+ Real Crusades History +

+ Real Crusades History +

Friday, February 17, 2017

To Shine with Honor, Book One: Coming of Age by Joseph Scott Amis            Review by Pim Wiersinga

To Shine with Honor, Book One, the debut of Joseph Scott Amis, is a novel of great accomplishment. In a few bold strokes, we are catapulted into late 11th century France: a world of knights, Men of God, and commoners in the decades prior to the First Crusade (1095–1099). I expected a good read; I got more. Many episodes moved me deeply. What is the novel’s secret?

The novel opens with a tiff between brothers: ThierrĂ© de Coudre, typically the stuff warrior-knights are made of, taunts his youngest brother Galien by not appearing at the latter’s coming-of-age ceremony. Galien, fourteen years of age, is already making money as a local scribe; he is destined for a high post in the fold of the Church - anything else being inconceivable in that era. You are forewarned: you now enter a time-zone where career options are slight, even for those of noble descent.

Being of noble lineage, though not destined to become a knight, Galien receives a new sword out of his father’s hands; an occasion that fills him with pride, yet enhances his misgivings about the life ahead of him. To his - surprised - brother Martin, he confides: “Right now, I am making enough money with my scribe work to think of marrying. Had Father given me the coin he paid for this sword and scabbard, I could have a five-acre freehold and a sturdy cottage.” Martin gently chides his younger brother for thinking like a peasant: a great career awaits you... Moments later, Galien comes to blows with his oldest brother, and he is “feeling the Norman blood of his mother come to full fury.” The sword-duel won’t come to pass; the brothers are marched off to face the wrath of their father Henri - the same sort of short-tempered warrior as is ThierrĂ©, if humbled after having lost command of his right arm in a fight. 

The scene of Henri de Coudre punishing his sons is superb. It eloquently shows the sense of justice and the affection beneath Henri’s grim veneer, in a terse, reticent, yet dramatic style. The scene brilliantly shows the ‘barbaric’ conduct to which noblemen in those days were prone. But, time and again, Mr. Amis conveys the sobering notion that underlying the fierce violence is an even fiercer sense of justice - violence being the means overlords must resort to if they are to redress wrongs and protect the weak, as is their duty. The best noblemen never indulge in violence; however, they do ‘indulge’ in the combating of injustice in whatever form. While catching thieves in the act, for instance, they threaten to cut the culprits’ balls off, this being the speediest route to confession. Mr. Amis manages to convey the harrowing terror of the threat without exploiting it: his reticence helps reveal the rationale behind ‘barbarism’. Miscreants setting themselves apart from human goodness can’t expect to be on the receiving end of it; nor do they expect it. Those at the right side of the fence are well-rewarded: there’s a mutual acknowledgement of valiant deeds, ample celebration, pursuits that people grant each other in a spirit of generosity.

By lending tangible life to leading tenets of honour and goodness throughout the novel, Mr. Amis passes the apprentice test for historical fiction with flying colours; indeed, he goes way beyond that mark. Not only do we lend credence to the medieval world as evoked, we also get deeply involved with the characters, especially those who stand out against - yet remain within the confines of - the moral and historical backdrop of this haunting book; they truly shine with honor, as the trilogy’s title has it. Galien, Lisette, Alisende, Maitre Joseph: they are (or were) at variance with ‘easy normalcy’ as they pursue their destination, yet they evidence a deeper understanding of what life is (or should be) about.

Galien carves out a path between knighthood and priesthood; he desires to marry a women whom many of his ilk would mark out for lust; even Lisette herself, of common ancestry, deems herself unworthy of him. This is no mere ploy to inject human interest in the novel. We are made to feel Lisette is convinced of her sacrifice; and we never blame Galien’s brother Martin for his disapproval, nor their father Henri for withholding consent, nor Galien himself, for that matter: not only do they act to the best of intentions, they also act to the best of their convictions, fully acknowledging - and this is a masterly touch - the tragedy involved. The Coudre family bears Lisette no ill-will: Galien’s sister Alisende, Lisette’s best friend, sets up a business with her - not an obvious path for a lovelorn lady of rank. Yet Alisende’s deportment looks like the closest thing to knightly valour for a woman; which arguably was one (unconscious) reason why I found their episodes so utterly moving.

Mr. Amis spins tales that always lead somewhere; while reading about Lisette’s heart-break, we just know that isn’t the end of it; and the author needs few words indeed to have us understand that Pernelle, a merry Troyes noblewoman whom Galien meets en route, won’t ever replace Lisette.

Nowhere does the author content himself with a simplified scheme of good and bad guys, if the era’s ethics seem unequivocal. Halfway the novel, Mr. Amis has Count Bayard, an enemy, show up in the monastery where Galien dwells; this Bayard claims to repent his former greed and coldness by donating large - and welcome - sums of money to that monastery. Try as he might to better himself, Bayard will in the end be exposed as a hypocrite; a twist that is quite deftly intertwined with other threads, such as Galien’s apprenticeship to the eccentric maitre (‘architect’) Joseph, in whom the author salutes his former profession… But let us not spoil the plot. Suffice it to say that the universe in which Galien and others move may seem simplistic to us; and yet its intricate ramifications leave ample room for character development. No one in the story attests to this more strikingly than does Galien’s brother ThierrĂ©. Starting off as a bully, he ends up one of Galien’s best friends - and a praiseworthy pupil to the art of corresponding. It is touches like these that make a good novel great.

Pim Wiersinga is a Dutch author of historical fiction. His English debut, The Pavilion of the Forgotten Concubines, a novel of intrigue in the Imperial Court of late 18th century China, was released by Regal House Publishing in February 2017. Presently, he is writing his second work in English, The Thomas Trilogy, a tale of the adventures of a young troubadour in post-Third Crusade Aquitaine. Pim holds a MA in Literature from The University of Amsterdam.

To Shine with Honor, Book One is now available in paperback and e-book, at the link on this page. To Shine with Honor, Book Two: A Trail of Blood is scheduled for release in Summer 2017.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Human Body, Illness and Death in the Crusader Era

It is often assumed that the people who practiced medicine in the Middle Ages were ignorant, untrained, guided by “pure superstition” and accountable to no one. In today’s post, the first in a series of guest essays by German scholar Fermin Person, + Real Crusades History + looks at medical practitioners and standards in the Crusader States.

The medieval concept of illness was different from our current understanding. In the medieval period, medical theory (common to both East and West) explained illness as an imbalance of the four humours (body fluids), as divine punishment, as astrology or as the working of evil entities.

These basic concepts existed parallel to each other and mixed to some degree during the medieval period. There already existed the notion of infectious diseases and of epidemics, but with the very limited diagnostic capabilities of the period (seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling), it was not possible to differentiate infectious diseases from auto-immune disease or poisoning.

Excurs: Bloodletting
Following the works of Galen bloodletting was practised extensively both in the western as well in the Islamic world since the antiquity. Bloodletting was used prophylactically in healthy persons as well as during illnesses. The statutes of the Templars and of the order of St John specified, for example, the possibilities and the treatment of members of the Orders that had been bloodlet. The laws of Outremer specifically demanded that a physician use bloodletting, if a patient was suffering from fever.

Ergotism (called “holy fire” or “St. Anthonies Fire”) for example, caused by alkaloids produced by fungus that befall cereals during wet weather, broke out in epidemics.

There was some understanding that blood loss from wounds was an important factor in the death from injuries, but there was still no understanding of the pathophysiology of haemorrhagic shock.

Another point of discussion was whether pus in wounds was something negative or positive. Medieval western (and Arabic) physicians lacked an understanding of infectious diseases and microbiology. 

Similarly, the exact function of many organs was unknown or was misinterpreted, and the working of the circulatory system was also wrongly understood. For example, based on the classical scholar Galen, medieval physicians considered the liver to be the place of blood production.

Excurse: Galens teaching of Humours
Galenos of Pergamon (129/131 – 200/215 a.C.) was a Greco-Roman physician and anatomist. His works were translated into the Arabic language. He influenced heavily both western Christian, eastern roman and Arabic medicine. He applied the teaching of humors to medicine. According to him there were four body fluids blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. If the four humors were in misbalance illnesses could result from that. Through diet, appropriate medication and bloodletting the body fluids could be brought into balance again.

Additionally, physicians generally had only had a rudimentary understanding of the internal anatomy. Knowledge of the anatomies resulted most probably from animal corpses, practical experience with wounds and from antique literature. Autopsies started in the western world only at the beginning of the Renaissance at the end of the 14th century. This is in contrast to the Eastern Roman Empire, where it is reported that in 1110 a contingent of Scandinavians that had taken up the cross fell ill in Constantinople. Autopsies were performed on the dead to clarify the cause of their death.

The medieval attitude to death was likewise different.

About 1/3 of the children born in the medieval west died before the age of five. Overall life expectancy varied significantly based on period, location and social strata a great deal. Based on archaeological and genealogical evidence it can be assumed that life expectancy was as low as 25-30 years during the medieval period. No exact data was available on the live expectancy in Outremer. 

In short, death was much more present in the medieval world than in the modern period. During the medieval period the average human had a strong belief in an afterlife and the later bodily resurrection of the dead. It was considered ideal to have a period of illness before death in order to prepare as a good Christian for death. A sudden unprepared death, in contrast, was considered something terrible.


Mitchel, Piers D.  (2007) Medicine during the crusades, Cambridge University press
Tony Hunt (1999) The Medieval Surgery, Boydell & Brewer Inc
Edgington, S. (1994) Medical knowledge of the crusading armies: the evidence of Albert of Aachen and others. In M Barber, The Military Orders: Fighting for the Faith and caring for the Sick, (Aldershot, Ashgate)
Keda, B (1998) A twelfth century description of the Jerusalem Hospital, In H. Nicholson (ed.). The Military Orders. II Welfare and Warfare (Aldershot: Ashgate), pp. 3-26.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Eleanor of Aquitaine on Crusade

“I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn, but the troops were dazzled.”
 Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1967 film “The Lion in Winter” starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn.

As with most good historical fiction, there is more than a grain of truth to this fictional line from The Lion in Winter. Not only did Eleanor of Aquitaine take part in the Second Crusade, her role soon became  controversial and her participation precipitated a marriage crisis. Here is a summary of what happened.

In 1144, the crusader County of Edessa was overrun by the atabeg of Mosul, Zengi.  The news shocked Western Europe and Pope Eugenius III called for a new crusade. St. Bernard of Clairvaux enthusiastically took up the call, and at the pope’s bidding preached the crusade far and wide, including on Easter Sunday in Vezelay, Burgundy.  Here King Louis VII of France knelt before the abbot and took the cross to the thunderous cheers of his vassals and subjects. When he finished, his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, knelt beside him and likewise took the cross.

Eleanor did so as the Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou – not as Queen of France. The importance of her gesture was to muster support among the barons and lords who owed her, but not Louis of France, homage.  However, Eleanor’s example inspired many other noblewomen to take the cross as well. 
When King Louis’ crusaders set forth on their crusade, the estimated 100,000 French included an unnamed number of ladies – or “amazons” as some liked to call them – determined to take part in the crusade themselves.  Far from being Eleanor’s “maids,” most of these women were the wives of noble crusaders, wealthy enough to afford horses and armor, since according to a Greek chronicler writing some fifty years after the event, they rode astride and wore armor.  They were also accompanied by servants and a great deal of baggage.
Depiction of Eleanor of Aquitaine in a German 12th century Manuscript
The first stages of this crusade went remarkably well, with the army making good progress.  Although accounts differ on the extent to which Louis was able to prevent pillaging and abuse of the civilian population along the route, it is clear that the French intention was to pay for provisions and leave the Christian populations in peace. Unfortunately, they were preceded by German crusaders under the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III that behaved so badly the French found all the cities closed to them, and the price for goods exorbitant.
Nevertheless, they reached Constantinople in comparatively good order, and while the common soldiers encamped outside the walls, the nobles, including Eleanor and her ladies, were introduced to the luxuries and splendors of the fabled Queen of Cities. They were lodged in palaces the like of which they had never seen before, feted and entertained. 
The news that the Byzantine Emperor had just concluded a 12 year truce with the Turks, however, cast serious doubts upon his reliability.  The mistrust of the Greeks only increased when the Byzantine Emperor tried to make Louis swear to turn over any territories his army conquered to the Emperor. Louis thought he had come to fight the Turks and restore Christian rule – not expand the borders of the Byzantine Empire.  Nevertheless, Louis rejected calls by some of his advisors to capture Constantinople and depose the Greek emperor.  Instead he set out for Jerusalem determined to fulfill his crusading vow – and consult with the King of Jerusalem about further action.
The French crusaders advanced along the southern, coastal route at a leisurely pace until at the end of October they encountered deserters from the German crusade, who reported that the Turks had all but annihilated the Germans and now lay in wait for the French.  A few days later, the French caught up with what was left of the Germans, including Emperor Conrad, who was suffering from a head wound. Together Louis and Conrad’s crusaders followed the Mediterranean coast, finally reaching Ephesus in time for Christmas. Here, however, Conrad decided he was too ill to continue, so he and his nobles took ship back for Constantinople, while what was left of the foot soldiers continued with Louis’s army.
No sooner had the German Emperor departed, than adversity struck the French. Torrential rains lasting four days washed away tents, supplies, and many men and horses. After this catastrophe, Louis elected to strike out inland across the mountains, despite the absence of guides, in an attempt to reach Antioch as soon as possible.  This route, however, was not only through rugged terrain and along bad roads, but took the French where they were constantly harassed by Turkish raiders. By now, at the latest, the “gayness and the gilt” of Eleanor and her lady-crusaders (or amazons) were “all besmirched with rainy marching in the painful field.”
Disaster, however, did not overtake them until mid-January, when two Poitevin nobles in command of the van took fatal independent action.  They had been ordered to set up camp for the main army at a specific place, and Eleanor was sent with them. (Throughout the crusade, King Louis maintained separation from Eleanor in order not to be tempted to break his vow of chastity during the duration of the crusade.) When the main army reached the designated camp, however, they found it empty. The vanguard of Poitevins with the Queen had decided to move to a more attractive-looking spot down in the valley. The exhausted troops at the rear, including the King with Eleanor’s baggage train, could not possibly catch up and as darkness fell a large gap had been opened between the van and main force of the Christians. The Turks quickly exploited the situation. They attacked the main force, killing Louis’ horse under him and some 7,000 crusaders before darkness fell, putting an end to the slaughter. Many in the army blamed Eleanor, because it was her vassals who had left the main French army in the lurch.
After this disaster, the French returned to the coast, now determined to continue the crusade by ship. They were without supplies, however, and soon reduced to eating their horses before what was left of Louis’ force finally reached Antalia on January 20, 1148.  Here they discovered it was impossible to find sufficient ships for the whole force at prices King Louis was willing to pay. Plague broke out in the crusader camp, decimating a force already on the brink of starvation. At this junction, King Louis VII (not to be confused with his namesake and future saint, Louis IX) abandoned his troops and took ship with his wife and nobles for Antioch. Abandoned by their king, some 3000 French crusaders are said to have converted to Islam in exchange for their lives and food.
Louis and Eleanor, meanwhile, arrived in Antioch. Antioch was a magnificent, walled city, which had been one of the richest in the Roman Empire. At this time it was inhabited by a mixed population of Greek and Armenian Christians ruled by a Latin Christian elite, headed by Raymond of Poitiers, the younger brother of Eleanor’s father, William Duke of Aquitaine. The language of the court at Antioch was Eleanor’s own langue d’oc, and the customs were likewise those of the Languedoc. Within a very short time, Eleanor and her uncle developed such rapport that the king became jealous and then suspicious. The clerical chroniclers are united in condemning Eleanor of forgetting her “royal dignity” – and her marriage vows.
The situation was aggravated by the fact that Raymond of Antioch thought the crusaders had come to restore Christian control over the county of Edessa – and so secure his eastern flank, but Louis thought he had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and insisted on continuing to the Holy City, rather than following the Prince of Antioch’s military advice. At this junction, with Louis already jealous of Eleanor’s close relationship (sexual or not) with Prince Raymond, she announced that she – and all her vassals – would remain in Antioch, whether Louis went to Jerusalem or not. Since her vassals made up the bulk of what was left of the French forces, this was an effective veto. Louis threated to use force to make her come with him as was his right as her husband. Eleanor retorted their marriage was invalid because they were related within the prohibited degrees and demanded an annulment. Louis responded by having her abducted in the middle of the night and carried away from Antioch by force. 
Although Eleanor then spent several months in Jerusalem while her husband’s crusade came to its final humiliating disaster outside Damascus, nothing is recorded of her activities.  Her influence on Louis and her role in the crusade was over. Furthermore, despite an attempt to patch up the marriage, after their return to France, the birth of a second daughter made a divorce a dynastic priority, paving the way for Eleanor to marry Henry of Anjou, the future King Henry II of England.
(Truly, fiction does not get better than facts like these!)
There are many biographies of Eleanor, I personally relied on Alison Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, (London, Pimlico, 1999), and Amy Kelly’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, (Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1950). There are innumerable novels about Eleanor. I have not read them all and the ones I did read, failed to do her justice, so I’ll refrain from a recommendation.

Eleanor’s Tomb at the Abbey of Fontevrault