This blog is dedicated to discussing the Crusader Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus. I will post information about the history and legacy of these remarkable kingdoms, as well as post reviews of books relevant to the crusades and the Crusader Kingdoms.
I have joined the Real Crusades History team and will posting simultaneously to the Real Crusades History Blog.
Friday, May 30, 2014
Blooming Landscapes: The Rural Economy of the Crusader States
films like “Kingdom of Heaven” or in novels like “Jerusalem” by Cecilia
Holland, the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem is most frequently depicted as a
desert wasteland dotted with massive castles on barren hills. This image traces
its roots at least in part to accounts by crusaders and pilgrims from Northern
Europe, who found the Holy Land oppressively hot and comparatively dry. But
those images are deceptive.
students of the crusader states should keep in mind that most pilgrims arrived
in the spring, at the start of the warm, dry season, and departed in the fall
before the rains. Crusaders who remained
longer in the Holy Land, like Richard the Lionheart, encountered drenching rain
and even sleet and hail along with far less than tropical temperatures. More
important despite some climate change over the last 800 years, it is reasonable
to assume that the climate of the “Land of Milk and Honey” is not so very
different today from what it was during the period of the crusades.
The landscape near the Sea of Galilee The coast near Ascalon
In short, far
from being a crucible of heat and sand, the Holy Land under Latin Christian
rule was still a highly fertile and agriculturally productive environment. That
was what made it so valuable to invaders from all corners of the earth over the
But the new
rulers from the West did not simply take over the existing territory, they
increased its productivity substantially. Of the estimated 650,000 inhabitants
of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the second half of the 12th century,
roughly 140,000 were “Franks” — Frank being the collective term for the Western
Europeans that came to the Holy Land in the 12th and 13th
centuries. Of these, roughly half lived in rural villages. These sixty thousand
rural “Frankish” settlers lived predominantly, archaeologists believe, in new
settlements and so represented a significant influx of new agricultural labor
and — even more important — brought more land under cultivation.
important and far too often under-estimated, the Western settlers that came to
the Holy Land during the first century of Latin rule, adapted their
agricultural techniques to the new environment so effectively that their
presence led to what historian Malcolm Barber calls a “agricultural revival” of
the region. Thus, in addition to traditional Mediterranean products such as
wheat, barley, olives and grapes, with which they were already familiar, the
Western settlers in the crusader states developed commercial production of
dates, sugar cane, figs, bananas and citrus fruits. The cities of Outremer —
including Jerusalem itself — were not surrounded by barren desert but rather by
a blooming agricultural landscape of orchards and plantations catering to the
The ancient olive orchard outside Jerusalem - The Mount of Olives - as probably been here since crusader times.
archaeological evidence further suggests that the typical settler village was
not walled, did not have a citadel or tall keep or even a defensible church
tower as in other “frontier” areas as, for example, Prussia. This discovery strongly
undermines the notion that the Franks lived in constant fear of the more
populous native population. Rather the pattern of settlement reproduced typical
settlement patterns of Southern France adapted architecturally to the climate,
and so reinforces the thesis that the Franks in Outremer lived in harmony with
their neighbors. The great castles and
walled cities were built to protect the entire population from foreign
(Saracen) invasions, not to protect the local lords from their subjects.
It should also
be remembered that even the non-Frank workers on the farms and in the factories
were not slaves. They were for the
most part natives of the region, which meant they were predominantly Christian
and their status was similar to that of serfs in Western Europe. They had clearly
defined rights and privileges as well as obligations, and they were ruled by
local administrators of the same faith, who administered traditional law rather
than imposing foreign customs on the population. Even Muslims and Jews retained
a strong degree of judicial autonomy in settling family and civil cases.
Far from being the desert battleground of popular literature and film, the Kingdom
of Jerusalem — like the Kingdom of Cyprus — were agriculturally fertile, rich
kingdoms in a mild, Mediterranean climate. This was the land of “milk and
honey” that had seduced — and continues to seduce — conquerors since the start
of recorded time.