Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

Of the Siege of Acre

I had heard that the army at Acre was suffering grievously from fever, and I took with me as great a stock as I was able to carry of a certain herb which I have found to be most salutary for ailments of this kind. 'Twas a most pitiful sight this same camp, and though I found my merchandise most profitable, selling the medicine for a noble sum of gold, it cut me to the heart to behold such suffering. There was scarcely a tent in which there lay not some sick man. Of physicians there was but a scanty supply, and these but little expert, as I judged, in their craft. For the most part they knew no remedy but the letting of blood; and indeed medicines were hard to come by at such a time and place. There was no public store of them, for men, when they prepare themselves for carrying on war in some foreign land, take no account of the chance, or I should rather say the certainty, of sickness. Provision of weapons and machines of war, of clothing, of food and of wine they make, but of remedies none; and yet they that perish of sickness are more, verily I believe many times more, than they that are slain by the sword or die of their wounds.

The commoner sort, then, of the soldiers were left to perish or to recover of their disease as might fall out. I know not whether they fared worse than their betters, who were cared for by these unskillful and ill-provided leeches. 'Tis most certain, if one has regard to the number of each, that the princes of the army suffered no less than the commoners. On the very day of my coming into the camp, one of the chiefest among them was carried to his burial. This was an Englishman, Baldwin by name, an archbishop of Canterbury, if I have the name rightly written. He was a good man, temperate in his habit of life—for the most part these Northerners are over fond of wine, which they use as freely in the heats of these regions as amidst their own snows and frosts—and of a most charitable temper. Such a crowd of mourners as followed his body to the grave I never saw, nor ever any that more truly grieved. He was wont, they told me, to feed day by day two hundred and more of the poorer sort, and that they might not suffer by his death he left a thousand pieces of gold to be divided among such in the camp as had the greatest need. That same day there were fifty other dead men carried forth. Nor was the tale less on the days that followed, save it may be for a few that were healed by the medicine that I brought; but what could I do with my small stock among so many?

As for the siege, there was much fierce fighting on both sides. The army of the Christians, for all that many died of the pestilence and not a few by the sword, was not diminished but rather increased, so many new-comers flocked into the camp daily. Some were carried thither in ships, and some came on foot, and these latter I noticed to be in a far worse plight. Some, indeed, were of small account, vagabonds and men of ill repute, who having squandered their substance and lost their good name at home, came to repair their fortune and reputation. Others were stout men-at-arms, as good soldiers as any man could desire to see. Nor would I deny that they had, over and above that love of battle that is in the hearts of all who can wield a sword, a certain honest desire to do service to God. They, such I mean as were not mere robbers and ruffians, did greatly desire to win again the Holy City. Again and again I noticed that the very name of Jerusalem did touch them in a most uncommon way. When news came into the camp that seemed to touch this matter, the recovering of the city, it manifestly moved all hearts. For all this, there was never an army in this world, so far as my knowledge goes, so ill-behaved, and so unlike to all that it should of right have been. And I doubted much from the first whether these men, being what they were, would accomplish their great undertaking. For if the common men were unequal to their task, much more were their leaders. The princes were not less drunken and debauched than the baser sort, aye and more so as having greater means at their command, and in respect of the enterprise on which they were engaged they were not so single-hearted. For the Holy City, so far as could be seen, they cared not one doit or stiver, save so far as some of the highest rank coveted the crown. For the rest, some few excepted whom a man might count on the fingers of one hand, they were jealous, quarrelsome, self-seeking. I verily believe that had there been one whom the rest had been content to follow, the Christian army had not lain before the walls of the city for nigh upon two years, to their great present damage, and to the future overthrow of the whole enterprise.

As I was about to depart from the camp, having disposed of all my wares, and being minded to return with another store, I saw a pilgrim that was newly arrived. He was from Europe, which country he had left some two months before, and he brought therefrom news of no little moment, nothing less, to put the matter shortly, than that the English king was on his way to the war. He had journeyed in the same ship with the king from a certain harbour in the land of France, Massilia by name, and had been in his company for six weeks and more. It was, he said, very slow and tedious travelling, for the ships, of which there were nigh upon six score, delayed at every harbour on the way, adding to their number, and taking up fresh stores. And if there was any threatening of tempest, then they would stay in shelter, a thing not to be wondered at, seeing that they were very heavily laden with treasure—the king, 'twas said, had well-nigh stripped his country of all the gold and silver therein. So it fell out that some forty days were spent before the fleet came to the harbour of Messina in the island of Sicily. Between these two, Massilia to wit and Messina, there lie some seven hundred miles of sea, which a ship may traverse in ten days or less, if the master thereof be bold enough to leave skirting the coast. I myself having been a seafaring man in past time, remember to have sailed in a swift ship, with a following wind, from Alexandria to Tarsus, a journey five hundred miles or thereabouts, in two days.

At Messina the pilgrim found a ship bound for this port of Acre with a cargo of food and wine—scarce a day passes but some such ship put into the harbour—and took passage therein. For he had heard, he said, that the king had much to do before he could take up with a single mind the chief business that he had in hand, that is the recovering of the Holy City. He had a quarrel against the king of Sicily in the matter of his own sister, who had once been aforetime queen of that island. Also he was to wait till his own promised wife should come, and there were other matters also to be settled. "'Tis my judgment," said the pilgrim in my hearing, "that King Richard will not come hither for six months and more." When I heard this I determined in my own mind that I would leave the camp forthwith, and come again about the time when the king might be looked for. I had certain affairs of my own to settle, and there was also this profitable business of the remedy against fever of which I have written about. Of this I could get no fresh store before the springtime. It is not even to be found when the ground is parched by the heats of summer, nor, indeed, could I have had the good luck of lighting upon it, would there be much virtue in the withered leaves.

I departed therefore from the camp, after a sojourn of some two months therein; and, indeed, I was well pleased to go. Of camps I have seen not a few in the course of my wanderings, but never one so ill ordered and ill provided as this. Of order and discipline there was, I may say, almost none at all. Here the English king would find much to do, being, as the pilgrim told me, very sternly set against all disorder and violence among his soldiers. A peaceable man might scarcely go ten paces without some insolence or affront. For myself I had no cause of complaint. Some, whom I had cured of their ailment, were grateful to me, and others feared me as having the skill by which I might do them a mischief. Nevertheless I found it an ill place for a sojourn. No one could eat or drink save at a great cost, and it was plain to me that if I tarried long all my gains would be spent. Accordingly, the summer being now wholly spent and the autumn somewhat advanced, at the end of the month which in Latin is called October I departed from the camp.