So it came to pass that I was in Baghdad, “among the captives by the river of Chebar” [Ezek 1:1], the Tigris. This garden of delights in which I found myself enthralled me, for it was like a paradise in its abundance of trees, its fertility, its many fruits. This garden was watered by the rivers of Paradise, and the inhabitants built gilt houses all around it. Yet I was saddened by the massacre and capture of the Christian people. I wept over the loss of Acre, seeing the Saracens joyous and prospering, the Christians squalid and consternated: little children, young girls, old people, whimpering, threatened to be led as captives and slaves into the remotest countries of the East, among barbarous nationsRita George-Tvrtkovic, A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq, Riccoldo da Montecroce’s Encounter with Islam, Turnhout 2012, Letter V, pp.
The next text – or rather group of texts – I would like to introduce here are the five letters ad ecclesiam triumphantem written by the Dominican missionary and traveller to the East Riccoldo da Montecroce (or sometimes: da Monte di Croce) in an immediate reaction to receiving news of the fall of Acre in 1291.
Born in Florence probably in 1243 his socio-economical background would have predestined Riccoldo to join the Franciscans: he was a son of the reasonably well-off Pennini family, from the urban craftsmen-shopkeeper class and grew up in the San Pier Maggiore neighbourhood, dominated by the massive Sta Croce monastery of the Franciscans. Riccoldo at one point even mentions his lifelong devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, but in 1267 he joined the Dominicans of Sta Maria Novella. He remained an active member of the ordo praedicatorum for the rest of his life: fifty-three years and five months, as the necrology of Sta Maria Novella notes after his death in 1320. During this time Riccoldo rose to the office of subprior and prior of his house, became a prolific writer with several important works tied to his name, and – most importantly for our purposes – travelled widely: He went on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, hitting all the main loca sancta in Galilee and Judea, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. After this he went north on a missionary journey through Antolia and Armenia into Persia and finally Bagdad.
He went on pilgrimage in 1288 (disembarking in Acre!) and arrived in Bagdad in 1291 at the latest. It was here that he heard about the fall of Acre. It is not quite clear how long he stayed in Bagdad or the East in general. The Sta Maria Novella necrology notes plurimo tempore – for a long time – and the first reliable source placing him back in his native Florence dates to March 1301. So all in all he might have been in the East up to twelve years, ten of which mostly based in Bagdad. He devoted is time to learning Arabic and studying Islam: its theology, liturgy and religious customs. He visited mosques and joined Muslims in their private homes, aided by an enviable command of Arabic.
He also commented on the conversion to Islam of the ruling Mongol dynasty the Ilkhanids. Led by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, the Mongols had conquered Bagdad in 1258, some thirty years before Riccoldo’s arrival in the city, thus effectively ending the Abbasid caliphate. During his time in the city the Ilkhanids slowly but surely turned from an elite class of conquerors into a Muslim ruling dynasty. Probably due to the Mongols fully embracing Islam under Maḥmūd Ghāzān in 1295 Riccoldo had to lie low for a while, working as a camel driver on the caravan trails of Persia and Arabia.
Riccoldo’s writings are extraordinarily versatile. The best known and most-discussed is probably his Contra legem Sarracenorum, an anti-Islamic polemic, also known as Confutatio Alcorani. It proved tremendously influential across Christian Europe, well into the 16th century, when it was translated into German as the Verlegung des Alcoran by a certain Martin Luther. Riccoldo’s next big work is the Ad nationes orientales, a missionary manual which displays deep insights into the differences between Christians, Jews, Muslims, but also Mongols and Oriental Christians. It also offers practical tips on how to best convert them to Christianity. Moreover, his Liber peregrinationes gives a detailled account of his pilgrimage in the Holy Land and his following journey into Persia towards Bagdad. In all likelihood all of these texts were written after his time in the East, safely back home in his monastery in Florence.
His Epistolae ad ecclesiam triumphanten however, were data in oriente, so probably drafted while still in the East and then finalised when back in Italy. The letters survive in only one badly-preserved manuscript in the Vatican library: Vat. lat. 7317 a remarkable collection of texts compiled for pope Eugenius IV in the 15th century. Here the Epistolae can be found in august – and highly topical – company: Albert of Aix’s early 12th-century Historia Hierosolymitanae expeditionis, one of the most important sources on the First Crusade, in particular on the so-called „people’s crusade“, opens the codex. It is followed by Raimundus Lullus‚ 1305 Liber de fine, which develops a plan for a two-pronged campaign against the Muslims: on the one hand one of informed preaching and on the other hand one of military pressure. After this comes the Historia Orientalis, an important chronicle of the crusader states by no other than Jacques de Vitry, who, in the early 13th-century, was bishop of Acre. In this function he also wrote several equally scornful and entertaining letters home to France, in which he presented a very colourful image of the vices, crimes, and general moral depravity of the inhabitants of Acre.
After this come two of Riccoldo’s texts, the Epistolae and one version of the (in)famous Confutatio Alcorani.
Riccoldo’s texts are then followed by Il Milione, an early Tuscan version of the travels of Marco Polo, circulating widely throughout the 14th century. After a papal bull by Eugenius IV comes the De varietate fortunae, a tractate illustrating the changing fortunes of history, exemplified through the ruins of ancient Rome written in 1447 by the humanist Poggio Bracciolini. Finally the manuscript concludes with the Iter Hierosolymitanum of Ludolf von Sudheim, another ecclesiastical traveller to the East some fifty years after Riccoldo (and the fall of Acre).
The manuscript constitutes a remarkable collection, showing great papal engagement with the crusades, both as a historical topic and an ongoing movement, well into the 15th century.
Riccoldo’s five letters were edited in 1881 in the Archives de l’Orient latin by Reinhold Röhricht one of the founding figures of modern crusade studies. More recently Rita George-Tvrtković produced a very insightful dissertation on Riccoldo’s theology of Islam, which also includes an English translation of both the Liber peregrinationis and the Epistolae. Very much a recommended read:
George-Tvrtkovic, Rita: A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq. Riccoldo da Montecroce’s Encounter with Islam (Medieval Voyaging 1), Turnhout 2012.
The Epistolae offer an immediate and raw reaction to the news of the conquest of Acre. We will take a closer look at the structure and content of the letters in the next post here, where we will find Riccoldo lamenting the fall of Acre „by the rivers of Babylon“.