Tag Archives: Crusades

Malcom Barber and Keith Bate on letters from crusaders and pilgrims

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

Letters from the East presents translations of a selection of the letters sent by crusaders and pilgrims from Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. There are accounts of all the great events from the triumph of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 to the disasters of Hattin in 1187 and the loss of Acre in 1291.

In this guest blog editors Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate reflect on the letters they selected for their volume.


There are fascinating and vivid chronicles in the Ashgate series, many of which have been expertly analysed with the aims of determining the motives of the writers, the influences upon them, and the circumstances in which they were composed. We see the letters complementing these, since, even in the hands of a self-conscious author like James of Vitry, Bishop of Acre, they were subject to the more immediate pressures of life in a frontier society, whereas the chronicles were often polished and rewritten in order to demonstrate the literary accomplishments of the authors or to promote the cause of a patron. Letters from the eastAs with the chronicles we’ve tried to translate most of the letters in their entirety because we wanted to limit editorial steer as much as possible, and because future trends in analysis can’t easily be forecast. Parts of the text which might seem inconsequential today may well be the subject of study tomorrow.

Of course the act of selection is in itself an imposition not faced by the translator of a complete chronicle, but in the case of letters the quantity of material available makes this inevitable. It might be helpful to explain some of the considerations which lay behind our choices. Some letters are presented as stand-alone texts, but we have tried to group others in a variety of different ways: thus we have participants in a common enterprise like the First Crusade, the huge but ultimately fruitless effort to persuade Louis VII of France to lead a new expedition to the East in 1160s, and the collection put together by individuals such as James of Vitry. In the end, though, there’s no real consistency of approach among the writers themselves; indeed, this might be seen as part their attraction as sources. At one extreme there are pragmatic appeals for help, often in the wake of disasters; at the other, an extraordinary description of the fantasy land of Prester John, produced in Germany around 1165 as part of the imperial propaganda campaign against the papacy. Less elaborate but equally intriguing is a forged letter of 1193 purporting to be from Rashid al-Din, leader of the Syrian Assassins, emanating from the chancery of Richard I. Here, the Assassin leader assures Leopold of Austria that, despite allegations to the contrary, the king had nothing to do with the murder of Conrad of Montferrat in Acre in April the previous year. Other letters, while basically factual, may for different reasons not be quite what they seem: it’s been argued, for instance, that the two famous letters by Terricus, the Templar preceptor, apparently written in 1187 and 1188 after the battle of Hattin, are in fact compilations intended to excite a reaction in the West from which aid in the form of men, money and supplies might flow.

Particularly eye-catching are the personal touches. These men and women lived in a very different world, but their humanity still resonates. When, in 1097, Stephen of Blois described to his wife, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, the generosity of Alexius, the Byzantine emperor, one sentence reflects on what must have been a source of continual irritation between the two of them. ‘Your father, my love, gave many great presents, but he was almost nothing in comparison with this man.’ Stephen was not the only one whose thoughts turned to home. In 1120, Ansell, Cantor of the Holy Sepulchre, sent a cross made from wood taken from the True Cross to his friends at Notre Dame in Paris. In the accompanying letter, he recalled his time with them. ‘Although it is now twenty-four years since I left you and your church where I was nourished and educated, my love for you remains fervent and in my mind I still live in your church with you.’ Sometimes, though, the letters betray frustration and anger caused by the bitter experience of failure. Conrad III, King of Germany, who felt humiliated by the retreat from Damascus in 1148, believed he had been betrayed, apparently by local Franks, despite the fact that it had been ‘a unanimous decision’ to attack the city. Nor was the Muslim enemy the only hazard. In 1216, James of Vitry was on board a ship which was, accidentally, almost rammed by another vessel, causing panic among the voyagers. ‘And there arose a great cry from everybody; and there was heard crying and weeping, and people confessing their sins in both ships. Some people began jumping from one ship to the other, according to which they thought to be the stronger, while others took off their clothes and tied any silver and gold they had around their bodies in case they could swim to safety.’ In contrast, bravery, both mental and physical, is the outstanding impression left on the reader of the letter of John of Villiers, the Hospitaller Master, writing from Cyprus in late May, 1291, after Acre had disintegrated around him. He knew he had not long to live, having been ‘mortally wounded by a spear’, but had nevertheless escaped to Cyprus, ‘our heart heavy and our body in pain’.

Taken as a whole, the book is intended to provide a series of pegs on which to hang a general history of the crusade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. To that end there’s an attempt at a chronological and thematic balance, enabling newcomers to the subject to use the letters in conjunction with good concise histories of the crusades such as Bernard Hamilton’s The Crusades (Sutton Pocket Histories, 1998). Key events – the First Crusade, the defeat at Hattin in 1187, the fall of Acre in 1291 – are all covered even though (indeed because) they are well known. The letters help to explain the enduring appeal of the crusades as an undergraduate subject; there are many more which could be mined.


Letters from the East was chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our History publishing programme. View the full list of History Editors’ Choices

The Chanson d’Antioche: An Old French Account of the First Crusade

We were delighted to read Simon John’s review of The Chanson d’Antioche: An Old French Account of the First Crusade on the Reviews in History website.

…this volume is a landmark piece of scholarship not only in the field of the crusades but more widely in medieval history. The Chanson d’Antioche is one of the most important texts in crusade history, and a significant example of medieval vernacular literature in its own right. The publication of this translation will make the Antioche accessible to a large number of scholars across a range of disciplines.

The Chanson d’Antioche is published in Ashgate’s Crusade Texts in Translation series, and the volume is translated and introduced by Susan B. Edgington and Carol Sweetenham.

Further information about The Chanson d’Antioche is on our website.

Eye-witness Accounts of the Medieval World from a Muslim Perspective

Posted by Claire Percy, Senior Marketing Executive for History

For several years, I continued to avoid mention of this disaster as it horrified me. Who is there who would find it easy to write the obituary of Islam and the Muslims?

This is an extract from Ibn al-Athir’s “al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh,” considered to be one of the most important sources for the history of the medieval world. A scholar who spent much of his early years in Mosul, Northern Iraq, he fought in Saladin’s army at the age of 28, and his (many eye witness) accounts of events from 491/1097– 629/1231 deem him to be the most influential Muslim historian of his time.

The Muslims were full of fear and terror of [the Tatars]…What is Jerusalem in relation to the lands that these cursed ones destroyed, where each city is many times larger than Jerusalem? And what are the Israelites compared to those they killed? They did not spare anyone….They slew women, men and children. They split open the bellies of pregnant women and killed the foetuses.

From the time of the arrival of the Crusaders in the Levant, Crusader activities and the Muslim response become the focus of the work. His work covers events widely – in Iraq, Iran, North Africa and Spain.

This is the calamity whose sparks flew wide and whose damage was all-embracing…It spread through the lands like a cloud driven on the wind. Perhaps humanity will not see such as calamity …until the word comes to an end and life ceases to be…

What makes Ibn al-Athir’s accounts differ from other Muslim sources is that he was widely traveled, both a scholar and soldier, and one who doesn’t always refer to Saladin in glowing terms!

The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh is now available from Ashgate Publishing in three paperback volumes. Other texts on the Crusades and the Latin East are also published by Ashgate.


Crusades symposium begins this week – guest post from Medieval News

This post was originally published on Medieval News.

The Second International Symposium on Crusade Studies begins on Wednesday, drawing in dozens of scholars from over ten countries.

Hosted by Saint Louis University and the Crusades Studies Forum, the symposium, entitled Crusades: Medieval Worlds in Conflict, provides a venue for scholars to approach the Crusades from many different perspectives, to present the fruits of new research, and to assess the current state of the field.

Thomas F. Madden, Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University says that about 120 people have registered for the conference, including prominent historians such as Jonathan Phillips, Ronnie Ellenblum and Michael Angold. Madden credits the strong expected turnout to the success of the first symposium, which was also held at Saint Louis University in 2006, as well as the reputation of the Crusades Studies Fourm, and “a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

The symposium will explore a number of issues related to the crusades ranging from the development of crusading ideology and Holy War to the military aspects of the conflict. Madden notes that in recent years, some of the emerging trends in scholarship about the crusades is “the emphasis on religion and spirituality. The crusades were wars, but they were religious wars and if we fail to see them within that framework we fundamentally distort them. There was no good strategic reason for thousands of European warriors to march thousands of miles deep into enemy territory during the First Crusade. But there were many powerful religious reasons to do so.

“Within that framework, I’m particularly excited by studies that have begun to examine the intersection of crusade and liturgy, hagiography, and Marian devotion. Beyond religious approaches, there are also some interesting new studies being produced on the question of identity and the crusading movement. Because the crusades in some manner permeated so deeply into medieval society, it is an exceptionally rich topic of investigation.”

The symposium includes lectures that are open to the public, and two days of conference papers. Over 48 speakers are participating. Madden adds that the preparations for such a large symposium involved “a great deal of work, but I have very good assistants in the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and a battery of willing graduate students who chip in at every stage.”

The proceedings of the first symposium will be published this year by Ashgate Publishing. Professor Madden, who has written numerous books and articles about the crusades, is currently working on Venetian involvement about the Fourth Crusade as well as a larger work about the history of medieval Venice.

The Second International Symposium on Crusades Studies runs from February 17th to 20th. Click here to go the Symposium website.