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Reviewed by:
  • Letters from the East: Crusaders, Pilgrims and Settlers in the 12th–13th Centuries
  • Sabina Flanagan
Barber, Malcolm and Keith Bate, trans., Letters from the East: Crusaders, Pilgrims and Settlers in the 12th–13th Centuries (Crusade Texts in Translation, 18), Farnham, Ashgate, 2010; cloth; pp. x, 188; 2 maps; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9780754663560.

This is a book of texts rather than a textbook in the modern sense of an elementary introduction to a subject. Although reading through the letters with the aid of the chronology and maps provided will give some idea of the course of the numerous crusades launched between 1098 and 1306, the more background knowledge of the crusading centuries readers can bring to the letters the more they will get out of them. To this end, there is a useful Introduction which deals with the formal aspects of the medieval letter and its customary five parts, the role of the letter as public bulletin rather than conveyor of private information or emotion, and some of the matters that they canvass.

The great strength of the collection is its scope. It includes not just letters from a wide range of Christians but also some from Eastern inhabitants of longer standing, both real and imagined. Thus we find letters from the Mongol leaders Hulegu Il-Khan and Ghazan Il-Khan of Persia (Letters 72, 81). There is also one from Rashid al-Din, leader of the Syrian Assassins aka the Old Man of the Mountain (Letter 52) (though this was actually a forgery, probably written in the East). The letter which purported to be from the legendary Prester John (Letter 33) was apparently a piece of propaganda concocted to support Frederick Barbarossa in his struggle against the papacy. As might be expected, a large proportion of the letters comes from officials of the military orders settled in the East, the Templars and Hospitallers. Interestingly the attitudes of the writers do not suggest a clash of civilizations, Christian versus Islamic. Several writers reserve their worst aspersions for what they think of as heretical Christian sects, such as the Armenians, Syrians, and Jacobites, but more especially the Orthodox Greeks of the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately [End Page 193] the editors could find no letters to include from women who accompanied the crusading armies or were settled in the East.

How much annotation to provide is always a difficult problem and depends on the proposed audience. While the footnotes usually identify people and places mentioned in the text, the reader who wants to know a bit more will need to go elsewhere. If undergraduates are seen as the principal audience for these translations, more extensive notes might have been in order. For instance, in Letter 66 from Richard Earl of Cornwall we read that ‘Two brothers in discord in the lap of their mother whom they are supposed to protect have become too rich and arrogant’ (p. 137). For those unfamiliar with the history of the new knighthood, an explanation that this passage refers to the Hospitallers and Templars as protectors of Mother Church would have been helpful.

Likewise, in Letter 64 the death of the Head of the Dominicans in the Holy Land is reported but his name is not given. Without knowing his identity it is difficult to discover the manner of his death, which was apparently followed by miracles. Was it death in battle or some more direct form of martyrdom? And what of his two companions? The translation does not make it clear whether they accompanied him at his death or in death, though the original text points to the latter. A more literal translation would read: ‘His companions, brother Gerald the clerk and brother Ivan the conversus, died with him’.

The translations seem generally accurate and idiomatic, always remembering that many of these missives were written in a formal, not to say portentous idiom which the translator needs to reproduce. Of course there are inevitably some quibbles. In the Letter of Hulegu mentioned above there is a puzzling passage describing the gift sent by Louis IX to Guyuk. The translation reads ‘… you took the trouble to send as a sign of particular friendship … your...


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