Friday, June 27, 2014

An Elected Kingship


Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Kings of Jerusalem is the fact that they were elected rather than born. 

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The tradition started, of course, with the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The First Crusade had never had a single leader and there was considerable (often destructive) rivalry between the leading lords that took the cross, notably, Raymond IV Count of Toulouse, Stephan Count of Blois, Robert Count of Flanders, Hugh Count of Vermandois, Bohemond of Taranto and his nephew Tancred, and the brothers Godfrey and Baldwin of Boulogne.  By the time the crusaders reached Jerusalem, Stephan had abandoned the crusade altogether, Baldwin of Boulogne had struck off on his own and captured Edessa, and Bohemond had remained in Antioch to re-establish a Christian state there.  The remaining lords, however, chose Godfrey of Boulogne to rule over Jerusalem.  Godfrey had won the respect of his fellow crusaders by his leadership, and although Raymond of Toulouse probably expected the honor himself, he accepted the choice.  Godfrey reputedly refused to wear “a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorns” and took the title of “Defender” or “Protector” or possibly just “Ruler” of Jerusalem.  

Just one year later, however, he was dead without an heir. The nascent kingdom was in a more precarious state than ever, since the majority of the surviving crusaders felt they had fulfilled their vow and returned home. Those noblemen remaining in the Holy Land again (not without controversy) selected a successor from among themselves, in this case, Godfrey’s brother Baldwin.  Baldwin did not share his brother’s qualms about calling himself king, and took the title of King Baldwin I. But in 1118 Baldwin I also died without an heir of his body, and the barons of the crusader kingdoms chose for a third time a leader from among their ranks, this time, Baldwin of Bourcq, who thereby became Baldwin II of Jerusalem.

Three such “elections” (with admittedly limited franchise!) set a legal precedent and the Kings of Jerusalem were henceforth always “elected” by the High Court of Jerusalem, the later composed of the leading lords of the realm.  This is the equivalent of the English House of Lords electing the Kings of England!

As the products of European feudalism with strong ties to the ruling houses of England and France, however, the members of the High Court showed a strong bias in favor of blood relatives of the last monarch. Nevertheless, the approval of the High Court was considered a pre-requisite for legitimate rule. Thus every time a king died, there was effectively an interregnum (if not outright crisis) while factions positioned themselves and consensus was established.

Perhaps the most serious succession crisis occurred at the critical period when Saladin had united Islam for the first time in a hundred years and declared his intention to wage jihad against the crusader kingdoms until he had pushed them into the sea. The king at the time, Baldwin IV, suffered from leprosy and was dying limb by limb; he had no children.  His closest male relative was his 8 year old nephew, the son of his sister Sibylla.  To prevent Sibylla’s husband, who the dying king detested and mistrusted, from becoming king, Baldwin IV orchestrated the coronation of his nephew as Baldwin V during his lifetime, thereby ensuring the barons had all sworn their oaths as vassals to the boy.

Recognizing, however, that life was fragile in the Holy Land in the 12th century, Baldwin IV also made his vassals swear to  consult with the Kings of England and France and the Pope before a electing a king to succeed his nephew, if the boy did not survive into adulthood. This elaborate attempt to curtail the sovereignty of the High Court of Jerusalem failed.  

When Baldwin V died less than a year after his uncle, no one had time for such a lengthy process as sending to London, Paris and Rome for advice.  (The English and French kings could be counted on not to agree on anything anyway, since they were at war with one another.) Instead, while the High Court was meeting in Tiberius, Princess Sibylla and her husband staged a coup: they persuaded the Patriarch to crown and anoint Sibylla queen of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She then crowned her husband Guy de Lusignan as her consort.


Sibylla at her coronation as depicted in the film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Without the consent of the High Court, however, Guy de Lusignan was a usurper.  The bulk of the barons were prepared to oppose him by crowning an alternative candidate, namely the husband of Baldwin IV’s other sister, Isabella. With the enemy almost literally at the gates, however, the High Court’s choice for king, Humphrey de Toron, chose not to contest the kingship and took an oath to Guy de Lusignan instead.  While this act made it politically impossible to oppose Guy de Lusignan, Raymond of Tripoli was legally within his rights to refuse to swear allegiance to Guy.

While the High Court was circumvented by Sibylla and Guy’s coup in 1186, the High Court exerted (and revenged) itself effectively six years later when Sibylla and her daughters by Guy died of fever in 1190.  Guy saw himself as an anointed king and sought the support of his father’s overlord, the most powerful monarch in Christendom and only military commander with a chance of restoring the fortunes of the crusader kingdoms: Richard “the Lionheart” of England. Richard unequivocally supported Guy’s claim to the throne of Jerusalem – but the High Court still refused to acknowledge him because, with Sibylla’s death, Guy’s claim to the kingdom was -- in the eyes of the barons of Outremer -- extinguished.  

Since Humphrey of Toron was unwilling or unable to oppose Guy, the High Court pressured a reluctant Isabella, the last surviving child of King Amalric I, to divorce Humphrey and take a new husband, Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad was then recognized by the High Court as the legitimate king of Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was still in Saracen hands, no coronation actually took place, but after two years Richard the Lionheart backed down and conceded that without the consent of the High Court even an anointed king could not rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Jerusalem" by Cecilia Holland - A Review

Holland clearly is an experienced writer with considerable competence. She can construct a good scene, build up suspense and her characters are nuanced and complex, yet this book utterly failed to captivate me.



In part it was the constant, minor inaccuracies that nagged at me like flies.  No, it’s not terribly important that Felx isn’t a German name (Felix is) and “Deutschlander” isn’t a word — in any language. No, it’s not important that Nablus belonged to Maria Comnena not Agnes de Courtney, or that Baldwin d’Ibelin wasn’t Balian’s younger, landless brother, but the first born and Baron of Ramla and Mirabelle, one of the richest baronies in the Kingdom. But it rubbed me the wrong way that the author of a book titled “Jerusalem” had obviously never been there. If she had, she would know the Temple Mount is not the highest point in the city and that the David Gate (now Jaffa Gate) faces west not east, among other things. It also set my teeth on edge to have 12th century knights portrayed as earring-wearing dandies with feathers in their caps, while the court scenes read like Versailles in the age of Louis XIV rather than like barons of a Kingdom conquered and held for a hundred years by cagy, clever and astonishingly successful fighting men.

To be sure, Holland wrote her novel before the excellent histories of the period by Bernard Hamilton and Malcolm Barber were released, so she must be forgiven for her inaccurate portrayal of Baldwin IV’s leprosy. And, of course, she is within her rights as a novelist to completely ignore the subsequent Queen of Jerusalem, Isabella, and to make Tripoli a coward on the Litani (although historically he captured Saladin’s nephew), but as a historian the gratuitous changes to the historical record that do not move the plot forward just seem sloppy. Why have Balian d’Ibelin taken captive at both the Litani and Hattin when he was captured at neither? Why refer to Farrukh Shah as Saladin’s brother when he was his nephew?


For readers with no particular interest in accurate history, these errors might seem unimportant, yet it was not just the eclectic mixture of historical fact and sheer fancy that ultimately made me dislike this book: it was the lack of positive characters. Holland’s characters may be complex but only in their layers of unsavoriness. I am repelled by male protagonists for whom “love” manifests itself as the desire to rape, and by female leads that fling themselves at men they hardly know and beg to be debauched. In this book there are no heroes one can really care about: all the Christian lords are either effeminate cowards or brutal barbarians, and even Saladin is portrayed as a vengeful tyrant. There is no nobility or honest kindness and affection in this book, and so it left a sour taste in my mouth: it seemed like an insult to Jerusalem.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Luxury Exports and Religious Tourists: The Urban Economy of the Crusader Kingdoms

It has been estimated that roughly 50% of the Frankish population in the crusader kingdoms was urban. That represents a much higher proportion than in Western Europe at this time, and particularly in the post-Hattin era, the majority of noblemen were dependent on non-agricultural income for their wealth. In short, the degree of urbanization in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, particularly the 13th century Kingdom, resembled the Italian city states more than the large western kingdoms such as England and France. To understand the crusader kingdoms, therefore, it is important to understand the urban economy.


The Medieval cities of the Holy Land had many covered markets similiar to these in 
Acre (left) and Jerusalem (right).

The most obvious source of wealth was the control of the key ports along the coast of the Levant which meant the points at which the “riches of the Orient” were transshipped for export to the increasingly prosperous population of the West. It was in Beirut and Tyre, Acre and Caesarea, Jaffa and Ascalon that Damascus steel and Indian spices, Ethiopian incense and Nubian gold, Persian carpets and Chinese silk, African ivory and Egyptian papyrus were exported to the hungry markets of Italy, and from there onward to the Holy Roman Empire, France, Iberia and far off England and Scandinavia.


The port of Acre was the most important in the crusader states.

In addition to these transshipped items, the crusader kingdoms themselves had a number of export goods that were highly lucrative. While sugar was probably the most important bulk commodity, the export of Holy Relics and souvenirs should not be under-estimated. By some estimates, the population of Jerusalem doubled during the summer pilgrimage (tourist) season, and all of those pilgrims wanted to take some mementos home with them as well as gifts for family and friends, just like modern tourists today.

All those pilgrims also needed a place to stay and food to eat — and not just in Jerusalem. The pilgrimage sites included not just obvious sites such as Bethlehem and Nazareth, but also the site of every moment in Christ’s life as recorded in the Gospels, and places associated with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other saints. There was hardly a place in the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem that could not lay claim to some biblical event of importance, and devout pilgrims, who ventured so far at such cost and risk, generally stayed until the fall sailing season, which meant spending roughly six months in the Holy Land. In short, the pilgrimage “service industry” was in proportion to the population of the time at least as important as tourism is to Israel today.


The Knights Hospitaller provided hostles, hospices and hospitals for the pilgrims. Above the Hospitaller compound in Acre.

Last but not least, a large proportion of the Latin settlers were skilled craftsmen. Serfs could not legally leave their villages and lands (and most probably didn’t want to), so the pilgrims, whether armed and unarmed, were predominantly men of higher status: craftsmen, guildsmen, or merchants. They brought their skills with them, and established themselves in the cities and towns of the crusader kingdoms, where they worked side-by-side with native craftsmen. Here some of the most productive if most prosaic of inter-cultural exchanges took place in the development of dying and cloth-making, leatherworking, gold and silver workmanship, pottery, carpentry, masonry, glass-working, and all the countless other skills essential to survival and a high contemporary standard of living.

Based on the names of the streets alone, it is clear, for example, that Jerusalem had a high concentration of furriers and tanners, but also gold and silver smiths. Pottery from the region, glazed on the inside, is known to have been a particularly popular practical ware, (an early version of Teflon), and that glass-makers and glass-blowers were renowned. The massive construction projects undertaken primarily in the mid-12th century, ensured work for carpenters, masons and sculptors, and the remaining fragments of their work are testimony to the high quality of their workmanship.

At the high-end, Jerusalem also exported illustrated manuscripts from a scriptorium established by the Canons of the Holy Sepulcher. Books produced in such a sacred place had an added value beyond the high quality of the work, and undoubtedly represented one of the luxury goods with the highest margins exported from the crusader kingdoms — albeit, as with all truly valuable, custom made objects, only in very small quantities. 

The crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, far from being a wasteland inhabited by barbarians, was a highly cultured, economically dynamic powerhouse.

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.