By M.M. Gilchrist
Bollettino del Marchesato, Vol.2 No.6 (2005)
Introduction: It is a story will all the ingredients of epic tragedy: a brilliant, courageous and handsome nobleman travels to distant lands, fights battles, marries princesses, is elected King but is slain by treachery, still relatively young, just before he is crowned. If a historical novelist invented the career of Conrad de Monferrat, King of Jerusalem (mid-1140s – 1192), it would seem improbably colourful. But English-language fiction, Hollywood cinema and popular histories have persistently represented him in an extremely negative light.
For almost two centuries, Conrad – Peirol’s “marques valens e pros”, the hero of Bertran de Born’s great Crusade song, Ara sai eu pretz quals l’a plus gran – has been marginalised and maligned in English-language popular writing. Despite the researches of academic historians over a long time-period (Ilgen and Usseglio’s classic works have never been translated into English), it is through historical novels or ‘bestseller’ popular non-fiction that most British and American readers make their first acquaintance with him. The impression they receive is disturbingly misleading: a treacherous, effete villain, even a vicious sadist. The weight of repetition has reinforced this image for generations of readers. I wish here to present a brief selection from these popular accounts, and to sketch in the background of this tradition of hostility.