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Why does Saladin have such good PR in the Medieval West?

Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, better known to English readers as Saladin, is one of the leading historical figures from the crusades era. Despite being the Islamic leader who defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin and reconquered Jerusalem in 1187, his reputation in the medieval west has been unusually positive. In a recent article, a historian looks to find answers why this was.

Saladin -  by Gustave Doré

John France, one of the leading historians in the field of medieval warfare and the crusades, contributed the article “Saladin, from Memory to Myth in the Continuations” as part of the volume of essays Deeds Done Beyond the Sea. He points out that while Sunni Islamic sources ‘all sang his praises” both because of Saladin’s success and his piety, many Christian writers also offer a very sympathetic treatment of the Ayyubid leader. For example, the anonymous mid-13th century poem Ordene de Chevalarie ends with these words about him:

Of Saladin great praise had he
Whereas he found his valiancy:
Also he made him honoured fair
Whereas he wrought with pain and care
After his might good works to win.

France points out the not all Western European accounts show Saladin in a favourable light. In particular, the Latin works written by William of Tyre, Jacques de Vitry and William of Newburgh. However, works in Old French, such as Chronicle of Ernoul and Bernard the Treasurer, and the Old French Continuations of William of Tyre, present stories where Saladin is shown to be courteous and generous.

For example, many of these sources offer a lengthy account of the siege of Jerusalem, where Saladin allows the the wife of Balian of Ibelin to leave the city, despite Balian breaking his promise not to get involved in defending Jerusalem. France adds, “In the account of Balian’s negotiations over the surrender of Jerusalem and the ransom paid by its citizens Saladin emerges as very reasonable and even generous, making considerable concessions which allowed more to go free than would otherwise have been the case.” The sultan’s actions are immediately contrasted with how fellow Christians treated these refugees: when they arrive at Nephin they are plundered, and those who reach Tripoli are denied entry into the city.

France finds it important the distinction between Latin and Old French sources when it comes to how Saladin was portrayed. He writes:

While Latin accounts were prepared for the clergy for whom theological ideas were dominant, the vernacular histories were directed to the lay aristocracy for whom they represented something like a leisure activity rather than insights into the ways of God. The story of Hattin and the Third Crusade is a very good read and it features a splendid duel, indeed almost a tournament, pitting Saladin against Richard the Lionheart. And to this exciting mixture is added a dash of sex – the marriage that was said to have been proposed between Richard’s sister and Saladin’s brother. This was an irresistible cocktail for any composer of romances, particularly as legends about Richard seem to have circulated very quickly after his death.

Moreover, Saladin’s portrayal is not just based on the fact that he was often victorious with the Crusaders (the Mamluk rulers of the 13th century never got such treatment despite being very successful in warfare). Rather, its the emphasis on Saladin’s Courtoisie that was particularly important. By the mid-13th century this was a seen as an important quality for the upper ranks of medieval society, and to have Saladin viewed as worthy enemy meant that the chroniclers of this period would highlight this aspect of his personality.

France also points to another reason why Saladin would be portrayed in a positive light: “It suited a later generation to present Saladin in terms congenial to the chivalrous standards of the European aristocracy and in particular to cater for their sense of the noble and worthy enemy. It was probably no coincidence that at this very time the kingdom had extensive dealings with the Ayyubids, so that even the crusades of 1239-41 were triumphs of diplomacy rather than warlike fervour.”

Deeds Done Beyond the SeaWhile France notes to his readers that kindness, generosity and piety are attributes that Saladin did show, his actions with towards the crusaders were far more dominated by political factors than by his own compassion. The freeing of Balian’s wife, may have been an act of courtesy, but it also meant that Saladin was not giving a reason to the lady’s father – the Emperor of Byzantium – to seek out revenge for anything bad that might befall his daughter. It is only in recent years that scholars have highlighted this aspect of Saladin’s reign, whereas the Ayyubid ruler’s public reputation, first forged in the West by these chronicles, remains quite strong.

The article “Saladin, from Memory to Myth in the Continuations” is part of 18 essays collected in Deeds Done Beyond the Sea. The other articles focus on the writings of William of Tyre, the Military Orders and the role of Cyprus during the crusades. Click here to read more about the book from the publisher Ashgate.

Click here to read more about Saladin



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