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  • The Leper Prince May 9, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    Monarchies are not perhaps the worst systems of government. But they suffer from one serious drawback. Even the best dynasties – with immaculate DNA and good schooling – throw up an idiot or a weakling once a century and if that idiot/weakling coincides with a famine or a plague or a spot of class warfare then God help the country in question. Most disasters in European history – 500-1700 can be traced to such unhappy coincidences. Most golden ages, meanwhile, mark the coupling of  an agricultural boom or a cultural renaissance with a capable king or queen. No wonder that a court looked with such anxiety at the tiny Edward or Louis as he was growing up: after all, the future of millions of were to be glimpsed in the temper tantrums and bib splatter of the prince.

    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, a Beachcombian WIBT (‘Wish I’d been there’) moment.

    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.

    [Accidit quod colludentibus pueris nobilium qui secum erant, et se inuicem, ut mos est pueris lasciuientibus, unguibus per manus et brachia uellicantibus, alii sensum doloris clamoribus significabant; ipse autem quasi doloris expers patienter nimis, quamuis ei coaetanei eius non parcerent, supportabat.]

    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.’

    [credidi prius, de uirtute patientiae, et non ex insensibilitatis uitio procedere; uocansque eum, percunctari coepi, quidnam esset; tandemque comperi brachium eius dexterum manumque eamdem, pro parte dimidia, obstupuisse, ita ut penitus uellicationes, aut etiam morsus non sentiret. Dubitare coepi, reputans mecum illud Sapientis uerbum: Certum est a salute plurimum abstinere membrum quod obstupuit; et aegrum se non sentientem, periculosius laborare.]

    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.

    [Nuntiatum est hoc patri; consultisque medicis, crebris fomentis, unctionibus, pharmacis etiam, ut ei subueniretur, diligenter, sed frustra, procuratum est. Erat enim, ut processu temporis, ipso rerum experimento postea plenius cognouimus, amplioris et penitus incurabilis doloris initium, quod praemittebatur; quodque siccis oculis dicere non possumus, cum ad pubertatis annos coepit exsurgere, morbo elephantioso uisus est periculosissime laborare; quo per dies singulos ingrauescente nimium, extremitatibus maxime laesis et facie, fidelium suorum corda, quoties eum intuebantur, compassionis affectu molestabat.]

    In a very real sense Jerusalem fell in 1170 when William ran his able hands over the boy’s limbs. Think of the terror that the prince will have seen in his teacher’s eyes or the howls of Baldwin’s father when William approached 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.

    Any other unusual kings: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    27 May 2011: Here is Invisible with some unusual royal health problems: ‘You asked for other unusual kings, so, although I know you’re not keen on the Vikings, I offer Egill Skalla-Grímsson, who probably had Paget’s Disease: .  This thickens the skull to give a ‘lion-like appearance’: www.viking.ucla.edu/publications/articles/skull_bones.pdf Of course, there is also the Heretic Pharoah Akhenaten. Depictions of him almost always showed him with huge, womanly hips and swollen abdomen, fleshly lips and an unnaturally elongated skull, leading to all kinds of armchair diagnoses. In March of 2010 scientists announced that they had identified his mummy by DNA – and those tests and the mummy showed no signs of any defects. There had been speculation for years that the feminine hips meant that the King was a eunuch or had Froehlich’s Syndrome and was incapable of siring the children shown in depictions of the affectionate royal family – which led to much speculation about who cuckolded the King with his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Marfan’s (which was ruled out by the DNA tests) and elephantiasis have also been suggested, as has religious symbolism to do with the androgyny of the God/King. And, dear to my heart, poor Charles II of Spain, ‘Carlos the Bewitched’ (El Hechizado), whose deficiencies brought the decline of Spanish power and prestige and the War of the Spanish Succession. I don’t believe he has been exhumed so his DNA could be tested to find out the specifics of how the Habsburg insistence on mating uncles with nieces created a man who was a walking textbook of genetic disorders. Carlos was physically frail – unable to walk until he was 8 years old, could barely speak intelligibly and could not chew because his tongue was too large. He was impotent and hyper-religious, covering his person and his rooms with relics and religious talismans. He was terrified of the Devil, a trait which was exploited by his confessors and advisors (who asked the Inquisitor General if it was theologically valid to consult the Devil about the cause of the King’s impotence), and underwent an exorcism. Apparently the Devil was consulted and obligingly gave up the name and Madrid address of the witch, where various magical items were found under the floorboards. It was no use and no heir was conceived. All comic-opera stuff to us, but a terrible tragedy for Spain and Europe.’ Thanks Invisible!!!