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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Crusader Society Re-Visited: Rural Knights Living in Harmony with the Local Christian Population

For the better part of the 20th century, Frankish society in the Holy Land was depicted as a decadent urban elite, collecting rents from oppressed native farmers. Allegedly, the Franks were afraid to venture into the hostile environment of the countryside, not only because of an “ever-present” Saracen threat but also because they were hated by their own tenants and subjects. Some historians such as Joshua Prawer did not hesitate to draw parallels between Frankish rule in Palestine/Syria and apartheid in South Africa. 

Yet such conclusions, no matter how superficially convincing or confidently proclaimed, have been rendered obsolete by the meticulous studies and archaeological surveys conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. What follows is a short summary of the findings of these studies.  

In his seminal work Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Ellenblum, Ronnie. Cambridge University Press, 1998) Professor Ellenblum has catalogued the findings of meticulous (indeed tedious) study of legal documents recording the demarcation and/or sale and settlement of disputes over landed property combined with an intensive archaeological survey. The “data mining” of the documents enabled the “reconstruction” of entire villages ― property by property ― identifying in the process the origins and vocations of many of the inhabitants. The archaeological survey turned up roughly 200 Frankish settlements in the geographically limited area of the study alone. Most of these had never been heard of before, either because the settlements themselves had since been abandoned, ruined and obliterated by nature, or because their Frankish origins were hidden behind modern Arabic names and more recent construction.

This research revealed that Frankish rural settlement was much more widespread than had been previously assumed ― without evidence. The Franks, the survey proved, built large numbers of smaller towns and villages, often without walls or fortifications of any kind ― a clear indication that they did not feel as threatened as historians hypothesized. The survey further uncovered evidence of Frankish manor houses and farmhouses, of Frankish mills, irrigation, and terracing systems and of roads. The latter, as Ellenblum points out, required not only a major investment in construction but also a permanent investment in maintenance.  Perhaps most significant, the survey turned up hundreds of parish churches, an investment that underlined the fact that these villages were not inhabited by a Muslim peasant population. The villagers and permanent residents of these Frankish settlements were irrefutably Christian since churches need not be built where there are no parishioners. (Note: in other regions mosques proliferated.) 

Copyright M. Foltz
While it cannot be proved that the Frankish lords lived permanently in the rural castles and manors they built, it is hardly credible that they built large, expensive stone manors and castles for the comfort of their “oppressed” native serfs. Furthermore, the documentary evidence revealed that many of these rural manors owed sergeants or knights to the lord.  In short, just as in Europe, these rural estates were held as fiefs by the Frankish elite.  In contrast to the assumptions of earlier historians, the backbone of the Frankish army was composed of rural knights, who drew their income from agriculture not urban “money fiefs.”  The knights of Outremer, far from being the decadent city-dwellers of legend, were countrymen and farmers, just as they were in Western Europe.

Equally significant, the Frankish settlers did not displace the local inhabitants, expelling them from their land and houses.   They did not deprive them of either their land or their status. On the contrary, the documentary evidence proves that the Franks were punctilious in recording and respecting the rights of the Syrian inhabitants. Rather than displacing the locals, they built villages and towns in previously unsettled areas or, more commonly, built beside existing towns.  The most common pattern was to build a castle/manor on the highest point outside an existing town/village and settle Frankish farmers at the foot of this administrative center. The native towns and villages, usually located in valleys, were left intact along with the ownership of the land cultivated by the native inhabitants. What this meant is that the Frankish settlers were bringing new land under cultivation. To do that they built terraces, reservoirs, cisterns and highly sophisticated irrigation systems, sometimes based on dams and mills or employing aqueducts. 

And who were these settlers? Based on nearly complete records for a sampling of settlements it is possible to show that these settlers came from widely separated areas in the West. For example, in the town of Mahomeria 150 Frankish households were identified with heads-of-household originating in Burgundy, Poitiers, Lombardy, the Ile de France, Bourges, Provence, Gascony, Catalonia, the Auvergne, Tournai, Venice and eight other towns no longer clearly identifiable but apparently in France or Italy. The largest number of families coming from any one place was four.

This helps explain why, as Fulcher of Chartres claimed in his History, the settlers rapidly lost their ties to their “old country” and identified with their new residence. (“We who were Occidentals have now become Orientals. He who was a Roman or a Frank has in this land been made into a Galilean or Palestinian.” Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, Book II.) Ellemblum points out that the 12th century was a period in which many people were emigrating from their place of birth to new areas in search of better opportunities, and that the Holy Land was only one of the options available to these adventurous and ambitious settlers.

Equally important, and a major thesis of Ellenblum’s work, is the fact that the “Franks” (whatever their place of origin) settled almost exclusively near to existing native Christian communities. Even new settlements were in regions where the nearest communities were predominantly Christian. Indeed, the Franks in some cases built castles in response to requests from the native Christian population. For example, the castle of Kerak in Oultrejourdain was built in 1142 because “the Christian inhabitants of the place begged the Franks to build the castle in order to protect them.” (Ellenblum, p. 141.) However, as Ellenblum proves, the Franks avoided settling in regions that were predominantly Muslim.

This was possible because large parts of the Holy Land were still predominantly Christian. For example, Muslim scholar Ibn al-Arabi, who spent several years in Palestine shortly before the First Crusade, wrote that the countryside around Jerusalem (as opposed to the region around Acre) was “still theirs” ― i.e. still Christian! Indeed, areas with the greatest concentration of Frankish settlements in the 12th century still had many towns that were still predominately ― if not exclusively ― Christian in the 1922 census! For example, the 1922 census for the town of Abud recorded 335 Greek Orthodox Christians and 41 Latin Christians and not one single Muslim.

What this tells us is that the Islamization of the Holy Land was neither as complete nor as geographically homogeneous as historians previously assumed. If, as has been argued by other historians, people converted to Islam to avoid the extra taxes, humiliations and disadvantages of life as a "dhimmis” (non-Muslims of either Christian or Jewish faith, i.e. “people of the Book,” who had not yet converted to Islam), then Islamization should have occurred evenly across the entire region. Opportunists and men of ambition are not concentrated by location.  Yet, as Ellenblum proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Muslim population was concentrated in clearly delineated regions.

Ellenblum postulates that the Muslim population of the Holy Land in the 12th century were for the most part not converts but immigrants. Taking the example of Samaria, a predominantly Muslim region during the crusader period, he shows that the region had been largely depopulated before the Arab invasions.  “In the revolt of 529 almost 20,000 Samaritans were killed in one battle and others fled over the Jordan…The last revolt of 556 was followed by massive expropriation of property and a plague that decimated the population.” (Ellenblum, p. 262.) When the Arab invasion came, Samaria was still desolate and largely unpopulated: “…the region was abandoned by its original sedentary population and the subsequent vacuum was apparently filled by nomads who, at a later stage, gradually became sedentarized.” (Ellenblum, p. 264.) In short, by the 12th century, the inhabitants of Samaria were largely Muslim, but not because the Christian/Jewish/Samaritan population had converted, but rather because Muslims from elsewhere had settled there.

The patterns of settlement meticulously documented by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has other implications for Frankish society.  Because Franks settled almost exclusively in regions that were still predominantly Christian they did not feel like aliens nor did they feel threatened by possible cooperation between their native neighbors and their Muslim enemies. After all, in several well-documented cases “the local Christian population…was overjoyed at the conquest of First Crusade and…welcomed the Frankish conquerors.” (Ellenblum, p.136)  When the Frankish settlers (farmers and craftsmen rather than soldiers) followed the crusaders (men of war) to the Holy Land, they built and shared the churches with the Orthodox natives, just as they shared the markets and intermarried with native Christians. Native Christians, as Christopher MacEvitt (The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) also documented, were integrated into the Frankish administration. While they did not form the pinnacle of either secular or ecclesiastical society, they held positions of authority, responsibility, and trust. 

In conclusion, the work of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem shows that the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was not a fragile construct composed of a tiny and frightened alien, urban elite living separated from (and looking down on) their predominantly Muslim subjects.  The Frankish elites did not hover behind the high walls of cities and isolated castles, in constant fear of their “subjugated” native population and the next Saracen attack.  On the contrary, the Muslims living inside the Kingdom were almost certainly still a minority of the population, living in concentrated pockets where the Franks did not settle, and for long periods, notably from 1120 to 1177, there were no invasions of the core of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In short, the Frankish population felt completely secure for the better part of the 12th century.

Likewise, although there were urban Latin elites, notably the Italian communes, that were by nature city-dwellers in Italy no less than in Syria, these were not the backbone of Frankish society.  Large numbers, easily more than the previously estimated 140,000 Frankish settlers (estimates that pre-date the archaeological survey of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), lived in essentially rural communities, making up a substantial portion of the population.  Most of the knights of the Frankish army, like knights in England and France, likewise lived on rural estates and earned their income from agriculture. The Franks shared towns and churches, mills, reservoirs, and wells with the still predominantly Christian native population, and it was this mix of Frankish and native Christians that constituted and characterized the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century.

Crusader society is depicted as accurately as possible in all of my novels set in Outremer: 

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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:

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Poor Prisoner - The Fate of those not Ransomed

The custom of ransom ensured that medieval battlefields were not as deadly as they might otherwise have been. Because a vanquished enemy could be held for ransom, killing the defeated ran counter to the self-interest of the victors. The prospect of turning a captive into gold by selling him back to his family curbed the swords of many a medieval fighting man -- but only as long as the defeated was likely to possess sufficient wealth to make it worth the trouble of keeping him around and negotiating the ransom. Today I look at the fate of those not able to command a ransom.
Not everyone one who fell into the hands of an enemy was in a position to pay a ransom. Members of the militant orders, for example, were prohibited from offering ransom as they were expected to die a martyr's death for their faith. This, as much as hatred and fear of them, explains why Saladin ordered the execution of all Templar and Hospitaller prisoners after his victory at Hattin. Likewise, archers and other infantry were generally considered too poor to pay and were therefore not given the option. In the West they were either killed on the battlefield or mutilated to make them unfit to fight again -- which, of course, also had the effect of making them unemployable and so condemned them to a life of beggary. During the Hundred Years War, for example, it became customary for the French to cut off the bow finger(s) of captive English archers -- leading allegedly to the modern custom of "showing the middle finger" (bow finger) as a gesture of defiance and contempt. 

In the East, however, where slave-holding societies dominated the landscape, captives not deemed worthy of ransom were more likely to be sold into slavery than killed or mutilated. The custom of selling prisoners-of-war as slaves gave even men of no means a monetary value that discouraged their victors from executing them outright. In slave-owning societies, furthermore, there were many uses for the kind of able-bodied, young men, who made up the largest portion of manpower in medieval armies. Slaves have been used since antiquity particularly in construction, stone-quarrying, and mining, for example, but also in agriculture and industry. We should not forget that almost all of Athens' magnificent pottery was made by slaves. 

For civilians captured when a city fell to siege or when the rural countryside was over-run, the fate was death or slavery. Elderly or sick people, who could not be expected to become productive slaves, were usually slaughtered immediately. Very small infants, who required care and feeding before they could become productive, were likewise butchered at once. Generally, only children over the age of five or six were deemed capable of working and so worth sparing. The uses for child-slaves were diverse. Because of their small hands, for example, they are considered particularly good at basket weaving and carpet making.

Women, of course, were primarily used in sexual slavery. The following passage from Imad ad-Din, one of Salah ad-Din's secretaries and author of a biography of Salah ad-Din describes the fate of the civilians unable to pay a ransom after the surrender of Jerusalem in 1187.
There were more than 100,000 persons in the city, men, women and children. The gates were closed upon them all, and representatives appointed to make a census and demand the sum due. ... About 15,000 were unable to pay the tax, and slavery was their lot; there were about 7,000 men who had to accustom themselves to an unaccustomed humiliation, and ... dispersed as their buyers scattered through the hills and valleys. Women and children together came to 8,000 and were quickly divided up among us, bringing a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations. How many well-guarded women were profaned, how many queens were ruled, and nubile girls married, and noble women given away, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept in private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered, and lovely women's red lips kissed and dark women prostrated, and untamed ones tamed, and happy ones made to weep! How many noblemen took them as concubines, how many ardent men blazed for one of them, and celibates were satisfied by them, and thirsty men sated by them, and turbulent men able to give vent to their passion. How many lovely women were the exclusive property of one man, how many great ladies were sold at low prices, and close ones set at a distance, and lofty ones abase, and savage ones captured, and those accustomed to thrones dragged down!
As this passage makes clear, female prisoners would be raped at capture and then either pimped by the men to whose lot they fell or sold to a slave trader for cash, who could sell them again to an individual master as a sex slave or to a brothel for the use of thousands. The practice is still the norm in ISIS controlled territory.

Older and ugly women and worn-out sex slaves could then be re-cycled for other uses such as serving in houses, cooking, cleaning, looking after the children, the sick or aging, or could even be employed in heavy labor such as construction and industry until they collapsed and died.

The appalling fate of Christian captives in Saracen slavery is a major theme in Envoy of Jerusalem.

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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:

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ransoms - An Essential Feature of Medieval Warfare

Following the battle of Hattin, the knights and noblemen who had surrendered to Saladin’s forces were held for ransom and would later be released.  The idea is quite alien to many modern readers, so today I step back to examine the tradition and its impact on medieval warfare.

The concept of ransom dates back to classical times, but during the Early Middle Ages it fell into disuse and we hear little about ransoms. By the mid-11th century, however, they were back in fashion, and from the mid-12th century to the end of the 15th they were a dominant feature of modern warfare.  Although they have since disappeared from Western warfare, the criminal custom of capturing people for ransom still persists in some parts of the world such as Latin America and Nigeria. In Western Europe, the age of ransoms was the High Middle Ages, when ransoms constituted a fundamental aspect of warfare. Without them, the very course of European history would have been different.  Without them,  captured kings like Richard I of England and John “the Good” of France might have been killed rather than held for ransom. Indeed, the custom of allowing a captive to buy his freedom altered many aspects of warfare itself.

It worth noting, however, that the tradition of ransom was strongest in France. It spread with French influence to England but was not so well established in the Holy Roman Empire or Iberia. This may have to do with the popularity of crusading in France because the Byzantines and Arabs had a well-established custom of prisoner exchanges and ransoms, which the crusaders encountered in the Holy Land. Yvonne Friedman in her scholarly study Encounter Between Enemies: Captivity and Ransom in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem [Brill, 2002, 47] noted that:

In the Muslim world the crusaders encountered, the established practice was to hold captives for ransom, and prisoner exchanges were a regular part of diplomatic dealings between opposing sides...Ransom belonged to the Muslim precept of sadaqa and was viewed as both an individual and a 'state' responsibility. In short, the world the crusaders confronted in the East had a much more developed system of dealing with captives than the places from which the crusaders originated.

In the French/English tradition, ransoms were a means of enriching oneself, and the rules of tournaments reflected this by dictating that a captured knight had to surrender his horse and armor to his captor. It was the lure of loot as much as the hope for fame and honor that produced the “tournament circuits” of the 12th to 14th centuries, where knights traveled from tournament to tournament like modern-day professional athletes. But the fortunes made on the tournament fields were a pale imitation of what “real” ransoms could bring.

A man taken in battle by his enemy was completely at the mercy of the victor, and the stakes were impossibly high; the victor was within his right to slaughter or (if non-Christian) enslave his opponent. The custom of ransom dramatically decreased casualties, because the prospect of financial gain greatly increased the proclivity of victorious fighting men to show mercy toward those who surrendered to them. This had the unfortunate side-effect, of course, of making the lives of wealthy men more valuable than the lives of the poor. As a result, throughout the High Middle Ages, there was a tendency for those of a class deemed good for ransom to escape death, while their less fortunate followers paid the price of defeat with their lives.

But ransoms were not fixed and so not immutably tied to rank and title. They were always negotiable, and a rich merchant’s son — assuming he had enough time to describe the size of his father’s purse to his erstwhile murderer — stood as good if not a better chance of being granted the privilege of ransom than a poor knight. Ransoms were always based on what a man (or his family) could pay quite simply because there was no point in setting a price that one could not hope to collect — unless the real intent was to ensure the captive could never again raise arms against you.  

Every castle had its gloomy, windowless places...
Had Philip II of France, for example, held Richard the Lionheart captive instead of the Holy Roman Emperor, it is probable that he would have set demands intended to keep Richard in a dungeon for the rest of his life.  Likewise, the ransom set for John “the Good” of France after he was captured at the Battle of Poitiers was dictated far more by the political advantage of denying the French a rival king to Edward III than by thoughts of monetary gain. Except where kings and important nobles were at stake, however, ransoms were generally dictated by a captive’s ability to pay.

By which, of course, I do not mean the captive himself, for he was just that — held captive. Ransoms were usually raised by a captive’s relatives — parents, wives, siblings, children. If they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) scrape together the funds needed, then the appeal would go to cousins and in-laws, anyone who might have money and care enough for the captive to contribute to the cause. Lucky men, who enjoyed the respect of those more powerful and wealthy than themselves, might also be ransomed by their feudal overlord. Examples of this were the payment of Aimery de Lusignan’s ransom by King Amalric or William Marshal’s ransom by Queen Eleanor. In the case of captive kings and barons, of course, they did not have to rely on the generosity of those that loved or respected them. They could demand contributions from their subjects, vassals, and tenants.

Usually, a man was held in captivity until the ransom was paid, and conditions varied. Some men enjoyed comfortable “house arrest,” able to interact with the household and even family of the man to whom they had surrendered. Others were kept locked in a single room, even a dungeon. In the worse cases, prisoners were kept chained to the walls of their prison until the ransom was paid.  On rare occasions, a man (of high rank generally) might be freed on parole in order to enable him to better collect the sum owed. Famous cases of this were Baldwin of Ramla, who was released by Saladin after payment of only a small portion of the enormous ransom set, and Bertrand du Guesclin, who the Black Prince paroled so he could raise his ransom. The former talked the Byzantine Emperor into paying the outstanding portion of his ransom, and the latter raised his ransom from the King of France, Louis d’Anjou and Henry of Trastamare.   

While the payment of a ransom could financially ruin a man and his family, ransoms could make the fortune of those fortunate enough to take a valuable prize.  At the Battle of Poitiers, English and Gascons almost tore the French king apart in their eagerness to lay claim to his ransom. Desmond Seward describes the situation like this in his history of the Hundred Years War ( The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1445, Macmillan, New York, 1978): 

[King John] was recognized and surrounded by a great crowd of soldiers anxious to take so fabulous a ransom. Although he surrendered to a knight of Artois, he was still in peril, for the brawling mob of Gascons and English began to fight for him. Finally, he was rescued by the Earl of Warwick and Lord Cobham, who took him to the Prince [of Wales].

Few men had a share of a king’s ransom, but as long as a man was on the winning side, it was possible to accumulate a small fortune from the ransoms of lesser men. Ransoms more than plunder was what made the Hundred Years War so lucrative for England — and impoverished France. The latter was in part due to the fact that because a ransom was a reflection of a man’s ability to pay, it was also indirectly a reflection of his “worth.” The English soon learned that it was to their advantage to let French captives name their own ransoms because pride often induced the prisoners to name ransoms suited more to their self-image than the size of their pocketbook.  Even the Black Prince used this tactic when setting the ransom for Guesclin; the latter named the huge sum of 100,000 francs, something he could not possibly have raised from his own resources, hence the resort to the King of France et. al. 

Yet common as ransoms were throughout the High Middle Ages, they remained a privilege, not a right. The Knights Templar, for example, explicitly prohibited their members from paying ransoms. A Knight Templar was expected to die for Christ and find salvation for his soul in that act of martyrdom. This may have contributed to the Saracen tendency to slaughter captured Templars and Hospitallers; they had no monetary value and so eliminating them sooner rather than later made sense.

Normally, however, it was the circumstances in which the victor found himself, not the ideology of the captive, that determined whether a ransom would be accepted or not. In the heat of battle, many soldiers were overcome by “blood lust” that utterly obliterated their greed for gold. Or, when the battle was not one between mercenaries but between true adversaries, fighting men might simply hate their opponents too much to be willing to grant mercy. There were also times when commanders made a strategic decision to kill prisoners. A famous case in point here was Henry V’s order to kill the French prisoners taken at Agincourt. Underestimating the demoralizing effect of his initial successes, Henry V felt he needed every Englishman on the frontline, ready to repel the next attack by the still numerically superior French, making him unwilling to spare men to guard the prisoners.

Even more significant, however, is that by the Wars of the Roses commanders were beginning to prefer annihilation of the enemy’s ability to fight over the profit gained from ransoms. It is a clear indicator of the increasing hatred between the rival factions for the English throne that Edward IV allegedly told his soldiers to “kill the lords and spare the commons.” Edward IV recognized that the commons might not pay monetary ransoms, but they were his subjects and he gained nothing by killing them. The rebellious lords, on the other hand, were the threat to his throne.

In the subsequent century, as warfare became increasingly tied to religion and kings became increasingly despotic, the notion that an opponent might be allowed to live in exchange for a payment of money became discredited. Ransoms became anachronistic and eventually disappeared from the customs of Western warfare altogether.   

Ransoms are important in a variety of episodes in my award-winning trilogy set in the late 12th century and in The Last Crusader Kingdom.

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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:

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Battle of Hattin: A Crushing Defeat of Christendom

 On July 4, 1187, the feudal army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was defeated by the forces of Saladin.  It was one of the most significant disasters in medieval military history.  Christian casualties at the battle were so enormous, that the defense of the rest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem became impossible. In consequence, the defeat at Hattin led directly to the loss of the entire kingdom including the city of Jerusalem itself. Today I provide a short analysis of the battle and its significance.

Medieval Depiction of the Battle of Hattin, July 4, 1187

The importance of Hattin to contemporaries was not just the magnitude of the defeat, but the unexpectedness of it.  In retrospect, the Muslim victory seems inevitable. Muslim states had always surrounded the crusader kingdom (as they hem in Israel today) and the Muslim rulers had always been able to call on much larger military forces than their Christian opponents.  In the early years of Latin presence in the Holy Land, the divisions among the Muslim leaders, most especially the rivalry and hatred between Shiite Caliphate of Cairo and the Sunni Caliphate of Baghdad, had played into Christian hands.  However, once Saladin had managed to unite Syria and Egypt under a single, charismatic leader the balance of power clearly tipped to the Muslims. 

However, Christian armies under Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and Richard I of England defeated Saladin on the battlefield more than once.  Saladin was a powerful, charismatic and clever commander, who knew how to deploy his forces effectively and use terrain to his advantage — but he was not invincible. Indeed, he was dealt a defeat every bit as devastating as Hattin in November 1177 at the Battle of Montgisard. His invading army was annihilated, and he himself had to flee on the back of a pack-camel. In July 1182, the Christian army under Baldwin IV stopped another full-scale invasion by Saladin, forcing him to withdraw across the Jordan with comparatively few Christian losses. In June the following year, 1183, the Christian army confronted yet another invasion on an even larger force and again forced Saladin to withdraw — this time without even engaging in an all-out battle.

Despite these apparent successes, it was clear to the King of Jerusalem that Saladin was getting stronger with each new invasion attempt.  Saladin had increased his own power base from Cairo and Damascus to Aleppo, Homs, and Mosul, while the Christians had no new infusions of blood, territory or income. In consequence, in 1184 Baldwin IV sent a frantic plea to the West, begging for a new crusade and offering the Western leader — whoever he might be — the keys to the kingdom. The lack of response reflected Western complacency about the threat to Jerusalem and implicit confidence in the ability of Baldwin and his barons to continue to defeat Saladin’s attempts to push the Christian kingdom into the sea.

It was because of Baldwin’s earlier successes against Saladin, that the news of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem shocked the West, allegedly causing the immediate death of Pope Urban III. How was it possible that a young and vigorous king, Guy I, could lead the same army to defeat that a youth suffering from leprosy (and only commanding his armies from a liter) had led to victory again and again?  

Rarely in human history has a defeat been so wholly attributable to poor generalship on the losing side as at Hattin. To be sure, Saladin set a trap for the Christian armies. The bait was the citizens and garrison of Tiberius under the command of the Countess of Tripoli, who were besieged in the citadel after the fall of the city on July 2.  

The Christian army was mustered at Sephorie, only some 15 miles to the west. The pleas for help from the Countess and Tiberius naturally evoked a response from the Christian army, most notably her four grown sons.  But the Count of Tripoli himself warned that it was a trap and opposed the decision to go to the aid of his wife and Tiberius. Tripoli’s reasoning convinced the majority of his peers and the council of war composed of the leading barons agreed to stay where they were and force Saladin to come to them. However, the Grand Master of the Temple went separately and secretly to King Guy after the council dispersed and convinced him to order the advance for the following day. In short, although warned, King Guy took the bait.

To relieve Tiberius, the Christian army had to cross territory that was at this time of year devoid of fodder for the horses and where water sources were widely dispersed. With Saladin’s forces already occupying the springs at Cafarsset on the southern route from Sephorie to Tiberias, the Christian had no choice but to follow the northern track. Intense heat and harassment by the enemy slowed the Christian march to a crawl, and by noon on July 3, the Christian army had advanced only six miles to the springs of Turan.  With nine miles more to go, it was clear the army could not reach Tiberius before nightfall and prudence alone should have dictated a halt at Turan, where men and horses could rest and drink. Instead, King Guy, against all reason, ordered the advance to continue. Immediately, Saladin sent his troops to occupy Turan, thereby not-only blocking the Christian retreat but harassing the Christian rear-guard and further slowing the rate of advance.
A depiction of the Christian army advancing toward Hattin carrying the “True Cross”
from the film “The Kingdom of Heaven”

When darkness fell on July 3, the Christian army was still six miles short of its objective and forced to camp in an open field completely surrounded by enemy forces.  The Christians had been marching and fighting for hours without water in the intense heat of a Palestinian summer. Men and horses were exhausted and further demoralized by the sound of Saracen drums surrounding them and the countless campfires advertising the enemy’s strength. 

By morning, those fires were brush-fires intentionally set ablaze to windward of the Christian army in a maneuver that dried their already parched throats further while half-blinding them with smoke. Out of the smoke came volleys of arrows, and again “some of the Christian lords” urged King Guy to charge Saladin’s position at once, in an attempt to win the battle by killing the Sultan.  King Guy instead chose to try to march the entire army toward the springs of Hattin, still some three miles away and cut off by one wing of Saladin’s army.

While the Frankish cavalry tried to drive off the Saracens in a series of charges, the infantry stumbled forward until, half-blinded by smoke, constantly attacked by the enemy and near dying of thirst, their morale broke.  As casualties mounted, some of the infantry retreated up the slopes of the “horns” of Hattin, two steep hills that flanked the plane on which the army had camped and now marched.  They refused to fight any more. 

Meanwhile, the Count of Tripoli with his knights and Lord Reginald of Sidon finally broke-through the surrounding enemy, charging east toward the Lake of Tiberius.  The Christian infantry that had not fled up the slopes tried to follow in the wake of the cavalry, but the Saracens under the command of one of Saladin’s nephews stepped aside to let the armored knights through and then closed ranks again, cutting off the Christian infantry that was cut down or taken captive.

By now it was late afternoon, and with the infantry either already slaughtered or refusing to come down from the hilltop, King Guy ordered his knights to retreat up the slope as well. At this stage, many of the knights were fighting on foot because their horses had been killed after the infantry cover was withdrawn.  It was probably at this point in the battle that the relic, believed to be a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified, was lost. The Bishop of Acre, who had been carrying it, was killed. The loss of this most precious relic — believed to have brought victory in dozens of earlier battles was devastating to Christian morale.

The final stages of the Battle of Hattin as depicted in the film “The Kingdom of Heaven”

But still, King Guy did not surrender.  The few knights who were still mounted made one (or two) last desperate charge(s) to try to kill Saladin, who was mounted and clearly identifiable among his troops.  One of these charges was probably lead by Balian d’Ibelin. One charge came close enough to Saladin for him to have to shout encouragement to his men.  While Ibelin and his knights were able to cut through the enemy, like Tripoli before them, they enemy rapidly closed ranks behind them.  They found they had no means of fighting their way back up-hill to relieve the infantry. Within minutes, King Guy’s last position was over-run and he along with most of his barons were taken prisoner.

Of the roughly 20,000 Christian soldiers who had set out from Sephorie, only an estimated 3,000 infantry managed somehow to escape into the surrounding countryside and eventually take refuge in the castles and walled towns then still in Frankish hands. Of the 1,200 knights and barons that mustered for the battle, only four barons, Tripoli, Sidon, Edessa, and Ibelin, escaped capture along with maybe 100 - 200 knights. The remainder including the King of Jerusalem, the Masters of the Temple and Hospital, the Constable Aimery de Lusignan, the Lords of Oultrajourdain, Toron, Gibelet, and others — effectively the entire nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem -- were taken captive. While the majority of these lords and knights were held for ransom, the 230 Templars and Hospitallers that survived the battle were executed at Saladin’s orders. 

Medieval painting of prisoners being led away (here by a Christian king)

Hattin is a major episode in the second book of my Balian d'Ibelin trilogy, "Defender of Jerusalem."  Buy Now!

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: