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.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Mercy, Kindness and Generosity



Medieval society with its many poor, ill and afflicted members had a high need for mercy, charity and kindness. In the absence of social welfare and state-run institutions, care for the sick and the aged, for orphans, and the mentally ill fell to the charity of others. Many hospitals and hospices were run by religious organizations, particularly the Knights Hospitallers in the Holy Land, but these in turn depended on the generosity of private patrons. Wealthy individuals were expected to give alms directly to the poor or to bequeath land to religious institutions to enable them to earn enough to finance their charitable operations. The large number of lepers in the Middle East in the period gave rise to the creation of an entire religious order dedicated exclusively to the care of lepers, the Knights of St. Lazarus. 

Other faces of mercy, kindness and generosity in the medieval world were found in the behavior of a lord to his vassals, servants and serfs. In the hierarchical society of the Middle Ages, a lord's word was essentially law, and it was easy for a man with power over many serfs and servants to abuse that power with impunity. Only the moral sanctions of the Church -- and the ideals of chivalry -- seriously inhibited the misuse of power by lords.

The reverse side of the coin, however, was that lords (and ladies) had many opportunities to demonstrate mercy, kindness and generosity. They could forgive debts, excuse misdemeanors, distribute alms, offer employment and provide patronage. They could adopt children, finance dowries or training for orphans, or establilsh entire institutions of learning or healingThose who were exceptionally generous, such as Elizabeth of Thuringia and Louis IX of France, were eventually canonized for their generosity.

Likewise, the rules of medieval warfare gave the victor complete control over a vanquished enemy. A man was within his rights to slay a surrendered enemy. The custom of ransom often made it more lucrative to allow a prisoner to buy his freedom than to kill him, but in the heated and gory context of a medieval battlefield sparing an enemy's life was also an act of mercy -- even if the latter brought material gain.

As with so much of Balian d'Ibelin's life we have no direct evidence that he was merciful, kind or generous. Indeed, his detractors specifically called him "cruel." Yet he appears to have won his step-daughter's affection (which seems unlikely if he were a cruel or indifferent step-father). More speculative but intriguing: one wonders if Saladin's astonishing willingness to give him a safe-conduct -- and then forgive him for breaking his word about leaving Jerusalem -- was because of an earlier act of mercy or kindness by Balian to one of the Sultan's friends or family. We will never know. 


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