‘queens of Jerusalem’ Review: Crusading Women!

Women’s lives during the Crusades were made a misery by the strong patriarchy of the time. For the men, it wasn’t much better.

Steven Runciman is widely regarded as the most popular historian of the Crusades in the twentieth century. An enduring feat in the manic narrative, his legendary three-volume “A History of the Crusades” (1951-54) is exhaustive, mercilessly detailed, and compulsively readable.

Many historians today consider his work to be out-of-date. He was, after all, a proponent of the “great-man hypothesis” and the “one darn thing after the other” approach to historical writing. First, the past was a product of great or heroic men.

Second, the past was not a product of great or heroic persons. When it comes to class conflict or industrialization, it’s better to focus on events rather than on the underlying causes.

The historian Katherine Pangonis provides an intriguing alternative to the Runciman account in her book “Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule. On the eastern Mediterranean coast in the 12th century, she concentrates on the crusader states’ female leaders.

A French term that predates “the Middle East” and “the Levant,” Outremer, refers to a sliver of coastline that stretches from southern Turkey to northern Egypt and includes such cities as Acre, Antioch, Jaffa, Sidon, and Tyre—all loosely governed by Jerusalem.

It’s about “the power noblewomen in Outremer strived for, the forces that limited their authority, and the influence male writers and historians have held over their legacies,” says Ms. Pangonis in her introduction.

Consequently, it does not tell the story of the Crusades in battle-by-battle detail from Europe to the Levant. So it’s a multigenerational drama at court and beyond replete with story-filled biographies selected to remit a variety of errors and restore the entire historical record.

The story that follows is one of constant struggle against hardship, and it is both magnificent and perplexing at times. At least in the history of Outremer, it seems hard to escape the “one after the other” strategy.

Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

As a result of her father failing to supply her with the promised dowry, Baldwin I’s second wife was forced into a convent, and his third wife, who had no heirs, was deported back to Europe without her money. All of Baldwin I’s wives perished during the First Crusade.

Baldwin II, the future king, must be freed from a Saracen jail by his wife, Morphia before he can be anointed the king of Jerusalem in 1118. After Morphia devises a daring expedition to free him from captivity once more in 1123, he is set free once more.

It doesn’t work. She demands another payment, and he is sentenced to additional time behind bars. The book’s opening chapter contains all of this information.

The action doesn’t stop until you get going from there. Women’s life is depicted as teeming with dangers. Involuntary marriage to a nasty spouse, jilting after betrothal, death during childbirth, consignment to a convent, husband neglect, husband death (all too prevalent), and accusations of adultery are just a few more examples that may be mentioned here (a capital crime).

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Other than that, a lot is going on that is so chaotic and terrible that the plot occasionally verges on black farce. Because she’s so accurate in portraying the historical era, it’s not the author’s fault.

It is perhaps even more difficult for male protagonists, who must deal with a slew of issues ranging from the Muslim threat to finding suitable husbands for their daughters to placating European sponsors and preventing war between cities, between the Frankish Christians and the indigenous Eastern Christians to the local church and Byzantium—all the while avoiding death by the notorious cult of Assassins

. One can only speculate as to how else Mr. Pangonis could have managed his time when his wife bemoans his neglect of a princess or queen as if it were the medieval equivalent of working too many hours.

No doubt, the strong patriarchy of the time harmed women’s lives in several ways. “Agency” is something Ms. Pangonis celebrates in those who have worked hard to achieve it. It’s possible, though, that their efforts only undermined the already unstable crusader enclave.

After a long-running feud between the Christians and the Muslims, Alice of Antioch’s warrior husband, Bohemond II, was finally killed by the Muslims.

Her grieving was short-lived as she quickly devised a strategy to “throw off the suffocating influence of her male kin and establish personal freedom.” Alice’s rebellions may have been admirable, but they merely exacerbated Outremer’s problems.

William of Tyre, the most prominent historian of the day, has gotten into a fight with Ms. Pangonis over his criticisms of Alice’s ambitious behavior.

She deems it “the recourse of a guy against women jeopardizing the social framework in which his gender has the advantage” when he attacks them. An advantage that doesn’t appear to be worth much at all.

It’s fair to say that the author’s voice isn’t always so preachy, though. When it comes to escorting the world’s most beautiful women too and from the theatre, she has her hands full. In 1131, Queen Melisende became the first woman to be crowned as an equal to her husband in Jerusalem. She becomes a staunch defender of the church and a prolific educator.

Her liaison with an older knight soon becomes rumored. The king allegedly orders the errant knight murdered after a battle with him. Afterward, Melisende and her husband get into a fight, although that would give away too much of the plot.

For fear that she would betray him if she were left behind, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the French queen, accompanied King Louis VII on the Second Crusade (1147). When she returns to Europe, she is reported to have had an outlandish fling with an uncle, who eventually kidnaps her and abandons the mission. In Paris in 1152, the couple divorces.

Katharine Hepburn played her in the 1968 film “The Lion in Winter,” which dramatized her ordeal under house arrest for 16 years after she marries Henry II of England.

When you consider how many different Baldwin and Bohemond characters there are, as well as the passionate interludes and nonstop action, “Queens of Jerusalem” comes across more like a television series than a single book.

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