Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Kingdom Divided

 In his introduction to Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom: The Battle of Hattin and the Loss of Jerusalem W.B Bartlett writes

During the latter decades of the twelfth century, Outremer was sleepwalking to disaster. Seemingly oblivious to the dangers of a resurgent Islam, the kingdom began to split apart. The nobles who governed with the king sought to outmaneuver one another, seeking to raise themselves up and bring their political opponents down.

This is by no means an isolated view, and most modern fiction about the period has followed the portrayal whether it is Cecilia Holland’s Jerusalem in which, according to the New York Times review, she brings to life the “atmosphere of conspiracy, betrayal…and political intrigue….” or Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” in which the fictional Tiberius condemns the struggles for power and land that he claims corrupted the ideals of the Holy City.
I question this interpretation.

The character of Tiberius, loosely based on Raymond of Tripoli, in the film "The Kingdom of Heaven."

But let’s be realistic. There has never been a kingdom or state that has been entirely without factions — not even totalitarian dictatorships.  To expect a state to have perfect harmony and unity is not merely idealistic, it is naive. Where there is power, there will be differences of opinion on policy, and where there are competing policy options there will be factions — usually aggravated by personalities, rivalries and the prospect of personal gain associated with proximity to power or the execution of one policy over another.

It is, in short, absurd to expect the Kingdom of Jerusalem to be without factions supporting competing policies.  Whether these can be divided into “hawks” and “doves” or “insiders” and “outsiders” is not the issue here. The fact is that the mere presence of advisors advocating competing policies and/or even passionate rivalry between powerful noblemen in a medieval kingdom is neither unusual nor inherently self-destructive.

The question is whether the divisions within the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the second half of the twelfth century mortally crippled the kingdom to the point where the threat posed by Salah-ad-Din was ignored.  Let's look at the historical record.
The Arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

Although it is safe to say that no kingdom on earth would have welcomed the ascension of a man suffering from leprosy, the High Court of Jerusalem took no longer than usual to recognize Baldwin IV as his father’s heir.  Furthermore, a powerful regent was rapidly installed who peacefully surrendered the keys to the kingdom to the leper prince when he turned fifteen. No sign of exceptionally destructive factions here, despite the explosive situation of a leper boy being heir to the throne.

Just a little over a year after Baldwin IV came of age, the Kingdom of Jerusalem faced the first full-scale invasion led by Salah-ad-Din.  The Count of Tripoli, the Hospitallers and hundreds of other knights from the Kingdom were at the time laying siege to Hama in Syria; Salah-ad-Din invaded from Egypt and immediately invested Ascalon. It was a very dangerous situation. The sixteen-year-old king, with no experience of battle whatsoever, gathered his forces — some 376 knights — and rode to the relief of Ascalon. He then broke out of Ascalon, met up with a Templar force from Gaza and called up the army of Jerusalem. And they came. At Montgisard, under Baldwin IV’s personal leadership, the Christian army dealt Salah-ad-Din a devastating and humiliating defeat. The bulk of the Saracen army was killed or captured, and Salah-ad-Din barely escaped on a pack camel. Nothing about this suggests a kingdom divided against itself — nor blind to the threat posed by Salah-ad-Din.

A Depiction of Montgisard, Copyright Fireforge Games

The very next year, King Baldwin ordered the construction of a castle at Jacob’s Ford — a clear indication that he recognized the threat posed by the Kurdish leader. Two years later, during the next invasion by Salah-ad-Din, Baldwin again successfully mustered his forces and successfully broke the Saracen vanguard.  Unfortunately, the Templars (who were not under Baldwin’s command) were routed by Salah-ad-Din’s main forces at the same time. When the Templars fell back, the entire Christian army withdrew. While the Templars lack of coordination is certainly to be condemned, it has nothing to do with internal rivalries or factions among the barons of Outremer.

The first hint of serious internal divisions surfaces in 1180. According to William Archbishop of Tyre, who was chancellor to Baldwin IV and so not only a contemporary but an insider, Baldwin IV’s illness had taken a dramatic turn for the worse by this time. It was clear, therefore, that the crown of Jerusalem would pass through Baldwin’s older sister Sibylla to whoever her husband might be; Sibylla in 1180 was a twenty-year-old widow. 

Sibylla as depicted in Ridley Scott's "The Kingdom of Heaven"

For whatever reasons (and they are controversial), the Baron of Ramla and Mirabelle with the backing of the Count of Tripoli and the Prince of Antioch considered himself the best candidate for Sibylla’s hand, but Sibylla — with or without her brother’s consent — married a young French noblemen of dubious character, Guy de Lusignan. 

Now Guy de Lusignan was a younger son with no title or wealth, and, more important, he had allegedly been expelled from the realm and territories of Baldwin IV’s first cousin, Henry II Plantagenet, for killing the Earl of Salisbury by stabbing him in the back.  Not a very savory character, to say the least, and I submit it is entirely understandable that the barons of Jerusalem did not think him a suitable man to become their liege lord — not to mention be crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and wear a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorns…..

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem today.

And yet! The uproar did not tear the country apart. To be sure, Ramla refused to do homage to the new Count of Jaffa (the title given by Baldwin to his sister’s husband) — but he still brought his troops to muster at each of the subsequent invasions by Salah-ad-Din — as did the other barons. Admittedly, in 1182 during the full-scale invasion that led to the battle at La Forbelet, Baldwin IV was still personally in command of the army, leading from a litter. But a year later, in September 1183, Baldwin IV had officially abdicated his authority, retaining only the title of King, the city of Jerusalem and an annual income of 10,000 gold pieces, while naming Guy de Lusignan regent.  Yet the barons of Jerusalem all mustered — even Tripoli and Antioch and Ramla. It was allegedly the largest army ever mustered by the crusader kingdoms. Indeed, the force was so big that Salah-ad-Din preferred not to give battle and withdrew to lay siege to the castle of Kerak on his way home to Egypt instead.

View from Kerak Castle today.

Nevertheless, something happened here that has escaped the pages of history. William of Tyre had been passed over for the post of patriarch and apparently lost his insider knowledge. He was to die shortly afterward, and with him, we lost our window into what was happening inside the Kingdom of Jerusalem at this crucial moment. But one thing is clear, the barons of Jerusalem refused to go to the relief of Kerak under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan. Baldwin IV — whether reluctantly or furiously — dismissed him from the regency and had himself dragged in a litter all the way to Kerak with his army around him. Salah-ad-Din abandoned the siege rather than face the leper in a liter across a battlefield.

Baldwin IV returned from Kerak determined to find a way to dissolve his sister’s marriage to Guy de Lusignan. Why? Regardless of possible personal slights, the most obvious reason is simply that the barons of Outremer, who had rallied readily enough in September of 1183, were by November of the same year not prepared to follow Lusignan. Baldwin IV knew he could not leave his kingdom in the hands of a man who did not command the respect of the barons. 

So here is a dangerous rift — but hardly one in which the kingdom is “sleepwalking to disaster.” Baldwin IV was obviously acutely aware of the danger. He sent out a desperate, indeed almost pathetic, plea to the most powerful Christian monarchs, the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of France, and the King of England, to come to Jerusalem’s aid. He offered whichever Western monarch would come to the defense of Outremer the keys to the Tower of David, effectively offering to abdicate — and bypassing both his sisters — turn the crown over to whoever would pick up the burden of defending Jerusalem.

The Tower of David in the Citadel of Jerusalem

Baldwin IV’s appeal went unheeded, and so to prevent Guy de Lusignan from becoming king Baldwin had his nephew, Sibylla’s son by her first husband, crowned in his own lifetime as Baldwin V. At Baldwin IV’s death, the crown passed seamlessly to Baldwin V and the Count of Tripoli was named regent by the High Court of Jerusalem. Again, there is amazing unity here.

Unfortunately, Baldwin V died within a year. Defying Baldwin IV’s wishes and without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem, Sibylla had herself crowned Queen of Jerusalem and then placed the crown on her husband’s head as her consort.  This was a clear “coup d’etat,” a usurpation of the throne. And here — in the summer of 1186 — the Kingdom started to crack.  Faced with a usurpation, a number of barons considered crowning a rival king, the husband of Baldwin IV’s younger sister, Isabella. But the young man, Humphrey de Toron, rejected the role of rival-king and paid homage to Guy de Lusignan.  So, reluctantly, did all the other barons with two notable exceptions.

The key here is that despite a clear case of usurpation, the danger of division was fully recognized. Humphrey de Toron must be credited with putting the well-being of the kingdom ahead of his personal ambitions, and the bulk of the other barons likewise swallowed their distaste of Lusignan and did homage. The two exceptions were the Baron of Ramla, Guy de Lusignan’s erstwhile rival for the hand of Sibylla, and the Count of Tripoli. Ramla took the unprecedented course of turning his entire inheritance over to his younger brother, Balian d’Ibelin, and leaving the kingdom, never to be heard of again. Tripoli simply withdrew to his own territories and concluded a separate peace with Salah-ad-Din.

This was an act that can best be described by the German term “Landesverrat.” In contrast to “Hochverrat” (treason against the state or government), Landesverrat is treason against the nation. Tripoli might have legally been correct not recognize Guy de Lusignan as his overlord, but by allying himself with the man who had vowed to drive the Christians from the Holy Land, he hurt more than King Guy, he hurt all the crusader states and their inhabitants.

The Sea of Galilee, part of Raymond de Tripoli's lands by right of his wife.

King Guy threatened to invade Tripoli’s territories and “force” his submission, but the rest of the Christian leadership — from the Grand Masters of the Military Orders to the Patriarch of Jerusalem — recognized that this was suicidal in the face of Salah-ad-Din’s threat. No one was stumbling blindly to destruction here except, perhaps the two embittered protagonists themselves!  

Guy was prevailed upon to send mediators instead of troops. The Masters of the militant orders, the Archbishop of Tyre and two leading barons, including Balian d’Ibelin, whose brother had been such an inveterate opponent of King Guy, were sent to Tripoli to effect a reconciliation between Tripoli and King Guy. They were ultimately successful.

When Salah-ad-Din again invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Raymond de Tripoli was among the commanders who mustered, bringing with him one of the largest contingents of troops. His voice in the war councils was a voice of reason, but it went unheeded. Despite this — and unlike the fictional characters of Tiberias and Balian d’Ibelin in “The Kingdom of Heaven,” when Guy de Lusignan marched the Christian army out onto the Horns of Hattin, he led the entire army of Jerusalem including Tripoli and Ibelin. To destruction.

In retrospect, perhaps more division would have served the Christian kingdom better. If Raymond de Tripoli (with the men of Tripoli and Galilee) and Balian d’Ibelin (with the troops of Nablus, Ramla, Mirabelle, and Ibelin) had not been at Hattin, the Kingdom — or at least Jerusalem — might have been defensible even after this devastating defeat. But no one believed that the combined forces of Jerusalem could be so poorly led that they would be obliterated by the same man the Leper King had forced to withdraw on no less than five occasions. And had Tripoli and Ibelin failed to muster, they would have been blamed for the defeat. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Guy de Lusignan alone lost Jerusalem. 

My award-winning biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th Century.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

William Marshal in the Holy Land: Part II

Last week I summarized the known facts about the English medieval hero William Marshal and his two-year-long pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Today I pick up his story by looking at the context of Marshal's pilgrimage and what he found in the Holy Land.

The Crusader Kingdoms were defended by a network of castles such as this: Krak de Chevalliers -- albeit at William's time Krak did not yet have it's outermost wall.

Marshall most probably reached the Holy Land, travelling by either land or sea, in the spring of 1184. If he spent two years there he departed at the latest in the autumn of 1186.

Those two years were years of dramatic change in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the one hand, the Muslims, which had long been bitterly divided between the Sunnis loyal to the Caliph of Baghdad and the Shiites of the Fatimid Caliphate, had been united under the strong and charismatic Kurdish leader Salah ad-Din.  Saladin, as he is known in western writings, had called for jihad, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was more threatened than it had been since the early years of its existence. At the same time, the Kingdom was weakened from within because the king, Baldwin IV, was suffering from leprosy and slowly dying. His heir was a young boy, the son of his sister Sibylla, by her first husband.

Not long after William Marshal arrived in Jerusalem a delegation headed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Grand Masters of the Templars and Hospitallers was dispatched by King Baldwin to the West. The delegation carried with it the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the keys to the Tower of David: effectively the symbolic keys to the kingdom. The three men sought first the aid of Philip II of France and then Henry II of England, begging the later to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, turn his Western Kingdom over to his adult and capable heir, and take up the cause of Christendom by defending the Holy Land. If he would not do that, the delegation pleaded, then he should send one of his sons in his stead.  One has to wonder if this was pure coincidence of timing, or if William Marshal, who knew the Plantagenets so well had not recommended – or at least encouraged – the appeal.

Meanwhile, Baldwin IV, in anticipation of his death, made his vassals vow an oath with regard to the succession.  If his nephew did not live to manhood and sire heirs of his own, they were to send to the Kings of France and England and to the Pope, who were then to jointly name a successor. Baldwin IV expressly excluded his sister Sybilla and her second husband from the succession.  

In the summer 1185, in the midst of Marshal’s stay in the Holy Land, Baldwin IV died.  His nephew was crowned Baldwin V, and the High Court of Jerusalem chose Raymond of Tripoli, an able and experienced man, as his regent. Tripoli immediately secured a new truce with Salah ad-Din.

Baldwin V, however, was sickly, and in August 1185, with Marshal still in the Holy Land, he died. The regent and the High Court of Jerusalem met in Tiberius to deal with the interregnum, but the dead king’s mother and her husband staged a coup. Sibylla had herself crowned Queen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and placed the second crown on her husband’s head as her consort. Her second husband was a certain Guy de Lusignan, the younger son of a Poitivin baron and possibly an accomplice in the murder of Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, William Marshal’s uncle.

The murder of Patrick of Salisbury had been a highly significant episode in William Marshal’s young life. As a landless knight in his uncle’s entourage, he had been escorting Queen Eleanor through her own territories, when they were attacked by the Lusignan brothers, then in rebellion against her. Accounts vary on which of the Lusignans was present (there were four brothers: Hugh, Geoffrey, Aimery and Guy), but there is no disagreement on how the Earl of Salisbury was killed.  Namely, he was pierced from behind by a lance when both unarmored and not defending himself.  This was clearly an “unchivalrous” blow, a despicable act, that outraged the young William Marshal.  William himself was severely wounded in the encounter, taken captive, and ill-treated by the Lusignans.

Given this history, it is hard to imagine that William Marshal was partial to Guy de Lusignan, whether he had been personally responsible for the Earl of Salisbury’s murder or not.  (Indeed, it may have been his opposition to Guy de Lusignan that inspired him to suggest the above mission to Henry II – assuming he had anything to do with it.) Furthermore, Sibylla and Guy’s coup preempted the rights of Henry II, Marshal’s liege, who should have been involved in naming the next King of Jerusalem.  Marshal must have been appalled by their behavior, and it would probably have reinforced his dislike for the Lusignans. Since Marshal appears to have left the Holy Land not long after Lusignan’s usurpation of the throne, it is probably fair to postulate that it was Lusignan’s rise to power that induced Marshal to quit
The Holy Land.

This hypothesis is supported by the fact that William appears to have spent his years in the Holy Land as one of the many secular knights who temporarily served with the Templars.  These knights did not take the final vows of poverty and chastity, but for the period of the voluntary service, submitted themselves to the discipline and Rule of the Knights Templar.  Indeed, in William’s case we know that he vowed to join the Temple – as he eventually did. The timing, however, is significant. The Grand Master of the Templars, who had been sent to plead with Henry II to come to the Holy Land, had died during his mission and had been replaced by a man who supported Guy de Lusignan.  So Marshal’s decision not to take his final vows and stay with the Templars in their hour of need, may have had to do with his unwillingness to serve Guy de Lusignan, leaving it to his deathbed to finally join the Templars.

An illustration from Matthew Paris’ “Greater Chronicle” depicting Knights Templar.

We will never know, but Marshal’s very silence to his household and family about this episode in his life suggests that he left the Holy Land with a bitter taste in his mouth – or opinions he felt he should best keep to himself.

William Marshal makes a "guest" appearance in award-winning Defender of Jerusalem.

Biographies of William Marshal available today include:

·         William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England, by Sidney Painter, 1933.
·         William Marshal, Flower of Chivalry, George Duby, 1985.
·         William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, by David Crouch, 2002.
·         William Marshal Earl of Pembroke, by Catherine Armstrong, 2007

Recommended works of historical fiction featuring William Marshal:

·   Christian Balling’s Champion is delightful, but it only covers a tiny slice of Marshal’s life. 
·   Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, and Templar Silks are well-researched and well-written tributes to William Marshal.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

William Marshal and the Holy Land: Part I

Yesterday I reviewed a novel by Elizabeth Chadwick that imagines what the famous English knight William Marshal encountered during his two years in the Holy Land on the eve of the Battle of Hattin. Today I summarize the historical record -- what we know about Marshal and his pilgrimage.
Marshal loved and excelled at tournaments, depicted here in a 13th century German manuscript.

William Marshal has gone down in English history as one of the most famous non-royal heroes of the Middle Ages. He was famed even in his lifetime as one of the greatest knights of a knightly age and a “flower of chivalry.”

His story is better than fiction. If his biography were not so well documented, it would be easy to dismiss the stories about him as pure invention. But William Marshal really existed, and he really rose from being a landless knight to regent of England by his merits. Even his wife, through whom he became a magnate of the realm, was won by his prowess and loyalty, for he was granted the rich heiress by the dying Henry II as a reward for his decades of service to the Plantagenets.  The grant was confirmed by Richard I to secure Marshal’s loyalty in the future. But in addition to being a paragon of chivalry, Marshal was typical of his generation in that he was also a faithful son of the Holy Catholic Church. On his deathbed he renounced the world and took vows as a monk, a Templar monk, and was buried in the Temple in London.

Tomb of a Knight in the Temple of London, sometimes identified as William Marshal

He also went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Because Marshal was such a famous knight and powerful figure at the time of his death, his eldest son commissioned a poem to record his life for posterity.  The poem is nineteen thousand nine hundred and fourteen verses long, and it is a remarkable document in itself, both lively and evocative.  Perhaps even more astonishing, the poem identifies sources and distinguishes between hear-say and verifiable fact, points out when sources are contradictory, and recounts many events at first hand, stating explicitly “this I have seen” in many places. The latter suggests that the author was an intimate of William Marshal, or at least a trusted member of his household. This document, otherwise so rich in detail, however, tells us almost nothing about Marshal’s stay in the Holy Land.

What we do know is that William Marshal was bequeathed the crusader cross – the vow to go to Jerusalem and pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – by his liege Henry the Young King. Henry had taken crusader vows sometime in 1182 or 1183 – which did not stop him from sacking churches and monasteries to pay his mercenaries. William Marshal appears to have been a witness – if not a participant – in the sack of Rocamadour, at which the Young King stole the sword of Roland and much other treasure.  Returning from this disgraceful act, the Young King fell abruptly ill. In a high fever and fearing for his soul at last, he sent messengers to his father begging for forgiveness, and turned over his mantle with the crusader cross over to William Marshal.  He begged Marshal to fulfil his vow in his stead, then lay on a bed of ashes with a noose around his neck and died. It was June 11, 1183.

Medieval depiction of a Crusader

According to Marshal’s biographer, William spent “two years” in Syria, serving the King of Jerusalem, doing great deeds of arms and winning the respect of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. However, he was back in Europe by 1187, months before the devastating Battle of Hattin, and he brought with him two white, silk shrouds for his own burial.  He also returned having vowed to join the Knights Templar before his own death.

Those are the only known facts we have about William Marshal in the Holy Land, but even these facts are intriguing. Next week I will explore the the context of Marshal's pilgrimage.

William Marshal makes a "guest" appearance in award-winning Defender of Jerusalem.

Biographies of William Marshal available today include:

·         William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England, by Sidney Painter, 1933.
·         William Marshal, Flower of Chivalry, George Duby, 1985.
·         William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, by David Crouch, 2002.
·         William Marshal Earl of Pembroke, by Catherine Armstrong, 2007

Recommended works of historical fiction featuring William Marshal:

·   Christian Balling’s Champion is delightful, but it only covers a tiny slice of Marshal’s life. 
·   Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, and Templar Silks are well-researched and well-written tributes to William Marshal.

REVIEW: Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick
Final reflections on William Marshal by his Biographer

While some may object to me calling Chadwick a “biographer,” Chadwick’s books on William Marshal are an example of how a novelist dedicated to history and respectful of her subject can help readers understand historical characters better than any history book or non-fiction biography.  Yes, as novels, much is invented, but because nothing contradicts or distorts the historical record, these inventions serve to fill in blanks, explain actions, and help the reader see and understand her subject better.

Because we know nothing about what Marshal did in the Holy Land beyond the rough dates of his trip and the fact that he promised himself to the Templars during that sojourn, Chadwick had near complete freedom in imagining this short episode in Marshal’s life. She used it to good purpose to explain the things we do know about Marshal.  She does this masterfully by telling the story in retrospect, as Marshal prepares to take his Templar vows and die.

To best enjoy this book, the reader must understand this context. This is not a book about the Holy Land on the eve of Hattin. It does not attempt to depict, analyze or explain the personalities and events leading to the near total collapse of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This is a book about how William Marshal’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem shaped the rest of his life.

Chadwick is at her best describing Marshal himself.  The opening scenes with Henry the Young King are very powerful as well, and his relationship his younger brother Ancel also convincing and compelling. The over-arching theme of sin, regret, and redemption is very well interwoven into the fabric of the novel and adds great authenticity to a book set in a period when men and women were genuinely pious.  Likewise, the Templars are realistically depicted as men of God, not cartoon musclemen, sinister secret-holders, or practitioners of the occult. I also liked the fact that Chadwick gave the Patriarch of Jerusalem contours and nuance, while Guy de Lusignan and Sibylla were shown as flawed but believable individuals. The occasional slip up (the arms of Jerusalem are gold on white, not gold on blue ― that is Hollywood invention) were insignificant beside an overall sense of authenticity.

Yet for all this, I can’t quite give this book full marks because I feel it fell short of what it could have been.  There were many repetitive scenes, always from the same perspective with the same content (passionate sex followed by a fight of some sort), which did not significantly move the narrative forward. It felt as if the author was marking time. Marshal spent roughly two years in the Holy Land and she couldn’t really imagine what he was doing all that time, so he does the same thing for chapter after chapter.  The other weakness of the book is that because Chadwick follows the popular fashion (rapidly becoming a dogma) of not changing points-of-view the reader never understands the female protagonist, Paschia. She remains a fa├žade, or worse, a device for explaining Marshal. Because she was seen only from the outside and Marshal is himself unsure what she feels and things, it is impossible for the reader to connect with her and understand her. Although less essential to the overall impact of the novel, it would have been far more interesting and enlightening if the reader had been allowed inside Ancel’s head or Asmaria’s as well. In the end, seeing Marshal only through Marshal’s eyes is, in my opinion, a lost opportunity to bring him better to life by enabling others to share their views of him with us.    

Marshall has a cameo role in award-winning Defender of Jerusalem.

                                                            Buy now!                                         

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Crusader Society Re-Visited: Rural Knights Living in Harmony with the Local Christian Population

For the better part of the 20th century, Frankish society in the Holy Land was depicted as a decadent urban elite, collecting rents from oppressed native farmers. Allegedly, the Franks were afraid to venture into the hostile environment of the countryside, not only because of an “ever-present” Saracen threat but also because they were hated by their own tenants and subjects. Some historians such as Joshua Prawer did not hesitate to draw parallels between Frankish rule in Palestine/Syria and apartheid in South Africa. 

Yet such conclusions, no matter how superficially convincing or confidently proclaimed, have been rendered obsolete by the meticulous studies and archaeological surveys conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. What follows is a short summary of the findings of these studies.  

In his seminal work Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Ellenblum, Ronnie. Cambridge University Press, 1998) Professor Ellenblum has catalogued the findings of meticulous (indeed tedious) study of legal documents recording the demarcation and/or sale and settlement of disputes over landed property combined with an intensive archaeological survey. The “data mining” of the documents enabled the “reconstruction” of entire villages ― property by property ― identifying in the process the origins and vocations of many of the inhabitants. The archaeological survey turned up roughly 200 Frankish settlements in the geographically limited area of the study alone. Most of these had never been heard of before, either because the settlements themselves had since been abandoned, ruined and obliterated by nature, or because their Frankish origins were hidden behind modern Arabic names and more recent construction.

This research revealed that Frankish rural settlement was much more widespread than had been previously assumed ― without evidence. The Franks, the survey proved, built large numbers of smaller towns and villages, often without walls or fortifications of any kind ― a clear indication that they did not feel as threatened as historians hypothesized. The survey further uncovered evidence of Frankish manor houses and farmhouses, of Frankish mills, irrigation, and terracing systems and of roads. The latter, as Ellenblum points out, required not only a major investment in construction but also a permanent investment in maintenance.  Perhaps most significant, the survey turned up hundreds of parish churches, an investment that underlined the fact that these villages were not inhabited by a Muslim peasant population. The villagers and permanent residents of these Frankish settlements were irrefutably Christian since churches need not be built where there are no parishioners. (Note: in other regions mosques proliferated.) 

Copyright M. Foltz
While it cannot be proved that the Frankish lords lived permanently in the rural castles and manors they built, it is hardly credible that they built large, expensive stone manors and castles for the comfort of their “oppressed” native serfs. Furthermore, the documentary evidence revealed that many of these rural manors owed sergeants or knights to the lord.  In short, just as in Europe, these rural estates were held as fiefs by the Frankish elite.  In contrast to the assumptions of earlier historians, the backbone of the Frankish army was composed of rural knights, who drew their income from agriculture not urban “money fiefs.”  The knights of Outremer, far from being the decadent city-dwellers of legend, were countrymen and farmers, just as they were in Western Europe.

Equally significant, the Frankish settlers did not displace the local inhabitants, expelling them from their land and houses.   They did not deprive them of either their land or their status. On the contrary, the documentary evidence proves that the Franks were punctilious in recording and respecting the rights of the Syrian inhabitants. Rather than displacing the locals, they built villages and towns in previously unsettled areas or, more commonly, built beside existing towns.  The most common pattern was to build a castle/manor on the highest point outside an existing town/village and settle Frankish farmers at the foot of this administrative center. The native towns and villages, usually located in valleys, were left intact along with the ownership of the land cultivated by the native inhabitants. What this meant is that the Frankish settlers were bringing new land under cultivation. To do that they built terraces, reservoirs, cisterns and highly sophisticated irrigation systems, sometimes based on dams and mills or employing aqueducts. 

And who were these settlers? Based on nearly complete records for a sampling of settlements it is possible to show that these settlers came from widely separated areas in the West. For example, in the town of Mahomeria 150 Frankish households were identified with heads-of-household originating in Burgundy, Poitiers, Lombardy, the Ile de France, Bourges, Provence, Gascony, Catalonia, the Auvergne, Tournai, Venice and eight other towns no longer clearly identifiable but apparently in France or Italy. The largest number of families coming from any one place was four.

This helps explain why, as Fulcher of Chartres claimed in his History, the settlers rapidly lost their ties to their “old country” and identified with their new residence. (“We who were Occidentals have now become Orientals. He who was a Roman or a Frank has in this land been made into a Galilean or Palestinian.” Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, Book II.) Ellemblum points out that the 12th century was a period in which many people were emigrating from their place of birth to new areas in search of better opportunities, and that the Holy Land was only one of the options available to these adventurous and ambitious settlers.

Equally important, and a major thesis of Ellenblum’s work, is the fact that the “Franks” (whatever their place of origin) settled almost exclusively near to existing native Christian communities. Even new settlements were in regions where the nearest communities were predominantly Christian. Indeed, the Franks in some cases built castles in response to requests from the native Christian population. For example, the castle of Kerak in Oultrejourdain was built in 1142 because “the Christian inhabitants of the place begged the Franks to build the castle in order to protect them.” (Ellenblum, p. 141.) However, as Ellenblum proves, the Franks avoided settling in regions that were predominantly Muslim.

This was possible because large parts of the Holy Land were still predominantly Christian. For example, Muslim scholar Ibn al-Arabi, who spent several years in Palestine shortly before the First Crusade, wrote that the countryside around Jerusalem (as opposed to the region around Acre) was “still theirs” ― i.e. still Christian! Indeed, areas with the greatest concentration of Frankish settlements in the 12th century still had many towns that were still predominately ― if not exclusively ― Christian in the 1922 census! For example, the 1922 census for the town of Abud recorded 335 Greek Orthodox Christians and 41 Latin Christians and not one single Muslim.

What this tells us is that the Islamization of the Holy Land was neither as complete nor as geographically homogeneous as historians previously assumed. If, as has been argued by other historians, people converted to Islam to avoid the extra taxes, humiliations and disadvantages of life as a "dhimmis” (non-Muslims of either Christian or Jewish faith, i.e. “people of the Book,” who had not yet converted to Islam), then Islamization should have occurred evenly across the entire region. Opportunists and men of ambition are not concentrated by location.  Yet, as Ellenblum proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Muslim population was concentrated in clearly delineated regions.

Ellenblum postulates that the Muslim population of the Holy Land in the 12th century were for the most part not converts but immigrants. Taking the example of Samaria, a predominantly Muslim region during the crusader period, he shows that the region had been largely depopulated before the Arab invasions.  “In the revolt of 529 almost 20,000 Samaritans were killed in one battle and others fled over the Jordan…The last revolt of 556 was followed by massive expropriation of property and a plague that decimated the population.” (Ellenblum, p. 262.) When the Arab invasion came, Samaria was still desolate and largely unpopulated: “…the region was abandoned by its original sedentary population and the subsequent vacuum was apparently filled by nomads who, at a later stage, gradually became sedentarized.” (Ellenblum, p. 264.) In short, by the 12th century, the inhabitants of Samaria were largely Muslim, but not because the Christian/Jewish/Samaritan population had converted, but rather because Muslims from elsewhere had settled there.

The patterns of settlement meticulously documented by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has other implications for Frankish society.  Because Franks settled almost exclusively in regions that were still predominantly Christian they did not feel like aliens nor did they feel threatened by possible cooperation between their native neighbors and their Muslim enemies. After all, in several well-documented cases “the local Christian population…was overjoyed at the conquest of First Crusade and…welcomed the Frankish conquerors.” (Ellenblum, p.136)  When the Frankish settlers (farmers and craftsmen rather than soldiers) followed the crusaders (men of war) to the Holy Land, they built and shared the churches with the Orthodox natives, just as they shared the markets and intermarried with native Christians. Native Christians, as Christopher MacEvitt (The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) also documented, were integrated into the Frankish administration. While they did not form the pinnacle of either secular or ecclesiastical society, they held positions of authority, responsibility, and trust. 

In conclusion, the work of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem shows that the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was not a fragile construct composed of a tiny and frightened alien, urban elite living separated from (and looking down on) their predominantly Muslim subjects.  The Frankish elites did not hover behind the high walls of cities and isolated castles, in constant fear of their “subjugated” native population and the next Saracen attack.  On the contrary, the Muslims living inside the Kingdom were almost certainly still a minority of the population, living in concentrated pockets where the Franks did not settle, and for long periods, notably from 1120 to 1177, there were no invasions of the core of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In short, the Frankish population felt completely secure for the better part of the 12th century.

Likewise, although there were urban Latin elites, notably the Italian communes, that were by nature city-dwellers in Italy no less than in Syria, these were not the backbone of Frankish society.  Large numbers, easily more than the previously estimated 140,000 Frankish settlers (estimates that pre-date the archaeological survey of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), lived in essentially rural communities, making up a substantial portion of the population.  Most of the knights of the Frankish army, like knights in England and France, likewise lived on rural estates and earned their income from agriculture. The Franks shared towns and churches, mills, reservoirs, and wells with the still predominantly Christian native population, and it was this mix of Frankish and native Christians that constituted and characterized the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century.

Crusader society is depicted as accurately as possible in all of my novels set in Outremer: 

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: