Post-classical history

Philip of Novara

Historian, poet, diplomat, and jurist; a distinguished member of the literary world of Outremer and Cyprus.

Philip was born in Novara (northern Italy) around 1195, probably as a younger son of a noble family. Later he moved to the Latin East. During the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), he took part in the crusader attack on Damietta. During this campaign he used to entertain Ralph of Tiberias, one of the most prominent lords of the kingdom of Jerusalem, by reading him romances; in turn he listened to Ralph telling of the history of the country and its legal customs.

The personality of Philip of Novara emerged during the long war (1223-1242) in which Emperor Frederick II, acting as regent of the kingdom of Jerusalem, was opposed by part of the Frankish aristocracy grouped around the Ibelins, a powerful family on Cyprus and the mainland. Philip was on the Ibelins’ side, acting as a knight, diplomat, legal expert, and propagandist: his position was apparently influential, since he was chosen to lead an embassy to the pope and to the kings of England and France, seeking support for the Ibelin party (the embassy ultimately did not take place). From the perspective of the Ibelins Philip described the war in a text that has unfortunately survived only in fragmentary form: it was later included in a chronicle known as the Gestes des Chiprois, compiled at the beginning of the fourteenth century from a variety of sources. The original text of Philip of Novara consisted of an autobiographical part and of several poems, dedicated to the war, to love, and to religious themes. The second part of the Gestes des Chiprois reflects the text of Philip’s work quite faithfully, and it also preserves five of its poems, which parodically amplify some events and characters of the story; it is a very lively and passionate account of the war, probably the best sample of vernacular historiography from Outremer.

Philip of Novara wrote in French, the literary language of the knightly class of Outremer and Cyprus. He was the author of two other texts: the Livre en forme de plait (written around 1260-1265), a handbook of feudal law that was appreciated in his time; and Les quatre âges de l’homme (written around 1265-1267), a moral treatise, suggesting the best way of living the four stages of human life (childhood, youth, maturity, and old age); it was written in prose but contains some poems by Philip and other authors. He is thought to have died after 1268.

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