On Fathoming Hyperbole
Updated: Dec 18, 2019
If you think about it, from the moment we open our eyes in the morning we begin to be inundated by experiences that overwhelm all our senses. We are warm or cold, it is dark or light, we hear sounds, feel comfort or discomfort; all our senses are at work and remain so until the moment we fall asleep at the end of the day. We might be excited by some personal event, pleasant or painful; we might experience joy or sorrow; something beyond our personal experiences might excite us in some way - an event heard on a news report, for example. There are endless things going on around us that we are aware of. Because of this, if we wish to have others appreciate something we regard as significant, we are often led to use exaggeration. If you have a toothache you might say "I have a horrific toothache" though it in fact is more of an unpleasantness than something that would send chills up your spine. If you were stuck in traffic you might say you were in an unbelievable traffic jam, though in all likelihood it was quite believable and perhaps not even all that much unusual. In daily life our use of exaggeration is so commonplace that we are hardly aware that we are doing it. But, for the historian, in order to understanding the past it is necessary to be able to recognize exaggeration and know how to cut through it so as to acquire a semblance of the truth.
Ancient and medieval sources are abundant in examples of hyperbole. The Franks identified the huge subterranean vaulted chambers under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with the Biblical king, Solomon, and they were known as the Stabuli Salomonis, Solomon’s Stables. By the same token they identified the neighbouring Al-Aqsa Mosque as Solomon’s Palace (Templum Salomonis). In fact, neither of these buildings was built by Solomon and Al-Aqsa was known by the Franks to be a comparatively recent Muslim construction. The stables occupied part of a series of constructed vaults built by King Herod in the first century BC in order to expand the natural hill (Mount Moriah) and form a large rectangular temenos on which to build his temple. By the twelfth century some of the vaults had been renewed, probably in the Fatimid period, but we have no knowledge of why this was done and if the vaults had been used for some function at that time. In any case, under the Franks and perhaps only after the southern part of the Temple Mount came into Templar hands around the third decade of the twelfth century, the vaults were converted into a large stable. In order to improve access and enable direct entry from outside the city, a new gate known today as the Single Gate was opened in the southern wall of the Temple Mount and to defend it, a new wall and outer bastion were constructed on the southern slopes of Mount Moriah, the ancient Ophel.
In describing the stables, two mid-century German pilgrims, John of Würzburg (c. 1160) and Theoderich (c.1169) gave estimates of the number of animals the building could contain, and of the two descriptions one certainly seems a gross exaggeration. John of Würzburg suggests that the “wondrous stable” was able to contain more than two thousand horses or one thousand five hundred camels* while Theoderich reckons on ten thousand horses with their grooms.** If John’s estimate seems an exaggeration, as perhaps it does, Theoderich’s is certainly not reliable. A more recent and probably more realistic proposal is that the stables could have housed no more than 500 horses!*** But then, this is the same Theoderich who informs us of another unlikely statistic:
“When our humble selves also had visited this place [the Place of Baptism on the Jordan River] in order to pray there, desiring to wash in the waters of Jordan with the rest, we descended the mountain after sunset, just as darkness was coming on; and, looking out from its heights over the flat plain below us, we saw, according to our reckoning, more than sixty thousand men standing thereon, almost all of them carrying candles in their hands - all of whom could be seen by the infidels from the mountains of Arabia beyond Jordan. Indeed, there was a still larger number of pilgrims in Jerusalem who had recently visited this place.”
The idea that in a single pilgrimage season more than 120,000 pilgrims were present in Jerusalem can only be regarded as ludicrous, and casts a shadow over those other figures Theoderich provides us with that we might otherwise have regarded as reliable.
*John of Würzburg, Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, vol. 5, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 21. **Theoderich, Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, vol. 5, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 31. ***Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood. A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge, 1995, p. 94.