Lamenting Acre

When the glorious city of Acre thus fell, all the Eastern people sung of its fall in hymns of lamentation, such as they are wont to sing over the tombs of their dead, bewailing the beauty, the grandeur, and the glory of Acre even to this day. Since that day all Christian women, whether gentle or simple, who dwell among the eastern shore (of the Mediterranean) dress in black garments of mourning and woe for the lost grandeur of Acre, even to this day.

Ludolf von Sudheim, De itinere Terrae Sanctae (1336-1341), translated by Elka Weber in: Traveling through Text, Message and Method in Late Medieval Pilgrimage Accounts, New York/London 2005, p. 126.

In the eyes of the German traveller Ludolf von Sudheim, who visited the Levant in the 1330s, so several decades after the loss of the military control of the Holy Land for the European Christians, the lament for Acre seemed rather strange. He singles it out as something peculiar to the custom of the peoples inhabiting the Eastern Mediterranean. A generous reader would think him bemused by displays of cultural practice foreign to him, a less generous reader would read it as an expression of western condescension. Either way, the „othering“ of the city lament for Acre happening here serves as an apt starting point for CITYFALL. At its heart the project strives to assess the cultural value of the city lament across Europe in the later Middle Ages, the very form of discourse which Ludolf presents here as something foreign and connected to other parts and peoples.

This seems all the more remarkable considering how, when in 1291 the Egyptian Mamluks conquered Acre – at the time the last outpost of the Christian crusaders on the Eastern Mediterranean littoral – the event caused an outcry throughout the christendom. The pope called for a new crusade to reclaim the city, which had been the most important gateway for European pilgrims and crusaders to the sites of the Holy Land, since the permanent loss of Jerusalem in 1244. The Dominican missionary Riccoldo da Monte di Croce, who was in Bagdad, when word of the fall of Acre reached him, exclaimed in one of his letters ad ecclesiam triumphantem:

“Where is Acre, where are the Christian churches which were there? Where are the relics of the saints, where are the men and women religious who praised the Lord just like morning stars?”

Riccoldo da Montecroce, Epistolae ad ecclesiam triumphantem, Letter IV , translated by Rita George-Tvrtkovic in, A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq, Riccoldo da Montecroce’s Encounter with Islam, Turnhout 2012, pp. 167–168.
Female mourners, Fragment of an Attic black-figure loutrophoros, Attica, Greece, 6th century BCE

Like Riccoldo many other authors and commentators of the time struggled to make sense of the event. In order to rationalise the events they resorted to the discursive techniques of lamenting – like Riccoldo uses the well-established ubi sunt trope – which go back to biblical and ancient traditions. Their attempts were aimed at reconciling historical occurrence with their audiences axiomatic expectations centred around a world ordered according to God’s divine plan in which the Christians could not and should not fail.

Closer to Ludolf’s native lands (he was born in Osnabrück and served as a priest in Sudheim, Westphalia), German-speaking writers joined the lamentation. Ottokar aus der Gaal, am author from a knightly family from Styria of all places, wrote a comprehensive depiction of the fall of Acre, as a part of his monumental Styrian Rhyme Chronicle in the early decades of the 14th century. This is, remarkably, the only German vernacular text entirely dedicated to a specific and clearly identifiable military action throughout the entirety of the crusades. Ottokar too employs rhetorical strategies drawn from the discourse type of the lament like exclamations, drastic depictions of the destruction, calls for collective lament, accusations and assignment of blame, contrasting motifs (then-now, here-there), and quarrelling with God.

The Hospitalier Master Mathieu de Clermont defending the walls of Acre in 1291, Oil painting by Dominique Papety, 1845, Versailles

Similarly, Hugo von Trimberg, who in his early fourteenth-century moral-didactic text Der Renner comments on the fall of Acre, provides a list of cities, which – just like Acre – have fallen before, due to, he claims, the wickedness and moral corruption of their inhabitants. From the biblical cities of Sodom, Gomorrha and Jerusalem, Hugo moves on to the ancient cities of Troy and Carthage, touches on Rome, and finally arrives at Acre, in his own time.

Closer to the event, the otherwise unknown Magister Thadeus of Naples, based in Messina at the time, writes a short chronical treatise, entirely dedicated to the conquest of the city by the Mamluks, in which he frames the fall of Acre as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy in its most apocalyptic colours:

[] through which the wrath of God did not delay in coming down upon them just as the ancient annals of the sacred scriptures relate it came down from heaven full of sulphurous fire upon Pentapolis, from outside, moreover, with a devastating sword, and with terror reigning inwardly; and at the last, with the precious spoils in which that city was until then so rich having first been looted from their precincts, the deadly enemies and infidels, generally exposing it to ruin and fire on every side, made it, in hatred and contempt of Christ and his most holy name, like a heap of piled up rubble, and left it, alas, desolate, without any inhabitant.

Thadeus of Napels, Ystoria de Desolatione et Conculcatione Civitatis Aconensis et Tocius Terre Sancte, ll. 752-761 (If you think the translation is choppy, have a look at the Latin)

The reference to Pentapolis (a group of five Biblical cities – Sodom, Gomorrha, Segor/Zoar, Adama, Seboim – situated in the lower Jordan valley [Gen 13-14, Wis 10:6] ) puts the fall of Acre alongside the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha [Gen 19]. Thadeus frames a military defeat as an act of divine retribution against his sinful people. This is part of the peccatis nostris exigentibus discourse, an easily-available and often-used template to make plausible collective experiences of loss, defeat, or humiliation: devastating though as the event might seem, the retributive logic of the argument goes, it is still part of God’s plan and has its place in His divine ordering system of the world. It is His people that have failed and must be punished and pushed back onto the righteous path. This reasoning makes it possible to rationalise historical occurrence, which stands counter to the autocentric expectations towards the progress of history of a Christian medieval audience, as a darkly pedagogical intervention by God, without casting doubt on the premises and axioms which underpin the world-view of these audiences.

The peccatis nostris exigentibus discourse rose to prominence in the middle of the twelfth century, used by none other than Bernard of Clairvaux and Otto of Freising so explain the humiliating defeat of the so-called Second Crusade. It remained a useful explanatory model for defeat throughout the Middle Ages and later, so its actualisation after the loss of Acre comes as no surprise.

Bernard of Clairvaux preaches the crusade at Vézelay, Oil painting by Émile Signol 1804-1892.
After the failure of the Second Crusade Bernard had some ’splainin‘ to do.

This should suffice to give a first impression of the varied and expressive forms of lament the fall of Acre triggered across Europe in the later 13th century. More texts both Latin and from various European vernaculars – Old French, Middle Dutch, Middle High German – will be presented here in the coming posts.

Ludolf was probably mostly moved by displays of performative (and female!) lament when he expressed his alienation. However, it has become clear that the negotiation of the loss of Acre through textual discourse was very much at home in his native lands. It was indeed a central concern of the time shared between many writers in mediterranean and transalpine Europe.

With this short introduction of my research subject I am going to leave you for now. I have many ideas about what to do next and I am looking forward to publishing posts here of a series, in which I will present to you my most important source-texts (provisionally named „Meet the texts”), and of another series, in which I will provide you with background information on key concepts, events and people (What is a lament to begin with? What’s so special about Acre? What about the crusades though? Who was this Riccoldo fellow? Why in Styria of all places?). I also plan on posts about books and articles I read (possible series titles: „Fresh from the research shelf“? „Shelf life“?) and the occasional notice about papers, publications, and presentations coming up. So, watch this space.

The madness of the research shelf

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