+ Real Crusades History +

+ Real Crusades History +

Monday, February 27, 2017

REVIEW: "God's Wolf" by Jeffrey Lee

At the start of each month + Real Crusades History + brings you a review of a book relevant to the crusades or the crusader states. Today we look at a recent work that attempts to rehabilitate the notorious "Reynald de Châtillon -- unfortunately by vary dubious methods that amount to falsification. I call this book "Pseudo History" 

 + Real Crusades History" +
does NOT recommend it, but we felt it was important to say why.

The conventional portrayal of Reynald de Châtillon as a “rogue baron,” whose brutal and fanatical policies led directly to the destruction of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, has long been in need of revision. Professor Bernard Hamilton, one of the leading historians of the crusades, argues persuasively in his biography of Baldwin IV, for example, that Reynald de Châtillon’s strategy in the last decade before the Battle of Hattin was both brilliant and effective. Even the infamous Red Sea Raids, usually treated as appalling piracy, Hamilton notes, were a highly effective means of undermining Saladin’s authority and support among his fellow Muslims. I therefore bought this book eager for a more detailed and more fully documented account than Hamilton provided in passing.  

Instead, I was confronted by a work dressed-up as if it were scholarly ― with footnotes and bibliography ― but, in fact, not only cluttered with errors but intentionally manipulative of the primary sources to the point that it borders on fraud. To put it simply: sometimes he cites a source that, when consulted, in fact says the opposite of what he has written. More commonly, he simply dismisses as “biased” or ignores it altogether primary sources when they contradict his thesis. More serious still, however, is Lee’s tendency to omit important relevant facts from his narrative whenever they get in the way of his polemic ― apparently on the assumption that his readers will be so ignorant that they will not notice. Alternatively, Lee makes bald assertions without bothering to give a source of any kind. Last but not least, Lee’s logic is bizarrely biased. Below are some examples of all these practices for those who need evidence to be convinced. 

Citing Sources that say the Opposite:

Lee cites the highly respected history written by the Archbishop of Tyre, the tutor and chancellor of Baldwin IV, when claiming that the King was too ill to fight at the Battle of Montgisard. However, Tyre’s account of the Battle of Montgisard explicitly states that the King called up what knights he had, that the King rode to Ascalon, that the King led his knights out to confront Saladin in a day long battle, that the King followed Saladin’s plundering forces up the coast, and – joined by the Knights Templar – that the King decided to give battle “at the eighth hour of the day” despite having many fewer troops. Far from being the commander at the battle (as no man could be in the presence of the king), Châtillon is not even listed as the commander of one of the divisions. Tyre lists him along with several other noblemen including the Uncle of the King, the Count of Edessa, and the barons of Sidon, Mirabel and Ibelin. (Note: the custom of the Kingdom of Jerusalem gave the baron in whose territory a battle was fought the honor of leading the vanguard; Montgisard was fought in the lordship of Ramla, meaning that the Baron of Ramla would have led the van – not, as Lee claims – Châtillon.)

Omission of Relevant Facts:
1. The High Court and Constitution of Jerusalem: Lee’s entire description of Sibylla and Guy de Lusignan’s usurpation of the throne in 1186 is cast as the legitimate queen (Sibylla) supported by the “loyal” Châtillon against a coup attempt by the Count of Tripoli and his cronies. Lee’s account conveniently ignores both the High Court of Jerusalem and its role in the election of the king. The point Lee either ignores, forgets or intentionally conceals is that the crown of Jerusalem was NOT hereditary. The king was chosen by the High Court of Jerusalem (and there is a huge body of very sophisticated legal writing to support this!), and no one could legally wear the crown without the consent of the High Court. Far from being a loyal supporter of the legitimate monarch, Châtillon actively supported an illegal putsch by crowning Sibylla against the wishes of the majority of the High Court. She was not the “legal” queen of Jerusalem as Lee would have us believe (although I suspect he knows better himself.) 

2. The Springs of Cresson: Although Lee otherwise frequently cites the Chronique de Ernoul, he doggedly refuses to follow this source’s description of the events leading up to and the slaughter of the Templars at the Springs of Cresson. He thereby omits the important attempts by leading members of the High Court to reconcile Tripoli and Lusignan.  Yet scholars believe that the description of the events surrounding the engagement at Cresson is the most accurate and verifiable piece of the entire (lost) chronicle because it is the section in which Ernoul identifies himself as having been personally present. In short, there is a firsthand account. Furthermore, this part of the chronicle (that takes up fully six pages of text in the Ashgate translation, or paragraphs 23-28 of the original) is very precise. But Lee discredits the passages that all other scholars consider credible with a dismissive footnote in which he remarks: “Ernoul spun a convoluted yarn about the Battle of Cresson.” In other words, the firsthand account by an eyewitness that Lee otherwise quotes as absolute truth is suddenly just “spinning tales” while Lee, living over eight hundred years later and half way around the world, knows the “truth.” Really?
3. The Count of Edessa at Hattin: Lee argues that everyone who escaped from Hattin alive were “precisely the forces most opposed to Guy’s faction….”(p. 264). He conveniently “forgets” or overlooks the fact that the Joscelyn de Courtenay, Count of Edessa, the uncle of Queen Sibylla, and a core member of putsch that illegally made Guy king a few months early, also escaped from Hattin alive. Edessa’s escape undermines and exposes the absurdity of his Lee’s entire thesis, namely: that a traitorous clique of nobles around the Count of Tripoli deliberately lost the battle ― strangely by charging with leveled lance straight into the center of the Saracen lines.

Bizarre Logic: In describing the Battle of Hattin, Lee writes: “The charge was the Franks’ most fearsome weapon. To opponents it seemed that a mounted mailed knight could ‘drive a hole through the walls of Babylon.’ In close formation wedged together so tightly that some horses might even be lifted off the ground” (really? I wonder if Lee has even ridden a horse in his life, but ok), “the charge, with its cutting edge of couched lances, could prove unstoppable.” (p. 262) So far so good. This is all well-known, accepted fact (except for the fanciful bit about horses being lifted off the ground), but two pages earlier when he mentions the Count of Tripoli’s charge into the very teeth of the Saracen army he calls it “fleeing the field.” Indeed, he imputes that not only Tripoli but Ibelin (who was almost certainly not with Tripoli) and Sidon (who he never mentions by name) all just “fled,” while “Reynald de Châtillon stood and fought loyally beside the king.” (p. 260.) 

This is nothing short of turning the facts on their head. A charge is charge, and, it is not inherently less “brilliant” or less effective, just because it is led by the Count of Tripoli rather than by Reynald de Châtillon. You cannot rationally call two groups of men doing exactly the same thing ― charging the center of the enemy line with levelled lances ― two different things, simply because one group is led by your hero and the other by your villain.  Indeed, it would be more rational to characterize a charge after the disintegration of the army when the field was already lost as running away (and deserting the infantry) than a charge that took place at the height of the battle, when it might have successed.  With any Frankish charge, as Richard the Lionheart knew and proved, what matters is timing, and Châtillon had once before landed himself in Saracen captivity because he failed to charge at the appropriate time.

Manipulation of Sources and Half Truths:

1. Aftermath of the Springs of Cresson catastrophe: Having told an apparently fabricated account of the Springs of Cresson that deviates from the rare first-hand account provided by Ernoul, Lee describes a delegation allegedly sent from King Guy to the Count of Tripoli to “censure Raymond for his actions.” Lee provides verbatim quotes of the exchange between the king’s messenger and Tripoli ― and cites a Muslim source (p. 249). So we are to believe that Saladin’s secretary was sitting in the room during an exchange between two Christian leaders? This is grossly misleading. The first-hand accounts that other scholars follow make it clear that the delegation of nobles was on their way to Tiberias to meet with Tripoli before the catastrophe at Cresson and their message was one of reconciliation, not censure.

2. Baldwin IV’s Leprosy: Lee consistently portrays Baldwin the IV as a crippled and disfigured invalid. This is false. In reality Baldwin was neither disfigured nor handicapped when he came to the throne and his condition only deteriorated significantly after Montgisard – where, as I pointed out above, he commanded his army from horseback.  Indeed, according to Tyre (who was Baldwin’s tutor and chancellor, and one of the sources Lee repeatedly cites), Baldwin IV was “more skilled than men who were older than himself in controlling horses and in riding them at a gallop.” (quoted in Hamilton, The Leper King, p.43.) Even at the Battle on the Litani which occurred two years after Montgisard, Baldwin IV fought on horseback at the head of his troops.  (Note: Ridley Scott in his otherwise inaccurate film “The Kingdom of Heaven” was more accurate on this point; he has Baldwin IV reminiscing about Montgisard, saying how he had then been beautiful and strong.)

3. King Richard’s Support for Chatillon’s “Faction”: Lee attempts to show that Richard the Lionheart was an admirer of Châtillon by claiming: “…Richard embraced Reynald’s faction and backed the claim of Guy de Lusignan to the disputed throne of Jerusalem.” Aside from the fact that Richard had other motives for favoring Lusignan quite irrelevant to Châtillon’s support for a usurper, Lee conveniently leaves out the fact that Richard soon recognized his error, changed sides, and endorsed “the party led by Reynald’s bitter enemy, Balian of Ibelin.” Indeed, not only did Richard recognize Conrad de Montferrat as king of Jerusalem, he personally appointed “Reynald’s bitter enemy, Balian of Ibelin” is own envoy in his negotiations with Saladin ― an extraordinary mark of both trust and respect. Lee doesn’t want his readers to know that since it might cast doubt on his depiction of Ibelin as a lackey of Tripoli, so he just ignores the judgment of ― in Lee’s own words ― “the great King Richard himself.” (Lee, p. 281-282.)

Baldly Inaccurate Statements: These are littered throughout the book and I’ve only selected three examples to underscore my case.

1. Lee arbitrarily declares that Isabella of Jerusalem was 12 when she went to Kerak to live with her future husband under Châtillon’s guardianship; historically she was 8.

2. Lee claims Muslim troops garrisoned Tiberius against King Guy in 1186; utter fantastical nonsense.

3. Lee dismissively claims that medicine of the period was “no more than base superstition, with treatment usually exacerbating any malady.” (p. 11). In fact, as experts such as Piers Mitchell (Medicine in the Crusade, Cambridge University Press, 2004) make abundantly clear, medical practice at this time was remarkably sophisticated, made extensive use of anesthetics, saved many lives, and ― with respect to trauma treatment ― was not very different from medical practice today.  

Because of the above inaccuracies, misleading use of sources and biased presentation, + Real Crusades History + does NOT recommend "God's Wolf" by Jeffrey Lee. Instead, please consult the recent RCH podcast on Reynald and watch for forthcoming books by Dr. Paul Crawford.

Dr Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is the author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction, including a three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The "Conquest" of Edessa: Crusader Adaptation and Assimilation

The establishment of the crusader “county” of Edessa is often ― at least implicitly ― treated as a “conquest.” The impression conveyed is that the crusaders (or Franks) invaded, seized control of territory by force, and established a state (in this case styled a “County”) that was controlled by Latin elites. But Baldwin of Boulogne was accompanied by just sixty knights when he followed an invitation from a local warlord, Thoros, to go to Edessa. As Christopher MacEvitt makes clear in his meticulous study The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance, the crusader County of Edessa was more a complex network of local alliances than an invasion ― much less a colony.  Dr. Schrader summarizes.

The story of the crusader presence in Edessa, as indicated above, started with an “invitation” from a local warlord, and was legalized by an official adoption. Edessa was an ancient and wealthy city that at this time rivaled Antioch and Aleppo in importance. When in 1098 the First Crusade reached northern Syria, Edessa was in the hands of a Greek Christian warlord, the most recent “strongman” in a long line of short-lived warlords, who came to power by murder or popular acclaim ― only to lose favor rapidly and themselves be murdered or flee. Thoros fearing the fate of his predecessors if he could not fight off the ever present Turkish threat, sought help from the most recent military force to arrive on the scene: the crusaders. MacEvitt suggests convincingly that Thoros was making the same mistake that the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus had made, namely, of conflating crusaders with Frankish/Norman mercenaries. Thoros wanted the evidently effective commander Baldwin of Boulogne to come fight his battles for him; he never really thought he was inviting in a successor.

Baldwin, however, was not a mercenary. He rejected mere material gifts such as gold, silver and horses, in a bid for something more important still: power and control. When Thoros refused, Baldwin threatened to leave, and “the people” (by which one presumes the chroniclers mean the elites) insisted that Thoros give way. Thoros formally adopted Baldwin in a ceremony (telling) using Armenian relics and customs. Unfortunately for Thoros, this proved insufficient to placate an evidently unruly population. Within a month of Baldwin’s adoption, the mob had turned on Thoros, murdering him, his wife and his children mercilessly. Once Thoros was dead, the citizens jubilantly proclaimed his "son" (Baldwin) doux” ― a Greek title that usually implied subordination to the Emperor in Constantinople. Although he benefited from Thoros' murder, there is no evidence that Baldwin was behind it, and the fact that he was neither well connected with local elites nor yet conversant with Armenian politics speaks against his complicity.

Furthermore, despite the title awarded him, Baldwin of Boulogne was no vassal of ConstantinopleBut he was not a conqueror in control of invaded territory either. He still had only 60 knights of his own and he owed his elevation to the local, predominantly Armenian population. MacEvitt makes the point that from the point of view of the Edessans they had not helped establish a “Frankish” or “Latin”  or “crusader” state at all; they had (as so often in the past) simply replaced one “strong man with vague Byzantine ties” with another. 

Furthermore, Baldwin’s career would certainly have been as short-lived and as forgettable as that of the previous half-dozen “rulers” of Edessa, had he not proved astonishingly adept at building alliances with surrounding warlords, nobles and elites. That process started with the simple expedient of leaving the Armenian administration of the city undisturbed. Baldwin also adopted Armenian symbols and rituals, and he rapidly married into the Armenian aristocracy as well.

He faced not so much opposition as indifference on the part of all the other petty Armenian warlords of the surrounding countryside because the “County” of Edessa was not a unified territory at all.  Rather it was a patchwork quilt of minor "princelings" and lords, who each ruled their individual towns and castles by force. This was a land of “robber barons,” each jealously guarding their own territory and always on the alert to weaken or take advantage of the weakness of a neighbor. The Armenian warlords also rapidly set to work pitting one crusader lord against another, in what (in retrospect) seems like an almost playful experiment of seeing just how far they could go. The crusaders, significantly, after some initial squabbling eventually countered these attempts by closing ranks against the Armenians and eliminating the worst trouble-makers.

More dangerous to Baldwin in Edessa, however, was that as soon as he started to exert his authority there, the very citizens who had “elected” him, decided to depose him ― just as they had all his predecessors. Baldwin was lucky. One of the “councilors” turned traitor, told him what was afoot, and Baldwin struck first. He arrested the councilors, threw them in a dungeon, extracted ransom payments from them and then released them ― without noses, hands and feet or blinded in the case of the ringleaders. All were expelled from the city. Notably, this punishment, particularly the blinding of opponents and rivals, has a long tradition in the Eastern Roman Empire but none at all in northern France. In short, even in his rage, Baldwin of Boulogne had adapted the customs of his adopted father.

Nor did his “brutality” provoke outrage or rebellion. On the contrary, the chronicles record with what amounts to approval that Baldwin was now “feared.” The Armenian church and population appears to have welcomed the restoration of a really strong strongman, capable (they hoped) of ending the fragmentation and lawlessness in the region that had followed the defeat of the Byzantine army at Manzikert.

Baldwin of Boulogne had no chance to prove himself further. He was called away to Jerusalem to take up his elder brother’s mantle. He was crowned King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Day 1100. He did not just abandon Edessa, however. Instead, he invited his cousin Baldwin de Bourcq to succeed him as ruler of Edessa. Baldwin II (as he was to be known in both Edessa and Jerusalem) was quick to take the opportunity, and his eighteen-year rule in Edessa truly established Frankish control over Edessa.

It was Baldwin II who extended Frankish power beyond the city of Edessa into the surrounding region. This was no easy task as various warlords held castles at strategic points ― some Christian, some Muslim. Like Baldwin I, Baldwin II had too few Frankish troops to impose his rule. He was dependent on the goodwill of the bulk of the ruling class and the loyalty of Armenian soldiers to remain in power, much less extend it. Significantly, he never faced any rebellion in Edessa itself.

Baldwin II adopted much the same tactics as his cousin Baldwin I. He promptly married an Armenian wife, daughter of one of the strongest warlords. Other Franks in his entourage, significantly his cousin Jocelyn de Courtenay who would succeed him when he too went to Jerusalem to become king there, also married aristocratic Armenian women. Equally important, he continued to depend largely on local Armenian elites to administer his territory. However, an early incident in which he lost a key city to Turkish forces and had to borrow troops from the crusader Principality of Antioch, induced him to place more of his own relatives in key strategic castles.

Yet as MacEvitt documents, this was not the same thing as “oppressing” much less “exterminating” the local elites. Rather, Baldwin sent a clear signal: cooperate or lose you lands. The majority of Armenian warlords preferred to “submit” (nominally) to the Franks than risk seeing one of their Armenian rivals win greater power and authority. So, yes, some of the larger warlords lost out, fled to Constantinople and bewailed their fate to sympathetic ears. Their lament found a voice particularly in the chronicler Matthew of Edessa, but they were a minority. The bulk of the Armenian ruling class, MacEvitt argues, “preferred to trust the Franks rather than others of their own kind.” (The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, p. 83.) The Franks, in turn, rewarded loyalty, and the Armenians willing to recognize Frankish suzerainty were richly rewarded with new lands, titles and revenues.

Meanwhile, the Frankish leaders and their Armenian wives became increasingly integrated in the local society, honoring local saints, adopting local symbols, titles and customs. MacEvitt sites evidence that local (non-Latin) priests served as confessors for some Frankish lords. This is a far cry from 18th and 19th Century European colonists “picking up the white man’s burden,” yet meticulously maintaining their “superior” customs while treating the “natives” with condescension bordering on contempt. In 19th century Europe “going native” -- as the crusaders did -- was scorned, and those that did "go native" were viewed with contempt.

Furthermore, this pattern of integration and alliance with local (non-Latin) Christian elites was both continued under Baldwin’s successors, the Courteneys, and also transferred to Jerusalem when Baldwin II of Edessa became Baldwin II of Jerusalem. Significantly, his half-Armenian daughter Melusinde succeeded him to the throne, reinforcing the influence of native Christians at the heart of the crusader states.

MacEvitt argues, I think convincingly, that the tiny Frankish elite in all the crusader kingdoms was both more dependent and more integrated in Eastern Christian society than previous historians have been willing to admit. His work The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance is well worth reading. 

Dr Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is the author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction, including a three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

Armenian Christians play a key role in Why Does the Heathen Rage

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: Thierré 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 Thierré, 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 Thierré. 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.