The Curious Customs Of The Franks: How One Arab Knight Saw The Crusaders

We have recently discussed a story from the life of the learned Ali Ibn Munqidh.  His grandson Usama Ibn Munqidh (1095–1188) was a very famous poet, warrior and literary figure in medieval Islam and his memoirs are an almost unique portal of insight on how one culture saw the other.  The scholar Philip Hitti describes Usama this way:

Usama was a warrior, a hunter, a gentleman, a poet and a man of letters.  His life was an epitome of Arab civilization as it flourished during the early crusading period on Syrian soil.  He was a flower of the Arab-Syrian chivalry which found it full bloom later in his patron and friend, Saladin.[1]

This, then, is a man of substance.  Usama’s unique contribution to history was to leave behind a memoir of the highest importance:  the Book of Self-Reflection (كتاب الاعتبار).  In it the author relates his battlefield experiences with his own countrymen as well as with the Europeans (known generically to the Arabs as “Franks”).  He was in the thick of the fray whenever a battle was to be fought.  Besides being a scholar, he was a man of action; he says at one point:

How many sword-thrusts and lance-cuts I have received!  How many wounds with darts and arbalest stones have been inflicted on me!

In old age, he regretted his lack of mobility.  He tells us:

By now I have become like an idle maid who lies

On stuffed cushions behind screens and curtains;

I have almost become rotten from lying still for so long

Just as the sword of Indian steel becomes rusty when kept too long in its sheath.

Like many of the great classics of Greece and Rome, we owe the discovery of this book to good fortune. Many of works of Arabic literature were housed in libraries in Andalusia (Spain), but after the Reconquista many of these books were scattered or destroyed by the Inquisition.  But some did survive.  The only known copy of the Book of Self-Reflection was unearthed in 1880 at the library at San Lorenzo de El Escorial in Madrid.  There are some pages missing, and it is written in a crabbed and broken hand.  It appears to be a copy of an earlier manuscript dating to 1213.  The book was translated in 1929 by Philip Hitti and published under the title An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades:  Memoirs of Usama ibn Munqidh.  I have not seen the original Arabic text, but the quotes in this article are taken from his book.

The book contains many fascinating anecdotes told from the perspective of the native inhabitants who were forced to deal with the invasions known to the West as “Crusades” but to the Middle East as the “Wars of the Crosses” (حروب الصليبية).  Here Usama describes one of his first battlefield experiences against Frankish knights:

In the rear guard of the Franks was a cavalier on a black horse, large as a camel, wearing a coat of mail, and the full armor of war.  I was afraid of this horseman, lest he should be drawing me further ahead in order to get an opportunity to turn back and attack me.  All of a sudden I saw him spur his horse, and as the horse began to wave its tail, I knew it was already exhausted.  So I rushed on the horseman and smote him with my lance, which pierced him through and projected about a cubit in front of him.  The lightness of my body, the force of the thrust, and the swiftness of my horse made me lose my seat on the saddle.  Moving backward a bit, I pulled out my lance, fully assuming that I had killed him.  I then assembled my comrades and found them all safe and sound.

Usama would later find out that the Frank actually survived the lance-thrust; this knowledge was an opportunity for philosophical reflection on his part:

I once witnessed an encounter between us and the Franks one of our cavaliers, Badi Ibn Talil al-Qushayri, who was one of our brave men, receive in his chest, while clothed with only two pieces of garment, a lance thrust from a Frankish knight.  The lance cut through the vein in his chest and issued out from his other side.  He turned back right away, but we never thought he would make it home alive.  But as Allah had predestined (worthy of admiration is He!) he survived and his wound was healed…At last what he suffered entirely disappeared and he reverted back to his old ways of living and riding.  My only comment is this: How mysterious are the works of him whose will is always executed among his creatures!  He giveth life and he causeth death, but he is living and dieth not.  In his hand all is good, and he is over all things potent.

But by the same token Usama further notes how one man died from a simple needle prick.  (Presumably an infection resulting from a puncture by a needle).  One man survives a thrust by a lance, while another dies from a prick by a pin:  this is what the Romans would have called the turns of fortune (Fortunam advertere).

No less fascinating are Usama’s opinions of the cultural differences between his own people and the Europeans.  Here we see the variability of customs and mores:  what may be right and normal to one may often be seen as alien to another.  Here he describes what he took to be differences in gender relations.  It is difficult to know what to make of the following anecdote; it may be jocular hyperbole, or it may have been a tale related to him from someone else:

The Franks are void of all zeal and jealousy. One of them may be walking along with his wife. He meets another man who takes the wife by the hand and steps aside to converse with her while the husband is standing on one side waiting for his wife to conclude the conversation. If she lingers too long for him, he leaves her alone with the conversant and goes away.  Here is an illustration which I myself witnessed.

When I used to visit Nablus, I always took lodging with a man named Mu’izz, whose home was a lodging house for the Muslims. The house had windows which opened to the road, and there stood opposite to it on the other side of the road a house belonging to a Frank who sold wine for the merchants. He would take some wine in a bottle and go around announcing it by shouting, “So and so, the merchant, has just opened a cask full of this wine. He who wants to buy some of it will find it in such and such a place.” The Frank’s pay for the announcement made would be the wine in that bottle.

One day this Frank went home and found a man with his wife in the same bed. He asked him, “What could have made you enter into my wife’s room?” The man replied, “I was tired, so I went in to rest.” “But how,” asked he, “didst thou get into my bed?” The other replied, “I found a bed that was spread, so I slept in it.” “But,” said be, “my wife was sleeping together with you!” The other replied, “Well, the bed is hers. How could I therefore have prevented her from using her own bed?”

“By the truth of my religion,” said the husband, “if thou shouldst do it again, thou and I would have a quarrel.” Such was for the Frank the entire expression of his disapproval and the limit of his jealousy…

Equally amusing is the following anecdote:

I entered the public bath in Sur [Tyre] and took my place in a secluded part. One of my servants thereupon said to me, “There is with us in the bath a woman.” When I went out, I sat on one of the stone benches and behold!  The woman who was in the bath had come out all dressed and was standing with her father just opposite me. But I could not be sure that she was a woman. So I said to one of my companions, “By Allah, see if this is a woman,” by which I meant that he should ask about her.

But he went, as I was looking at him, lifted the end of her robe and looked carefully at her. Thereupon her father turned toward me and said, “This is my daughter. Her mother is dead and she has nobody to wash her hair. So I took her in with me to the bath and washed her head.” I replied, “Thou hast well done! This is something for which thou shalt be rewarded [by Allah]!”

The first lesson of the traveler and the philosopher is perspective.  So it is that what one culture considers strange, another may find perfectly logical.  Habits and customs adapt to the requirements of place and history; and we are all prisoners of geography and history.  These are the lenses through which we see the world, and the prism that refracts the images illuminating our sight.  The degree to which a man can throw off these invisible fetters is a measure of his greatness of soul.


[1]  Hitti, Introduction.  All quotes herein taken from Philip Hitti’s translation (pp. 1-95), cited above.


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