Jason Burke

The man and the myth | 17 April 2019

Warfare was not Saladin’s forte, apparently, but cajolery, bribery and coalition-building

I can only remember one page of any of the dozens of Ladybird histories that I read avidly as a child: an illustration of a scene from the Third Crusade, when Richard the Lionheart, at the head of his Christian army,  met Saladin, the leader of the Muslim forces, outside the port city of Acre in 1191.

The picture does not show the battle but the two men comparing swords, like top level sportsmen discussing preferred bats or rackets. They were standing before a tent, broadly medieval in appearance. On the ground lay an iron bar, evidently chopped in half with a single blow from the great broadsword between King Richard’s mailed fists. A silk scarf floated in the air and Saladin, slender, saturnine and subtle, was preparing to slice it in half with his razor-sharp scimitar.

So much in one picture: the East and the West, muscular Christianity and oriental finesse, a chivalrous meeting of equals on the battlefield.

It was rubbish of course, as Jonathan Phillips’s fascinating, authoritative and intelligent biography of Saladin, or Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub to give him his full, honorific Arabic name, makes amply clear. Though they did confront each other across a battlefield, the two leaders never met. The scene was entirely fictional, as are stories of single combat, of a disguised Saladin sneaking into the crusader camp to heal a sick Richard, or of Saladin’s passionate affair with Eleanor of Aquitaine. This latter was enthusiastically reported in The Royal Mistresses of France, Secret History of all the Amours of all the French Kings, published in 1695. The author explained the attraction of the Kurdish-born potentate thus: ‘’Twas said of him he was a person well-shaped, nimble in all manner of exercises, valiant, generous, liberal, courtly, and in a word, that he was endowed with French manners.’

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