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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Knights and Nobles of Outremer

Whereas most kingdoms in Western Europe emerged organically from the remnants of the Roman empire, the crusader states were abrupt, artificial creations -- and so were their feudal elites. Today I discuss the background and -- until recently misunderstood - characteristics of the knights and nobles in these states.

The leaders of the First Crusade naturally brought their notions of society and government with them.  Although, they made a virtue out of necessity and co-opted institutions and traditions with Arab, Turkish and even Greek roots. (See: Administrative Backbone.) They nevertheless succeeded at imposing a feudal over-structure onto their newly acquired territories.  John de La Monte in his classic study, Feudal Monarchy in Jerusalem 1100-1291, writes:

… in the feudal system of Jerusalem we find an almost ideal system of feudalism….The colonist carried with him from his native land his native ideal of the state and put it into effect as far as he was able in the land of his adoption.

Yet there was a problem: feudalism depends on nobility and a knightly class --  both of which were lacking in the newly conquered territories. To be sure, the leaders of the First Crusade had been French noblemen, and a handful of these leaders remained behind, forming the very summit of the feudal pyramid as kings, counts and princes. But feudalism, in contrast to the absolutism of the renaissance, depended on a much broader base; it depended on a class of barons (tenants-in-chief), and lesser vassals (the tenants of the barons) and “simple” knights as well. 

In Western Europe, barons and knights held land, and drew from the land the income to support their military apparatus. For a knight that had to be enough income to support himself, his squire, four horses and armor and weapons for all. For a baron, it might be enough land to support scores of knights. But in the early years of the crusader kingdoms, there was no land to share out and Joshua Prawer points out:  “...the mass of milites [knights] was no more than a salaried army, composed of knights receiving salaries or assigned fixed revenues.” (p. 129)

In the decades that followed, however, the crusader states expanded from the cities to take control of a broad band of territory along the Eastern Mediterranean occupying roughly what is now Lebanon, Israel and the western half of Jordan. The Kingdom of Jerusalem at its greatest extent touched the tip of the Red Sea at Eilat in the south and reached to Antioch in modern Turkey in the North, as well as stretching across the Jordan River to the East. With this expansion came the establishment of lordships, roughly two-dozen in all. 

So lordships had been created, but who were the lords ― the Prince of Galilee, the Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, the Lords of Beirut, Hebron, Sidon, Oultrejourdain, Ibelin, Ramla, Arsur, Nablus, Caesarea, Haifa, Sabaste, Bethsan, Toron and more?

One thing is clear: they were not counts and lords from Western Europe. They were men who had made their fortune in the Holy Land. The chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, who summarized the opportunities in the Holy Land ― and the social mobility we seldom associate with the Middle Ages. In A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem 1095-1127, written in the early 12th century, he claims: 

“The Italian and the Frenchman of yesterday have been transplanted… Every day relatives and friends…come to join us. They do not hesitate to leave everything they have behind them. Indeed…he who was poor attains riches here. He who had no more than a few pennies finds himself in possession of a fortune.”

Attempts to trace the origins of even some of the most prominent noble families, such as the Ibelins, are rarely fruitful. In charters and deeds, donors, recipients and witnesses are often listed by first names and descriptors (such as “the old”) only. If they are referred to by first name and a place, it is as common for this to be the place of current residence rather than the place of origin. To make things even more difficult, many place names are very vague indeed ― such as “l’Aleman” to mean simply “the German.” 

This is partly due to the period, family names were only just emerging and coming into use in the 12th century. But the situation was compounded in the Holy Land by the fact that so many of the early settlers came from non-noble background and were at best knights. Yet when these men won the favor of the king they were named to important offices (e.g. like constable and marshal) ― or given fiefs. Men of sufficient worth, gained important and wealthy fiefs, which they held directly from the crown. They were now barons.

Barons, however, were only the second strata in feudal society. They derived their power from the ability to field large numbers of fighting men, both knights and sergeants and/or Turcopoles. The larger the barony, the more knights fees it supported, i.e. the larger number of knights it could support. Knights were essential to the defense of the crusader states because they formed the core or elite military force of the kingdom’s army.

For much of the last century, the image of the knights of Outremer was shaped by Joshua Prawer, who argued:

As a rule, the Frankish landowner did not retain demesne lands of any importance, and his income came almost wholly from the tenurae held from him by his peasants. There was, then, little interest in the direct management of rural estates and no incentive to live in a manor house in the village or in the fief. (p. 130)

From this premise, Prawer evolves the theory that the knights of Outremer were urban rather than rural ― and hardly distinguishable from the Frankish bourgeoisie. He also claims that they often intermarried with the Italian and even native merchant-class, and were highly dependent on royal or baronial patronage.  He concludes that in the “second” Kingdom of Jerusalem (after the loss of the interior of the Kingdom to Saladin in 1187-1188), “simple knights, already very much dependent on their lords in the twelfth century, [were] little more than salaried knights, not to say simple mercenaries.” (p. 140) 

More recent research, notably that of Ronnie Ellenblum, has since proved that Prawer's assumptions were utterly incorrect. Archaeological evidence turned up by surveys conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Franks had extensive rural settlements, constructed manor houses, villages, mills, irrigation systems and roads -- and that these rural holdings "owed" knights to the feudal lord. In short, this was a feudal society based on rural land-holdings just as in Western Europe. 

And where did these knights come from? We don't know very much beyond the fact that the names associated with the rural holdings reflect immigration from Western Europe especially France and Italy. Likewise, charters indicate that families that in one generation were designated as "sergeants" often produce knights in the next generation. Intriguingly, we also know of isolated instances of native Christians rising to the knightly class through service to the Frankish elite. In short, upward mobility was very much possible in the crusade states.  Last but not least, it was also a common practice to give land to younger brothers, for them to hold from their elder brother, thus providing "cadet lines" of the leading barons with landed property that kept them rooted in society and financially secure, rather than creating a class of "landless younger sons."

Admittedly, not all knights in the crusader states had rural estates. Some did have "money fiefs" based on urban incomes, but to suggest that the majority of knights in the crusader states were "urban knights" is wrong. A thirteen century catalog of feudal service by lordship -- including money fiefs -- lists  only 131 of 677 ― less than 20% ― urban knights.  The rest came from the barons with extensive land holdings. 

Even the loss of the interior of the Kingdom of Jerusalem did not, as Prawer and others argued, lead to the urbanization of the entire knightly class. This is because almost immediately after the loss of the interior came the acquisition of the even larger and richer Kingdom of Cyprus.  We know that nearly all the barons of Jerusalem also held fiefs in Cyprus. They did so because Guy and Aimery de Lusignan, who were both kings of both Cyprus and Jerusalem, rewarded their supporters with fiefs on Cyprus.  George Hill in his A History of Cyprus Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192-1432, for example, stresses that the Lusignans “let it be known in Palestine, in Syria and in Armenia that he would grant fiefs and lands to all those who were willing to come and settle the island.” (p. 39).

This is certainly an exaggeration, given the fact that Cyprus was hardly an “empty” island in need of settlement. Peter Edbury, the leading historian of medieval Cyprus today, estimates the population was around 100,000.  Nevertheless, it is still indicative of the opportunities available on Cyprus for men of Frankish origin.  It is also undoubtedly true that some of those who went to Cyprus had lost everything to Saladin and only held land on Cyprus. Nevertheless, we know of many noble families, starting with the Ibelins, MontbĂ©liards, and the Princes of Antioch and Tiberias held fiefs in both kingdoms.

The exact location and extent of these holdings, however, is nearly impossible to quantify, however, because the Syrian barons continued to use their Syrian titles. They did so even if the lands from which they derived their titles had been lost irretrievably (e.g. Ibelin and Tiberias), as well as when the territory from which the title derived remained in Frankish hands but had been supplemented by new fiefs on Cyprus such as Caesarea, Beirut and Jaffa.

Especially in cases where lords held a city on the mainland and a rural fief on Cyprus, the rural estates would have been farmed out to vassals so ensure the good governance and economic productivity of the land, while freeing the baron to remain in his principle residence at Beirut, Caesarea, Arsuf etc. This explains how the Syrian lords could still field substantial armies to fight in the Holy Land, despite having very limited land in Syria itself. It was underlined by the fact that the Lord of Beirut could move troops from Cyprus to relieve the Imperial siege of Beirut and take troops back again to expel Imperial troops from Cyprus.

In short, the crusader states did have a higher percentage of “money fiefs” and urban knights than was common in Western Europe in the 12th and 13th century. However, such knights made up only roughly one fifth of the feudal host in the “first” kingdom, and possibly ― but not necessarily ― a larger percentage in the “second” kingdom, without ever representing the majority.

Because of a continuous flow of pilgrims from the West, including a significant number that settled and intermarried with the existing Frankish elites, the knights and nobles of Outremer remained in close contact with the traditions, fashions, thinking, and attitudes of the West. Despite the obscurity of their origins, they shared the same fundamental Weltanschauung or world-view as their contemporaries in France, Flanders and England.  Feudalism, Christianity and Chivalry shaped and guided the lives of nobles and knights in the Holy Land no less than in the West.

Discover the knights and nobles of the crusader kingdoms in Dr. Schrader's award-winning novels set in the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:


Hill, George. A History of Cyprus Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192-1432. Cambridge University Press, 1948.

Jotischky, Andrew. Crusading and the Crusader States. Pearson Longman, 2004.)

La Monte, John. Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1100 to 1291. Medieval Academy of America, 1932.

Prawer, Joshua. “Social Classes in the Latin Kingdom: the Franks,” Zacour, Norman P. and Harry W. Hazard. A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985

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