Sunday, 4 May 2014

Book Review: Defending the City of God, by Sharan Newman

Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, The First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem

By Sharan Newman

Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
ISBN: 978-1137278654
Format: Hardcover; eBook

After the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1099 AD, the surviving crusaders had two choices: either return to Europe, or create a home in the Holy Land. A large number chose to stay and forge a new life in one of the newly established Crusader States. This book, written by Sharan Newman, focuses on these people, and in particular, the lives of the children that they raised there.  

Newman has chosen Queen Melisende of Jerusalem to represent the children of the first crusaders who were born and raised in the East. The queen’s parents were:  Morfia, an Eastern Christian and member of the Armenian nobility; and Baldwin of Le Bourq, a French crusader who settled in the Holy Land and was given the title of Count of Edessa, before eventually being elected King of Jerusalem in 1118. Newman frequently emphasises this to the reader throughout the text. She also highlights the fact that Melisende was born and raised in the Holy Land; it’s a good point that provides a fresh perspective, and something that can easily be forgotten when historians write of the ‘Franks’ in the Crusader States.

The lives of Melisende and her sisters are the backbone of this book, and the queen’s lifespan c.1105-61 AD provides a natural time frame. The chapters progress roughly chronologically, with a few deviations when necessary. They are divided according to significant events in the Latin States, or personal ones related to the lives of Melisende and her sisters. They also touch upon the impact of these events on the lives of the local population during this period. As a result of this the narrative is unsurprisingly required to flit from place to place, or between events. Inevitably this does hinder the flow of the book somewhat, and can make it a little confusing at times. However, Newman holds things together well by writing very clearly, and makes a confusing subject for those new to it less so as a result.

Chapter One sets the scene with a discussion chiefly of the first crusaders and those who settled afterwards, and an outline of recent events in the area. I thought it was excellent that Newman pointed out that there had been countless wars in the region between many different peoples; the crusaders were just another overlord in a long succession. She writes: ‘To the shepherds, farmers, and their families life didn't change much. There was a time of tumult, punctuated by terror, then a new master who wanted the same taxes.’ This touches upon recent lines of thought, but a footnote or comment upon other works was rather missed. Nonetheless, it was very encouraging to see it discussed as it is important in understanding the dynamics of the newly formed Latin States. The second chapter spends a good proportion discussing Melisende’s mother, Morfia. Very little has been written of her before, so this well-researched section makes particularly interesting reading. The following few chapters proceed with a narrative of Baldwin II’s role in political events between the states, and the constant struggle at the time to defend their borders. Throughout, Newman comments upon the daily lives of people living in Jerusalem in particular, and how the continuous struggles impacted upon them.

From Chapter Ten onwards the focus of the narrative shifts from Melisende’s parents to the soon-to-be queen, and her sisters. The future arrangement for Baldwin and Morfia’s four daughters (Melisende, Hodierna, Alice, and Yvette) are discussed, and with this comes the decision of Fulk V of Anjou for Melisende’s husband. An insightful contextual background of Fulk is provided, along with an account of the lengthy marriage discussions between him and Baldwin II. Throughout the following few chapters Newman discusses key events connected to Alice, and the rebellion and subsequent murder of Hugh of Jaffa, and how this impacted upon the dynamics between Fulk and Melisende. She rightly places a constant emphasis upon Melisende’s right to rule; the royal bloodline was through her and not her husband.

During the final three chapters the text shifts focus once more, this time to relations between the queen and her firstborn son Baldwin (III). Fulk had died unexpectedly in a hunting accident leaving Melisende with two sons, both of whom were under the age deemed fit to rule (15). Upon Baldwin II’s death, Melisende, her husband Fulk, and their son Baldwin were all named joint heirs to the throne. Therefore when Fulk died, technically Melisende and Baldwin III were equal rulers in the eyes of the law; with Melisende acting foremost due to Baldwin being under age. Newman comes at this situation with a refreshing argument. She frequently stresses Melisende’s right to rule once more, and reasons that the later power struggle between the queen and her son was more to do with his lack of apparent military ability, and therefore a concern for her kingdom, than a desire to cling on to power. The latter is something that has been argued with vigour by Hans E. Mayer in his article ‘Studies in the History of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem’.  Newman makes good use of both charter evidence and the chronicles (particularly William of Tyre), to make a convincing counter-argument to Mayer.

Newman uses a good mixture of the limited available sources, including Islamic accounts of events in addition to the much used Latin/French and Greek ones. I found it a slight shame that the final chapter dealt with a period much longer than the rest (1150-61). In my opinion, this was the period in Melisende’s life that was most relevant to one of the central proposed themes of the book; the suggestion that Melisende’s actions were based upon a belief that her son was not yet ready to rule alone. In addition to this, Newman wrote that she believed negative portrayals of Melisende were a result of what has been written about her by historians, and not by her contemporaries. The negative qualities written about her have been largely based upon her actions during the period of the final chapter, and so it might have been more satisfying if Newman had spent more time addressing events such as the following in greater detail: the civil war in the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and the arguable side-lining of Baldwin III through her second son Amalric’s inclusion in the charters at this time, and his appointment as Count of Jaffa. Despite this the book is very thorough in its detail and is written in a casual manner that is easy to read. Newman frequently raises minor points that really paint a vivid picture of the time in the reader’s mind; little details that humanise the people she is writing about. For example, when commenting upon the fall of Edessa she reminds the reader that this was Melisende’s childhood home. Whilst some of these details are merely speculative, some do have a sound basis and they provide good food for thought.

Overall, this is a thoroughly researched and clearly written book, and a much-needed recent contribution to the secondary works on Queen Melisende of Jerusalem.  It provides a refreshing perspective on the internal and external troubles of the Latin States in the early twelfth century, by considering how these struggles impacted upon its residents. A general reader with an interest in this period would find the book extremely insightful.