Biography Reviews


Melisende of Jerusalem:
The World of a Forgotten Crusader Queen

by Margaret Tranovich

The terms “the world” and “forgotten queen” in Tranovich’s title reflect the thrust of this small biography. Although Melisende (1131-1152) wielded power for over thirty years, her role in helping define the kingdom of Jerusalem has been largely ignored. Perhaps because of her sex, perhaps because she was technically not a “crusader,” a European warrior who arrived to claim the lands and sites important to the Christians, little information was recorded about this queen who was born and lived her whole life in the region. Her mother, Morphia, was Armenian, her father, King Baldwin II, was French. She was co-ruler with Fulk (V) of Anjou, regent for her son, Baldwin III, and ruler in her own right in their absence. Her task was to not only defend the recently created kingdom, but to embellish it, to make a place welcome for the Christian pilgrims and traders alike.

Wisely, Margaret Tranovich fleshed out Melisende’s life by placing it in the context of the world she inhabited. The book discusses the feudal structures established in the kingdom, the people who were living there or who came from Europe to settled, and the enmities between the Byzantine and European Christians, both of whom found allies with the Muslims when it was useful to do so. As an art historian, the author’s primary focus is on the region’s artistic production and the fusion of three the great cultural traditions, European, Byzantine, and Islamic. The book acknowledges Queen Melisende’s role here. She was renowned in her day for her lavish gifts and grants to the kingdom’s building activities, in particular the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s most importance pilgrimage site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Since there are no writings or comments directly attributed to Melisende, Tranovich offers conjectures about obstacles the queen would have faced based on her gender. She does the same for the food, dress, and customs of the court. This is sometimes over done, in particular Tranovich’s lament about the ways women have been written out of history. This is true, but it is a critique that has been brought to our attention for many years by many scholars. The book fares better when it looks at how cultural traditions formed in the Crusaders states influenced Europe, and the role Queen Melisende and her court provided as a model for this East/West integration.

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