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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Unluckiest Man

Recent excavations in the city of Pompeii uncovered the skeleton of a man who appeared to have been decapitated by a large stone. He was promptly given the title “Pompeii’s Unluckiest Man”. Subsequently it was realised that the decapitation was caused not by the stone, and not at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, but was in fact post-mortem, and was caused subsidence when a tunnel had been excavated beneath the skeleton in the eighteenth century. Apparently, like the other dead in Pompeii, he had been asphyxiated by the pyroclastic flow. So, it would seem that the title he had been given, which in some of the popular press was pumped up to "the Unluckiest Man in the World" was undeserved. He was certainly unlucky, but one must ask whether, if he had indeed been decapitated by a rock, that would have made him unluckier than his unfortunate fellows who had died from asphyxia? Perhaps not. It might have been luckier to suffer an immediate and unexpected death by decapitation rather than a slow and perhaps more painful one of asphyxiation. For the title "World's Unluckiest Man" there must be others more worthy. But, when attaching such prodigious designations, one has to be careful to consider all the facts and points of view. Take the case of Frane Selak, a Croatian man who experienced excessive bad, or perhaps good luck. On one occasion he was travelling in a train that fell into a river. On another he was blown out of a malfunctioning plane door and landed on a haystack. He was in a bus that skidded off the road into a river, was twice in cars that caught fire and blew up, was struck by a bus, and was ejected from a car when the door flew open. But even with this litany of disasters, the title "unluckiest" is not necessarily an accurate one. After all, he did survive all these events, while many other people involved in them were killed or injured, and what is more, he went on to win US$1,110,000 in the lottery. So perhaps he more rightly should be referred to as "the Worlds Luckiest Man".

To whom might we assign the title "the unluckiest man of the crusades"? There are many contenders. Perhaps Stephen of Blois, that hesitant and somewhat browbeaten crusader who turned back from the lengthy siege Antioch shortly before the city fell. Stephen's return home in 1098 was quite possibly not the shameful and cowardly act that it was represented as being. He may simply have believed that, as the city was about to fall he had fulfilled his commitment. But others who returned had painted such a gloomy picture of the situation that they, and Stephen among them, were regarded as deserters. He came home to face his wife Adela's rebukes, and he missed the opportunity to participate in the conquest not only of Antioch, but of Jerusalem itself. Facing such condemnation he had no choice but to set off again, tail between his legs, to participate in the so-called Crusade of the Faint-Hearted of 1101, during which he had his only bit of luck in being killed at the Second Battle of Ramla the following year, thereby putting to rest any further criticism of not having fulfilled his crusader vows.

But perhaps a better candidate for the title "unluckiest crusader" was Guy de Lusignan. Guy is best known as the man who lost a kingdom, and one cannot question his being largely responsible for what constituted the greatest crusader defeat at the Battle of Hattin in July 1187. The thing is, it was such a monumental disaster for the Christians that the two positive things that Guy subsequently did are hardly remembered. For it was Guy who instigated the siege of Acre that would be led to its ultimate success by Richard I of England and Philip II of France. The recovery of Acre in July 1191 was undoubtably the single greatest achievement of the Third Crusade. It enabled the Frankish presence in the Levant to survive for another century. His second accomplishment was the establishment of a new kingdom and dynasty on the island of Cyprus that was to last until 1489. This allowed the Franks to retain their presence in the eastern Mediterranean for an additional two centuries after Acre fell in 1291. In short, Guy played a substantial role in extending the crusading era for three hundred years, no small achievement perhaps, and one that, had he not been responsible for nearly losing it in the first place, might have gained for him a rather better place the pages of history.

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