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  • Adrian J. Boas

On the Difficult Art of Mediation

Updated: Dec 24, 2018


There have been endless attempts at mediation in the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours. In recent times these have dwindled to efforts to resolve momentary outbreaks of violence rather than proposing comprehensive settlements which, whenever they have been tried in the past, have either had only partial success, or have been outright failures. Mediation is a fine art, and it seems that those involved in it are often not exactly what we could regard as "great masters".


There are a number of occasions in the crusader period when papal mediation was not very effective in resolving issues or even as serving as a calming factor in disputes taking place in the Latin East. Rather than bringing resolution, it often actually managed to add fuel to the fire between opposing parties, sometimes with disastrous results. Here are three examples.


In 1143 Pope Celestine II wrote to Raymond, master of the Hospitaller order of St John in Jerusalem, informing him of his decision to place a recently established German hospital under Hospitaller jurisdiction. It appears that this had been requested by the Hospitallers, and it is perhaps not surprising that the pope supported them in this, as military orders had become highly regarded in papal circles. But his decision brewed German resentment. This can be seen in the statements of a German pilgrim, John of Würzburg, a man with a decided but perhaps understandable chip on his shoulder, who visited Jerusalem in c.1160. In the account of his pilgrimage, John complains bitterly of the fact that German speaking pilgrims were pretty much ignored by the "Frenchmen, Lorrainers, Normans, Provençals, Auvergnats, Italians, Spaniards and Burgundians", indeed by "any men who speak any other languages [than German]".* It seems that this lack of regard was what motivated the establishment a separate institution to care for German pilgrims. The pope's decision to place it under Hospitaller authority paved the way for future antagonism between Germans and the Hospitallers 55 years later, when in 1198 the newly founded German hospital in Acre decided itself to become a military order. The Germans made a perhaps unwise decision to name their new order after the earlier German hospital in Jerusalem (by then in Muslim hands), and this laid them open to claims by the Hospitallers that the new institution should be, as its namesake had been, under their jurisdiction. This, along with pressure placed on them by the Templars, led to the German decision to distance themselves and move part of their administration out of Acre and into the hills of the western Galilee, and perhaps it was this move that made it possible for them to survive as an independent organisation.


A second example of problematic papal mediation took place over a dispute on property on the Belus Stream (Flum d'Acre), south of Acre. Here in the thirteenth century the two major military orders possessed mills. The Hospitallers had built a mill at the spring, the source of the Belus, and the Templars subsequently built their own mill a short distance downstream. The rivalry between these two institutions led to an almost juvenile squabble. The Templars constructed a dam in order to raise the water level enough to efficiently turn their mill wheels. However, this action threatened the inundation of the Hospitaller mill, and the Hospitallers promptly turned to the pope, or more accurately, to his representative, the Bishop of Bethlehem, who served as papal legate. In conjunction with other arbitrators he ruled that the Templars would not raise the water level to the extent that it threatened the Hospitaller mill, and to facilitate this a line was marked on their mill to show the maximum level they were permitted. Of course, this did not prevent them from doing so and in 1262 the Hospitallers made a renewed complaint against them. The Templars counterclaimed that the Hospitallers had diverted water and thereby putting their mill out of action. They also claimed that the Hospitallers had been stopping the flow until the water built up, and then would suddenly released it in order to flood the Templars' mill. Again a ruling was made to resolve this dispute, but in any case the outcome was short-lived as Mamluk control of the area followed not long after. It is only fair to say that in this case it was perhaps less a matter of faulty intervention, than of the inability of the arbitrators to see that their rulings were enforced.


Certainly the worst case of failed papal intervention was with regard to a dispute in thirteenth century Acre that evolved into a full-scale war known as the War of San Sabas. In 1255 Marcus Iustinianus, the consul of Venice arrived in Acre with a letter which he handed to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, at that time resident in the port city. The letter informed the patriarch that the pope supported Venetian claims to possession of the monastery of San Sabas, a property located within the Genoese quarter of the city. As the Genoese had already presented to the prior of the Hospital a letter of support relating to this same dispute, which apparently had been brewing for some time, and as the monastery lay within their quarter, both sides, not surprisingly became entrenched in their positions, with the expected results. A full scale war broke out, extending over two years (1256-58), involving not only the three Italian communes (Venice, Genoa and Pisa) but the military orders as well, and resulting in considerable damage to the city, loss of life on both sides, the sinking of the Genoese fleet and the exile of their commune to Tyre. More significant, however, was the damage this war caused to the unity of the Franks at the very time their greatest threat was emerging, the rise of the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt that, under the leadership of Baibars, began in the following decade the invasions that would lead to the fall of the mainland crusader states. Once again, and here most substantially, the inability of papal mediation to resolve a dispute between Christian factions, was the cause of irreparable damage.





Quotation from John of Würzburg Description of the Holy Land, in Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, trans. A. Stewart, London 1896, pp. 40-1, 45-6.

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