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The Sultan at the hospital: a thirteenth-century tale of Saladin and the Hospitallers

Nicholson, Helen ORCID: 2022. The Sultan at the hospital: a thirteenth-century tale of Saladin and the Hospitallers. Buck, Andrew D. and Smith, Thomas W., eds. Chronicle, Crusade, and the Latin East: Essays in Honour of Susan Edgington, Outremer: Studies in the Crusades and the Latin East, vol. 16. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 223-237.

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Building on earlier studies by Margaret Jubb and by me, this article analyses a thirteenth-century response to the Hospitallers’ charitable work: a story of a visit by Sultan Saladin (d. 1193) to the Hospital in Acre and the treatment he received there. The story is clearly fiction, but with just enough historical basis to suggest credibility, and is an example of the legends that grew up in Europe and the Crusader States around the figure of Saladin after the Third Crusade (1189–92), and which developed his image from the villain that appears in Latin Christian accounts prior to and contemporary to the Third Crusade into a hero who surpasses the kings of England and France in chivalry. Surviving in two versions, the story tells how Saladin, wishing to test the Hospitallers’ reputation for charity, goes to their hospital at Acre in disguise. Having been received as a patient he claims that he wants nothing to eat, but when he is pressed to eat something and promised whatever he wants, he asks for the right forefoot of the Grand Master’s horse. After some hesitation the Grand Master grants permission and preparations are made to cut off the horse’s foot; but at the last moment Saladin changes his mind and the horse is saved. Saladin leaves the hospital and gives the Hospitallers a generous gift in recognition of their charity. Through the fictionalised figure of Saladin the story gently mocks the Hospitallers’ self-denying charity, turning their propaganda against them by showing that such generosity could be undermining their military strength and costing more than they could pay. On this occasion their selfless giving gains a greater reward: as a result of their willingness to sacrifice worldly possessions for a better purpose the Hospitallers win over their enemy, gain a valuable gift from him, and contribute towards his decision to join the community of Christians. Yet the possibility remains that on other occasions they might have to choose between maintaining their military capability and serving the sick. The story is humorous, even ridiculous; but it raises a serious moral question about how the Hospitallers allocated their resources. Although it is clearly fiction, it has sufficient historical basis to prompt its audience to give its message at least a second thought.

Item Type: Book Section
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: History, Archaeology and Religion
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D111 Medieval History
Publisher: Brepols
ISBN: 9782503586205
Last Modified: 10 Nov 2022 11:36

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