14 June 2011

Prince Baldwin's leprosy

I had never heard this interesting story until encountering it at Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog:
And this brings us to the a rose garden near Jerusalem 1170 where William of Tyre, personal teacher to prince Baldwin, later Baldwin IV, was watching his young liege, then nine play with other noble children...
It so happened that once when [Baldwin] was playing with some other noble boys who were with him, they began pinching one another with their fingernails on the hands and arms, as playful boys will do. The others evinced their pain with yells, but, although his playmates did not spare him, Baldwin bore the pain altogether too patiently, as if he did not feel it...
William did not initially worry:
At first I thought that this happened because of his endurance, not because of insensitivity. Then I called him and began to ask what was happening. At last I discovered that about half of his right hand and arm were numb, so that he did not feel pinches or even bites there. I began to have doubts, as I recalled the words of the wise man [Hippocrates]: ‘It is certain that an insensate member is far from healthy and that be who does not feel sick is in danger.’ ...
William’s blood must have run cold as he ran a needle over the young prince’s hands for the hopes of the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem were vested in Baldwin. This after all was not an England or a France that could be wracked by occasional civil wars and survive. This was not even a frontline state like, say, Castille, caught between the Muslim and the Christian world. This was the Kingdom that should never have been, far behind ‘enemy’ lines, where one lost battle, never mind a lost war might leave the sparse western communities in the Holy Land at the mercy of implacably hostile states. Jerusalem could simply not afford to have an idiot or a weakling on the throne: and yet the nine-year-old Baldwin was showing the first symptoms of leprosy.
I reported all this to his father. Physicians were consulted and prescribed repeated formentations, anointing, and even poisonous drugs to improve his condition, but in vain. For, as we later understood more fully as time passed, and as we made more comprehensive observations, this was the beginning of an incurable disease. I cannot keep my eyes dry while speaking of it. For as he began to reach the age of puberty it became apparent that he was suffering from that most terrible disease, leprosy. Each day he grew more ill. 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...
And the cruel irony is that all the signs are that Baldwin would have been an outstanding king, perhaps one of the greatest of the Middle Ages, perhaps even – though this seems impossible – a man capable of saving his father’s realm.

He had the will-power to learn to ride on horseback without the use of his arms – as one was practically useless and the other was needed for his sword. Even modern revisionist historians have not questioned his extraordinary courage. And this determination in his personal affairs he carried over into matters of state. He defended his Kingdom from Saladin, a master general. Indeed, he defeated Saladin on one occasion: the memorable battle of Montgisard where a seventeen-year old Baldwin – known as the ‘pig’ by his Islamic enemies for his leprosy – led the cavalry charge against Saladin’s much more numerous lines. He also ably arranged his succession knowing that he would soon be dead.

However, when Baldwin passed away in 1185, aged twenty four – leprosy finally defeating its host – the Christian subjects of the tiny Kingdom of Jerusalem might have been forgiven for thinking that their God had played an unkind practical joke on them. Jerusalem itself would fall in 1187 and all Baldwin’s courage had been for nothing.
Image: William of Tyre discovers Baldwin's first symptoms of leprosy (MS of L'Estoire d'EraclesHistoria), painted in France, 1250s. British Library, London.)


  1. You might remember Baldwin as portrayed by Edward Norton in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven.

  2. I actually consider the 12th century to be relatively "fun" because although they diseases ran common and the Catholic church ruled supreme, there were still relatively few massive epidemics or witch burning hysterias. I truly wish I was alive back then.


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