Contracting Leprosy in the Middle Ages wasn't exactly most peoples' idea of a good time. This relatively suck-tastic illness was a debilitating, crippling, at-the-time-incurable plague that causes permanent, irreparable damage to the skin, nerves, limbs, eyes, and balls. As if it wasn't exciting enough that your balls could drop off at any moment, you could also look forward to being covered with sores that alternated between being completely, stab-me-with-a-knife numb or incredibly painful, exhibiting large open wounds that don't heal properly (if at all), and being prone to bouts where your arms and legs become flaccid, jelly-like, and unusable. Eventually this muscular uselessness becomes permanent, and then just when you think it can't get any worse you go blind and die. Sweet. For the vast majority of European Crusader knights living in the 12th century Middle East, Leprosy came with a prognosis that included a priest, a pine box, and Fallout-style exile into the desert wastes. For Baldwin IV, the Leper King of Jerusalem, it was merely another seemingly-insurmountable obstacle that needed to be bitch-slapped into submission by the unrelenting backhand of his massive, disfigured leprous scrotum.
Born in Jerusalem in 1161, Baldwin was tutored during his childhood by a famous dude named William of Tyre. This is significant because William wasn't just some chump with a GED from some unaccredited Southeast Asian learning academy and a home-made teaching certificate – he was actually the goddamned Archbishop of Tyre, one of the greatest intellectual minds of the Middle Ages, and a crazy bastard who had spent twenty years studying mind-crushingly complex bullcrap at universities and monasteries across Europe. William also ended up writing what is now known as the only –and therefore definitive – contemporary history of the Crusader Kingdoms of the 12th century, which is pretty sweet because being the only gig in town allowed him to tweak the facts however he saw fit, and nobody out there could talk trash about how he was full of shit or anything. William trained Baldwin in the fine art of ruling a kingdom, not being a total douchebag, and responding to any threats to his power by jumping into the air and front-kicking peoples' teeth into their brains so hard that they'd need a lobotomy to obtain the dental records required identify the body. It was William who first discovered Baldwin's unfortunate Leprous tendencies – the young prince had been playing with his buddies, and when one of the kids gave him a really nasty Indian burn Baldwin didn't even act like he gave a crap and just whapped the kid in the eye by swinging a live alligator like a baseball bat. At first, William just thought that this kid was just well on his way to becoming a totally emotionless badass, but it turned out that he actually just had leprosy instead. Sometimes it’s a fine line between being a badass and having debilitating nerve damage, and apparently that line happens to be made out of a bacteria known as Mycrobacterium leprae. Go figure.
A leprous skull.
If you want the full effect of this horrific disease,
try running a Google Image Search for it sometime.
Baldwin was proclaimed King of Jerusalem in 1174 at the age of 13, and by his 15th birthday he had assumed full power over the throne. The young King was smart, dedicated, well-educated, and totally pumped up about doing a bunch of awesome kingly things like eating feasts, yelling at wenches, and jousting lions with magical lances made out of dragon bones, but unfortunately he was also subject to that pesky crippling disease that often left him feeling like he'd just been used as a human speed bump by a convoy of semis. It also didn't help his efficiency or his morale that he was always surrounded by opportunistic jackasses constantly jockeying for position and seeking to take over as ruler once he eventually died a lonely, agonizingly painful, premature death, either. As a result, much of this poor guy's time was dedicated to fighting off power plays and doing other stupid bullshit that generally didn't involve jamming swords through peoples' torsos, which kind of sucked a satchel of dicks. I should note that it worked out alright for Baldwin's sister, however – once it became common knowledge that the man she married would end up being the King of Jerusalem in the relatively-near future, she immediately became pretty much the hottest piece of ass in the Levant. She ended up marrying a dude named William Longsword, so you can draw your own conclusions from that.
Well Baldwin IV wasn’t going to go off and start digging his own grave just because he had a debilitating terminal illness or whatever – this hardass was determined to make the most of the time he had, live hard, and have a tombstone with some badass shit written on it, and it wasn't long before he got the opportunity to make his mark on history. In 1177, the great Muslim hero Salah al-Din came rolling into town to fuck some crusader shit up, and the 16 year-old Baldwin suddenly found himself in a prime position to get his face violently rearranged by one of history's all-time toughest and most badassed military commanders. The mighty Saladin has now made a name for himself as being the guy who almost single-handedly ruined the crusaders' beach party in the Middle East by turning all of their most powerful and toughest knights into large heaping piles of rotting corpses, and squaring off against this guy on the field of battle was about as appealing as the prospect of getting kicked in the crotch by a donkey or using a Taco Bell restroom. Well, our friend Baldwin had spent his entire life looking the Grim Reaper right in his stupid punk face, and he wasn't about to start soiling his armor now. The King raised a large army, prepared for battle, and recruited the help of his good buddies the Knights Templar to help him turn back the invading forces.
When they weren't praying or clubbing people in the face with a mallet,
the Templars spent most of their time just standing around looking tough.
Of course, Saladin was like the Gary Kasparov of military strategy, and his initial invasion plan was so brilliant that it left the crusaders looking like a couple of monkeys trying to hump a football. First, he feinted at Gaza, and a large number of the Templar Knights all started reinforcing their positions there. Next, Saladin did an around-end and headed towards the fortress city of Ascalon – an easily-defensible position that Baldwin was eager to snap up and start fortifying. This was just a head fake as well, and as soon as Saladin boxed Baldwin in by completely surrounding Ascalon with a small force he just whipped around and led the main body of his army after his true goal: Jerusalem – a city so incredibly holy that people have been violently killing each other over it for like two millennia.
At this point things were looking kind of bleak for our hero. He was outmanned, outsmarted, surrounded, and was now trapped inside a stupid, useless fortress while his nemesis was out there capturing undefended cities and blitzing towards the seat of European power in the Middle East. This was shitty, sure, but as I've said before Baldwin wasn't the sort of guy who just gave up and called it quits every time he was stuck in a morbidly depressing, hopeless situation. This grim warrior-king sacked up, cracked his knuckles so hard it broke off one of his fingers, assembled a dedicated force of just 500 Knights Templar, and rode out to save his Kingdom from conquest at the hands of Saladin's seemingly-invincible armies.
It was kind of like this, only not really.
Baldwin and his men crashed through the besieging Muslim lines like a wrecking ball whacking down the pins at a bowling alley, and hauled ass for Jerusalem like Lando Calrissian gunning the Millenium Falcon through the exploding, crumbling remains of the second Death Star. He somehow kicked it into Ludicrous Speed, went plaid across the land, and inexplicably managed to catch up with Saladin's army in a narrow ravine a mere 45 miles from the gates of Jerusalem.
Saladin had pretty much figured he had the Crusaders by the balls at this point, and in his haste to send the Europeans crying back home to their mamas he fucked up and forgot to keep an eye out for insane lepers hauling ass at Mach3.5 across the countryside. Baldwin and his Templars caught the once-unbeatable tactician completely by surprise, and before Saladin's men had even had a chance to figure out their swords from their dicks the young Leper King was leading a massive charge of cavalry all the way up their assholes.
Think about this for a minute. On most days, Baldwin IV was barely able to stand – let alone take on the most powerful army in the world – but on the battlefield at Mont Gisard, he got so ripshit pumped up out of his mind about doing one completely fucking aweseome thing with his life that he did what seemed impossible and served as an inspiration to every man around him. The once-feeble King was out there in front of the host of warriors, his hands and arms wrapped in bandages in an unsuccessful attempt to lessen the searing pain shooting through his body as he gripped his blade, as he spurred his horse on, leading a charge of 500 knights (and a few thousand local infantry) against an army of 26,000 battle-hardened veteran soldiers. The people who witnessed this got so ridiculously jacked that they each fought like a fucking roid-raging Yetis on PCP, swinging their blades at the unprepared invaders like cheesy 1980s slasher-movie villains assaulting a sorority house. The crusaders suffered heavy losses – over 2,000 casualties were reported in the aftermath – but in the process Baldwin IV and his knights somehow managed to snatch victory from the asshole of defeat and inflict the most devastating defeat the Invincible Saladin would ever suffer. Saladin's army was annihilated, many of his personal bodyguards were killed, and the great commander was lucky to escape the carnage with his life. He returned home to Egypt with fewer than a thousand survivors still under his command.
For his insane bravery on the field of Montgisard, Baldwin became a hero among his people almost overnight. He was made out as the savior of Christendom, the defender of the faith, and a superhuman man who had overcome a crippling illness to epically rock the face of the Crusader Kingdoms' greatest enemy.
The crusaders were not able to capitalize on their impossible victory, and I should of course mention that in true badass fashion Saladin would return, destroy a Templar stronghold, capture Jerusalem, and make all of the Christian Kingdoms his bitch, but that's a tale from a different story. As for Baldwin, his illness got progressively worse, to the point where he was paralyzed and blind and needed to be carried around in a litter, and he eventually died in 1185 at the age of 24. Despite his short, tragic life, the chroniclers of the time will always remember his bravery in the defense of Jerusalem in 1177.
Google Fact Sheet on Leprosy
Hamilton, Bernard. The Leper King and His Heirs. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005.
Howarth, Steven. The Knights Templar. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1991.
Lane-Poole, Stanley. Saladin. Putnam, 1906.
Madden, Thomas F. The New Concise History of the Crusades. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
Tyerman, Christopher. God's War. Harvard Univ. Press, 2006.