Friday, April 18, 2014

Myths about the Kingdom of Jerusalem 2:

The Population in the Crusader Kingdoms was Predominantly Muslim

It is a well-known fact that the crusader states suffered from an almost perpetual shortage of knights necessary for their defense. It has been estimated that at no time could the four crusader states muster more than 2,000 secular knights, i.e. knights that lived in the Holy Land, held fiefs and owed feudal (knights) service to the Kings of Jerusalem, directly or indirectly.  Both the founding of the powerful militant orders, the Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar, and the series of crusades can be traced back to this simple fact.  To defend the sacred places of Christendom from militant Islam a stream of fighting men from the West was required.  Ten of thousands of fighting men in Western Europe either dedicated their whole lives to the defense of the Latin kingdoms by joining the military orders, or they “took the cross” and came out temporarily on crusade for the same purpose.
The Seal of the Barons of Ibelin shows a Knight wearing the Crusader Cross

This suggests a tiny layer of Christian ruling elite sitting upon an oppressed and alien population; an image projected in almost all popular literature about the crusader kingdoms today.  The picture is, however, a caricature that misrepresents reality. 

The number of knights is a poor measure of the number of Christians in the Holy Land for a number of reasons. First, the knightly class is always a minority, even in a Christian country.  In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, no less than in England or France at this time, the army was composed predominantly of foot-soldiers.  Unique to the Holy Land, these foot-soldiers were supplemented by mounted sergeants (i.e. light infantry).  At the decisive battle of Hattin, the Christian forces have been estimated by military historians at 15,000 men and 1,200 knights.

So where did those 15,000 foot and light cavalry come from?  There were three primary sources, settlers and their offspring, pilgrims and crusaders. At any one time, there were able-bodied pilgrims in the Kingdom of Jerusalem willing to take up arms in the defense of the Holy Land. During crusades there were even more.  But by far the more important element in the King of Jerusalem’s defensive forces were the large numbers of Latin Christian settlers, who came out from Western Europe and stayed permanently, like colonists in later centuries. 

There is archeological evidence of entire, new villages, particularly in the southern part of the kingdom as well as settlement in existing cities such as Ceasarea and, of course, Jerusalem itself. These people might be peasants, but were more commonly freemen because serfs had to have the permission of their lords to leave their land.  Most Western settlers, therefore, would have been craftsmen with enough means to finance the expensive pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and the tradition of mobility not found among serfs or landed peasants. Once in the Holy Land, they started families, either with the wives they brought with them (and it was common for married couples to undertake a pilgrimage together and even more common for settlers to come as families), or with native women.  In short, just as in the colonies of the 18th and 19th century, the number of residents descended from the early settlers increased year by year – while continuously being reinforced by new settlers.

Another important source of Christian manpower was the large and growing enclaves of Italian merchants in all the ports of the Holy Land.  Because the crusader states were heavily dependent on supplies from the West and fleets to support campaigns against coastal cities, the Italian city states were granted wide-ranging privileges in all the crusaders states. The trade between Western Europe and the fabled “East,” with its silks, spices, ivory, and perfumes etc – was extremely lucrative, and the various Italian city states vied for dominance, building up large and luxurious outposts in the various cities of the Levant.

But manpower is only half the equation.  For every Christian fighting man in the crusader states there were women, children and clerics.  The clerics are a particularly important factor; the Holy Land naturally attracted exceptional numbers of clerical pilgrims, and the rulers of the Christian states established and endowed Latin churches, monasteries, convents and ecclesiastical institutions of all kinds. It can therefore be assumed that 15,000 fighting men were drawn from a population as a whole of three to four times that many or as many as 60,000 Latin Christians.

But these elements are also only the tip of the iceberg. Forgotten in too many modern depictions of the crusader kingdoms is the fact that the Muslims were themselves invaders, who conquered Christian territories in the mid-seventh century. In the three and half centuries after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land many inhabitants undoubtedly converted to Islam -- but very many did not. 

In the County of Edessa and the Principality of Antioch, where Muslim rule was significantly shorter than in the territories of the Kingdom of Jerusalem proper, and the population in these northern crusader states was certainly predominantly Christian – Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christian. In the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it is harder to guess what proportion of the population was Muslim, but it is absolutely certain that a large minority – if not a majority – of the inhabitants were still Christian. Since there was also still a significant Jewish population as well, the Muslims were thus almost certainly in the minority, albeit a large minority.

The demographics of the crusader kingdoms were thus much more complex than simply Muslim subjects under Latin rulers. The reality was a complex patchwork of Latin, Orthodox, Armenian, Jacobite, and Maronite Christians, living side-by-side with Jews and Muslims – none of which had a majority.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Re-assessing the Crusades and Crusaders

It has become commonplace (not to say popular) to describe the Islamic states that governed the territories that later became the crusader kingdoms as “civilized” and the crusaders as “barbarians.” This perception rests primarily on two facts: 1) the Greek historian Anna Comnena used the term to describe the participants of the First Crusade, and 2) the sack of Jerusalem.

Now, it must be remembered that the Greeks used the term “barbarian” to refer to anyone who didn’t speak Greek. This included, in a different age, the highly civilized Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians etc. Second, the Greek Emperors considered themselves the descendants and heirs to the Roman Empire – and viewed the German, French, and Norman crusaders as the descendants of the “barbarian hoards” that had over-run the Western Empire. Because the Byzantine Empire preserved greater continuity with Rome, it also had a very sophisticated bureaucracy and hierarchy that left the Byzantines confused and offended by the lack of formalized command structures and, indeed, the absence of a supreme commander among the crusaders. Anna Comnena certainly saw the crusaders as barbarians – that does not mean that we should. The lack of understanding for a different culture exhibited by the Byzantine chroniclers does mean the other culture was inherently inferior – as modern readers ought to appreciate.

The sack of Jerusalem was unquestionably a barbaric act – from the modern perspective. It was hardly so in the eyes of contemporaries. The contemporary rules of war were very explicit: a city that surrendered could expect mercy, a city that did not could expect “to be put to the sword.” This had been the rule of war since the sack of Troy. Modern sensibilities are offended particularly by the fact that Christians, allegedly fighting in the name of a peaceful, forgiving and loving Christ, could commit this “atrocity.” It is surely evidence that medieval understanding of Christianity and our own diverges – or that the crusaders by the time they reached Jerusalem were not willing to curb their baser instincts even in such a sacred place. But it does not make the crusaders “barbarians” in the contemporary context, certainly not when it is clear that most apocalyptic descriptions of the sack are exaggerations and religious zeal on the part of later writers and that thousands of Jerusalem’s inhabitants survived the sack.

The Arabs, after all, had taken the Holy Land by the sword, not with sweet words and persuasion. In 997 the Muslims sacked Santiago de Compostella, the most important pilgrimage church in the West. In 1009 the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by the Byzantines over three hundred years starting in the reign of Constantine the Great (306 – 337), was utterly destroyed. Meanwhile, however, the Muslims had divided into Shiites and Sunnis and engaged in bloody wars in which they murdered, raped, pillaged and burned rival Muslim cities. Zengi, atabeg of Mosul, for example, not only (according to a Muslim source) ordered the “pillaging, slaying, capturing, ravishing and looting” of Edessa, but was feared in Damascus because of “his exceptionally cruel and treacherous behavior” – to his co-religionists.

Attempts to depict the crusaders as illiterate brutes lacking in cultural accomplishments also miss the mark. The “unwashed masses” might not have been very cultivated – but nor were the peasants and common soldiers of the Byzantine Empire or the Turks.  The upper classes in 11th century Europe, on the other hand, had already started to develop arts and architecture to a high degree of sophistication as manuscripts, artifacts and the architectural record shows. Literacy was confined to an elite, and fostered mostly by the clergy – but that was true in the Byzantine and Muslim world as well.  Nevertheless, it is fair to say that in certain fields, notably medicine, mathematics and astronomy the Muslim world was far ahead of Western Europe.  The differences are hardly so dramatic, however, as to paint the one culture as civilized and the other as “barbaric.”

What then made the crusaders appear so “barbaric” to their contemporaries in the East? Two features of Western European feudal society set it apart from the East into which the crusaders came so suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of the 11th century. 

First was the decentralized system of government based on complex, feudal relationships. Both the Byzantine and the Muslim world in this period were intensely hierarchical societies in which the Emperor (in the one) and the Caliph (in the other) had supreme and absolute control over his subjects – at least in theory. True, reality looked different.  By the end of the tenth century the Abbasid Caliphs were virtual prisoners of the Persian Abuyid dynasty, and changed masters when the Seljuk Turks captured Bagdahd in 1040.  Thereafter they were puppets of the Selkjuk sultans, while the Fatimid Caliphs were at the mercy of their viziers. 

But whether the theoretically absolute rulers wielded actual power or not, their powerful “protectors” always ruled in their name; they considered – and called themselves – slaves of their masters. Western feudalism, in which kings were little more than the “first among equals,” was utterly alien to the Eastern mentality, and so was the outspokenness and (from the Easter perspective) impudence of vassals. The Eastern elites saw the inherent dangers of such a fluid system and associated it with primitive tribal structures. Yet it was exactly these feudal kingdoms that gradually devolved power to ever wider segments of the population until (through a series of constitutional crises) they eventually developed into modern democracies. Meanwhile, the Eastern states remained mired in autocracy.

The other feature of Western European society that the Muslims (though not the Byzantines) found disgusting and incomprehensible was the presence of women in public life. The fact that women had names and faces that were known outside the family circle was viewed as immoral and dishonorable (much the way the Athenians viewed Spartan women) by the Muslims of the 12th and 13th centuries. The fact that women not only had names and faces, but a voice in affairs and could play a role in public life including controlling wealth and influencing politics was even more offensive. Yet modern development research shows a strong correlation between societies that empower and enfranchise women and development, while societies that insist on muzzling and oppressing half their population are nowadays considered less “civilized.”

Whether you view the crusaders or the Saracens as more civilized will therefore depend less on objective factors than on how you view democracy and womens’ rights.