After the First Crusade, proclaimed by Pope Urban II, the Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ was recaptured from the hands of the Mohammedans, and the Christians founded a kingdom in Jerusalem. By its august link with the Saviour, it thus became the centre of attention of all Christendom.
What glory for the Holy City, but what paradoxical glory! It was not the gold and silver, nor the victories and the success that made it great before the nations, but the suffering, the struggle and the cross.
Sadly, this holy kingdom was poisoned by ambition and, in the 12th century, its former splendour was on the wane. In the beginning, the Court of Jerusalem had been such a bulwark of unpretentiousness that its first monarch, Godfrey of Bouillon, had refused to wear a gold crown because he did not feel worthy to wear it where Christ was pleased to be crowned with thorns. But now it was corrupted by vanity. The ideal of the Crusades had been extinguished.
Nevertheless, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, would, like the sun, manifest its most beautiful splendours at its twilight.
A boy marked by suffering
While yet a child, the one called to be king was struck with the dreaded disease of leprosy
William of Tyre discovers the signs of leprosy in the young Baldwin, illumination from the work “Estoire d’Eracles” – British Library, London
King Amalric I, a descendant of the nobility of Anjou in France, bestowed upon the holy city a virtuous heir to the throne. His dedication to his studies, his vivacity during recreation, his agility in horsemanship, superior to that of his predecessors, would have given the whole kingdom reason to place the greatest hopes in him, if the boy had not already been, at such a tender age, marked with the sign of the predestined: suffering.
At the age of nine, Baldwin was visited by tragedy. William of Tyre, his tutor, recounts that one day, while the child was playing with other boys of his age, he noticed that no blows caused him pain, but that they were taken with indifference: “I thought at first that in him there was a merit of patience and not a lack of sensitivity; I called him over and began to examine the cause of this manner of acting and I finally discovered that his right arm and hand were somewhat insensitive.”1
This situation worried William and, above all, the boy’s father. After consulting the doctors, their worst suspicions were confirmed: he had contracted leprosy, an incurable disease in those days.
When he reached puberty, Baldwin was informed of his illness. However, the news in no way shook the virile strength of his soul: although yet so young, seeing himself invited by the Divine Redeemer to climb Calvary, he behaved as a hero and never flinched in the face of pain.
A soul of invincible strength
On the death of Amalric I, the prince was crowned and consecrated king in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on July 15, 1174, at the age of thirteen. From then on, he was called Baldwin IV.
We can well imagine the drama of this young man. In the Holy Land, Our Lord Jesus Christ had worked wondrous miracles: the deaf could hear, the blind could see, the paralyzed could walk; His mere shadow drove away sickness. There, above all, the Redeemer had healed lepers! Had the age of miracles ended? Could He not restore the young king to health? Certainly, thoughts like these invaded Baldwin’s soul as he strolled through the streets of Jerusalem… And the hope of a miracle gave him courage to continue his government. But he was ready, if healing did not come, to remain firm in his duty, because the Divine Lamb, wounded and disfigured like a leper, had also chosen the Cross for His throne.
Now, the suffering of the prince was not restricted to his illness. Ambition and self-interest were rife at the court of Jerusalem. Since he could not have descendants, everyone coveted the throne, and far from wishing him well, they longed for his death. Knowing the state of the nobility, Baldwin foresaw the ruin of his kingdom; there was no one around him worthy to succeed him.
A terrible external enemy, a decadent court, inexorably declining health: such was the inheritance of the new king
Coronation of Baldwin IV, by Simon Marmion – Geneva Library (Switzerland)
As if that were not enough, Saladin, leader of the centuries-old enemies of Christ, the Mohammedans, taking advantage of a series of circumstances, among them the fact that a leper “child” reigned in Jerusalem, decided to launch a series of attacks to take possession of Damascus, a key city for the conquest of the whole territory.
It was in this context that Baldwin’s first battle took place. At the age of fourteen he commanded the Catholic army, joining the troops of his cousin Raymond of Tripoli. On August 1, 1176, on the plain of Beqaa, the leprous king won a resounding victory after a hard fight. Despite his malady, he rode like a true warrior and wielded his spear with great strength. The Christian knights had proof of the military genius of their ruler and the bravery of his temperament; back in Jerusalem, he was acclaimed by all the people.
He moved Heaven…
This invincible soul, seeing so many tragedies come crashing down upon his head while his leprosy manifested itself each day with more grievous symptoms, would have had every excuse to dispense himself from his arduous duties as a warrior. Nevertheless, he waged the most glorious and illustrious battles, one of which, especially memorable, took place at Montgisard.
Seizing on the absence of Baldwin and the Christian troops, who were fighting at Ascalon, Saladin presumptuously set out against the Holy City. The young king, aged sixteen, suffering the pains of the open lesions that pressed against his armour, left Ascalon, where he had won another victory, and went out in pursuit of the sultan with only three hundred and seventy horsemen, most of them rear-guard fighters. He surprised Saladin halfway to Jerusalem, but the unexpectedness of the encounter did not make up for the numerical disproportion between the two armies: the Christians numbered but a few hundred against tens of thousands of enemy troops. Baldwin sensed the hesitation of his men…
He then descended from his mount and prostrated himself with his face to the ground before a fragment of the true Cross, carried by Bishop Albert of Bethlehem. Filled with faith, he implored Our Lord Jesus Christ to give them the victory. Then an unquestionably moving scene unfolded: as tears streamed down the wounded face of Baldwin, newly risen from the sandy ground, his soldiers, enraptured before such sublimity, vowed to win or die! In their hearts holy wrath joined forces with faith, and the ideal of the first Crusades shone once more.2 They were all “filled with heavenly grace, which made them stronger than usual.”3
The battle began and the far more numerous Muslim army was unable to withstand the impetus of the cavalry charges from the Franks. As evening fell, the latter were in hot pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Saladin managed to escape, but when he reached Cairo, the centre of the Mohammedan empire, he found that his soldiers had been reduced to a few hundred. The Christian victory at Montgisard had been complete!
This magnificent feat, obtained with the help of Heaven and considered by William of Tyre as the most memorable, occurred in the third year of the reign of Baldwin IV, who was gloriously received in Jerusalem to the singing of the Te Deum.
…and imposed respect on the infernal regions!
Many may think that if Baldwin had not been a leper, history would have been very different. Although there may be some truth in this statement, we cannot fail to consider that, without this paradoxical misfortune, the Kingdom of Jerusalem would never have had the glory of being governed by a monarch so similar to the Divine Redeemer. And this is an incomparable gift!
Indeed, Baldwin became so intimately united with the Crucified King that he was able to put the enemy to flight by his mere presence, just as the Saviour did in the Garden of Olives when He caused those who came to arrest Him to fall prostrate (cf. Jn 18:4-6). This event, perhaps as beautiful as the victory at Montgisard, took place in Beirut.
The arrogant disobedience of Raynald of Châtillon, a vassal of the Christian king, incited Saladin to attack that city by land and sea. Baldwin was then almost in his death agony due to the advance of the leprosy: “The unfortunate prince had lost his sight and the extremities of his body were in a state of putrefaction; he no longer had the use of his feet or his hands.”4 Unable to ride, he nevertheless wanted, out of fidelity to his duty as monarch, to go to the defence of his rebellious subject, but not without first severely reprimanding him for his conduct.
He advanced, carried on a litter, accompanied by seven hundred men, against twenty thousand Muslims. His impetus was irresistible! Attacking the enemy by surprise, he burned their fleets; the “bold” Saladin, merely upon learning of the presence of the young hero at the head of the Catholic soldiers, fled in terror.
“In the first victory [at Montgisard], he moved Heaven by bowing down in the desert; in the second, he commanded the respect of hell by making Saladin withdraw.”5 Such was the glory of a man who knew how to be, respecting the due proportions, another Christ on earth!
God glorifies him in eternity
On March 16, 1185, at the age of twenty-four, King Baldwin gave his soul to God. Victorious against all misfortunes by his iron will, his patience in suffering and his courage in the face of the worst circumstances, he shone in the firmament of history.
Though leprosy had devoured his body, in his soul it had left the luminous mark of heroism. With what admiration we will behold the wounds of this warrior, king and “martyr” of suffering, made resplendent on the day of the Resurrection, when the glory of his soul will be manifested in his body!
Baldwin IV has not yet been raised to the honour of the altars, but, without doubt, for him who suffered so steadfastly on this earth and before whom the worst enemies of the Holy Church trembled, Our Lord Jesus Christ reserved a throne of glory in eternity! ◊
Souls that Mark the Course of History
When God decides to carry out His great interventions in history, the most outstanding and significant graces are not like the ordinary favours that He grants daily to each individual, but the Creator chooses certain people who are sometimes even naturally formed for the task for which He destines them.
Dr. Plinio during a conference
in the 1990s
Owing to the love that God nurtures for these people – even before creating them, because they represent, in His wisdom, a special role in the divine plans – whether by virtue of their own actions, or the correspondence or lack of correspondence of those called to pray and sacrifice for them, these people may be endowed with a force of impact on history that carries it forward.
To use a military image, like a war tank that advances towards a wall and knocks it down, and goes on to cross straight through a whole block, these people are the tanks of history. […]
There are two ways in which someone can demonstrate that he has a plan. One is to follow the straight course right to the end. The other is, while crossing the worst and most varied obstacles, to continue invariably in the same direction. This is one type of strength in a plan. God combines the two methods, at times allotting a royal share of obstacles to some, and then making them shine more splendidly, almost as if they were the authors of the plan they have accomplished.
Nevertheless, God’s masterplan is to cull from the course of things – to put it in human terms – a certain quota of glory. It being well understood that, since the Almighty created a countless number of intelligent and free beings, many of these creatures would do the opposite of His will. […]
The elect, in the sense in which the Chosen People were and the Catholic Church is such, occupy a very important place in God’s plans, but the offences committed by them play a very great part in divine justice. The Creator is merciful towards them, but their sins especially offend Him and weigh heavily enough for Him to modify His plans.
Thus, all history revolves around the gratitude and ingratitude shown by the elect. Many of the tortuous and frightful signs in history, including the decline or apparent collapse of institutions, are related to sins committed in the institutions themselves, which, according to their correspondence or non-correspondence to grace, are left with a certain freedom, granted by God, to trace out the plans of history, with extraordinary glory or blame hovering over them for the direction taken by humanity.
Occasionally, Providence raises up an avenger for the divine plans that have been squandered, who is not necessarily the one who punishes, but the one who destroys the confusion. He then re-establishes the clarity of the course and souls advance.
Thus there is a whole interplay of faithful and unfaithful souls, including expiatory victims, who preserve or corrupt institutions, and an ensemble of mercy and justice of which only God is aware. Then He goes about creating other souls, raising up vocations, giving graces to carry out a plan, because in His infinite goodness He has granted to some souls the honour of marking the course of history together with Him. ◊
Taken, with minor adaptations, from: CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio.
A História gira em torno dos eleitos [History Revolves around the Elect].
In: Dr. Plinio. São Paulo. Year XXIII N.267 (June, 2020); p.21-23
1 BORDONOVE, Georges. Les Croisades et le Royaume de Jérusalem. Paris: Pygmalion, 2002, p.259-260.
2 Cf. Idem, p.281.
3 MICHAUD, Joseph-François. História das Cruzadas. São Paulo: Editora das Américas, 1956, v.II, p.378.
4 Idem, p.386.
5 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Balduíno IV, o protótipo do católico [Baldwin IV: the Catholic prototype] – II. In: Dr. Plinio. São Paulo. Year XXI. N.246 (Sept., 2018); p.24.