On July 4, 1187, Saladin, the Ayyubid sultan, won a great victory at the Battle of Hattin. Saladin’s men annihilated the army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, captured King Guy, and obtained the relic of the True Cross. In the months that followed, almost all the Kingdom fell into Saladin’s hands. The city of Tyre, however, refused to capitulate. From Tyre, the Christians were able to rally and plan a campaign to reverse Saladin’s conquests. King Guy, freed from captivity, led a new army against the city of Acre. After a two-year siege, the Christian army, bolstered by the arrival of the Third Crusade, captured Acre and proceeded to reconquer much (but not all) of the Kingdom.
As the army laid siege to Acre, one of Guy’s men felt inspired by the monumental events he had witnessed. This man, whose name has been lost to history, began writing a Latin poetic account of the crusade against Saladin. In the passage translated below, the poet sets the stage for his story by recounting the Battle of Hattin. He begins by describing the efforts of Raymond III, count of Tripoli, to dissuade the Christians from fighting Saladin in open battle. Raymond had, in the poet’s account, originally plotted with Saladin; but here he has repented and, familiar with Saladin, he knows that his compatriots have underestimated the sultan. Events soon prove Raymond right: the Christians, overeager for battle, allow themselves to be cut off from the water. Though the Templars earn the poet’s praise for their heroic charge, they are no match for Saladin’s archers. The loss of the True Cross marks the Christians’ situation as hopeless: they are surrounded and butchered. The poet, mindful of Hattin’s place in Biblical history, reminds his audience that this was the same spot where Judith had won a miraculous victory over the Babylonians by assassinating their general. ~ Patrick C. DeBrosse
That attack, however, displeases many there.
The Tripolitan count hates this expedition and urges against it:
The place on which their camp sat was naturally advantageous to the Christians,
Fertile with foliage, supplied with water, flourishing with both.
Therefore the count urges delays and endeavors to guard the river;
But his labor bears no fruit.
And because the people had already burst forward, it is necessary
And it is acceptable for this foot-dragger to follow the advancing banners.
In the first wing, about to feel the tumult of Fate,
Stands the legion of the Temple, holding pride of place.
The rest of the throng rushed forward in confused order,
The count claims the rear guard and follows the others closely.
The tyrant does not expose himself to battle any less,
And he rouses his men against the Christians.
Now he attacks the mountains with an uproar:
He bangs the winds with clanging and has rocked the stars with swelling trumpets
The fields glisten with metal caps, the high mountains shine forth with swords,
The ground flashes with the helmet.
A powerful diligence was in the enemy, to be sure:
The cunning man summons his troops and orders a delay.
Thus he tries to cut our battle lines off from the waters,
That thirst and the scarcity of water may harass those cut off.
Such great prudence was not in our cohort,
When it left the river that traverses the arid plains.
When the tyrant sees us stand apart from the river,
He assails and attacks the protruding men with the sword.
Yielding, the isolated, faithful troops dash inwardly toward the bank of the river.
The troops send their hands to arms.
The order of Templars charges in the front line,
It sheds the enemy’s blood with the help of cast javelin.
And as for those whom the spear of this order does no good when it has been cast,
The bow and the sword supply an office for them.
A cloud of missiles, sent by the enemy, rises
And they fly as if a great pillar of hail.
It shakes the athletes of the faith and the cohort of Templars.
The relentless arrow engulfs the pious cohort within.
If fate were being fair, then this legion, rejoicing,
Would have grandly borne happy triumph and honor from Mars.
But if you should see so many thousands attack so few, the sight would commend
The upright in their slaughter as much as the victors in their massacre.
The cross-bearer, both protector and prior of the Sepulcher, falls.
A barbarous hand lifts up the Cross and takes it away.
When the faithful saw the sacred banners taken away,
Right away, fear scattered them everywhere, as if their spirits left them.
The force of all the nobles of Syria is forced to be trapped together,
As if surrounded by a certain abyss.
The solemn victims for Christ make the swords of the gentile people drunk:
Gore is strewn into the plains,
And besides some people, whom flight freed,
All either bore violent death, or else earned capture.
Modern men wish to call this place, which saw such a vile crime,
Bethulia, in the manner of old.
You can read the full text of The Song of the Siege of Acre, translated by Patrick C. DeBrosse, on The Crusader States website