Our book today is Saladin, the great 2008 biography by Director of Research at Paris’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Anne-Marie Edde, now at last available in a sturdy paperback in an English-language translation by Jane Marie Todd. And although six years is a disgracefully long gap between French intellectual curiosity and American intellectual curiosity, the book’s appearance is a happy occasion nonetheless. Saladin, the powerful and oddly charismatic 12th century Kurdish Muslim who founded a dynasty, shone with brilliance on a dozen battlefields, and, most famously in the West, beat the Europeans of the Third Crusade and yet showed them more of what they themselves called “Christian mercy” than they ever showed to the Muslims they fought.
“The actions by which he distinguished himself are relatively well known, the individual less so,” Edde quite accurately writes. “In Saladin’s case, the difficulty of grasping his personality is amplified by the success of his legend.” That legend found expression in countless romances and poems, a handful of national delusions (it hardly escaped Saddam Hussein’s notice, for instance, that he and Saladin shared the same home town), and dozens of English-language biographies in the last century alone. Like most of the rest of those biographers, Edde has to spend a little preliminary energy dealing with that outsized legend:
His name is usually associated with the Crusades, with chivalry and courtliness, generosity and respect for one’s foes. His image, portrayed since the Middle Ages in various chivalrous romances and chansons de geste, has continued to evolve in conjunction with the historical circumstances. During the Age of Enlightenment, authors such as Voltaire and Gotthold Lessing depicted him as an enlightened sovereign, tolerant and open to all religions. Even today, he is probably the only Muslim ruler in history whom Hollywood studios could imagine casting as a hero.
In greater detail and with more disgressive curiosity than any recent Saladin biographer, Edde looks at the whole of Saladin’s life and legacy, scraping away as much of the accretions of legend and embellishment that has grown around the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and she concentrates very refreshingly not on Saladin’s clashes with Richard the Lionheart but rather on his constant manuevering to maintain power against threats from his own tenuous alliances. The result is a biography that feels broader and more true than any previous Western Saladin biography, constantly revivified by Edde’s determined efforts at balance:
It would be futile, however, to seek behind that bombastic rhetoric any real ambition to extend the empire from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic, or any desire to obliterate all trace of Christianity. Saladin’s actions on the ground, his clearly displayed priorities – to reunify the Muslim Middle East and drive out the Franks – and the measures he took to allow non-Muslims from his territories to live in peace are proof of that.
Lag-time or no, it’s very nice indeed to add this big, learned biography to 2014′s shelf.