Decembers of Centuries Past…and Present

It was on December 25, 1100 when Baldwin of Edessa got himself officially crowned king of Jerusalem…

On December 25, 1146, Bernard of Clairvaux recruited the HRE Conrad to join in what became the Second Crusade (which included Louis of France and Aliénor of Aquitaine). Of course that went well….

 On December 24, 1166 John Plantagenet is born, last son of Aliénor and Henry II of England. Of course that went well…

 On December 20, 1192, while returning from the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart got captured by Leopold of Austria whom he had dissed in theHoly Land.  Of course that went well as far as John was concerned.

 2012 will mark the 800 year anniversary of the so-called Children’s Crusade of 1212. The catalyst for that crusade was the “loss” of theKingdomofJerusalemas the result of the battle of Hattin in ll87 AD, and the failure of the Third and Fourth Crusade to retake the Holy Land.

 Historical fiction set in the Levant (those “crusader/Templar” stories) remain currently popular and not surprisingly so, given that some 1,000 years later, the issues of “then” seem to be very much the issues of “now.”

 While the Children’s Crusade offers up a weird enough episode in the long saga of the various crusades, it is the pivotal Battle of Hattin that continues to draw the interest of writers and historians, particularly the role of Guy de Lusignan, the king ofJerusalem.

 Since my current writing project focuses on the activities of the Lusignans in that part of the world, I was hoping for some new insight into their career when I happily succumbed again to book browsing, and got, among others, The Road to Armageddon, the Last Years of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, by W. B. Bartlett (published in the UK in 2007).

 Having read a number of these accounts, I was not surprised that much of the blame continues to be heaped on Guy. A similar tack continues in the recently published Jerusalem, the Biography (Alfred Knopf, 2011), by Simon Sebag Montefiore, in a section called “Guy: Flawed Heir.”

One may recall the movie The Kingdom of Heaven portrayed Guy de Lusignan as a thoroughly despicable character whose wife Sybilla, the queen-heiress toJerusalem, as a result canoodles with our hero, Balian of Ibelín. In fact, the marriage of Guy and Sybilla appears to be one of those rare medieval love stories.

 To me, Sybilla stands out as a rather neglected historical character of nevertheless signal importance—she picks her own husband, refuses to divorce him in the face of opposition to him from her leading barons, crowns him king, and sticks with him through thick and thin. Of course as a result of her choice, Sybilla gets a share of the blame for the disaster, too. Cecilia Holland in Jerusalem did depict Sybilla as a strong-willed, and flawed, character, but I think there is room for more.

 However, when one digs into less “popular” accounts of Hattin, one finds an interesting angle by Prof. R. C. Smail in his “The Predicament of Guy of Lusignan, ll83-ll87,” in Outremer, Studies in the History of the Crusading Kingdom of Jerusalem presented to Joshua Prawer (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, 1982).

 Smail points out that contemporary accounts of the episode are from two writers who were in the camp opposing Guy and his allies. And although “…judgments on [Guy’s] incompetence are commonplace in historical writing,” Smail states that “[M]odern scholarship should reflect that there is room now, as there was then, for more than one defensible view of Guy de Lusignan….”

 For an insight into the strife-ridden little corner of Christendom that brought it to Hattin, I would also recommend Jean Richard, The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, trsl. Janet Shirley, North-Holland Publishing Co., 1979).

 When one gets something of a grip on the material, one realizes it is a rip-roaring story of a handful of selfish, egotistical, ambitious, power-hungry individuals who heedlessly plunged an already vulnerable society into a war which nearly destroyed it, and eventually did contribute to its destruction, besides costing countless lives and treasure. Of course things were very different in those days….

 Ironically, after a couple of short-lived characters who briefly ruled the so-called Second Kingdom, Guy’s brother Aimary de Lusignan married its heiress (Sybilla’s half sister Isabella) and through her came to wear the crown of Jerusalem. How is that for irony. A man regarded by historians as a forceful and competent ruler, Aimary also founded the Lusignans dynasty onCypruswhich served as the Latins’ firm foothold in theLevantfor centuries. And that went rather well—for a time.

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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