And when you're having to read someone as charming and informative as John de Joinville, well, difficulty doesn't enter into it.
Chronicles of the Crusades is a Penguin Classics book collecting two medieval chronicles. The first is Geoffroy de Villehardouin's Conquest of Constantinople, a major source on the disastrous Fourth Crusade that, despite the best of intentions, went badly astray and wound up sacking Constantinople in 1204. The second is John de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis, which takes us on the Seventh Crusade in 1248 under Louis IX. Though neither of these are events I cover in my novel, I was in the market for details on thirteenth-century Outremer, and this book had been sitting on our shelves for years. I dug in.
The Conquest of Constantinople
Geoffroy de Villehardouin's account of the Fourth Crusade is a rather weird read, but that's to be expected--the Fourth Crusade was a rather weird affair. (So, as a matter of fact, was the Sixth). I don't know if you're familiar with the history, but it's a tragic monument to the shortsightedness of well-meaning people. The expedition's original destination was Egypt; and the organisers sent their envoys to Venice to order a large fleet to take the crusaders there. One of these envoys--and therefore one of the men indirectly responsible for the whole fiasco--was Villehardouin himself. When the date came for the crusaders to set out from Venice, it was found that the envoys had significantly overestimated their expected numbers: there were not enough men to fill the fleet, nor enough money to pay for it. After a couple of other attempts to make up the money, the son of a deposed Byzantine emperor (no, really!) appeared and offered the crusaders funds beyond their wildest dreams, as well as help in their mission, if they would help him overthrow his evil uncle and restore him to his father's throne. With no other options, the crusaders and the Venetians went off to Constantinople and restored the deposed emperor.
At which stage the young prince discovered that a) there wasn't enough money in the city to pay what he'd promised to the Crusaders, and b) that his people were pretty mad at him for making such wild promises. When the Greeks revolted and chose a new emperor, who promptly had the optimistic prince executed, the crusade felt they had no choice but to attack the city (its ruler having seized it by treachery) and recover the funds promised them from its ghastly, smoking ruins. Having done so, they elected one of themselves emperor and thus began a precarious 60-year Frankish regime in Byzantium.
The sack of Byzantium is commonly referred to in school-level textbooks as the crowning absurdity of the Crusades. To study it in a little more detail is to come to appreciate the fact that the Fourth Crusade was only gradually derailed from its nobler objectives, that this did not happen without strong dissent from many participants and critics (at one stage the entire expedition was excommunicated by the same Pope who called it; so--) and that it's actually really difficult to pinpoint any single person as a villain. At the same time, the Fourth Crusade basically destroyed a city of staggering antiquity and value, and its sack was accompanied by unspeakable atrocities and blasphemies. Without the Fourth Crusade, Byzantium might have lasted hundreds of years longer than it did; it's possible that Hagia Sophia might still be a Christian church today.
Given this extremely complicated historical context, I was fascinated to see what Villehardouin would say about the expedition of which he was such a prominent member. I ended up even more confused about the Fourth Crusade than I had been. How did Enrico Dandolo, the possibly scheming Doge of Venice, so firmly win the respect of a man like Villehardouin? Was the sudden influx of battle-hardened Frankish warriors actually a good thing for an empire being viciously attacked by Hungarians?
But most of all, I was intrigued by Villehardouin himself.
Villehardouin's most challenging trait is his steady, unquestioning--and by no means uninformed or unreasonable--belief that the actions of the crusade were just. That was what made the book such a weird experience for me: did he never wonder if they were wrong? I think they were, but I have the benefit of 800 years' worth of hindsight. As a historian, he is detached, terse, and sparse in his details; though he takes care to let us know where he approves or disapproves of people. And he is a very difficult man to disrespect: his sober tone, his matter-of-fact voice, and his apparent bravery and experience as a soldier (he began life as the marshal of Champagne, and ended it as the marshal of the Frankish-ruled Empire) makes him worth taking seriously. This is not the propaganda of a romanticist, but the history of a soldier.
I came away from Villehardouin with more questions than answers. But it would have been hard to find a more radically different personality than the biographer of Louis IX.
The Life of Saint Louis
John of Joinville shares little in common with Villehardouin beyond noble rank and physical courage. Turning the page to his chronicle was like being buttonholed by a garrulous but witty conversationalist. In theory, Joinville wants to give you an inspiring and edifying hagiography of a man he clearly knew, loved, and deeply revered--but he keeps getting sidetracked, mostly with artlessly self-satisfied reminiscences of that time he sent the Empress of Byzantium a new dress when she hadn't a thing else to wear, so that all the other nobles said he'd outdone them in courtesy, or that time he bravely leapt from his ship into the surf to attack an Egyptian beach, or that time King Louis took his advice instead of everyone else's, or the advice he used to give to young knights, or the way he defended the bridge near Damietta, or the pranks played on him in camp.
I must tell you here of some amusing tricks the Comte d'Eu played on us. I had made a sort of house for myself in which my knights and I used to eat, sitting so as to get the light from the door, which, as it happened, faced the Comte d'Eu's quarters. The count, who was a very ingenious fellow, had rigged up a miniature ballistic machine with which he could throw stones into my tent. He would watch us as we were having our meal, adjust his machine to suit the length of our table, and then let fly at us, breaking our pots and glasses.Joinville, in other words, is immense fun to read, and since he constantly runs off on tangents and anecdotes, he provides a wealth of invaluable historical detail to the starving novelist (squirrel fur, he sent the Empress).
While it deals with various aspects of Louis IX's rule at home, the bulk of Joinville's book is taken up by his eyewitness account of the Seventh Crusade. Following the loss of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, Christendom had been galvanised into action in the Third Crusade, which was dominated by the personality of Richard I of England. Richard's participation in the Third Crusade passed into legend, not just in England but also in Outremer itself. One of the greatest generals of his age (it took some skill to stop Saladin), Richard had started a march to recover Jerusalem, but turned back in sorrow when he realised the inland city could not practically be defended from the Franks' limited holdings on the coast. Like Jerusalem's King Amalric thirty years before him, Richard realised that the holy city would only be secure once Egypt was in Christian hands.
From that time on it was an axiom of crusading that you focused on Egypt. Egypt had been the intended destination of the Fourth Crusade, and the theatre of the Fifth. The Sixth wasn't much, succeeding in little more than sparking off a civil war between the Holy Roman Emperor and a faction of Outremer noblemen. The Seventh tried again, but like the Fifth, ultimately fell afoul of the Nile's unpredictable habit of playing with the landscape. It ended with the ignominious capture of the whole Christian army; nevertheless, its leader, Saint Louis, was so revered both as a knight and as a Christian that when he had arranged his ransom and arrived in Acre, he was able to remain for several years, fortifying various strongholds and more or less ruling Outremer by simple merit.
All of this history is brought to life in Joinville's book. Though he never misses an opportunity to describe his own feats of arms, Joinville is no more a romantic or a propagandist than Villehardouin. He is telling war stories, and he has a raconteur's taste for humour and drama, but he emerges from his own stories as a very ordinary man, anxious to please, devout when it occurs to him, and no more immune to fear than he is to conceit: as witness this episode from the time of his captivity by the Saracens:
A good thirty of the Saracens now boarded our ship, with drawn swords in their hands, and Danish axes hanging at their necks. I asked Baudouin d'Ibelin, who was well acquainted with their language, what these men were saying. He told me they were saying that they had come to cut off our heads. At once a great number of people crowded round to confess their sins to a monk of the Holy Trinity...The whole period of the crusaders' captivity was intensely interesting to me. Actually, one of the entertaining things about the Crusades as a whole was how shocked the Saracens always were by the freedom and authority enjoyed by Frankish women. There's a minor example of this when the Saracens come to ask King Louis how much he will pay for his ransom:
So I crossed myself, and as I knelt at the feet of one of the Saracens who was holding a Danish axe such as carpenters use, I said to myself 'thus Saint Agnes died.' Guy d'Ibelin, Constable of Cyprus, knelt down beside me, and confessed himself to me. 'I absolve you,' I said to him, 'with such power as God has granted me.' However, when I rose to my feet, I could not remember a word of what he had told me.
The king had replied that if the sultan was willing to accept a reasonable sum he would send and advise the queen to pay that amount for their ransom. 'How is it,' they had asked, 'that you won't tell us definitely whether you'll do this?' The king had answered that he did not know whether or not the queen would consent, since, as his consort, she was mistress of her actions.It's a common misconception these days that rights for women sprang fully-formed from Gloria Steinem's forehead sometime in the 1960s, and it's equally commonly assumed that the entire period of world history up till then had Victorian-style gender roles or worse. This results in popular stories set in the medieval era which assume noblewomen had nothing to do with their lives but embroider. I happen to believe textile work is highly underrated, but the fact is that when medieval noblewomen weren't creating cultural masterpieces with their needles, they were usually enjoying significant privileges and discharging significant responsibilities, which could include but were not limited to diplomacy, building projects, and siege warfare.
All this aside, have I mentioned yet what fun Joinville's chronicle is to read? One almost wonders why anyone bothers with modern history books when the originals are so much more interesting--and give you so much better an idea of the people and personalities of the times. Original sources are undoubtedly the most colourful, helpful, and entertaining resources I use; and Chronicles of the Crusades was a favourite.
Find Chronicles of the Crusades on Amazon or the Book Depository. I read the translation by MRB Shaw.