Zofia Kossak has a Wikipedia entry worth reading. She is a historical fiction writer who made a stand against what the Germans were doing to Jews in her Polish homeland during WWII. Despite her self-admitted prejudice against Jews she found herself defending them and it costing her an arrest and shipment to the non-Jewish side of Auschwitz. She would become one of the Jewish people’s Righteous Gentiles. “Blessed are the Meek” is one of her few works translated into English, and at that, for the armed forces. I was intrigued to learn that she had written a novel about the Leper King which has not been translated into English. Looks like I am wrong on that.
The novel covers the Fifth Crusade. Having just looked at the different entries online, I see none really do justice to the dynamics portrayed in the novel and validated by my own books on the crusade. I had to keep checking my history books with the novel portrayal of events. So here is short history of the Fifth Crusade. Crusading fever was losing its grip on the public imagination. The Children’s Crusade happened or didn’t happen or something like it happened but at any rate it has left an impression that has created a trail through the history books. The previous crusade had ended with the Pope unable to fulfill the pledge to pay and fill the fleet built by the Venetians. They therefore used the army and their fleet for their own purposes in lieu of that pay and took the most magnificent city of that time, Constantinople. This was not the fitting picture of a Crusade that Pope Innocent III had wanted. He tried to take aim at the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation, the Albigensians, calling for a Crusade (washing away of sins by killing the appointed enemy) against these heretics of the South of France. In the midst of all of these misdirected schemes young people began to follow two different leaders who were going to do what the older folks seemed not willing to do; retake Jerusalem and restore the Holy Cross to its rightful location.
The novel gives us a picture of the Albigensians and the beginnings of the inquisition and paints a tragic picture of the youths being herded onto ships where they are taken into slavery except for the ships that went down in a storm with the bodies of the children washing up on San Pietro, where Gregory IX built a church called the “Church of the New Innocents”. This event moves Innocent III to action. This is probably the most well-financed of all of the Crusades, the Church would be taking care of business. The leader would be John of Brienne, an older French nobleman, who was dispatched from France to marry Maria, becoming King of Jerusalem.
This was where the novel does such a great job describing the beauty of love, even adulterous love between John and a married noblewoman of Champagne. He hires the troubadour to go to the castle and communicate to her to come to the Holy Land to be with him under the guise of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The troubadour gets saved through the preaching of Francis of Assisi and even runs into the noble woman along the beach waiting for her departure to the Holy Land. He tries to reason with her. She sees only a fool who had given up his place as number 1 troubadour for a begging monk in rags.
The novel has John of Brienne’s love affair cloud his mind so that he doesn’t respond to the requests of the Pope to lead the Crusade. The battles are won, Damietta on the Nile is taken and with the co-leader Cardinal Pelagius sick in bed he is just about ready to accept the historical terms that will return Jerusalem to the West when Pelagius bursts in to refuse the deal. The army marches down the Nile to defeat, a defeat that would be repeated again by Louis IX of France in one of the last crusades.
The novel allows us to feel the guilt of John as he realizes all that was lost because of his clouded judgment during his time of adulterous bliss. Good reading for the modern age.
John of Brienne would try and keep his position as King of Jerusalem. Jerusalem would even be returned to the West with just a threat of a crusade negotiated its return, but it would finally be lost again when the Franks allied with the Syrian Muslims against the Egyptian Muslims and lost in battle. John of Brienne would go on to be the Emperor of the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople founded after its sacking by the Venetians in the Fourth Crusade
The other footnote of the Crusade is the presence of Francis of Assisi. The novel paints a wonderful picture of his character (childlike faith and wonderment), his ministry and his attempt to convert the Caliph of Egypt. I enjoyed the read.