Friday, May 30, 2014

Blooming Landscapes: The Rural Economy of the Crusader States

Whether in 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.

First, modern 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 millennia!

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.    

Equally 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 urban population.

The ancient olive orchard outside Jerusalem - The Mount of Olives - as probably been here since crusader times.

The 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.

Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Principal sources:

·         Barber, Malcolm, The Crusader States, Yale University Press, 2012.
·         Hamilton, Bernard, The Leper King and His Heirs: Baldwin IV and the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
·         Riley-Smith (ed), The Atlas of the Crusades, Facts on File, 1990.
·         Conder, Claude Reignier, The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1099 to 1291, The Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, 1897.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"The Crusader States" by Malcolm Barber

Far more has been written about the crusades than the states they established and supported.  Yet it was the threat to the Christian states that justified every crusade after the First. Furthermore, the crusader states were catalysts for a number of key developments in Western Europe from dramatic improvements in shipping to the exchange of goods, technology and ideas with Constantinople and the Arab/Turkish world.  Indeed, historian Claude Reignier Condor wrote at the end of the 19th Century that: “…the result of the Crusades was the Renaissance.” (The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1099 to 1291 AD, The Committee of Palestine Exploration Fund, 1897, p. 163.)

Professor Malcolm Barber, a distinguished scholar who has already produced seminal works about the Templars and Cathers, has produced a long overdue work that provides a comprehensive history of the crusader states rather than the sporadic crusades. It is meticulously researched and documented, as one would expect from a professor of history, and as such is an invaluable reference work for anyone interested in the period and indeed in the West’s presence in the Near East.

Whereas histories of the crusades invariably focus on military campaigns and so on “aggression,” Barber reminds us that the crusader states themselves were builders rather than destroyers. Barber concludes his comprehensive history by noting that: the crusaders “pragmatic approach to the challenge of providing for defense, administration and economic development produced political entities which resist stereotyping…and predetermined models.” He furthermore stresses that their accomplishments cannot be reduced to military conquests but also “entailed the rebuilding and embellishment of the holy shrines” and notes that they “ultimately produced their own independent and vibrant culture.”

Barber draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources in Latin, Arabic, French, and German, and his bibliography alone is a treasure trove for the historian.  However, the very detail of his account tends to slow the pace and complicate the flow of the narrative. This is more a reference or a research resource than a good read. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Myths about the Crusader States 4:

Christian Rulers were Bigoted and Intolerant

Most popular literature about the crusader states alleges that the Latin rulers were “less tolerant” of religious diversity than their Muslim predecessors. It is hard to trace the origins of this myth – other than in an excess of political correctness in today’s world.

It is true that in the four centuries of Muslim rule in the Holy Land preceeding the crusades some Muslim rulers were content to live-and-let-live, but -- as my last entry stressed -- there were also periods of extreme repression.  Furthermore, at all times Christians (and other non-Muslims) were taxed extra and treated as second-class citizens, certainly they had no right to positions of power and influence.

This is the standard against which the Christian leaders should be judged.  If used it is quickly clear that the Christians were not more oppressive than their Muslims predecessors.  Indeed, as far as I know, there is no evidence that Muslims, or other non-Latin subjects, were subject to special taxes as was the case under Muslim rulers for non-Muslims.  Furthermore, while inhabitants were allowed to follow their own religion during Muslim rule, the price of trying to preach or convert a Muslim to Christianity was death – as it is to this day in many Muslim countries. (A woman was only recently condemned to death in Sudan, for example, for claiming to be a Christian and marrying a Christian man.)I have never read or heard about a similar law punishing the preaching of Islam with death in the crusader kingdoms.

It is true that the crusaders took the Holy Land by force – as had their Muslim predecessors.  It is also true that while the Muslims allowed Christians to live in Jerusalem, the crusaders prohibited Muslims from living there.  Nevertheless, they did not tear down the Dome of the Rock or destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque, as the Caliph al-Hakim had leveled the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The crusaders simply converted these buildings to Christian or secular purposes.

Islam's most sacred shrine in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, was not destroyed;
it was converted into a Church instead.

It is also true that Latin clergy was given control of the most sacred places and put into the positions of greatest ecclesiastical power, such as the patriarchies in Jerusalem and Antioch. Whether the Abbaids, the Fatamids, or the Seljuks were in control, however, they too put their own men into positions of power; Sunnis do not tolerate Shiia religious leaders in their mosques and madrassas and vice versa. Conquerors always take the best spoils for themselves.

The fact that hardly any city resisted Saladin’s conquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Battle of Hattin is often taken as evidence that he non-Latin population in the kingdom preferred Muslim rule. This is hardly a sustainable argument since the reality was that the kingdom was simply not defensible after the losses sustained at Hattin.  Under the circumstances, the civilian population was eager to avoid the destruction and retribution that the rules of war designated for cities that resisted and were taken by storm.  The civilian population preferred to trust to Saladin’s reputation for clemency.  The situation might have looked very different if the notoriously brutal Zengi had been mopping up – or Baibars or one of the other equally merciless Mamluke sultans had been the opponent in 1187.

Rather, those who assert the “preference” of the subject peoples of the crusader states for Muslim over Latin rule ought to ask why there were no revolts against the Latin leaders? Why was there no “Intifada” against the Christian kings?  How could the tiny Latin Christian elite rule for nearly two hundred years, if their subjects were secret allies of their enemies? Why weren’t Christian towns betrayed to the Muslims each time a Muslim army appeared – and not just after the devastation of Hattin but during Saladin's invasions in 1177, 1179, 1181, 1182, and 1183. 

It is safe to say the loyalty of the various non-Latin elements in the crusader states varied across regions and time.  Initially, the Armenians appear to have been very enthusiastic about crusader rule after decades under the Turks.  Later, they became disillusioned, at least in Eddessa, probably due to misrule and greed on the part of the Latin rulers. In Antioch, the Armenians appear to have been considerably more loyal. Yet in both states, the continued presence of an independent Armenian kingdom undoubtedly undermined loyalty to the Latin elite by keeping alive hopes of reincorporation in a greater Armenian state.

In the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Armenians played a much less significant role and the other religious groups were fragmented, so that no one group was in a position to seriously challenge Latin leadership.  Furthermore, a Muslim traveler from Spain lamented the passivity of the Muslims under Christian rule.  In his religious zeal, he may have forgotten or discounted the fact that even the majority of Muslims in the Holy Land were not ethnically Arab or Turkish.  They viewed the Latin rulers as just one more alien invasion in a millennia long history of such invasions.  They had indeed become passive, accepting and accommodating of each change of regime. Furthermore, there was a significant amount of intermarriage between males from Western Europe and females native to the Holy Land.  This tended to reinforce tolerance on the part of both rulers and ruled.

Last but not least, the prominent role played by sergeants in the armies of the Holy Land suggests that the crusader states commanded considerable loyalty among the native, middle-class population.  Some historians speculate that sergeants were drawn from the large population of “half-breed” youth, who – they postulate – did not qualify for knighthood because of native blood. The theory is not convincing, because knighthood could be bestowed on anyone, even full-blooded Arabs, Turks or Kurds. A more logical explanation is that the conditions of fighting in the Holy Land, particularly the fact that the Turks could muster armies with tens of thousands of light horse, made it necessary to have more mounted fighting men than the knightly class could support.  The development of light cavalry on the Christian side was a response to the overwhelming number of cavalry on the Muslim side.

Because horses were expensive, however, these sergeants had to be recruited from among the social classes with comparatively high incomes, albeit not rich enough to afford the armor, arms and training of knights.  The fact that secular leaders of the crusader kingdoms and the militant orders could recruit such men in such numbers (there was an almost two to one ratio of sergeants to knights at most of the Templar and Hospitaller castles) makes it very clear that the “middle classes” in the crusader states -- whether half-breeds or non-Latin Christians –- stood firmly behind the Christian regime. 

That hardly seems reasonable if the Christian rulers were as “intolerant” as many modern books portray them.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Myths about the Crusader States 3:

Muslim Rulers were Benign and Tolerant

It has become commonplace to allege that prior to the crusades, Muslims and Christians lived together in harmony in the Holy Land. These assertions ignore the fact that in the 7th century the Holy Land was conquered for Islam with the sword – not gently proselytized by peaceful imams. It also ignores the fact that the Seljuk Turks wrested the Holy Land from the (over time complacent and comparatively benign) Fatamids also by the sword between 1071 and 1085.  Finally, it ignores the fact that the Muslim Caliph al-Hakim utterly raised the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and many other churches. It ignores the massacre of some 3000 Christian pilgrims in the decade between 1185 and 1195. In short, it ignores all the abuses referenced in Pope Urban II in his call for the First Crusade.

It is no longer politically correct to believe there was any truth in Urban II’s catalogue of crimes committed by Muslims against Christians in the Holy Land.  Undoubtedly, Pope Urban the Second and the Byzantine Emperor Alexis I, who approached Urban with a request for Western help against the Seljuks in the first place, were both seeking to manipulate emotions. Urban II furthermore had a hidden agenda – namely increasing the power of the papacy, possibly healing the schism with the Eastern Church, and getting rid of excess numbers of violent young men, who were disruptive factors in Western feudal society.  Alexis I wanted mercenaries to keep the aggressive Seljuks at bay.

Nevertheless, it is disingenuous to assert that all the allegations made by Alexis and Urban respectively were pure fantasy. The archeological record alone testifies to the destruction of Christian monuments under Seljuk rule, belying the vaunted “tolerance” of Muslim rulers. Furthermore, the abuse of Christians was well enough documented to result in an almost complete halt of pilgrimage traffic and even trade with Europe during the period following Seljuk seizure of the Holy Land; Christian pilgrims and merchants had been made to feel unwelcome and unsafe once the Holy Land was in Seljuk hands.

Even under the more moderate Fatimids, Christians in the 12th century – no less than in the 21st century – were second-class citizens, subject to extra taxes and excluded from positions of power and authority.  The Fatimids, no less than the Seljuks, silenced the church bells, and punished attempts by Christians to spread their religion with death.

This is not my definition of “tolerance” – not then any more than now.