Thursday, June 20, 2019

Frankish Military Innovations: The Fighting Box

The crusader states established in the Levant in the wake of the First Crusade were surrounded by hostile states, whose leaders increasingly called for jihad to push the “interlopers” back into the sea. Given the vast numerical superiority of their enemies, it is remarkable that these enclaves of Christian control were able to survive for nearly 200 years. Indeed, from 1100 to 1180 and again from 1197–1244, the armies of the Franks were predominantly on the offensive. This was largely due to two military innovations adopted by the Franks very soon after their arrival in the Holy Land: the "fighting box" and mounted archers. Today I will discuss the "fighting box" and it's importance.

To appreciate the magnitude of the innovations made by the Franks, one must first call to mind that the era of the crusades (the 12th and 13th centuries) was characterized in Western Europe by feudal armies composed of large numbers of poorly equipped amateur infantry (feudal levees), small numbers of mercenaries armed predominantly with cross-bows, pikes, and swords, and even smaller numbers of professional cavalry: knights. Although the later had excellent weapons, armor, and training, they were very expensive to train and equip. These armies were extremely expensive to maintain and were therefore used only rarely and sporadically, while the bulk of fighting consisted of raids designed to destroy the economic base of the enemy by burning crops and orchards and destroying economic assets such as mills, bridges, etc. 

Furthermore, because of the topography and fragmented nature of feudal holdings, confrontations tended to be very localized. Likewise, feudalism fostered affinities that were local, based on personal fealty to one’s overlord rather than national armies. While the amateur infantry received little to no training and was prone to panic and flight, the professional knights “made a cult of bravery…[that] promoted a highly individualistic ethos of war….(1) The result was a style of warfare dominated by sieges of key castles supported by attacks on the surrounding economic base. Any direct combat tended to be small-scale, hand-to-hand clashes between contingents of knights in which individual valor, and personal rivalries or animosities played an important role.

When the First Crusade crossed into Asia, however, the Europeans were suddenly confronted with a completely new form of warfare. The Turks, who had established their dominance across the Middle East, were a nomadic people who had triumphed in an open and arid landscape by deploying large hordes of light cavalry armed with bows. The preferred tactic of the Turks was to surround their enemies and then kill them slowly and surely from a distance, without engaging in close combat. Their small, agile horses were fleet and if they were attacked, they fled, waited for their pursuers to tire, and then attacked again. 

The heavily armored knights of Europe astonished the Turks by their ability to withstand volley after volley of arrows unharmed, yet the European knights could not win a battle unless they could force the Turks to engage in hand-to-hand combat, where the heavier weapons and greater strength of the Frankish knights and horses could prove decisive. A massed charge of Frankish knights proved decisive in battle after battle — but a poorly-timed or poorly-executed charge almost always resulted in disaster for the Franks. Furthermore, the Turks soon recognized that while the fully armored knights were almost invulnerable, their unarmored horses were their Achilles heel. A knight without a horse was not only worthless, he was cold meat. So the Turks rapidly learned to concentrate their arrows on the horses and to try to provoke the knights into charging after them individually or in small, harmless groups that could be lured away from their comrades and ambushed as soon as their horses tired. 

To counter these tactics, the Franks adopted two innovations: the fighting box and the mounted archers. Today I look at the "fighting box" and next week at mounted archers.

The fighting box was a formation in which the most vulnerable components of an army (baggage train, sick and wounded) were placed in the center, surrounded by mounted knights, who were in turn surrounded by infantry with shields. The infantry protected the horses of the knights — until the commander decided it was time to risk a charge. Then the infantry would open and the heavy cavalry would charge the enemy. These fighting boxes could defend stationary positions — or move as a square across long distances. In a retreat the Franks would take the dead along, giving the enemy the impression that there were no casualties at all. When holding firm positions, fighting strength could be maintained by rotating the front-line units. 

The most important feature of this tactic is that it required first and foremost discipline — from all participants. Marching and fighting simultaneously are not easy. To be effective, the fighting box had to work as a single unit. It was necessary to prevent gaps from opening up between the ranks yet to keep moving without tiring the infantry. It was important for the infantry to keep their shields locked together — more like a Spartan phalanx than anything vaguely familiar from medieval Europe. 

The most famous campaign in which this formation was used to excellent effect was the march from Acre to Jaffa during the Third Crusade. Yet while Richard the Lionheart proved a master in deploying this formation and added support from his fleet, he was not the inventor of this tactic. The Franks of Outremer had used it for nearly 100 years before the Third Crusade. Indeed, the armies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem had used it, again and again, something that testifies to the remarkable discipline of these armies — and, incidentally, contributed to greater respect for infantry and the burghers that comprised it. When that discipline broke down due to poor leadership, however, the result was utter obliteration — as at the Battle of Hattin. 

(1)  France, John, “Warfare in the Mediterranean Region in the Age of the Crusades, 1095–1291: A Clash of Contrasts,” The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011, 9–26) 11.

The use of a fighting box is described in detail in Envoy of Jerusalem, that covers the Battle of Arsuf.

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 current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Technology Transfer in the Crusader States

It has become commonplace to claim that the greatest benefit to the Crusades was the exposure of backward and barbarous Western Europeans to the "more advanced" civilizations of the Muslim world. Yet the evidence demonstrates that the situation was considerably more nuanced and development was a two-way street. Furthermore, the society most ready to adapt is not always the weakest or most backward.

Starting with the situation at the baseline, Islamic culture had undoubtedly experienced a significant flourishing in the centuries immediately preceding the Crusades. However, far from being trapped in a "dark age," Europe was likewise going through a period of significant development and technological advancement. Contrary to popular notions, throughout the so-called “Dark Ages” the learning of the ancient Greeks was preserved — and translated into Latin. Furthermore, major technological innovations were making Europe more prosperous and its people healthier than ever before. Professor Rodney Stark argues that “medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by poor diet, with the result that they were, on average, bigger, healthier and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.”[1]

As a result, the exchange of knowledge and technology that followed the First Crusade was by no means a one-way street. While the Franks soon learned to employ light cavalry in the form of native Christian horse-archers (misleadingly called Turcopoles despite being neither Turkish and nor apostate Muslims), the Saracens started to develop heavy cavalry capable of close combat. While the Franks learned about paper manufacturing and improved glass-making techniques from the Syrians, the Arabs learned from the Franks about industrial methods for sugar manufacturing, a highly lucrative trade. While the custom of public baths moved from east to west, the concept of chimneys moved in the opposite direction.


Nor should we automatically assume that the culture more open to adaptation was the weaker culture. For example, there is no question that European naval architecture was vastly superior to contemporary Arab shipping, yet the Arabs were unable to adopt Western shipping technology largely due to the poor quality of their shipwrights and sailors. The chimneys built in Holy Land by the Franks fell into disrepair and then disappeared from local architecture altogether after the departure of the Franks not because chimneys are useless or backward, but due to the sheer inertia of “tradition.”

Nor should we forget that many of the “inventions” we associate with the “East” were not Saracen in origin, but Greek. One classic example of this is the concept of hospitals as places where professional medical practitioners provide medical treatment to cure the sick. Such institutions were unknown in Western Europe before the First Crusade. By the time the Crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, the Arabs indeed had sophisticated hospitals, yet the origins of these institutions lay in Byzantium. The first hospitals in the Eastern Roman Empire are recorded in the fourth century AD; the earliest hospitals in the Muslim Middle East did not appear until the late eighth or ninth century.[4] Under the aegis of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, (known simply as “the Hospitallers”) hospitals were adopted into the Western European culture. 

The Hospital in Acre - photo by the author
An important factor impacting the direction of technology transfer was the environment. The Franks -- but not their Arab and Turkish opponents -- were living in a new environment. This meant the Franks needed to adapt to that environment -- one with extremes of heat unknown in their homeland, an environment that was more arid, less forested, and more densely populated. It would have been absurd -- and stupid -- to cling to traditions and technologies unsuited to the Mediterranean no matter how well-suited those technologies might have been for, say, living in Scotland or fighting in Prussia. 

The adoption of surcoats is an excellent example of this. In the intense heat of the Syrian summer, wearing a loose cloth garment over one's armor made sense. That the Franks rapidly did so, and -- even more surprising -- that it became a fashion across Western Europe is not a mark of the inferiority of previous forms of dress. The surcoat had a function that was directly related to the physical environment in the Near East. It's later evolution into a means of showing off one's arms and affinity had nothing to do with Arab/Turkish superiority but rather with Western customs of chivalry.

The prevalence of stone structures in the crusader states was likewise a function of the scarcity of wood rather than superior skills on the part of Arab masons. On the contrary, to this day archaeologists can date crusades-era buildings based on the exceptionally high standards of Frankish masonry. 

Franish masonry at St. Annes' in Jerusalem - photo by the author
The Frankish adoption of covered markets reflected the need to keep perishable goods out of the intense summer sun, the flies and the dust -- not an inherent superiority of covered versus open markets. 

Covered Market in Acre - photo by the author
Adaptation from West to East, on the other hand, was inhibited by both the fact that the environment remained the same for the Muslims and by Muslim presumptions of superiority. The Muslims viewed Franks as fundamentally backward because they were “blasphemers worshipping God incorrectly…or as idolaters worshipping cross-shaped idols.”[2] In the extreme, they shared the attitude expressed by Bahr al-Fava’id who wrote: “Anyone who believes that his God came out of a woman’s privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to, and he has neither intelligence nor faith.”[3] 

It is to the Crusaders’ credit that regardless of what they thought of the theology of  Islam, they did not dismiss its adherents as inherently madmen and idiots. It was because of this willingness to separate religion from science and art, that the Franks proved remarkably adept at adapting to their new environment and developing a unique hybrid culture.

That culture is incorporated in all my novels set in the crusader states:

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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 current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

[1] Stark, Rodney. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, (New York: HarperOne, 2009) 70.

[2] Christie, Niall, Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity’s Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources (London: Routledge, 2014) 78.

[3] Christie, 77-78.

[4] Mitchell, Piers D., Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004) 49-50.

[5] Edgington, Susan B., “Oriental and Occidental Medicine in the Crusader States,” in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011) 208.