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.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Compassion





The Marriage of St. George and Princess Sabra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The essence of compassion is the ability to sympathize with others, indeed to take pity on them to such an extent that one is prepared to assist them even if it is not one's duty to do so. A compassionate person goes beyond the norm of what is expected to provide aid and assistance to another.  For medieval knights, St. George was a popular example of a knight who risked his life to rescue the classical "damsel in distress." Obviously, to the knightly class it was particularly attractive that St. George did this with lance and sword, exercising courage and prowess as well as compassion. 



Balian d'Ibelin's compassion is dramatically documented by his defense of Jerusalem.


Ibelin need not have gone to Jerusalem, and once there he could have refused to assume command of the defense. He could have kept to the terms of his agreement with Salah ad-Din and taken his wife and children to safety.  Instead, he remained in the Holy City -- risking not only his own life but that of his family -- because he was moved to pity by the thousands of refugees that had flooded the city. Although he knew that the defense was hopeless, he also realized that without professional leadership, the situation in Jerusalem would be worse than under a disciplined and experienced commander. He recognized that in the absence of strong leadership, it was the weak and helpless that would be most vulnerable as the situation deteriorated.


Yet nothing demonstrates Balian's intense compassion so much as the surrender of Jerusalem. First, rather than seek a martyr's death or secure a surrender that saved the lives of those with means (the upper classes, merchants and fighting men), he negotiated a surrender that included the poor. Recognizing that many refugees (particularly widows with several children) would never be able to pay Saladin’s price of 10 deniers per man, 5 per woman and 2 per child, he persuaded Saladin to accept a "lump sum" payment of 30,000 bezants for those too destitute to pay individual ransoms. 

When even this sum this proved insufficient for the number of poor in the city, Ibelin made an offer that is striking in its compassion: he offered to surrender himself to Saladin as surety until money for their ransoms could be raised. In short, he offered to give up his own freedom, the chance to be reunited with his wife and children for an indefinite period of time  -- possibly forever -- in order to secure the freedom of paupers.  I can think of no similar gesture by a medieval nobleman before St. Louis that is comparable in quality. This gesture alone discredit's the slander of the Itinerarium that calls Ibelin  cruel, fickle and faithless.  Whatever else Balian d'Ibelin was or was not, he was a knight of great compassion.


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