The Christian West regarded the Muslim ruler Saladin as the most important opponent of the Franks in Outremer, but he was also renowned for his generosity and chivalry, two virtues highly valued in the European chivalric ideal. This ambivalence guaranteed Saladin a protracted career in the western European literature of the Middle Ages (and beyond). The depiction of Saladin in literary texts combines historical elements with completely fictitious stories. This mixture presumably aims at giving plausible and acceptable form and explanation to a remarkable Muslim leader, whose conduct defied medieval Christian prejudices toward and perceptions of Islam. The substantial textual testimony (in Latin, French, English, German, Dutch, Italian, and Castilian) to Saladin’s extraordinary reputation shows, over and above numerous idiosyncrasies, a number of more or less common elements.
Besides his generosity and chivalry, an alleged Christian descent (e.g., from the French noble house of Ponthieu) belongs to the common tradition of these texts (e.g., in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Old French and Middle Dutch Saladin romances). Several texts mention Saladin receiving an initiation in Christian chivalry; for example, in the Old French Ordène de chevalerie(1250/1300) his captive Hue de Tabarie eventually dubs him a knight. Saladin is sometimes credited with an incognito journey to western Europe, as well as amorous adventures with a French queen. But the efforts to rationalize the phenomenon of Saladin from a Western, Christian perspective are most explicitly illustrated in the stories about his innate inclination toward Christianity and his autobaptism. This literary tradition relates how, on his deathbed, Saladin organizes a dispute between a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian. Persuaded by the last, he orders a bowl of water, baptizes himself, and dies convinced that he is a Christian. Though this kind of story is counterbalanced by negative judgments (such as allegations of political opportunism and cruelty), it remains remarkable that within the Christian framework of European medieval literature a Muslim receives such a positive portrayal.
The pinnacle of this literary career is perhaps found in Dante’s Divina Commedia, where the poet places Saladin (as the only Muslim) in Limbo, together with, though set aside from, the great men of ancient times who are spared from hell. Saladin’s special status is well illustrated in a fourteenth-century Middle Dutch exemplum that presents him as a notable example of contemptus mundi (literally, “disdain for the world,” that is, worldly concerns) and wise preparation for life’s inevitable end.