Book Review: ‘Defending the City of God’ by Sharan Newman

Ruling Jerusalem after the First Crusade, she was told: ‘You must set your hand to great things and, though a woman, you must act as a man.’

June 8, 2014 6:10 p.m. ET

A great many medieval Christians projected their millennial longings onto a spiritualized Jerusalem they had never set eyes on. More than 1,000 years after the crucifixion, the city’s sites—Golgotha, the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Olives—kept a firm grip on the imagination of Christian Europe. Urged on by a papal appeal in 1095, tens of thousands of feudal barons, sons of nobility, clergymen, traders and peasant volunteers went eastward on one of the most audacious military campaigns in history. The hope was to translate religious longing into political fact and heavenly aspiration into earthly victory.

Against all odds, they succeeded. After a five-week siege in the summer of 1099, the First Crusade ended four centuries of Muslim rule in Jerusalem and liberated the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, first built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in the fourth century on the hill where his mother, Helena, identified the site of Jesus’ tomb.

But what of the morning after? To throw light on the formative period of the Crusader states—and on the opening chapter of European expansion— Sharan Newman, a medieval historian and a novelist, recovers from obscurity the story of the only woman to rule the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem in her own right.

Ms. Newman’s engaging book, “Defending the City of God,” centers on Melisende, born in the Frankish colony of Edessa (modern-day Urfa, Turkey) in 1105. At age 13, she came to Jerusalem with her French father, Baldwin II, recently chosen as king of the city and the realms surrounding it. Her Armenian mother, Morfia, had borne four daughters, one becoming a powerful abbess in Jerusalem and two others marrying royals in Antioch and Tripoli. Melisende, the eldest, was chosen to succeed to her father’s throne. With her dual heritage, Ms. Newman writes, “Melisende became a bridge” between “the Frankish settlers and the eastern Christians she lived among.”

When Baldwin II died in 1131, Melisende and her husband, a crusader-count named Fulk of Anjou, were jointly crowned. A dozen years later, after Fulk had died in a riding accident, Melisende had her second double coronation at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, this time beside her 13-year-old son, Baldwin III. As long as her son remained a minor, the queen would exercise sole rule by hereditary right. A Cistercian abbot advised her: “On you alone the whole burden of the kingdom will rest. You must set your hand to great things and, though a woman, you must act as a man.”

Ms. Newman marshals evidence to show that Melisende proved equal to the task. “It was her ambition,” wrote the 12th-century chronicler William of Tyre, “to emulate the magnificence of the greatest and noblest princes and to show herself in no wise inferior to them.”

Melisende began by reconstituting her battered city. She built vaulted bazaars (still visible today), completed the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and endowed the conversion of the Al-Aqsa mosque into a palace. In consolidating the Latin church in Jerusalem, she cannily cultivated relationships with eastern Christian communities, like the Armenians and Greek Orthodox. And she oversaw the development of the Hospitallers and Templars, religious-military orders that joined monastic ideals to knightly chivalry.

Traveling her kingdom—from Tyre (in current-day Lebanon) to Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast—she dispensed royal favors, issued charters and concluded treaties. And at a time when Byzantine, Islamic and European artistic traditions began to commingle, she made herself a patron of the arts. One example of her patronage is the exquisitely illuminated Melisende Psalter—itself a blend of eastern and western styles—created at her scriptorium and today housed in the British Museum.

Melisende excelled in playing what Ms. Newman calls “the chess game of the Levant,” but when her son reached the age of 21, he demanded a share of the kingdom. The realm was divided: Jerusalem and Nablus to Queen Melisende; Acre and Tyre, in the north, to Baldwin III. The short-lived partition plan—like its modern-day successors—only led to strife. Baldwin and his troops besieged his mother in the citadel of Jerusalem, forcing her to relinquish her rule and retire into a life of quieter, though still active, diplomacy.

After Melisende died, at age 51, she was buried next to Mary’s tomb at the foot of the Mount of Olives. William of Tyre noted that her much-tested rule “had been wise and judicious.” Baldwin III survived his mother by a year. Two decades later, in the wake of the disastrous Second Crusade, Saladin was at the city gates. The Christian rule of Jerusalem had endured just 90 years.

In illuminated medieval manuscripts, Melisende never appears by herself; in iconography, at least, she is subordinated to her father, husband or son. Ms. Newman, drawing on an array of historians, painstakingly reframes the picture. The overlooked stories of Melisende and her sisters, she suggests, are essential to grasping the full dimensions of the Crusader legacy. Melisende’s life, she writes, “encompasses the conflicts that wounded a beautiful land, along with the deep faith and opportunism that created those conflicts.”

Melisende’s monarchy helped bring the Orient into the European consciousness, and vice-versa. Fulcher of Chartres, a French-born chronicler of the First Crusade and canon of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, remarked on the shift during Melisende’s lifetime: “Reflect how in our time God has transferred the West into the East. For we who were Occidentals have now been made Orientals.” As “Defending the City of God” ably shows, it was this transplantation into the rich soil of Jerusalem that seeded a still-swirling encounter between cross and crescent.

Mr. Balint teaches at the Bard College humanities program in Jerusalem.

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