Traces of Germany in Lebanon
The Minnesinger and the Beautiful Beatrix

© Goethe-Institut, Otto von Bodenlauben

It all sounds like straight out of a fairy tale: a German count – widely known as a minnesinger, the German equivalent of a troubadour – joins a crusade headed for the ‘Holy Land’ where he sweeps a young French countess off her feet (although she had already been promised to another count).

Waere Kristes lôn niht also süze / sô enlieze ich niht der lieben frouwen mîn, /
die ich in mînem herzen dicke grüeze: / si mac vil wol mîn himelrîche sîn, /
swâ diu guote wone al um den Rîn. /
Were Christ’s reward not quite so sweet / I would not leave my darling wife/ 
Whom I warmly greet in my heart: / She can be my heavenly kingdom / 
Wherever the good lady may live along the Rhine.
(Crusade song by Otto von Botenlauben, cited from Hucker, p. 42f.)

Love triumphs, the two marry and ultimately sell the entirety of their estate in Lebanon. They return to Germany, move into his castle and establish a Cistercian abbey – the story of which involves the countess’s veil being blown away by the wind – whose church becomes their final resting place, buried side by side.

This story is no fairy tale; it really happened. Our two protagonists are Otto von Henneberg, who later changed his name to Botenlauben (or ‘Bodenlauben’), after the name of his castle, and Beatrix of Courtenay, heir to the Seigniory of Joscelin. But more on them later.

Anyone in search of the oldest verifiable traces of a German presence in Lebanon will strike gold in looking through the complicated network of lordships and counties established during the crusades. In the 12th and 13th centuries, parts of modern-day Lebanon belonged to two of the so-called Crusader states or their vassals, i.e. followers bound by contract. Lebanon’s southern regions were part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, while the north – the border ran between Beirut and Byblos – belonged to the County of Tripoli. The vassals submitted to the sovereignty of the larger states and provided support, mostly in the form of council and soldiers.

The Principality of Galilee, whose vassals included the county of Beirut, was one of the vassals of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Beirut also had vassals of its own, one of which was the County of Toron, whose eponymous castle, located in the modern-day town of Tebnine, still has a role to play in our tale.

Another of Jerusalem’s vassals was the County of Sidon, which for a time shared a vassal with the Lordship of the Chouf. Intermittently, the Kingdom’s vassals also included the Lordship of Adelon with a castle between Sidon and Tyrus that has not survived, the Lordship of Tyrus and the County of Edessa.

The County of Tripoli contained several fiefdoms, including the most famous of the Crusader castles, Krak des Chevaliers. Many of these fiefdoms were located on Lebanese soil, e.g. Batroun, Gibelacar (Akkar), Gibelet (Byblos) and Le Puy (Mseilha).

The Crusader states, sometimes referred to using the umbrella term ‘Outremer’, arose out of the first Crusade into the ‘Holy Land’, meaning those biblical tracts of land which contained the ‘holy sites’ from which Christianity had spread.

According to Jonathan Riley-Smith, the crusades themselves were above all else “armed pilgrimages waged as an act of penance” and – in contrast to what is often claimed – were not just fought for material gain. Of course, the acquisition and/or trade of relics also played an important role. They brought back to Europe in great numbers, where many of them are still kept in monasteries and churches or their treasure vaults to this day.

Following the defeat of the Byzantine army by the Sultanate of Rûm in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, Christian Europe feared for its ‘holy sites’. Driven by the infamous call to crusade by Pope Urban II. at the Council of Clermont in 1095/96, five major crusades into the ‘Holy Land’ were waged between the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 13th centuries. During and after this era, a number of further ‘crusades’ took place, some of which also had European targets (e.g. still-unchristiansed peoples such as the Slavs).

In addition to the terror inflicted by the military conquests, subsequent generations remembered the crusaders for their raids and pillages on the on the hunt for food and items of value and for the massacre of townspeople in Asia Minor.

Alongside French and English crusaders, those who took up the cross included many noblemen from the Holy Roman Empire, and even some kings (e.g. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, to whom we dedicated an article of his own) and bishops. The army otherwise consisted of a few knights and predominantly simple soldiers and other combatants who were hired as mercenaries. Even simple farmers and their families took part in the crusades.

One epithet, ‘l’Aleman’ (‘the German’) stands out among the crusader names connected to Lebanon. A certain Nicolas l’Aleman, Lord of Caesarea, entered into marriage with the Lady of Beirut, Isabella of Ibelin, in 1276. This was Isabella’s third marriage and as ill-fated as her previous ones – only one year later, Nicolas was murdered as the result of a family feud. The epithet ‘l’Aleman’ indeed refers to Nicolas’s origins in the German-speaking region – his grandfather Werner von Egisheim (who died around 1231), also known as Werner the German or ‘Garnier l’Aleman’, was part of the Egisheim Dynasty (Eguisheim in Alsace).

In the course of the Crusade of Emperor Henry VI in 1197, Count Otto von Botenlauben, who was mentioned earlier, reached Acre. Otto was born in 1177 at Henneberg Castle (located in modern-day Thuringia, right on the border of Lower Franconia) as the son of Würzburg’s Burgrave Poppo VI and Countess Sophia of Andechs-Merania. Poppo himself later took part in the so-called Third Crusade of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa from which he never returned.

His son Otto, who left the world several minnesongs (‘minne’ is a medival German word referring to courtly love), including the lines from his crusade song quoted above, met the Countess Beatrix of Courtenay in Acre – and was clearly smitten. For political reasons, Beatrix, daughter of Joscelin III, had been promised to William de Valance, the brother of the reigning king of Jerusalem, Almarich van Lusignan, when she was still a child. Although love generally played a secondary role in arranged marriages among the nobility of the time, it seems that Beatrix was able to triumph over politics. In any case, she and Otto got married in Acre at the turn of the 13th century. Otto, who subsequently took charge of governing the Seigniory, was of equal standing to Beatrix, being both a count and heir to a manor in Germany. Although the Courtenays had lost the Crusader state of Edessa, they had since then gained a large portion of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the castle of Toron had belonged to them since 1186.

According to Bernd Ulrich Hucker, this castle seems to have made such an impression on the crusaders that many towns and castles established in the 12th and 13th century in the Holy Roman Empire were named after Toron. These include the castle and town of Tharandt near Dresden and the Polish city of Toruń, which was founded by the Teutonic Order. Furthermore, Thurant Castle near Alken on the Moselle with its two keeps can be traced back to the name Toron, as can the former castle (now a stately home) of Thorn near Palzem.

Toron was lost as early as 1187, and so in November 1197, an army under the command of another German, Conrad III of Querfurt (the House of Querfurt nowadays pertains to the castle and city of the same name located in Saxony-Anhalt), and Henry I, Duke of Brabant, lay siege to Toron. In the preceding weeks, the cities of Sidon and Beirut and the region of Gibelet (Byblos) had been reclaimed for the crusaders under the leadership of the former.

Conrad of Querfurt, who served as chancellor to Emperor Henry VI and was already the bishop of Hildesheim at the time, now stood outside Toron – but left the besieging army just before the certain capture of the castle. This caused a state of unrest among the troops. Why would the chancellor, the representative of the Emperor, flee the scene with such haste? The castle walls had been undermined and their collapse was imminent, and negotiations for the peaceful surrender of Toron were even underway. These were being led by the Count Palatine of the Rhine, who was also present at the time. There are several possible reasons for Conrad’s departure: Perhaps he felt that his presence was no longer necessary. Or the news of approaching auxiliary troops sparked his decision. Most likely, however, is that while outside Toron, Conrad received news of the deaths of both Pope Celestine III and Henry VI. This new state of affairs was a serious blow to him politically, as the Emperor’s death also meant the end of his direct appointment as chancellor.

Other participants in the crusade now also had to fear for their positions, rights and lands within the Empire. The siege of Toron was hastily abandoned and the crusade as a whole ground to a halt. The participants hurried back to the Empire in order to have their rights confirmed by Henry’s successor, who had yet to be selected.

To defend his interests, Conrad of Querfurt also set off for home, but not before performing a final important act in Acre. It was largely due to his efforts that the local hospital cooperative was converted into a military order, the so-called Teutonic Order. He then returned to the Empire in the first half of 1198 where King Philip of Swabia, one of the two rivals to be elected as Henry VI’s successor, confirmed his position as chancellor. When the cathedral chapter of Würzburg also elected Conrad to be its bishop, Conrad wanted to hold both bishoprics (Würzburg and Hildesheim), which displeased the new Pope Innocent III. And so Conrad was excommunicated, leading him to renounce both bishoprics, but after a journey to Rome for an act of penance, he was reinstated as the Bishop of Hildesheim. In 1202, he was assassinated on the way to Würzburg Cathedral due to a disagreement with Würzburg officials, an event which is still commemorated with a stone column. Nowadays, Conrad is most of all remembered as the founder of Karlstadt am Main, a town designed in the form of a rectangle in order to defend the territory of Würzburg. A local middle school is named in his honour.

But returning to Otto von Botenlauben: apart from 1205/06, when Otto inherited the castle of Botenlauben, and 1209, when he spent time in Tyrol and presumably also in Brunswick, Otto remained in the ‘Holy Land’ with Beatrix. The two of them joined the Order of Saint John and possibly also the Teutonic Order later on. Following the call for a new crusade by Pope Innocent III, Otto's brother Poppo VII, Count of Henneberg, came to Acre in 1217. In the following year, Poppo returned to Franconia, where Otto had evidently taken charge of affairs in his stead during his absence. Otto most probably returned to Jerusalem where he and Beatrix set to work on selling their estate. With the consent of their son Otto II, they sold the entire estate of the Seigniory of Joscelin – including the parts belonging to Beatrix’s sister Agnes – to the Teutonic Order and embarked for lands foreign to Beatrix. They first took residence at Botenlauben Castle, the ruins of which now sit above Bad Kissingen-Reiterswiesen.

It is quite possible that Otto and Beatrix undertook another pilgrimage to the ‘Holy Land’ between the years of 1234 and 1239. What is certain, however, is the foundation of the Frauenroth Abbey to the north of Bad Kissingen. According to legend, a gust of wind blew away Beatrix’s veil during a stroll not too far from Botenlauben Castle. When women found the veil resting on a rosebush a few days later, Beatrix fulfilled her promise to establish an abbey wherever the veil was recovered and founded the Cistercian abbey of Frauenroth. To finance the construction of the abbey, which started in 1231, the couple initially sold some of their lands and part of Botenlauben Castle to the Bishopric of Würzburg, retaining the right of abode. In 1242 they sold their remaining rights to the castle to the Bishopric and in return received income from their estates. It is quite possible that they spent their twilight years in Würzburg.

Otto is said to have died in early October 1244, shortly before reaching the age of 70. His wife, who was about ten years younger, is presumed to have died the following year. They were interred next to one another in the chapel at Frauenroth Abbey. The abbey buildings no longer exist; all that remains of the church are the Romanesque central nave and the chancel. Located behind the main altar, the tombs of Otto and Beatrix bearing lifelike statues of the couple are in remarkably good repair and of great art historical value. Although the tomb inscriptions were lost, it was possible to reconstruct them using chronicles from the 16th century. However, they mostly consist of blessings and do not contain any significant biographical information about the deceased couple.

Otto is still present in everyday life in Bad Kissingen as a fountain sculpture. His statue adorns the octagonal Botenlauben Fountain on the square in front of the New Town Hall. The inscription running around the fountain’s rim is as follows: “Erected in 1965 in memory / of the crusader and minnesinger / Otto von Bodenlauben / b. 1175 - d. 1244 / from the House of Henneberg / He embodied in his person / the knightly ideals of his day / The Bodenlauben Castle ruin remains / the landmark of Kissingen”.

Another German trail leads to the Teutonic Order, already mentioned in connection with Conrad of Querfurt and Otto von Botenlauben, which was founded fairly late in comparison with the Knights Templar and the Order of Saint John. The Hospital of Saint Mary of the Germans in Jerusalem, established with donations from Frederick VI, Duke of Swabia, in Acre in 1190 in order to tend to participants in the third crusade, was converted into an autonomous foundation at the end of 1196 with the consent from Pope Celestine III. In 1197/98, a religious military order grew out of this foundation – the so-called Teutonic Order. A lack of advocates meant that after just a few years, the order began to reorient itself toward Europe. Initially, it established commanderies (administrative headquarters) in southern Italy and Styria, but remained comparatively weak and without great influence to begin with. Only following the election of Hermann of Salza to Grand Master around 1210 and through his ties to Emperor Frederick II did the Teutonic Order gain a significant amount of power, soon exceeding that of the other orders. With successful campaigns in West Prussia and Livonia, the Order laid the groundwork for its future prosperity in Europe even after the end of the Crusader states in 1291.

As we can see from the example of Otto von Botenlauben, the new order was able to expand its holdings via divestments. For example, Julian Garnier (Julian of Sidon), the last Count of Sidon from 1240-1260, sold the Lordship of the CHouf, which belonged to Sidon, to the Teutonic Order in 1256. This is also how the unique Cave of Tyron near Jezzine (Cavea de Trytum, also known as Fortress of Niha or Qalaʿat an-Nīḥā in Arabic), of which only ruins remain, fell into the hands of the Teutonic Order. However, he failed to hold Tyron/Niha for longer than 1261. Although difficult to conquer with military might, the castle changed hands many times in the course of its history.    

Further reading (selection):

  • Enno Bünz: Ein Reichsbischof der Stauferzeit. Konrad von Querfurt (1194-1202) [An Imperial Bishop During the Hohenstaufen Period. Conrad of Querfurt], in: Würzburger Diözesangeschichtsblätter Vol. 66 (2004), pp. 293-311
  • Philippe Josserand: Der Deutsche Orden [The Teutonic Order], in: Feliciano Novoa Portela / Carlos de Ayala Martínez (eds.): Ritterorden im Mittelalter [Chivalric Orders in the Middle Ages], Stuttgart 2006, pp. 167-193
  • Hans-Jürgen Kotzur (ed.): Die Kreuzzüge. Kein Krieg ist heilig. Katalog zur Ausstellung am Bischöflichen Dom- und Diözesanmuseum Mainz [The Crusades. No War Is Holy. Catalogue for the Exhibition at the Episcopal Cathedral and Diocese Museum in Mainz], Mainz 2004; especially the following articles: Bernd Ulrich Hucker: Das Grafenpaar Beatrix und Otto von Botenlauben und die deutsche Kreuzzugsbewegung [The Countly Couple Beatrix and Otto von Botenlauben and the German Crusade Movement], pp. 22-47; Winfried Wilhelmy: Gestaltungsinterpretationen der Grabfiguren des Grafen Otto von Botenlauben und seiner Gattin Beatrix von Courtenay nach überlieferten Befunden und historischen Vorbildern [Interpretations of the Funerary Statues of Otto von Botenlauben and His Wife Beatrix of Courtenay According to Surviving Records and Historical Models], pp. 318f.; and Brigitte Klein: Grabplatten des Grafen Otto von Botenlauben und seiner Gattin Beatrix von Courtenay [Tomb Slabs for Count Otto von Botenlauben and His Wife Beatrix of Courtenay], pp. 319f.
  • Hans Eberhard Mayer: Die Seigneurie de Joscelin und der Deutsche Orden [The Seigniory of Joscelin and the Teutonic Order], in: Josef Fleckenstein / Manfred Hellmann (ed.): Die geistlichen Ritterorden Europas [The Religious Chivalric Orders of Europe] (Konstanzer Arbeitskreis für Mittelalterliche Geschichte. Vorträge und Forschungen, Vol. 26), Sigmaringen 1980, pp. 171-216
  • Andreas Nette: Konrad von Querfurt und der Kreuzzug Heinrich VI. [Conrad of Querfurt and the Crusade of Henry VI], in: Querfurter Heimatblätter, Vol. 7 (2010), pp. 12-24
  • Jonathan Riley-Smith: The Crusades: A History, 2nd Edition, New Haven, CT 2005