The Medieval Review 11.04.22

Barber, Malcom and Keith Bate, trans. Letters from the East: Crusaders, Pilgrims and Settlers in the 12th-13th Centuries. Crusade Texts in Translation. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Pp. 188. 55 GBP ISBN 978-0-7546-6356-0. .

Reviewed by:

Ora Limor
The Open University of Israel
orali@openu.ac.il

In the age of Facebook, Twitter and online chats, some of us look back with wonder and longing at remote ages when letters were the main means of long distance communication and letter-writing was an art to be learned and cultivated. Both as a vehicle for information and as a literary genre, letter-writing seems to belong to a vanishing world. This is only one reason for the interest raised by the volume of crusader letters translated and edited by Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate. The volume includes 82 letters written in the East between 1097 and 1306, that is, from before the conquest of Jerusalem until after the fall of Acre. Some of the letters in the volume are quite famous while others are almost unknown and translated here into English for the first time. They are presented in chronological order and, when read in sequence, tell a story: the story of the crusading project in the East, from its great heroic beginnings in the late eleventh century to its gloomy end two hundred years later. While the first letters describe with pride and astonishment the successes of the first crusade, in particular the conquests of Antioch and Jerusalem, the great majority of the remaining letters convey a feeling of danger, crisis and need--need for manpower, especially warriors, and need for means, especially money. This story is not new, but as testimonies of individuals who took part in the events, the letters "catch the immediacy of a crisis or the impact of an experience," as the editors put it (vii), and thus their contribution to our knowledge of the crusade enterprise can hardly be exaggerated. Several letters also offer a glimpse into inner politics and dissent, as well as to wider political issues, such as the controversy over the actions of Frederick II and his truce with the Moslems, on which we have letters from both sides of the divide. The prominent role played by the military orders in the military expeditions and in the politics of the crusader kingdoms is also salient in the letters. A large number of them were written by officials of the orders, and reveal their involvement in Eastern affairs as well as their influence over them.

Descriptions of conquests and losses and calls for help are the major themes of the letters. As most of them were written with the aim of raising aid, the overall impression they convey is one of calamity and need. They reflect an atmosphere of constant crisis and danger and almost never deal with the normal, daily life of the European settlers in the East. Social or cultural life, everyday experiences, relations with the local population, and other topics that must have occupied the settlers in the Latin kingdoms, remain largely hidden.

Most of the letters are of Latin origin and many follow the general epistolary rules of the period, yet they differ in style and level of eloquence, sophistication and culture. Alongside short, simple, matter-of-fact letters, lacking in style, which express an immediate need, there are much more artistic letters, rich in biblical and literary allusions. The letters of James of Vitry are exceptional in their elaborate style, richness of vocabulary and imagery, biblical verses, illusions and analogies. Best known is his famous letter about the vices of Acre, the "second Babylon," which is "like a monstrous dragon with nine heads engaged in mutual conflict" (no. 57). Other letters, such as those of Stephen of Blois (nos. 1, 5) or Bohemond (nos. 6, 8), and many others, especially those that describe victory in battles in detail, are imbued with chivalric ideals and give expression to the ethos of the time.

While the subtitle of the book mentions "crusaders, pilgrims and settlers," pilgrimage, in the conventional sense as a religious non- military activity, does not find expression in the letters. With the exception of James of Vitry, the letters do not describe the holy places, which are the real treasures of the Holy Land, and in this they are very different from the itineraries and Holy Land descriptions written in the same period. Those genres deal mainly with the sacred traditions of the Holy Land, elaborate on events of the historical past and describe the ways these foundational events are remembered in the present through church building, art and liturgy. The letters, on the other hand, focus only on the present and on immediate actions and pressing problems. With the exception of James of Vitry, the letters also avoid direct descriptions of the population in Syria and in the Holy Land, and Eastern Christians have little presence in them. On the other hand, several letters do touch upon important relics originating in Jerusalem, and many mention the remission of sins and the desire for salvation as the main motive for the crusader mission and as its greatest propaganda tool.

Although some of the letters lack a real personal voice and deliver stereotyped descriptions of victories, losses and calamities, others record the feelings of the settlers of the crusader kingdoms and add a personal angle to the course of the epoch-making events described in chronicles and other literary forms. The great joy of finding the Holy Lance in Antioch and the deep distress caused by the loss of the True Cross in Hattin are genuine expressions of faith and religious fervor. Still, especially moving are the letters written after great disasters, such as the battle of Hattin, with the writers expressing their despair after the calamities that had already occurred and panic about those which were to come.

Exceptional among the letters is the well known forged letter of Prester John, written as propaganda on behalf of Frederick Barbarossa in his conflict with the papacy, which teaches us much about the medieval imagination.

The writers are mainly leaders of expeditions to the East, either laymen or clerics, and the letters are addressed primarily to popes and prelates, kings and princes, as well as other officials. Several letters were written to all the Christian faithful or "to the Western Church" (no. 4). It is probably trivial to mention that the letters express male voices only. They are written by male authors, mainly (although not exclusively) for male readers, about male activities-- fighting. The only female addressee is Adela, wife of Stephen, Count of Blois. After describing his military achievements in detail, he adds a sentence asking her "to act wisely" in managing her estates and to treat her children and vassals "honourably," thus reminding us of the crucial role played by the aristocratic women left behind and the power they acquired when their husbands set out for the East.

The introduction to the book is compact, effective and helpful. It touches briefly on the literary conventions of letter-writing in the medieval West and on the historical context. The short footnotes are informative. Altogether, this book is an important contribution to research, and especially to teaching, about the crusading movement.