Post-classical history

William of Tyre (d. 1186)

William II, Latin archbishop of Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), author of a chronicle that is the main narrative source for the history of twelfth-century Outremer.

William was born in Jerusalem to Frankish parents of the burgess class. His early life was illuminated by the discovery of an autobiographical chapter of his chronicle (published by Robert Huygens in 1962), which reveals that (after probably attending the Holy Sepulchre school) William went to the West and studied arts, theology, and canon and civil law at the universities of Paris,Orléans, and Bologna over a period of twenty years, returning to the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1165. His education and ability enabled William, unusually for a Frank born in Outremer, to rise to high ecclesiastical office in a church that was dominated by immigrants from the West. As archdeacon of Tyre (11671175), he undertook an embassy to Constantinople to negotiate an alliance against Egypt with the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1168) and was appointed by King Amalric of Jerusalem as tutor to his young son, the future Baldwin IV (1170). During the regency of Raymond III of Tripoli (1174-1176), William was made chancellor of the kingdom (1174-1185) and archbishop of Tyre (1175-1186). After Baldwin’s accession he undertook a further diplomatic mission to Constantinople (1179-1180); on his return he was an unsuccessful candidate for the office of patriarch of Jerusalem, which was given to Eraclius, archbishop of Caesarea. William died on 29 September 1186.

William knew Latin, French, Italian, and possibly Greek. His knowledge of Arabic and Persian, often confidently assumed by earlier commentators, is less certain. He wrote two important narrative histories. The first was a history of the Muslim world, which he refers to as the Historia de gestis orientalium principum (or variants thereof), and which has not survived. The second is known as the Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum or simply Chronicon, conceived as a propagandistic history in twenty-three books dealing with Christian rule in the Holy Land from the time of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610-641) up to William’s own time. The Chronicon was commissioned in 1167 by King Amalric, who provided William with important source materials. Although much of it was written by the 1180s, it is evidently incomplete, and the narrative breaks off with the year 1184.

Siege of Antioch from Estoire d’Outremer, by William of Tyre. (Art Resource)

Siege of Antioch from Estoire d’Outremer, by William of Tyre. (Art Resource)

In addition to a great number of archival sources, William made use of earlier Latin narratives, particularly the first six books of the Historia Iherosolimitana of Albert of Aachen for the First Crusade (1096-1099). He also drew on Christian Arab writers such as Eutychius, Melkite patriarch of Alexandria. For the period after 1127, the Chronicon is the most important extant source on Outremer. Since William died before the defeat of the Franks of Jerusalem at the battle of Hattin (1187), he was not affected by the hindsight that characterized many of the authors writing after the disaster, although he clearly was troubled by the threat to Outremer presented by the increasing unity of the Muslim world under Saladin. As someone close to the royal family and the machinery of government, William was excellently informed about political affairs, but the discretion expected of someone in high office meant that he often chose to reveal far less than he knew of important events. As chancellor and archbishop, he was also an interested party in the politics of his own time; he was sympathetic to his patron Raymond III of Tripoli, and ambivalent toward Byzantium, but ill-disposed to his rival Eraclius, Reynald of Châtillon, and to the military orders, especially the Templars.

In the early thirteenth century the Chronicon was translated into Old French. This version, known as the Eracles, gained a wide circulation, and many manuscripts continue William’s narrative into the thirteenth century. By the fifteenth century translations had been made into Castilian, Italian, and (by William Caxton) Middle English. The first printed edition appeared at Basel in 1549.

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