Post-classical history

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Document 14 USAMA IBN MUNQIDH ON FRANKISH CULTURE

As indicated previously [Doc. 5.iii], Usama ibn Munqidh is best known to historians for his Kitab al-I‘tibar (Book of Contemplation), a lively work posing as a memoir but in reality a text on good conduct, the human condition and the inevitability of divine decree, probably written for Saladin. The following extracts address aspects of Frankish culture and behaviour. Note the balance of good and bad examples that Usama uses.

(i) Frankish justice

The Franks (may God confound them) have none of the human virtues except for courage. They have neither precedence nor high rank except that of the knights, and have no men worthy of the name except the knights – it is they who are the masters of legal reasoning, judgment and sentencing. I once brought a case before them concerning some flocks of sheep that the lord of Banias had seized from the woods while there existed a truce between us. At the time, I was based in Damascus.

I said to the king, Fulk, son of Fulk, ‘This man has encroached upon our rights and seized our flocks right at the time of lambing. But they gave birth and the lambs died, so he returned them to us after so many lambs were lost.’

Then the king turned to six or seven knights: ‘Arise and render a judgment for him.’

So they left his audience-chamber, sequestering themselves and deliberating until their minds were all agreed upon one decision, and then they returned to the king’s audience-chamber.

‘We have passed judgment,’ they said, ‘to the effect that the lord of Banias should pay compensation equal to the value of the lambs that were lost from their flock of sheep.’

And so the king ordered him to pay compensation.

On one occasion, I went with the amir Mu‘in al-Din [Unur] (may God have mercy upon him) to Jerusalem, and we stopped at Nablus. While there, a blind man – a young man wearing fine clothes, a Muslim – came out to the amir with some fruit and asked him for permission to be admitted into his service in Damascus. The amir did so. I asked about him and I was told that his mother had been married to a Frank, whom she had killed. Her son used to attempt various ruses on their pilgrims, and he and his mother used to work together to kill them. They finally brought charges against him for that and made him subject to the legal procedure of the Franks, to wit:

They set up a huge cask and filled it with water and stretched a plank of wood across it. Then they bound the arms of the accused, tied a rope around his shoulders and threw him into the cask. If he were innocent, then he would sink in the water and they would then pull him up by that rope so he wouldn’t die in the water; if he were guilty, then he would not sink in the water. That man tried eagerly to sink into the water when they threw him in, but he couldn’t do it. So he had to submit to their judgment – may God curse them – and they did some work on his eyes [blinding him].

(ii) Frankish medicine

The first of these two accounts was related to Usama by a Syrian Christian physician from Shayzar who had visited a Frankish court:

They brought before me a knight in whose leg an abscess had formed and a woman who was stricken with a dryness of the humours. So I made a small poultice for the knight and the abscess opened up and he was healed. For the woman, I prescribed a special diet and increased the wetness of her humours. Then a Frankish physician came to them and said, ‘This fellow don’t know how to treat them.’ He then said to the knight, ‘Which would you like better: living with one leg or dying with both?’ ‘Living with one leg,’ replied the knight. The physician then said, ‘Bring me a strong knight and a sharp axe.’ A knight appeared with an axe – indeed, I was just there – and the physician laid the leg of the patient on a block of wood and said to the knight with the axe, ‘Strike his leg with the axe and cut it off with one blow.’ So he struck him – I’m telling you I watched him do it – with one blow, but it didn’t chop the leg all the way off. So he struck him a second time, but the marrow flowed out of the leg, and he died instantly.

He then examined the woman and said, ‘This woman, there is a demon inside her head that has possessed her. Shave off her hair.’ So they shaved her head. The woman then returned to eating their usual diet – garlic and mustard. As a result, her dryness of humours increased. So the physician said, ‘That demon has entered further into her head.’ So he took a razor and made a cut in her head in the shape of a cross. He then peeled back the skin so that the skull was exposed and rubbed it with salt. The woman died instantaneously. So I asked them, ‘Do you need anything else from me?’ ‘No,’ they said. And so I left, having learned about their medicine things I had never known before.

Here is another wondrous example of their medicine. We had at Shayzar an artisan called Abu al-Fath, who had a son on whose neck scrofula sores had formed. Every time one would close in one place, another would open up in another place. Once Abu al-Fath went to Antioch on an errand and his son accompanied him. A Frankish man noticed him and asked him about the boy. ‘He is my son,’ Abu al-Fath said.

The Frank said to him, ‘Do you swear to me by your religion that, if I prescribe for you some medicine that will cure your boy, you will not charge money from anyone else whom you yourself treat with it?’

Our man swore to that effect. The Frank then said, ‘Take him some uncrushed leaves of glasswort, burn them, then soak the ashes in olive oil and strong vinegar. Treat him with this until it eats up the pustules in the affected area. Then take some fire-softened lead and soak it in butter. Then treat the boy with this and he will get well.

So our man treated the boy as he was told and the boy got well. The wounds closed up and he returned to his previous state of health. I have myself treated people afflicted by this ailment with this remedy, and it was beneficial and removed all of their complaints.

(iii) Frankish sexual morality

The Franks possess nothing in the way of regard for honour or propriety […] Here is an example that I myself witnessed. Whenever I went to Nablus, I used to stay at the home of a man called Mu‘izz, whose home was a lodging house for Muslims. The house had windows that opened onto the road and, across from it on the other side of the road, there was a house belonging to a Frankish man who sold wine for the merchants. He would take some wine in a bottle and go around advertising it, saying, ‘So-and-So the merchant has just opened a cask of this wine. Whoever wishes to buy some can find it at such-and-such a place.’ And the fee he charged for making that announcement was the wine in the bottle. So one day, he came back home and discovered a man in bed with his wife. The Frank said to the man, ‘What business brings you here to my wife?’

‘I got tired,’ the man replied, ‘so I came in to rest.’

‘But how did you get into my bed?’ asked the Frank.

‘I found a bed that was all made up, so I went to sleep in it,’ he replied.

‘While my wife was sleeping there with you?’ the Frank pursued.

‘Well, it’s her bed,’ the man offered, ‘Who am I to keep her out of it?’

‘By the truth of my religion,’ the Frank said, ‘if you do this again, we’ll have an argument, you and I!’

And that was all the disapproval he would muster and the extent of his sense of propriety!

I once went to the baths in the city of Tyre and took a seat in a secluded room there. While I was there, one of my attendants in the bath said to me, ‘There are women in here with us!’ When I went outside, I sat down on the benches and, sure enough, the woman who was in the bath had come out and was standing with her father directly across from me, having put her garments on again. But I couldn’t be sure if she was a woman. So I said to one of my companions, ‘By God, go have a look at this one – is she a woman?’ What I meant was for him to go and ask about her. But instead he went – as I watched – and lifted her hem and pulled it up. At this, her father turned to me and explained, ‘This is my daughter. Her mother died, and so she has no one who will wash her hair. I brought her into the bath with me so that I might wash her hair.’

‘That’s a kind thing you’re doing,’ I assured him. ‘This will bring you heavenly reward.’

Source: Usama ibn Munqidh. (2008) The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades. Trans. Paul M. Cobb. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books, pp. 76–7, 152, 145–6 and 148–50.

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