1137 – 1139 Judicial duel in the kitab al-i’tibar

Usāma ibn Munqiḏ was a noble, a warrior, a diplomat, and poet living from 1095-1188. As a Muslim diplomat he travelled the realms realms of the crusaders and learned about their habit and way of life. He wrote several books from which only few survived. The most interesting work from the point of research in history is the Kitab al-i’tibar. This book contains the lifetime memories of Usāma ibn Munqiḏ in a storytelling way.

The Book of instruction by example

Kitab al-i’tibar (“the Book of instruction by example”) was written by Usāma ibn Munqiḏ at the age of 90 in Damascus. Fragments of this book were discovered in 1880 by Hartwig Derenbourg (1844-1908) in the Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, Spain) as he wrote in his three volumes book “Les manuscrits arabes de l’Escurial” (1884-1903) and his book “Ousama ibn Mounkidh, un émir syrien” (1889). The Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial was build 1557 as a monastery and historical residence of the King of Spain. Derenbourg collected the fragments and found a nearly complete book of 134 folios where only the first 21 pages were missing. He ordered, transcribed, translated, and published it. His work was superseded by Philip Khuri Hitti (1886 – 1978) in 1929/1930 “An Arab-Syrian Gentlemen in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn-Munqidh”. The latter edition is the base of most of the current citations and thus the source for the text below. The latest edition was in 2000 by Columbia University Press. According to the stage of research the manuscript is not an original or direct copy but a copy of a copy made in July 1213. It is questioned if the copy had been made accordingly because the quality of the writing and storytelling is weak comparing to the other works of Usāma ibn Munqiḏ.

The blacksmith and the soldier

The relevant story is one of a judicial duel probably witnessed before 1143 in the time Usāma ibn Munqiḏ was on one of his diplomatic missions to the crusaders. Taking in account that the content was told probably more than 35 years after the event took place, and copied at least twice, we have to be very careful considering it as a true event. The symbolic fight between a blacksmith (a honorable craftsman) and a soldier of an intruding force is retold in various versions through history until recently (Jack Sparrow vs. Will Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series). There are legends all over the world following the pattern of the story like the legend of the blacksmith in the city of Aachen, Germany, who fought back the soldiers count Wilhelm von Jülich in 1278. Or the Story of The Blacksmith of Brandywine (1777) in American Folklore.

Iron_worker_and_king_solomonThe symbolic value of the blacksmith can be easily recognized in the legend of “The blacksmith and King Solomon”. The blacksmith is prominent and superior positioned as the true craftsman. Saint Eligius (also Eloy or Loye) was a blacksmith before he became a goldsmith.

The blacksmith was designated to win the judicial duel told in the book because of his symbolic nature of pure and honest work. He is introduced with a “physically strong young man, but his heart failed him. He would walk a few steps and the sit down and ask for a drink”. He is young and strong but has a weak point that wakes compassion in the reader. His opponent, the old peasant, is introduced with the gesture “rub the nail of his thumb against that of the forefinger in defiance”. At the first glance it is made sure that the Christian peasant is not a nice guy.

The story details itself are highly questionable, but the account of the duel probably not. The author witnessed such an event or heard of such. He cared about the rules and the law of such cases.

The law

It is interesting that the author mentions Nablus for the two examples of Frankish law in action (the judicial duel and an ordeal by water) in his book. The first law of the kingdom of Jerusalem was established in the Council of Nablus held on January 16, 1120.

The established law in this region is found in the “Assizes of Jerusalem” according to Jean d’Ibelin (1215-1266) in 1265. The original “Lettres du Sepulchre” were destroyed at the capture of Jerusalem in 1187. They were reflected in the later “Assizes of Cyprus” during the Lusignan period from 1191 to 1489. Other copies of the Assizes are found in Munich (Munich, BSB, cod. gall. 51), Paris (BNP, Fr. 19026), and Venice (Biblioteca Marciana, Fr. app. 6).

The law was based on Frankish law with some flavours of the Sharia and Byzantine law. The Assizes cared about the structure of the court, the organization of the fiefdoms, the relationships between believers, and most prominent about the taxes of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. According to the researches by Marwan Nader the copies of Munich and Venice (folio 197-200) contain a chapter about judicial duel. But this chapter may have been added later.

The Cour de Bourgeois had the authority to judge in the most serious offences and punish heavily. This included murder, larceny, damage against persons or property, treason and perjury. The punishment included death, amputation of limbs, and blinding. According to the texts in the remaining copies a judicial duel could be requested in case of murder or treason. The courts relating to Acre and Nicosia permitted judicial duels to prove innocence or guilt in cases, in which a value more than a mark of silver where in dispute. There is the mentioning that John of Ibelin, Lord of Arsuf, was consulted in the handling of judicial duels in the High Court and the Cour des Bourgeois. The judicial duel accepted by the courts needed the permission of the King of Jerusalem. He was informed of them in a monthly list by the Viscount. So while the seigneurs had great responsibility and freedom of judging the King was informed of the severe cases.

The Place and the time

The duel took place in Nablus. Nablusis located about sixty kilometres north of Jerusalem. It was the most important town in the ancient region of Samaria, and at the time of the First Crusade it was controlled by the Seljuk Turks. The city of Nablus was in the hand of the crusaders from 1099. The Norman leader Prince Tancred of Galiee from the house of Hauteville (1075-1112) took the city without a battle. While the majority of the crusaders were besieging Jerusalem in July 1099, Tancred of Hauteville and Eustace of Boulogne left the main army and pillaged Nablus on July 10. The Turks fled, and the local Christians agreed to hand over the city to the crusaders after Jerusalem was captured on July 15.

There had been Franks, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox Christian, Jews, and Samaritan in the city living in an uneasy peace until 1137. According to the Samaritans chronicle Tolidah the Arab and Turkish troops belonging to the Damascus leader Bazwadj raided Nablus and destroyed several churches, took people into ransom but could not take the castle. These troops were unable to hold the city and Nablus became a part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem again. It was firm in the hands of Philipp of Milly in 1142 until Saladin took the city with his troops in 1187.

Usāma ibn Munqiḏ had been in Hama in 1135. He had been in Shayzar in May 1137 at the death of his father and April 1138 where the place was under siege. The streight distance between Shayzar and Nablus is 360km, the travelroute would be much longer. A caravan of camels would travel 25-30km per day, horses travel not much farther in this kind of terrain but could be stressed to 50km but not daily. Thus it would be not impossible to travel to Nablus after May 1137 and be back in April 1138. He was sent to Jerusalem in 1138, and in 1139 in a diplomatic mission to ally his current overlord with the King of Jerusalem. As Usāma ibn Munqiḏ mentions the raid of an village of Nablus by “certain moslem thieves” he could refer to the attack of the Arab and Turkish troops. The reason why he named them thieves may be that they belong to other tribes as he was a Syrian. It was in this and the following years Usāma ibn Munqiḏ was highly regarded as a diplomat. The reason for this was the constant changing of allies against warlords of that time. The party that was your ally in on battle could be your opponent in the next. This included the Christians who took part in the game of enymies and allies. In 1144 Usāma ibn Munqiḏ left Damascus that had been his home during this time for Cairo where he stayed until 1156. He went back to live in Damascus until his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1160. He stayed in various places mainly in the north until he returned in 1174 to Damascus. Fourteen years later Saladin captured Nablus.

While the judicial duel could have taken place any time between 1135 and 1143 it is likely to have happened between 1137 and 1139, and it’s referring to the raiding parties of the troops from Damascus. The king mentioned is Fulk the Younger, Count of Anjou and king of Jerusalem. In 1143, while the king and queen Melisende were on holiday in Acre, Fulk was killed in a hunting accident. His horse stumbled, fell, and Fulk’s skull was crushed by the saddle. He was carried back to Acre, where he lay unconscious for three days before he died. He was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The Viscount of Naplus (Naplouse) was Ulric. (Ulrich, latin Ulricus, french Olry; 1100-1155) In 1144 he became seigneur of Vaux Moise (Wadi Musa, Jordan). He is noted on charters from 1115 to 1151. In 1136 he witnesses an act of King Fulk (Delaville le Roulx, Cartulaire général de l’ordre des Hospitaliers de Saint-Jean de Jerusalem, Tome 1, Doc. 116; Reinhald Röhricht, Regista Regni Hierosolymitani, Doc. 164). He would be the seigneur and overlord at court.

The case of theft and the duel

One peasant accuses another of aiding thieves (“ḥarāmiyya”) rob a village of Nablus.

A theft of some value would result in mutilation of eye, hand, or foot. It seems no surprise that the accused fled the place. But as his children were taken hostage he returned to court and challenges the accuser to a judicial duel. The Nablus canon of the Council of 1120 deals with false accusations, for which the punishment is exile. According to the law practice a judicial duel could be applied it the value of the dispute is high enough and no other way could be provided to find out the truth. In the assizes of the high court, any damage, including theft, worth more than a mark of silver, can lead to a judicial combat. It can be assumed that this would be the same with the Bourgeois.

In the following case the accuser (who had blamed the peasant of assisting the thieves) becomes now the accused because he is challenged by the former. The case is still about the crime of treason. But the fight is about lying at court. Interesting to note, that one of the combatants (the accuser of the one assisting the raiders) was replaced by someone to fight for him. While the assizes are not describe how and when a replacement combatant is chosen, we know from that a wounded or crippled man, or a man of high age may ask for a someone to replace him.

There are some things not mentioned in the story but in the assizes. Before the fight begins, each party is asked to abandon the combat and consider confessing. Both had to swear on a holy book that their case is firm and true. Than they would get their weapons of combat, could make a last statement, and start the fight. The weapons are shield and club, as it is practice in the fighting laws of the Franks. The one losing the combat would be hanged regardless if he is already dead or just wounded. This is a common law and reported from several other law books and cases of such duels.

But the author does not mention that the challenger is wounded, old, or crippled. Nor does he gives us a reason why the tenant (“ṣāḥib”) of the raided village has to find someone to fight for the man, who is accused of leading raiders to the very same place. At first glance this makes no sense and is not covered by any version of the law. So the case would be looking like this:

In 1137 troops from Damascus entered the realm of Nablus and raided the city and several villages belonging to the realm. A Frankish peasant is accused to have collaborated with the raiding troops (as the burgess assizes say that only Latins could challenge another Latin to a duel). This could be judged as treason and will lead to his death and brings his family in peril. To avoid that the peasant flees but when his family is taken as hostages he returns. His only way to save his family is challenging the witness and accuser of lying. Therefore he chooses the judicial duel to prove that the accuser is wrong. As long as the case is not decided in the court he and his family are safe. This will give some weeks of safety for him and his family.

The accuser is not a single man but probably some peasants and serfs in the village (that had been raided) witnessed the accused to have guided the raiders. The village witnesses are represented by their tenant (“ṣāḥib” – the village was owned by a Latin lord as a vassal of the king). This is a Frankish free man. He is of high age and therefore he can choose a replacement fighter for him. He knows of someone in his village very capable of fighting. He must make a good choice because if his champion would lose the fight, he will be hanged, he is proven of false oath, and his family and probably the whole village will suffer. His choice would never be a simple blacksmith but an experienced fighter. But if he is limited by the decision of the Viscount that he may only chose a champion from his village, this could be indeed a young blacksmith.

The fight in the duel matches the descriptions and expectations of such an event. The weapons were not designed to give a fast clean death, therefore the combatants would look like a bloody mess soon after the first blows were exchanged. The outcome by exhaustion is no surprise. And that the loser is going to be hanged is according to the law.

So we find in the story things that match the law and the history of the region and time, and we find some things we have to put in question. From the historical point of view, the duel is nothing special. The only topic is that there is evidence of a law in place in the kingdom of Jerusalem long before we have reports of the laws.

The story of the duel in the words of Usāma ibn Munqiḏ

I attended one day a duel in Nablus between two Franks. The reason for this was that certain Muslim thieves took by surprise one of the villages of Nablus. One of the peasants of that village was charged with having acted as guide for the thieves when they fell upon the village. So he fled away. The king sent and arrested his children.

The peasant thereupon came back to the king and said, ”Let justice be done in my case. I challenge to a duel the man who claimed that I guided the thieves to the village.” The king then said to the tenant who held the village in fief, “Bring forth someone to fight the duel with him.” The tenant went to his village, where a blacksmith lived, took hold of him and ordered him to fight the duel. The tenant became thus sure of the safety of his own peasants, none of whom would be killed and his estate ruined.

I saw this blacksmith. He was a physically strong young man, but his heart failed him. He would walk a few steps and then sit down and ask for a drink. The one who had made the challenge was an old man, but he was strong in spirit and he would rub the nail of his thumb against that of the forefinger in defiance, as if he was not worrying over the duel. Then came the viscount, i.e., the lord of the town, and gave each one of the two contestants a cudgel and a shield and arranged the people in a circle around them.

The two met. The old man would press the blacksmith backward until he would get him as far as the circle, then he would come back to the middle of the arena. They went on exchanging blows until they looked like pillars smeared with blood. The contest was prolonged and the viscount began to urge them to hurry, saying, ” Hurry on.” The fact that the smith was given to the use of the hammer proved now of great advantage to him. The old man was worn out and the smith gave him a blow which made him fall. His cudgel fell under his back. The smith knelt down over him and tried to stick his fingers into the eyes of his adversary, but could not do it because of the great quantity of blood flowing out. Then he rose up and hit his head with the cudgel until he killed him. They then fastened a rope around the neck of the dead person, dragged him away and hanged him. The lord who brought the smith now came, gave the smith his own mantle, made him mount the horse behind him and rode off with him. This case illustrates the kind of jurisprudence and legal decisions the Franks have – may Allah’s curse be upon them!

Books used in this article:
1) An Arab-Syrian Gentlemen in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn-Munqidh, Philip Khuri Hitti
2) The genius of Usamah ibn Munqidh: aspects of Kitab al-l’tibar by Usamah ibn Munqidh, D.W. Morray, Durham : Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 1987.
3 ) Burgesses and Burgess Law in the Latin Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus: 1099 – 1325, Marwan Nader, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006
4) Roland Falkner, “Taxes of the Kingdom of Jeruslem”, Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Vol 3:2, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
5)  The viscounts of Naplouse in the twelfth century, John L. La Monte, Univ. of Cincinnaiti, 1938
6) Criminal Law and the Development of the Assizes of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in the Twelfth Century, Adam M. Bishop, University of Toronto, 2011
7) Les livres des assises et des usages dou reaume de Jerusalem sive Leges et instituta regni Hierosolymitani : primum integra ex genuinis deprompta codicibus MSS,  Jean d’ Ibelin, Eduard Heinrich von Kausler, Stuttgard, 1839, Krabbe (325-327)
A special thanks goes to Jack Gassman for “forcing” me to research this case and for discussing it with me, thus eradicating some misunderstandings in the text.

2 thoughts on “1137 – 1139 Judicial duel in the kitab al-i’tibar

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