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The image of the assassins in medieval European texts

Meriem Pages, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study traces the representations of the Nizari Isma'ilis, or Assassins, in medieval European texts, a process revealing three different discourses about the sect. I argue that when the crusaders first encountered the Syrian branch of the sect, they sought to enter into an alliance with its members. Early texts discussing the Assassins reflect this desire for an alliance and treat the sect correspondingly. The events at the end of the twelfth century—especially the assassination of Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, newly elected King of Jerusalem—introduce a new way of approaching the sect in Latin Christian histories and chronicles of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. To the historians chronicling the death of Conrad, the sect functions as an instrument in the portrayal, positive or negative, of more significant historical figures such as Richard the Lion-Heart of England, Philip Augustus of France, and Conrad himself. Although the occasion of Conrad's murder did not immediately lead to the rejection of a discourse of alliance in treating the Assassins, this early approach to the sect was eventually replaced by one of exoticization in the thirteenth century. This third and final discourse rose to prominence as the historical Nizaris lost their independence and power, ultimately falling to the Mongols in 1256. As a result of the process of exoticization, the Assassins came to be seen as a “wonder of the East.” The three approaches to the Assassins outlined above did not succeed each other, but rather overlapped and sometimes existed simultaneously. Nonetheless each discourse achieves dominance at a different time. Thus, the discourse of alliance predominates in the early years of the medieval European representation of the sect, but the assassination of Conrad of Montferrat informs the perception and depiction of the Assassins from 1192 to the first third of the thirteenth century. Thereafter the discourse of exoticization becomes the dominant discourse about the Assassins in Latin Christendom, one that continues to influence our understanding of the sect to this day.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|Literature|Middle Ages

Recommended Citation

Pages, Meriem, "The image of the assassins in medieval European texts" (2007). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3275784.