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Friday, May 29, 2015

Crusader Craft and Industry

The establishment of the crusader kingdoms along the coast of the Levant resulted in an economic revival of the region as pilgrims, merchants and settlers flooded into the territories re-captured for Christianity.  What had been an unimportant backwater to the Ayyubid and Fatamid caliphates, whose religious, administrative and economic centers lay in Damascus and Cairo respectively, had suddenly become the spiritual heart of the Latin-Christian world.  In consequence, not only did existing cities undergo an economic boom, but ancient cities gone to ruin, such as Caesarea and Ramla were revived, and entire new towns and villages were built.

An estimated 140,000 settlers from Western Europe immigrated to the Holy Land in the first century after the First Crusade, eventually accounting for between twenty and twenty-five percent of the population of the crusader states. These numbers were swelled annually during the “sailing season,” roughly from April to October, with tens of thousands of pilgrims who came to see the holy sites as “tourists.” 

To serve the pilgrims, the mercantile city-states of Venice, Genoa and Pisa built fleets and established communities in the ports of the crusader states to cater to residents, pilgrims and home markets. In addition to passengers, the Italian merchant fleets transported a variety of goods: timber, horses, arms and armor from the West; sugar, olive oil, silk, and spices from the east.

But not everything used in the crusader states were imports and not all exports were commodities. The crusader states also developed indigenous crafts both for every day and ceremonial use. These included, of course, metal-working and wood-working, leather goods, ceramics, textiles, and glass. Most of these products were produced by native craftsmen, who continued to use the same techniques as before the Latin conquest, but the motifs shifted to include crosses, fishes and other Christian symbols. The styles were also influenced by the taste of customers and exposure to products imported from the West. The native craftsmen, however, had developed their crafts over the centuries, heavily influenced by earlier waves of invaders from the Romans and Byzantines to the Saracens. Thus their work inevitably reflected these layers of past influence now combined with Western European influences to form distinctly crusader crafts.

Because of its durability, we know that crusader metal-working was of a very high standards as surviving objects of the period from several of the key churches attest. Objects included metal screens or grilles, candle sticks and candelabra, brass bowls and bells, as well as magnificent silver and gold work in reliquaries and jewelry. Jerusalem had an entire street known as the Street of the Goldsmiths, attesting to the quantity and popularity of gold work produced in the Holy City. Many (if not most) of the products from these workshops probably ended up in the West, as pilgrims took them home as keep-sakes and gifts. Many may not yet have been identified as originating in the crusader states. At the lower end of the scale, there were many blacksmiths in the Holy Land, both native and settlers, and most earned their living producing articles needed for daily life from horseshoes, plowshares, hammers and shovels, to maces and battle axes, although it appears that most swords were imported either from Damascus (famous for its steel) or the important weapons centers in Italy and Germany.

Wood, leather and textile goods have largely been lost, but some cloth fragments are witness to the use of wool, cotton, linen and silk in cloth manufacture in the crusader states. Interestingly, evidence of mixed fabrics — silk warp with wool, linen or cotton weft — have been found.  Fragments of both dyed and undyed fabrics have been found, as well as patterned fabrics created by woodblock printing.  In addition, there is evidence that cloth, particularly silk, was decorated with silk or gold embroidery and brocading. The colors that have survived in the few finds of textiles from the crusader period ranged from ivory, yellow and gold to red and various shades of blue. However, purple was the imperial color of Byzantium and would have been available at least as in import for the upper classes, and it is reasonable to assume that green tones could also be produced and would have been available.

Pottery from the crusader period has survived in much larger quantities and demonstrates that while some pottery was imported from Egypt and Syria, the vast majority of pottery objects in use in the crusader states was produced locally and was often of very high quality. Pottery was used for the production of cooking pots and pans, storage jars and jugs, basins, bowls, plates and cups. It was often decorated with incisions in the unfired clay, and designs were painted either beneath a transparent glaze or with colored glazes. The most common color scheme was red or brown painting on a white backdrop, although blue and black designs on white were also known. Cream and pale green glazes were also popular. Popular motifs included ancient geometric designs, foliage, birds and animals, but human figures, crosses and fishes — i.e. Christian symbols — were also used. One distinctive feature of much local pottery that made it popular with pilgrims was the use of transparent glaze on the inside of pots and pans to create an early kind of “Teflon” — stick-free cooking.

Perhaps the more sophisticated and beautiful craft of the Holy Land was glass-making. Glass was used in windows in the crusader period, both stained and painted glass for churches, and round and plate panes for windows in secular buildings. Green plate glass from the crusader period, for example, was found at a farmhouse less than five miles from Jerusalem; it would probably have graced the manor of a local lord.  Glass was also used for the drinking vessels, both beakers and goblets, and for bowls and bottles.  Bottles with long necks for perfumes and the scented oils produced in the Holy Land were probably popular among pilgrims as gifts for those left behind. Glass was also used for storage jars and for oil lamps, a continuation of Byzantine and Arab traditions. Glass of the crusader period was often dyed and/or decorated. The colors of crusader glass found to date include yellow, red and light brown, emerald and light greens, turquoise, shades of blue as well as light and dark purple. Decorations included geometric designs and heraldry, foliage, birds, animals as well as saints and religious motifs. Some glass objects also have inscriptions. Tyre was particularly known for its glass-making industry and the glass produced was reputedly particularly transparent. But glass-making was also carried out in other crusader cities, including Acre and Beirut; the latter was famous of its red glass.

In short, the crusader kingdoms had a lively, diverse and comparatively sophisticated craft industry capable of producing not only articles for everyday use, but beautiful and valuable objects. This reflects a high level of civilization typical of a society with extensive trading ties and elites with sufficient income to support quality craftsmanship. Particularly interesting in crusader crafts is the synthesis of Arab/Egyptian, Byzantine and Western influences to produce a unique and distinctive “crusader style” in a variety of objects.

Note: I could find no pictures in the public domain of objects made in the crusader states. The photos are simply examples of objects from the 12th and 13th century, although the pottery is similar to pottery I saw on Cyprus from the crusader period.

Recommended further reading:

Boas, Adrian J., Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, Routledge, London & New York, 1999.

My novel set in crusader Jerusalem depicts the high level of civilization reflected above.

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Read more about Crusader Art, Architecture and Economy at Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

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  1. I enjoyed this post of yours; it is worth noting that 140,000 people would consume a lot of articles themselves, notwithstanding those things produced for export. One must also realise that Arab visitors also purchased items whilst they were visiting, further disseminating western tastes throughout the Middle East. Once could assume that some of those 140,000 must also have been craftsmen as well, thus many items produced in the Crusader Kingdom would have been completely "western" in design.

  2. Initially, certainly, and some people would never give up "old ways" but the history of immigrants is that they usually adapt very rapidly to their new environment and modify their dress, speech, habits and crafts. I think the Holy Land was so very, very different from Ireland and Norway, Flanders and the Rhineland etc. that craftsmen and artists alike would have quickly added new colors, new motifs, new techniques to their work. That's what art historians suggest any way.

  3. What you said about cultural assimilation certainly held true with the various immigrant groups who went to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, so there is no reason to doubt that some of that would have gone on in the Kingdome of Jerusalem as well. On the other hand, when one looks at the few scraps of remaining ornament of the crusader castles, they are very much in the same style as what was being produced in the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe. I am thinking in particular of Krak de Chevaliers and, as I type this, to my right on the screen, is the picture you have of a window in St Hilarion. This could just as easily come from Scloß Rappolstein in Elsaß-Lothringen. (currently known as Alsace) This makes me think that other things they created, such as furniture and metalwork, not just stone window jambs and fireplaces, must also have been made in a purely European style.


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