cure it. The successful use of vinegar, which has strong antiseptic properties, is recorded in treating festering wounds and severe burns, for example. Medieval doctors also understood the need to drain festering wounds.  Mitchell notes no significant differences between crusader treatment for infection that standard practice elsewhere.

Licensed Practitioners

The notion of licensing medical practitioners, on the other hand, appears to have been inspired by a widespread Muslim practice in this period. Significantly, it is recorded in the crusader states at a time when it was unknown in the West. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, all medical practitioners, regardless of their place of origin, religion, or culture, were required to undergo an examination by a local board of experts in order to practice in a given locality. The board of examiners was composed of the most respected physicians already in residence, and they conducted the exam under the supervision of the local bishop ― not because the bishop was deemed a medical expert, but rather to provide a neutral chairman/mediator. Somewhat cumbersome about the procedure was that the license was only valid for the city in which it was issued, making it difficult for a doctor to be itinerant. Nevertheless, the practice did provide a degree of protection against charlatans and quacks. It also ensured that among licensed practitioners a comparatively high standard of medical knowledge was expected.

Malpractice Legislation

The laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem laid out clear penalties for “malpractice.”  A series of statutes in the Assises of Jerusalem stipulated which medical procedures ought to be applied in specific instances, and held a physician accountable if he failed to use these methods and the patient suffered permanent damage or death. These Frankish laws represent a radical new principle for the Christian West: namely that a doctor could be held accountable for the effects of his treatment ― and also for negligence or failure to treat a patient properly. Punishments for malpractice included beating, expulsion, amputation of the right thumb (effectively preventing future practice) and hanging. Another interesting feature of these laws is that some diseases, those deemed incurable, were exempt.  Likewise, the failure of a patient to follow the doctor’s instructions absolved the doctor of guilt.  Based on the description of these standard practices, Mitchell concludes that “a surprisingly high standard of theoretical knowledge and practical skills was expected of medical practitioners [in the crusader states].” (p. 231.)

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:

Daily life in the crusader states is depicted as accurately as possible in the award-winning "Jerusalem Trilogy."

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Diplomacy of the Third Crusade: Negotiating from Weakness

The Third Crusade, as was noted a few weeks ago, was the first -- but not the last -- crusade to end with a truce, meaning it was ended by diplomatic rather than military  means. It is therefore an interesting case-study in diplomacy at the interface between Christendom and the Dar al-Islam. It is particularly interesting because the principle actors, Richard the Lionheart and Salah ad-Din, are more famous as men of war rather than men of peace. The last entry looked at 1191 and the opening diplomatic moves, including the absurd offer by al-Adil to marry Richard's sister Joanna. Today’s entry looks at diplomacy in 1192 that led to the conclusion of a successful truce, the Treaty of Ramla, in early September.

As the year 1192 dawned (cold, bleak and snowy for the crusaders huddling outside Jerusalem), Richard of England faced the unpleasant task of convincing his exhausted army to withdraw back to the coast of Palestine. The advance on Jerusalem had been made against his better judgement because the bulk of the crusaders were motivated by sincere religious zeal to free Jerusalem from Muslim rule. 

As a seasoned military commander, on the other hand, Richard had rapidly recognized what the military orders and the local barons had pointed out: that the force he had was 1) unlikely to take Jerusalem by storm against a determined, well-supplied and well-lead defense (such as Saladin had at hand), and 2) wholly inadequate to re-establish Christian control over Jerusalem for an extended period, even if they did take it. The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi put it this way: "...[Jerusalem] could not have been held for long, because when the pilgrimage was completed the people would have gone home and there would not have been anyone left who could defend it."

On or about January 10, 1192 a council composed of representatives from all the contingents of the crusading army was persuaded by the arguments of the militant orders and the native barons that an assault on Jerusalem at this point was pointless. A much demoralized crusader army riven by rivalries between the French and Richard's vassals withdrew back to the coast. Here Richard led his army to the coastal city of Ascalon, whose defenses had been torn down when Saladin evacuated and abandoned it the previous fall.

The significance of Ascalon was that it lay on Saladin's lines of communication and supply between Egypt and Syria. Throughout his reign, Saladin depended primarily upon Egyptian wealth to support his ambitious campaigns against both his Muslim rivals and the crusader states. If Ascalon was in Frankish hands, could be used for as a base for interdicting Saladin's supplies

But Richard by this point was thinking even farther: he saw Ascalon as a staging ground for an assault on Cairo itself. His reasoning was simple. Jerusalem was economically insignificant and religiously only of secondary interest to Islam, whose holy cities were Mecca and Medina. Cairo on the other hand was Saladin's treasury and power-base. In short, Saladin lost little more than prestige if he gave up Jerusalem, but he would likely lose his throne if he lost Cairo. Richard calculated that if he threatened Cairo (note, he didn't even have to capture it), Saladin would be forced to withdraw from Jerusalem. At that point, seeing that his own resources were not infinite, Richard was probably banking on a diplomatic solution: Richard expected to force Saladin to recognize the right of Christian rule over Jerusalem by treaty. That this was not a far-fetched idea was demonstrated by later crusades (5th and 6th) in which Muslim leaders indeed offered to surrender Jerusalem during negotiations. 

The ruins of Ascalon today. Copyright HPSchrader
The plan, however, came to naught because at this point the latent tensions between Richard and the large contingent of French crusaders (led by the Duke of Burgundy after King Philip's departure) came to a head. The French deserted and returned to Acre, leaving Richard's army too gutted to conduct offensive operations. Furthermore, it was while Richard was at Ascalon that word reached him of his brother John's revolt against him. His chancellor and justicars in England begged him to return to England, while the news that Philip of France was preparing to prey upon his continental possessions added further urgency to his return. 

Nevertheless, Richard was persuaded to remain in the Holy Land long enough for another assault on Jerusalem, although none of the essential facts had changed. The advance was duly made, and again ended short of its goal. Again the army withdrew back to the coast without having achieved the objective of the crusade: the liberation of Jerusalem

Notably throughout this period, we hear of no efforts on the part of either Richard or Saladin to seek a diplomatic solution. The reason seems clear: the Franks were steadily losing strength. Not only had they been forced to withdraw from Jerusalem twice, Saladin would have been well informed about the divisions and tensions within the crusader camp -- and about the dire situation in Richard's lands. Saladin had no reason to negotiate since he had every reason to expect he could win without a major battle or concessions at the negotiating table. Saladin had time on his side. He was winning and he knew it.

Medieval Wishful Thinking - Richard defeats Saladin in a joust.

Richard knew it too, and it was at this juncture that he tried to re-open negotiations with Saladin. He sent word to Saladin's brother that he was ready to consider a truce recognizing the status quo until such time as he could return with a fresh army to resume the crusade. The Sultan had no reason to agree to these terms, but he revealed how right Richard's reasoning on Cairo had been by insisting that first Ascalon be razed to the ground before he would even talk.

Clearly, Richard needed another military victory in order to bring Saladin to the negotiating table. Since the strategic goal was beyond reach with the resources he could command, he sought a tactical victory that was both obtainable and valuable, even if more limited in scope; he started to prepare the capture of the coast north of Tyre. This plan was intended to strengthen the viability of the remaining crusader states, by re-establishing contiguous Frankish control over the coast from Ascalon to Tripoli and beyond to the Principality of Antioch. The importance of this was that it would increase the probability that the crusader states would survive long enough for a new crusading army to be raised, equipped and sent from the West. Richard was already talking about bringing a new army to the Holy Land -- just as soon as he'd taught his younger brother and Philip of France a lesson at home. 

Before he could carry out even his modest tactical campaign, however, Saladin struck in his rear. The Sultan's army seized control of the vitally important city of Jaffa. Richard the Lionheart, the remnants of his crusading force and the fragile crusader states were once again on the defensive. Richard rushed back to Jaffa with just a handful of troops, while the army of Jerusalem started down the coastal road to the relief of Jaffa. In two separate engagements, Richard the Lionheart managed to not only secure Jaffa for the Franks, but to humiliate Saladin and demoralize his entire army. (See: The Battle of Jaffa Part I and II)

Now, and only now, was Saladin was willing to negotiate in earnest. Richard this time selected one of the most prominent barons of Jerusalem as his envoy, and a man who was known to hold Saladin's respect: Balian d'Ibelin. The choice is significant in that Richard and Ibelin had been at odds for much of Richard's stay in the Holy Land because of Ibelin's refusal to support Guy de Lusignan. Now, however, Richard had himself abandoned Guy in favor of his nephew Henri de Champagne, who had married the hieress of Jerusalem after her husband Cononrad de Montferrat was assassinated. 
The terms Ibelin negotiated left the Christians in control of the coastal strip only as far as Jaffa and Lydda. Ibelin's own baronies (Ramla, Mirabel and Ibelin) and the holy cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem remained in Saracen control. Worse, the Treaty required the Franks to destroy their strategic position on Saladin's lines-of-communication: Ascalon. The city was to be destroyed and left unoccupied by both sides. If these terms sound paltry or humiliating, it is important to remember that a year earlier the Franks had controlled only two isolated cities: Tyre and Acre. Furthermore, the overall strategic situation still overwhelmingly favored Saladin. Richard and the crusaders were going back to the West; the great crusade led by the three richest monarchs in Christendom was over. It is rather amazing that Saladin was prepared to negotiate at all, much less give the Franks a three-year and almost-nine-month breathing space. The Treaty reflects the fact that Saladin's own army was exhausted and demoralized and also wanted peace.

As so often in human history, the weapons are only put away after they have failed to achieve their objective, for if war is the continuation of politics by other means, it is by no means always successful.

The negotiation of the Treaty of Ramla is an important episode in "Envoy of Jerusalem."