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Observations of the Crusaders (1188)

Usamah ibn Munqidh
Document type:
Nonfiction Book/Scholarly Work

    Observations of the Crusaders (1188)


    When he was over ninety years old, Usamah ibn Munqidh (1095–1188) wrote his Kitab al-Iʿtibar, a memoir of his long and storied career as a diplomat, soldier, and poet. Munqidh was in a unique position to record some of the most important events in the history of the Islamic world. Born in Syria in the year the Crusades began, he witnessed both the fall of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt and the influx of Frankish knights and pilgrims in the Middle East. His anecdotal observations of the Christian visitors provide some of the most fascinating cultural exchanges of the time. In the passage below, Munqidh describes the visitors with a mixture of revulsion, admiration, and bewilderment, especially with regard to their practice of medicine.

    Mysterious are the works of the Creator, the author of all things! When one comes to recount cases regarding the Franks, he cannot but glorify Allah (exalted is he!) and sanctify him, for he sees them as animals possessing the virtues of courage and fighting, but nothing else, just as animals have only the virtues of strength and carrying loads. I shall now give some instances of their doings and their curious mentality.

    In the army of King Fulk, son of Fulk, was a Frankish reverend knight who had just arrived from their land in order to make the holy pilgrimage and then return home. He was of my intimate fellowship and kept such constant company with me that he began to call me “my brother.” Between us were mutual bonds of amity and friendship. When he resolved to return by sea to his homeland, he said to me:

    “My brother, I am leaving for my country and I want thee to send with me thy son (my son, who was then fourteen years old, was at that time in my company) to our country, where he can see the knights and learn wisdom and chivalry. When he returns, he will be like a wise man.”

    Thus there full upon my ears words which would never come out of the head of a sensible man; for even if my son were to be taken captive, his captivity could not bring him a worse misfortune than carrying him into the lands of the Franks. However, I said to the man:

    “By thy life, this has been exactly my idea. But the only thing that prevented me from carrying it out was the fact that his grandmother, my mother, is so fond of him that she did not this time let him come out with me until she exacted an oath from me to the effect that I would return him to her.”

    Thereupon he asked, “Is thy mother still alive?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well,” said he, “disobey her not.”

    A case illustrating their curious medicine is the following:

    The lord of al-Munaytirah wrote to my uncle asking him to dispatch a physician to treat certain sick persons among his people. My uncle sent him a Christian physician named Thabit. Thabit was absent but ten days when he returned. So we said to him, “How quickly hast thou healed thy patients!” He said:

    They brought me before a knight in whose leg an abscess had grown, and a woman afflicted with imbecility. To the knight I applied a small poultice until the abscess opened and became well; and the woman I put on a diet and made her humour wet. Then a Frankish physician came to them and said, “This man knows nothing about treating them.” He then said to the knight, “Which wouldst thou prefer, living with one leg or dying with two?” The latter replied, “Living with one leg.” The physician said, “Bring me a strong knight and a sharp axe.” A knight came with the axe. And I was standing by. Then the physician laid the leg of the patient on a block of wood and bade the knight strike his leg with the axe and chop it off at one blow. Accordingly he struck it—one blow, but the leg was not severed. He dealt another blow, upon which the marrow of the leg flowed out and the patient died on the spot. He then examined the woman and said, “This is a woman in whose head there is a devil which has possessed her. Shave off her hair.” Accordingly they shaved it off and the woman began once more to eat their ordinary diet—garlic and mustard. Her imbecility took a turn for the worse. The physician then said, “The devil has penetrated through her head.” He therefore took a razor, made a deep cruciform incision in it, peeled off the skin at the middle of the incision until the bone of the skull was expose, and rubbed it with salt. The woman also expired instantly. Thereupon I asked them whether my services were needed any longer and when they replied in the negative I returned home, having learned of their medicine what I knew not before.

    I have, however, witnessed a case of their medicine which was quite different from that. The king of the Franks had for a treasurer a knight named Bernard, who (may Allah's curse be upon him) was one of the most accursed and wicked among the Franks. A horse kicked him in the leg, which was subsequently infected and which opened in fourteen different places. Every time one of these cuts would close in one place, another would open in another place. All this happened while I was praying for his perdition. Then came to him a Frankish physician and removed from the leg all the ointments which were on it and began to wash it with very strong vinegar. By this treatment all the cuts were healed and the man became well again. He was up again like a devil.

    Another case illustrating their curious medicine is the following:

    In Shayzar we had an artisan named abu-al-Fath, who had a boy whose neck was afflicted with scrofula. Every time a part of it would close, another part would open. This man happened to go to Antioch on business of his, accompanied by his son. A Frank noticed the boy and asked his father about him. Abu-al-Fath replied, “This is my son.” The Frank said to him, “Wilt thou swear by thy religion that if I prescribe to thee a medicine which will cure thy boy, thou wilt charge nobody fees for prescribing it thyself? In that case, I shall prescribe to thee a medicine which will cure the boy.” The man took the oath and the Frank said:

    “Take uncrushed leaves of glasswort, burn them, then soak the ashes in olive oil and sharp vinegar. Treat the scrofula with them until the spot on which it is growing is eaten up. Then take burnt lead, soak it in ghee butter and treat him with it. That will cure him.”

    The father treated the boy accordingly, and the boy was cured. The sores closed, and the boy returned to his normal conditions of health.

    I have myself treated with this medicine many who were afflicted with such disease, and the treatment was successful in removing the cause of the complaint.

    Phillip K. Hitti. An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades. 1929.

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