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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Surprising and Remarkable Luxury

Hints of luxury - gilded wood fragments from furnishings found at Montfort Castle

In 1971 I spent a number of weeks living in a fortress. It consisted of a central massive bunker constructed of great blocks of large, roughly-shaped stones enclosed in wire mesh, and was surrounded by a system of partly covered and partly exposed trenches. Beyond was desolation and danger: sand dunes, barbed wire, mine fields, the sea, the Suez Canal, and in the hazy distance beyond the Egyptian look-out towers, Port Fu'ad; a shimmering mirage of vague buildings and vaguer palm trees. Inside, the fortress was a concrete-grey, semi-dark stuffiness, with hordes of blowflies, crates of rotting oranges, graffiti, containers of unpalatable chlorinated water and tins of apricot flavoured syrup which made for an even more unpalatable concoction, iron bed-frames on which lay dusty, straw-filled mattresses, coarse army blankets, plastic covered maps, a variety of soldiers' equipment, and everywhere the all-pervading smell of gun oil. The only positive aspect of the bunker was the coolness its depths provided from the sweltering desert heat outside.

Conditions in an army outpost, whether a camp, a bunker or a fortress, are often not entirely pleasant. In his 1915 diary, Benito Mussolini favourably compared the trenches in Flanders with those occupied by the Italian army at Mount Nero in Austria, which, he wrote, were “mere holes dug between the rocks.”* The Italian journalist and future dictator appears to have had little comprehension of the horrors of Flanders, writing that the English trenches were furnished with all the comforts. "They even have heating apparatus, they say."* In reality, the chief amenities of the trenches on the western front were lice and mud.

It is somewhat surprising then to read this description of the Templar fortress of Saphet (Safed) composed by or for Benoît d'Alignan, the Bishop of Marseilles in the 1260s:

The castle of Saphet has a temperate and healthy climate, rich in gardens, vines, trees and grass, gentle and smiling, rich and abundant in the fertility and variety of fruit. There figs, pomegranates, almonds and olives grow and flourish. God blesses it with rain from the sky and richness from the soil and abundance of corn, vines, oil, pulses, herbs and fresh fruits, plenty of milk and honey, and pastures suitable for the feeding of animals, glades, trees and woods for making lime-kilns, and for cooking plentiful foods…**

Such an idyllic picture - if we were to read it in a brochure who would not go off immediately to the nearest travel agent to purchase a plane ticket to this... what... Greek island?

But Saphet Castle was no tourist resort. The people that resided in it were not there on vacation and perhaps the good bishop was laying it on a bit thick. Yet this depiction is not entirely distorted. Many crusader castles indeed occupied delightful locations, high on mountaintops overlooking extensive vistas of forests, fields or the sea. The largest of them, and Saphet was certainly among the largest, were often sumptuously furnished and abundantly stocked. They contained large courtyards and gardens, bathhouses and fresco-decorated halls with splendid carvings.

It was discovering this luxury in a fortress on the outskirts of Christendom that most surprised Bashford Dean from the finds that were recovered from his 1926 expedition to Montfort Castle. In the final paragraph of the report that he published the following year, Dean noted that the garrison that occupied Montfort had not lived under conditions of stress or hardship, as would have probably been the assumption of many people, but rather, in a degree of luxury that was evident from the spacious quarters and the numerous finds of Gothic sculpture, stained-glass windows and gilded furnishings.

We need to be careful not to go overboard with this image. Not all the castles were so sumptuous and not all the residents in these castles lived at the same level of luxury. The quarters of a Grand Master or a castellan would be better than the shared accommodations of knights of the garrison, and those in turn would considerably surpass the quarters of the masons, smiths, cooks, laundry women and stable-hands. But the fact remains that for many of the residents who lived in these pleasant surroundings, who dined and drank well, had some entertainment and, except in times of siege and warfare were probably not overworked, life in a crusader fortress was far from spartan.

* Benito Mussolini, My Diary 1915-1917, transl. Rita Wellman (Kindle edition), chapter 2, September 19.

** De Constructione Castri Saphet, in Hugh Kennedy, Crusader Castles, Cambridge, 1995, p. 196.

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