One of the leading Frankish lords of Outremer, Joscelin was sequentially lord of Turbessel (1101-1113), lord of Tiberias (1113-1119), and count of Edessa (1119-1131).
Of Joscelin’s youth little is known except that his family ruled the lordship of Courtenay in the Gâtinais in central France. Through his mother, Elizabeth, he was related to the Montlhéryfamily, whose members had great impact on the early history of Outremer. Joscelin came to Syria in the Crusade of 1101 with Arpin of Bourges and his uncle Milo of Bray. There he joined his cousin Baldwin II (of Bourcq), count of Edessa, who endowed him with substantial lands around Turbessel (mod. Tellbaflar Kalesi, Turkey) in the western half of the county.
Massacre of the French by Turks during the Crusades of St. Louis. (Library of Congress)
Suddenly one of the most powerful men in northern Syria, Joscelin became his cousin’s main supporter. He was captured along with Baldwin at the battle of Harran on 7 May 1104 and held for ransom by the Artuqid ruler Suqmān ibn Artuq in Hisn Kayfā. Following Suqmān’s death, Joscelin fell into the hands of Suqmān’s brother īlghāzī. In 1106 or early 1107, Joscelin obtained his release and went to Edessa (mod. Şanlıurfa, Turkey) to gather the ransom for Baldwin. He returned to captivity as a condition of Baldwin’s release in 1108, but was freed a short time later. However, on their return to Edessa, the two cousins found that Tancred, who had acted as regent during their captivity, was unwilling to relinquish control of the county. Both sides called upon Turkish allies, and fighting ended only when Baldwin I of Jerusalem pressured Tancred to return Edessa to Baldwin of Bourcq.
In 1110 Mawdûd, atabeg of Mosul, started an attempt to expel the Franks from northern Syria, returning annually until his assassination in 1113. He attacked Turbessel in 1111. Most of his attacks, however, targeted the more accessible Frankish lands east of the Euphrates, especially Edessa and its environs. In 1113 Baldwin seized all of Joscelin’s lands, outraged by the prosperity he enjoyed while Baldwin himself suffered raid after raid. Joscelin fled to Jerusalem, where King Baldwin I gave him the lordship of Tiberias. Concerning this period of his life we know little. Despite the confiscation of his Edessan lands, Joscelin supported Baldwin of Bourcq for the throne of Jerusalem following Baldwin I’s death in 1118. Baldwin rewarded him the following year with the county of Edessa.
As count of Edessa, Joscelin was a vigorous military leader. His attacks on Aleppo led to a treaty in 1121, gaining for Edessa the northern part of Aleppo’s territories as well as a portion of its suburbs. However, Joscelin’s domination of northern Syria did not last long. On 13 September 1122 he and his cousin Waleran of Le Puiset were captured by the forces of Nûr al-Dawla Balak, ruler of Aleppo, and imprisoned in Harput, a fortress northeast of Melitene (mod. Malatya, Turkey). Baldwin II came north to act as regent of Edessa and Antioch, but in April 1123 he fell captive himself, joining Joscelin and Waleran in Harput. A group of Armenian soldiers from Besni mounted an operation to rescue Baldwin and Joscelin in May 1123. In disguise, they seized control of the citadel and of Balak’s family, but before they could free the captives and escape, Balak returned with his troops and besieged the fortress. Joscelin and three Armenian companions slipped out under the cover of night, and Balak recaptured Harput on 16 September 1123, massacring many of the Franks and Armenians.
In the absence of the king, the defense of Antioch as well as Edessa fell to Joscelin. He launched attacks on Balak’s territories and allied with his Muslim enemies, such as Hasan of Manbij. Meanwhile, Joscelin and Queen Morphia of Jerusalem gained Baldwin’s release on 24 June 1124, in exchange for a large ransom, the fortress of Azaz, and seventeen Frankish hostages, who included Joscelin’s young son, Joscelin II. Waleran remained in Turkish custody and was subsequently executed. With the help of Baldwin II, Joscelin once again dominated northern Syria, defeating Aq Sunqûr, atabeg of Mosul, in the battle of Azaz on 11 June 1125.
The arrival in 1127 of the young heir to Antioch, Bohemund II, spurred Joscelin to attack the principality. Joscelin had grown accustomed to exercising considerable influence in Antioch since Baldwin II’s return to Jerusalem in 1125. Again, the intervention of Baldwin II was necessary to establish peace. Following Bohemund II’s death in battle in February 1130, Joscelin regained influence over Antioch when he was made regent by Baldwin II as a check against Bohemund’s ambitious widow, Alice.
Joscelin married twice, though there is little information about either marriage. His first wife was the daughter of Rupen of Cilicia and the mother of Joscelin II. Sometime before 1119, Joscelin I married Maria, sister of Roger of Antioch, who was the mother of his daughter Stephanie, later abbess of St. Mary Major in Jerusalem. Testaments to Joscelin I’s courage and martial prowess appear in Latin, Arabic, Armenian, and Syriac chronicles.
Despite some complaints, local Christian chroniclers praise Joscelin for defending Edessa, acclaiming him as their leader, not a foreigner to whom they owed no allegiance. Under his rule, Armenian elites continued to hold lordships as well as to occupy administrative posts. Joscelin supported the Syrian Orthodox bishop of Edessa in his quarrels with his patriarch, and in 1129 he ensured the election of a sympathetic Syrian Orthodox patriarch by holding the election in the Latin church at Turbessel.
A story about Joscelin’s death conveys something of his character. Joscelin was seriously injured by the fall of a tower while besieging a castle near Aleppo in 1131. As he hovered near death, the Saljûq sultan of Rûm besieged Kesoun (mod. Keysun, Turkey). Joscelin’s son Joscelin II refused to take to the field because of the size of the opposing army, and so the ailing count had himself carried to the battlefield in a litter; his reputation in battle was sufficient for the sultan to order a retreat. On his return from the battlefield, he died.