Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, November 8, 2013

"Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem" by Stanely Lane-Poole: A Review

Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem by Stanley Lane-Poole attracted my attention since I am working on a novel about his adversary at Jerusalem, Balian d'Ibelin.
Unfortunately, the book turned out to be a eulogy rather than a biography. Here's my review:
 
In his introduction to this book, Lane-Poole claims that “no complete Life of the celebrated adversary of Richard Coeur de Lion” is available in the English language. This may have been true when it was first published at the end of the 19th century, but it is no longer the case. Nevertheless, the price (just $.99 cents) seduced me. Before others make the same mistake, here's my assessment.
 
While understanding that every biographer is to some extent the captive of his sources, this book is far more than biased: it singularly fails to provide the analysis and context so vital to a good biography. Furthermore, it is based on two false assumptions. First, that Muslims have the right to all territory that was ever ruled by Muslims, and blindly denies both Jews and Christians any right to the territories that was theirs long before the Muslim invasion of the 7th Century AD. Second and more important, Lane-Poole ignores the fact the population of these lands – even at the end of the 12 century – was not predominantly Muslim, much less Sunni Muslim.  The population was completely fragmented into Jews, Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Jacobites, Maronites,  Coptic Christians, Nestorians and Shiia Muslims as well as Sunni Muslims. The latter distinction is very important because Shiite leaders, both the Fatimid Caliphate and the Assassins, made repeated pacts and alliances with the Christians to fight the Sunnis – and Saladin himself -- and the Shiite population in Palestine probably opposed Saladin at least as much if not more than the Jews and some of the Christians.  (For more information on the population of the crusader kingdoms and their relations to their rulers I recommend either Malcolm Barber’s book, “The Crusader States,” or to Professor Kenneth Harl’s excellent series of lectures in The Great Courses series.)
 
Lane-Poole, however, is clearly not interested in the facts.  Instead, he slavishly follows his pro-Saladin sources without standing back to question or balance these sources with information drawn from other chronicles and historians or – indeed – simple common sense.  For example, he repeatedly mentions that Christian clerics were prepared to absolve Christian leaders of oaths made to non-Christians – but does not once mention that Muslim clerics told their fighting men exactly the same thing only in reverse: that they need not keep their word with non-Muslims.  Likewise, it gets very tedious to have every tactical defeat of a Christian force portrayed as a “humiliating retreat” with the Christians departing “with their tails between their legs” – in one case this was after just one week in the field! -- while every set back Saladin suffered (and he sometimes spent many months in pointless sieges!) is explained away as a wise decision not to pursue a time-consuming campaign or the need to let his troops go home to see their families.  Indeed, Lane-Poole mentions several times how attached Muslims are to their wives and children, but does not credit Christians with the same feelings.  As for Saladin’s defeat at Mont Gisard, where Saladin’s army of 20,000 was put to flight by roughly 500 knights led by a 16 year old king suffering from leprosy, it is glossed over as “inexplicable” and takes up less than two pages of the narrative. A real biographer would have been intent on explaining both how it happened – and what Saladin learned from it; as a historian, the latter point is particularly important as such a bitter defeat (Saladin had to escape on a pack camel and lost almost his entire body guard) surely left its scars on his psyche.
 
It is likewise the mark of a dilettante rather than a historian to claim that Richard I “was honeymooning” on Cyprus, when in fact he was conquering the island from a tyrant and by so doing secured the lines-of-communication and a breadbasket for the crusader states for the next hundred years. Indeed, the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus outlived the crusader kingdoms by more than 200 years.
 
The book is also littered with gratuitous and unfounded insults as well. For example, Lane-Poole calls the sailors of the age “timid” because they did not venture into the Mediterranean in winter.  Apparently, Lane-Poole has never seen the fury of Mediterranean winter storms much less considered what it would be like to face them in a fragile wooden vessel without a weather channels, radar, navigational equipment, radio communications etc. etc.
 
Lane-Poole’s bias is so extreme it is even applied to even little things such as the way the “wooden [sic] bells of the Christians harshly clashed [wood?] instead of the sweet and solemn chant of the muezzin.” (As someone who hears the call to prayers five times a day, I beg to differ with that utterly subjective statement!)
 
About four fifths of the way through the book, Lane-Poole casts aside all pretense of being a historian and biographer and declares his partisanship in the statement: “But the students of the Crusades do not need to be told that in the struggle of civilization, magnanimity, toleration, real chivalry, and gentle culture were all on the side of the Saracens.” (Chapter XIX) Now, students of the crusade know just the opposite: that there were atrocities, betrayals, cruelties, excesses and also magnanimity, generosity, courage and gentle culture on BOTH sides.
 
The greatest weakness of this book is that by its excessive bias it detracts from its hero.  Saladin deserves our respect because he was exceptional, not because he was perfect. Saladin stands out as an impressive and attractive example of integrity, tenacity, leadership, piety and generosity – particularly when compared to his successors, such as Baibars. He was undoubtedly a more chivalrous figure than Guy de Lusignan, and even Christians despised and repudiated butchers like Ranaud de Chatillon. But Saladin deserves a real biography that attempts to explain him as a statesmen and a military leader; this book is not it, but I'll keep looking.
 

 

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