The Apple of His Eye: Converts from Islam in the Reign of Louis IX William Chester Jordan Princeton University Press, 200pp, £27/$35
The impulse of 13th-century Europe, according to the eminent American historian William Chester Jordan, was to convert every part of the world “to a purity of devotion and, indeed, of moral living, as contemporary Catholics understood it”. King Louis IX of France took this impulse with him even into the epochal conflict between Catholics and Islam. The greatest and bloodiest of his enemies, if they were to make a sincere conversion, could become “the apple of his eye”.
Louis set to work on the task of converting when he resided in what Jordan calls the “frontier outpost” of Acre, having been released from captivity after the battlefield disaster at Mansoura in Egypt in 1250. The first wave of converts, civilians primarily – or the least-abled bodied among military men (who could not take part in the defence of Acre or other Christian holdings) – set sail for France in 1253. Louis himself returned home the following year.
Jordan’s book, full of imaginative sympathy with those undergoing total displacement, constructs an intricate picture of the convert experience in France: from diet to disease; from housing to the generous financial support granted under the instructions of the king; from clothing to the weather in and around the Loire and the Seine, and even further north, where these travellers from the southern shores of the Med were settled; from their decisions to stick it out or to try to flee back home. Specially appointed ombudsmen travelled around to hear the cause of the converts in disputes arising between them and the dispersed communities they had been sent to.
Jordan keeps an eye on the spectrum of encouragement, persuasion, pressure and force as these were applied to the conversion effort, while noting that where these distinctions between them were understood to lie in the Middle Ages will have been different from where we would place them now. He writes in measured prose, guiding readers along unfamiliar historical paths, rather than prodding them onwards with polemical assertions. In discussing the harder edges of medieval life, he is frank and sometimes caustic, though without ever resorting to sensationalism.
As a historian, Jordan isn’t afraid to show his workings. He does this, however, without allowing it to become a distracting sideshow from the main narrative. The archival evidence he is relying on allows for tentative deduction and educated guesswork more than confident demonstration, and for conclusions that are suitably guarded without being unduly shy. At one point, he pauses to offer some observations on medievalists and their reliance on the “disciplined imagination”, given the sources available. Indeed, Jordan continues, “this may be what attracted them in part to devote their careers to the study of the Middle Ages”. Nevertheless, on occasion, “the invigorating challenge presented by the loss of this piece or that genre of evidence does not outweigh the misfortune of the loss”.
It is in this spirit of realistic inquiry that Jordan reaches the book’s centrepiece conclusion about the influx of converts from Islam following the Seventh Crusade (pictured) and Louis’s residence in Acre. While acknowledging the need for a more wholesale, systematic investigation in order to arrive at definitive figures, he estimates that 500 convert families or households were established in France, representing around 1,500 individuals. This matters because, previously, according to the book’s blurb, scholars have tended to dismiss historical accounts of the king’s peaceful conversion of Muslims as hagiographical and therefore untrustworthy.
Jordan also attempts to sum up what life in France, in Christendom, was like for these converts. The experiences of the converts, he concludes, were multiple “and ran the gamut from hellish to tolerable or even satisfying”. He sees no substantial reason to doubt that, generally speaking, most of the converts “came through the trials of their resettlement successfully”. They weathered economic crises and “survived the animosity of some of their neighbours and the abuse of certain local authorities”.
Some did much better than this: Dreux of Paris, for instance, who was granted payment from the crown for what must have been a “sensational wedding party” in 1256, as well as an allowance for a residence five minutes’ walk from Sainte-Chapelle, in a district where he would have rubbed shoulders with court administrators and Italian bankers. The apple of Louis’s eye, indeed.