From the Archives: The Crusades from Another Perspective

coronation of melisende Recently* I've been reading Sharan Newman's Defending The City of God: A Medieval Queen, The First Crusade And The Quest for Peace In Jerusalem. It was a perfect read for March, which was Women's History Month.*

Newman tells the story of a historical figure who was completely new to me. Melisende (1105-1161) was the first hereditary ruler of the Latin State of Jerusalem, one of four small kingdoms founded by members of the First Crusade. Her story is a fascinating one. The daughter of a Frankish Crusader and an Armenian princess, Melisende ruled her kingdom for twenty years despite attempts by first her husband and then her son to shove her aside. Even after her son finally gained the upper hand, Melisende continued to play a critical role in the government of Jerusalem. Those few historians who mention Melisende at all tend to describe her as usurping her son's throne.** Newman makes a compelling argument for Melisende as both a legitimate and a powerful ruler. (In all fairness, this is the kind of argument I am predisposed to believe.)

Fascinating as Melisende's story is, Newman really caught my attention with this paragraph:

Most Crusade histories tell of the battle between Muslims and Christians, the conquest of Jerusalem and its eventual loss. The wives of these men are mentioned primarily as chess pieces. The children born to them tend to be regarded as identical to their fathers, with the same outlook and desires. Yet many of the women and most of the children were not Westerners. They had been born in the East. The Crusaders states of Jerusalem, Edessa, Tripoli, and Antioch were the only homes they knew.

Talk about a smack up the side of the historical head!

If you're interested in medieval history in general, the Crusades in particular, or women rulers, Defending the City of God is worth your time.

*FYI This review originally ran in 2014.

**It was also nice to spend some time in a warm dry place, if only in my imagination. Here in Chicago, March came in like a lion and went out like a cold, wet, cranky lion.

*** To put this in historical context. Melisende's English contemporary, the Empress Matilda (1102-1167) was the legitimate heir to Henry I. After Henry's death, her cousin Stephen of Blois had himself crowned king and plunged England into a nine-year civil war to keep her off the throne. Apparently twelfth century Europeans had a problem with the idea of women rulers.

Anita Berber: Dance Hard, Die Young

A black-and-white head shot of Anita Berber: young and beautiful, with a curly bob. (I may ask the guy who cuts my hair to try and reproduce it.)

Unlike the “Blond Hans,” who made regular appearances in Sigrid Schultz’s letters and memoirs, Schultz mentioned Expressionist dancer, cabaret artist, and actress Anita Berber (1899-1928) only once. A year after Berber’s death, Schultz described Berber as “the wild woman of inflation days—who burned away her great dancing talent with dope and wild parties, portraying her feverish time in a mask of green and purple make-up.”*

Berber made her debut at the Blüthnersaal, one of Berlin’s major performance venues, on February 24, 1916, at the age of sixteen, as a part of a performance by Rita Sacchetto’s dancing school.** Sacchero’s pieces alluded to classical antiquity in their titles and relied on a modern movement vocabulary and scanted costumes.

Anita Berber in one of her more sedate costumes, with knickers about the knees and a draped top that suggests it will drop and expose her breasts if she moves.

She quickly made a name for herself in Berlin and was working in movies by 1918. Dancing on her own, or with her second husband and dance partner, Sebastian Droste, Berber’s work moved beyond the mild titillation of Sacchero’s choreography, creating works that were overtly sexual and often transgressive. She appeared as a dancer and actress in at least twenty-four silent films between 1918 and 1925, occasionally nude and always provocative.

Berber’s costumes ranged from cross-dressing tuxedos*** to complete nudity. She wore heavy dancer’s make-up, which appears as jet-black lipstick and charcoal-circled eyes in the black and white photographs of the period, though Schultz’s description suggests a more colorful palette.

Berber standing astride wearing a tuxedo and carrying a cane. She has dramatic make-up and wears a monocle in one eye.

She was as famous for being a wild child as she was for her art. According to her contemporary, actor and choreographer Joe Jencik, “The public never appreciated Anita’s artistic expression, only her public transgressions in which she trespassed the untouchable line between the stage and the audience.” Her bisexuality, heavy alcohol consumption, and drug use were the fodder for gossip columns, as was her generally scandalous behavior. In addition to taking cocaine, opium and morphine, she reportedly combined chloroform and ether in a bowl, stirred them with a white rose, and then ate the rose petals. It is hard to know which details are true, or what they meant. Berber was a proto-performance artist who often fused her life and art in dramatic gestures on and off stage.

Berber was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1928 at the age of 29 while performing abroad. After collapsing in Damascus, she returned to Germany, where she died.

She is best known today because expressionist Otto Dix painted her portrait as a sensuous lady in red.

Otto Dix portrait of Anita Berber, with a sensuous red dress and a matching bright red bob.


* Hyperinflation hit Germany in 1923, creating an economic frenzy that paralleled the social frenzy of Germany’s Jazz Age. In the summer of 1922, the exchange rate was 400 marks per dollar. By January 1, 1923, the mark’s value had dropped to 7,000 marks per dollar and sank at an increasing speed thereafter. By mid-November, the rate was 1.3 trillion marks to the dollar. It was 1925 before the economy settled into a brief golden age before the Great Depression.

**Rita Sacchetto (1880-1959), whose work was inspired by that of American dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller, was a leader of the expressive dance style that [bloomed] in Germany during this period.

***Well before Marlene Dietrich did the same.



I don’t know whether Sigrid Schultz met Anita Berber, or even saw her perform.

And speaking of Sigrid Schultz, The Dragon From Chicago is available for pre-order wherever you buy your books.  You can get a signed copy for yourself or your favorite wild child from my neighborhood bookstore, the Seminary Coop: .  Use the special instructions box to tell me how you want it signed.





From the Archives: Rival Queens



Nancy Goldstone has made a career of telling the often forgotten and always dramatic stories of powerful women in medieval Europe.*  In The Rival Queens: Catherine de' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom, Goldstone turns her attention to Renaissance France and its role in the growing struggle between Catholics and Protestants across Europe.

The betrayal to which the title refers is the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Huguenots were killed when they gathered in Paris to attend the unwilling Marguerite's wedding to her Protestant cousin, Henry of Navarre. In fact, the massacre is only the most extreme of the betrayals--personal and political alike--which Goldstone describes.

Goldstone overturns the ruling historical evaluation of Catherine as an able, if Machiavellian, ruler and Marguerite as a sensual dilettante. Instead, she shows Catherine manipulating her children in order to maintain her power in France. Marguerite stands in counterpoint to her, growing into a woman of courage and integrity. Goldstone makes a compelling case for both portrayals, using first-hand accounts from the period, including Marguerite's memoir.

Firmly rooted in history, The Rival Queens combines the pageantry and passion of a Philippa Gregory novel with the Byzantine plot and violence of A Game of Thrones. It is a story of intra-family rivalry taken to the level of "scheming and conspiracy, treason and treachery". Religion is its battlefield; sex, tale bearing and the withholding of maternal love its primary weapons.


*Including The Maid and the Queen, yet another contemporary retelling of Joan of Arc's story.