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Conversion and St Louis’s Last Crusade
By Michael Lower
Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 58, No. 2 (2007)
Abstract: Arguments as to why St Louis diverted his 1270 crusade to Tunis from Jerusalem have been raging ever since the expedition returned to France. Although historians have recently agreed that the diversion was the decision of Louis himself, this consensus has not led to exploration of his reasons for crusading to a north African port city. This essay argues that the diversion to Tunis is best understood in terms of Louis’s ideas about conversion in general and his policy towards the Jews of his land in particular. The close parallels between Louis’s Jewish policy and the Tunisian strategy suggest that these conversion policies led Louis to Tunis.
Introduction: On 25 March 1267, at the abbey of St Denis, Louis IX of France took the cross for the second time. His concern for the Latin settlements in the Holy Land had not waned since his disastrous first crusade some twenty years earlier. That expedition had not only resulted in the capture of the king and his army in the Nile Delta, but had also, by precipitating the collapse of the Ayyubid dynasty of Cairo, the successors of Saladin, had the unintended effect of bringing to power one of the most formidable opponents the crusader states would ever face, the Mameluks. Under their sultan Baybars they set out to eliminate the crusader states and by 1265 they appeared well on the way to achieving their goal.
It is strange, though, given the danger facing the crusader states and Louis’s concern for their welfare, that when the crusade finally departed Aigues-Mortes in July 1270, it set its course for Tunis, a north African port city just across the Straits of Messina from Sicily. Though geography alone would suggest that Tunis posed little threat to the Latin settlements in the Holy Land, Louis and his men besieged the city through the height of an African summer. Disease eventually set in, taking the lives of many crusaders and, on 25 August, the life of the king himself.
That very same day, as some chroniclers tell it, Louis’s younger brother Charles of Anjou arrived from Sicily, where he had recently come to power. Familiar with Tunis and its emir, al-Mustansir, he quickly negotiated a truce on terms favourable to himself. In this way he brought to an end the last crusade of his elder brother, a future saint and the last European monarch to lead a crusade in defence of crusader Syria.