Book Review for Women's History Magazine Issue 70 Autumn 2012:
Melisende of Jerusalem
The World of a Forgotten Crusader Queen
by Margaret Tranovich
London: East & West Publishing Limited, 2011. £14.95, ISBN 978 1 907318 06 1(paperback), pp. 191
Reviewed by Ruth E. Richardson M.Phil., author of 'Mistress Blanche,
Queen Elizabeth I's Confidante
Melisende was the eldest of four daughters of Baldwin II, King of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and his wife Morphia, a Christian Armenian Princess from Edessa, in present-day Turkey. As Baldwin was Count of Edessa when they married, in c.1100 AD, Melisende may have been born there. The couple had no son so Baldwin involved Melisende in administration, her signature appearing alongside his on documents. As heiress presumptive her marriage was of prime importance and the man chosen was recommended by Louis VI, King of France. Fulk, Count of Anjou was a widower whose son, Geoffrey, was married to the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England and Normandy. (This links to the English war between Stephen and Matilda and its resolution through Matilda's son, Henry II.)
Melisende, in her late twenties, and Fulk, who was forty years old, married in 1129. When dying in 1131, Baldwin II transferred power jointly to Melisende, Fulk and their young son, Baldwin III. King Fulk's attempt to replace local magnates with Normans was vigorously opposed by his wife. One local noble seems to have had an affair with Queen Melisende which, if true, must have exasperated the situation. This scandal is occasionally used now to undermine Melisende's importance. The quarrel was resolved but, extraordinarily for that period, Melisende remained in power, signing charters with her husband. Fulk ably defended the kingdom, something Melisende could not do, but died in a hunting accident in 1142, leaving his wife and two young sons. Queen Melisende and the thirteen year old Baldwin III were 'anointed, consecrated and crowned together in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre', the Christian sanctuary remodelled during her reign. For nine years Melisende's rule was absolute and when Baldwin asserted his rights in 1151, her involvement continued for another six years. She died in 1161, aged about sixty years.
The author of this book is an art historian. Her expertise is apposite given the sparse documentation available concerning Melisende. As the author notes, Melisende's reign 'bridges the time between the establishment of the Crusader kingdoms in 1099 ... and the loss of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187'. It is, therefore, of enormous interest to those studying the impact of the Crusaders on the region and the changes the eventual loss of Outremer initiated in Europe.
The few references include the charters mentioned above, a letter to Melisende from Bernard of Clairvaux, and a chronicle written by William, Archbishop of Tyre who knew her personally. Plausible inferences can be made about her character from the willingness of her father to promote her, a woman, and by the way she remained in power despite the quarrels with her husband. St. Bernard obviously found it difficult to advise her, pointing out that as a woman she was 'weak in body, changeable in heart, not far-seeing in counsel nor accustomed to business'. At the same time he told her to 'act like a man... prudently and discreetly, so all may judge you from your actions to be a king rather than a queen'. Since William of Tyre describes her as 'a woman of great wisdom who had had much experience in all kinds of secular matters' she was probably quite capable of sifting Bernard's advice for tenets that benefited her.