New from Yale: ‘The Crusader States’ Article by author Malcolm Barber

I’ve always enjoyed football, but it soon became evident that I was more suited to writing history than scoring goals…

Nevertheless, it is possible to perceive some structural parallels. For many coaches disciplined positional play and strictly defined roles enable teams to perform better than the sum of the individuals within them. Histories can be similarly constrained, especially when the subject is wider than the biography or the monograph. Strictly controlled through the imposition of preconceived themes, they circumscribe political, military, ecclesiastical, economic and cultural affairs within their own orbits rather like full-backs told never to cross the half-way line. I’ve even seen ‘cultural’ sections assigned to other authors in possession of what is thought to be more specialist knowledge (thus, ‘I am grateful to my colleague, Professor Jones, for contributing the chapter on the arts.’). In sport, this is reminiscent of the employment of specialist kickers in American football; indeed, how many England managers must have longed for such a system during the dire penalty shoot-outs which have so often bedevilled our national teams.

There is an alternative, demonstrated by the dazzling Dutch football teams of the 1970s, who eschewed specialists in favour of ‘total football’, in which players had interchangeable roles, as comfortable going forward as they were defending and vice-versa. To apply that to the writing of history is perhaps over-ambitious; it was probably too much even for the Dutch who, despite their brilliance, never won the World Cup. However, it does accord more closely with life: rulers dealt with problems as they occurred and did not have the luxury of parcelling them up into themes (Thursday is for the arts, even though Saladin is at the gates). This was particularly true of the crusader states where the medieval belief that God might bring disaster upon his recalcitrant subjects took on an immediacy seldom experienced by their western counterparts. At the ‘Field of Blood’ in 1119 Roger of Antioch  – triumphant victor at Tell Danith in 1115, but castigated by moralists for his dissolute life – died with a lance embedded in his skull. He may have been fortunate: some of his men suffered excruciating tortures before being slaughtered, marched naked through thistles in the burning sun before being hacked to death by Il-Ghazi’s turcomans. Roger’s defeat and death were the result of his own misjudgement, but the wrath of God could take other, less explicable, forms. In the twelfth century Syria experienced a period of geological agitation when frequent earthquakes devastated its towns and castles, culminating in the horrors of the year 1202.

‘We wish to inform you of dreadful misfortunes’, wrote Philip of Plessis, Master of the Temple, to Arnold Amalric, Abbot of Cîteaux, ‘the unheard-of disasters, the unspeakable plagues, and the fitting punishment of God which have come through our sinful actions.’

Stone carving of an angel in chain mail defeating a cowering demon, from the west portal of the church of Montceaux-l’Étoile in Burgundy, France.

Life in the crusader states was not always so dramatic, but it doesn’t lend itself to neat divisions. The revolt of Hugh of Le Puiset against King Fulk in the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1134 was suppressed, but it nevertheless indicated a well of discontent that the king had difficulty controlling. Among those who opposed him was his own wife, Queen Melisende, and the exquisite Psalter which he commissioned soon after was part of an attempt to conciliate her. The same is true of monumental buildings: the Hospitallers’ great structures in the Muristan in Jerusalem were not simply architectural wonders, but practical means of coping with the many exhausted and sick pilgrims as well as the wounded and dying brought in from battles with the Muslims.  In November, 1177, after the battle of Montgisard (a Christian victory) the hospital took in 750 seriously wounded men within a few hours.

Forced into battles which most western rules would have prudently avoided, knowing the catastrophic consequences which defeat might bring, and living in an environment in which a vengeful Deity might cause the earth to tremble and bring the roofs crashing down on their heads, the predicament of the Latin settlers in the east was unique for western Christians in the twelfth century. It was glib for western visitors to castigate them for what they wrongly perceived to be their decadent way of life when most of them stayed only a few months before sailing back to the relative safety of Champagne or Tuscany. These states though were extraordinary in other ways too for, although they were independent entities, responsible for their own governments, defence and economies, they were also part of the collective consciousness and, it might even be said, were regarded as the communal possession of all Christians, for they encompassed the sacred sites revered by the Christian cult. Jerusalem was the place of the Crucifixion and Galilee the scene of many of Christ’s miracles, while Antioch was the city of St Peter who was seen as the first bishop, transforming the followers of a Jewish sect into ‘Christians’.  Even the humblest pilgrim saw himself as having a stake in this, while powerful rulers made their presence felt from the moment they disembarked. King Guy of Jerusalem looks a minor figure in the shadow of Richard the Lionheart.

The rulers of the crusader states, secular and ecclesiastical, had only limited control over this situation, for they could not change the fact that they guarded and serviced the holy places, nor could they survive without the lifeline of the sea routes across the Mediterranean linking them to the men, money and supplies they needed, and stimulating the trade upon which they depended for their economic survival.  In these circumstances my resort to what may be seen as an old-fashioned chronological approach is perhaps defensible, especially as it makes it less tempting to impose an ideological straitjacket upon these settlements, forcing them into prototypes of ‘western colonialism’ or turning their diverse culture into a ‘Franco-Syrian nation’. As the boss says, best to take each game as it comes.

The Crusader States by Malcolm Barber
is available to purchase from the Yale website,
or from other online and high street booksellers.

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