NOVEMBER 25: All hail the leper king!

baldwin_the_leperON THIS DATE in 1177, sixteen-year-old Baldwin IV led the Kingdom of Jerusalem to victory over an enormous Arab army led by Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard.

King Baldwin and his field leader, Raynald of Châtillon, encountered an Arab force of somewhere between 26,000 and 30,000 men. Their own army consisted of several thousand infantry, 375 knights and 80 Templars — religious knights established to protect pilgrims and the Holy Sepulcher. The leadership advantage appeared equally one-sided: Baldwin IV was a teenage leper king with little military experience, while Saladin was a renowned warrior who would liberate Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187.

Did Saladin underestimate Baldwin and his army? The Arabs had marched from Egypt into Palestine with the goal of attacking Jerusalem but moved slowly and spread themselves thin while looting the villages of Ramla, Lydda and Arsu. The Christians attacked and routed the scattered, tired, and surprised Arab forces at Montigsard, with one source saying that 20,000 of Saladin’s 30,000 men were killed; another source claims that only 10 percent of the Arabs survived.

Baldwin IV reigned as the king of Jerusalem from 1174 to 1185. He first showed signs of leprosy, a bacterial infection that destroys nerve endings, in childhood. “As he began to reach the age of puberty it became apparent that he was suffering from that most terrible disease, leprosy,” wrote medieval chronicler William of Tyre. “The extremities and the face were most affected, so that the hearts of his faithful men were touched by compassion when they looked at him.”

Baldwin IV died at age twenty-three.

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