Post-classical history


A town in Judaea (in mod. West Bank), famous as the birthplace of Christ; the seat of a Latin bishopric in the kingdom of Jerusalem.

In the fourth century Bethlehem became one of Christendom’s most important pilgrimage sites. The Church of the Nativity was built by Emperor Constantine the Great at the behest of his mother Helena; it was dedicated in 339 and rebuilt for the first time under Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century. St. Jerome, one of the fathers of the church, settled in Bethlehem in 384. Under Muslim rule, the town seems to have escaped the destruction of Christian sites ordered by the Fātimid Caliph al-Hākim in 1009.

Bethlehem again came under Christian control with the arrival in Palestine of the First Crusade (1096-1099). On 6/7 June 1099, following an invitation by the town’s Christian inhabitants, Tancred of Lecce and Baldwin of Bourcq left the crusade army and took possession of the city. Tancred even hoisted his banner over the Church of the Nativity. After the foundation of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, Bethlehem became part of the royal demesne. Arnulf, bishop of Martu-rano in Calabria, who had traveled to the East with the First Crusade, seems to have had ambitions to become the first bishop of Bethlehem, even though under Byzantine rule the town had not had episcopal status but belonged to the bishopric of Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel); however, Arnulf disappeared in August 1099.

Both Baldwin I (1100) and his successor Baldwin II (1118) were crowned as kings of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity. To the Latin conquerors of Palestine it seemed unreasonable that the birthplace of Christ should not have the rank of a bishopric, and so in 1107, following a request of Baldwin I, Pope Paschal II elevated Bethlehem to episcopal status. After the Frankish conquest of Ascalon (1153), the bishoprics of Ascalon and Bethlehem were united.

During the reign of King Amalric of Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity received a new marble floor, roof, and wall mosaics with the financial support of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos; this was probably the most famous example of joint Greek-Latin sponsorship of the arts. Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Latin bishops of Bethlehem served in a variety of functions. In 1115, Bishop Anschetin traveled to Rome on behalf of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. In 1148 the bishop of Bethlehem, together with other prelates of the kingdom, attended the meeting of the leaders of the Second Crusade (1147-1149) held at Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel). Bishop Ralph served as chancellor during the reign of King Baldwin III, and in 1153 functioned as the king’s envoy to admonish Prince Reynald of Antioch to release the Latin patriarch of Antioch, Aimery of Limoges, whom Reynald had imprisoned. In 1179 Bishop Albert participated in the Third Lat-eran Council. In 1218, Bishop Renier, one of the participants in the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), was instrumental in motivating the outnumbered Christians to successfully repel a Muslim attack near Burah.

Bethlehem was conquered and plundered by Saladin after the battle of Hattin (1187), and its bishop first moved to Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), then to Acre. However, in 1192, following a special favor granted to Hubert Walter, bishop of Salisbury, Saladin permitted two Latin priests and two Latin deacons to serve at the Church of the Nativity. The city itself was placed under the rule of a Muslim emir. As part of the treaty of 1229 between the Ayyûbid sultan al-Kāmil and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Bethlehem was restored to the Christians; there is, however, no evidence that its bishop returned to his see. During the crusade of 1239-1241, which coincided with the Ayyûbid wars of succession, al-Salih Ismā‘īl of Damascus promised to restore Bethlehem (and other places) to the Franks in exchange for their support against Egypt, even though the city belonged to al-Nāsir Dâwûd, the ruler of Kerak. In 1241 al-Salih Ayyûb of Egypt convinced the crusaders to abandon their alliance with Damascus, but agreed to honor Ismā‘īl’s territorial promises (including Bethlehem). In 1244, the town and the Church of the Nativity were severely damaged by Khwārazmian invaders from northern Syria. However, according to a legendary report in several later pilgrim accounts, a snake appeared to frighten the invaders from removing the church’s marble tablets. In 1252 King Louis IX of France tried to negotiate a treaty that would have restored Bethlehem and other places to the Franks; this attempt failed when Egypt and the Muslim states of Syria came to an agreement of their own in 1253. In 1263, Baybars I, the Mamlûk sultan of Egypt, carried out destruction in Bethlehem, which probably included the Augustinian cloisters.

From 1187 the bishop of Bethlehem was resident in Acre until that city fell to the Mamlûks in 1291. Thereafter the church continued to nominate titular bishops (Lat. in par-tibus). The cathedral chapter relocated to Clamecy in the diocese of Auxerre, and was eventually integrated into the French church. The Order of the Bethlehemites (Lat. Fratres stellati), which considered the bishop of Bethlehem as its superior, had its origins in the early thirteenth century and followed the rule of St. Augustine; a female branch of this order was founded in 1231.

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